Why Iran can’t stand Metaphors: The Day I Met Bahman Farmanara

The day before we met in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Thiruvananthapuram, Bahman Farmanara, the iconic Iranian filmmaker, had a conversation with the organizers of the International Film Festival of Kerala. He wanted to pull out his movie, The Tale of the sea, from the competition section of the IFFK in Thiruvananthapuram because he couldn’t stand ‘political stand’ of the chairman of the jury, Mr. Majid Majidi, another Iranian filmmaker who won multiple awards and accolades for movies like The Children of Heaven and The Colour of Paradise.

“Majidi is a pro government filmmaker” says, Bahman Farmanara, a staunch critic of the regime in Iran.

“I really don’t care about prizes. I care about my stand. I could have never ever allowed my film to be in competition, if I knew the chairman of the jury is Majidi. I found out when I was here. Eventually he is not important. But I also have a set of principles.”

Mr. Farmanara has a point. It took him ten years to get approval for a script from the censor authority in Iran while filmmakers like Majidi had it easy for a very long time.

“There are at least five filmmakers constantly working in Iran. Nobody asks from where their budgets come from. I consider them as directors that work for the government. Even they confess that they are in line with the government. It is their choice, but I don’t have to deal with them”

Bahman Farmanara break into the global audience with his movie, ‘The Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine’ in 2000. It was his eleventh script on trot and the only one approved by the censors in Iran. The movie made a mark in the Montreal film festival for its subtle element of dark humour rooted in the politics of Iran and won the award for the best film.

For a filmmaker like Farmanara who produced the movie The Report in 1980, the first feature of Abbas Kiarostami – Iran’s most successful filmmaker to date – an entry in 2000s looks formidable. But Farmanara isn’t giving up.

“My government wants me to retire. But In three weeks I’m going to start shooting my next film”; He told the audience in a Q&A session at IFFK.

At age 77, Bahman Farmanara believes he is a threat to the regime in Iran. Not Just Economically and Politically but also in Artistically the times are tough for Iran, he says. His film, Tale of the Sea addresses the issue. From outside it is an emotional drama. Of an aged writer on the verge schizophrenia hallucinating about his dead friends – all artists. From inside it is a brilliant metaphor for the current political climate of Iran. It details how the liberal voices are shrinking, how an even eleven-year-old child is disappearing without a trace from the city of Tehran, or how the expression of artist suddenly become the craving of fish to submit to the net and not to swirl in the sea.

Farmanara’s lead character in Tale of The Sea, an aging writer – modelled on the director and acted by himself – is lamenting on the lose of artists and freedom of expression in the Islamic country. In fact, the movie is dedicated to Abbas Kiarostami who died in 2016. With Kiarostami’s death another dissenting voice has become silent, feels Farmanara. And the major dilemma is not the death of an advocate and legend but the lack of powerful artists to replace the likes of Kiarostami.

The Islamic revolution in Iran in the late 1970s triggered the new wave filmmaking in Iran. Directors like Kiarostami and Farmanara were around before the revolution. With the support of liberal Islamic views and leftists the filmmaker thrived in Iran. The revolution gave birth to filmmakers such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi & Asghar Farhadi. Soon Iranian films made impact in film festivals in Berlin, Cannes and elsewhere. The brand has got bigger and bigger until the clampdown which saw Makhmalbaf fled the country and Panahi being sentenced with a punishment banning him form directing movies for two decades.

Farmanara has placed his odds on the upcoming filmmakers in the country to strike a chord with the young population.

“More than half of the population of Iran is below the age of 35. You’re dealing with a young country. You can’t ignore the massive energy”, reminds Farmanara. He is not romanticizing the revolution though.

“I am not looking for another revolution but for correction. People should have freedom, they should be able to say when things are not right”

His advocacy for democracy, however, is not fuelled by any aspiration to run for office. He clearly says he doesn’t want to enter politics. And he has a rather amusing reason why; “I hate the authority that intervenes in other people’s lives”

Introspecting into his life it is evident to note that Farmanara has always been a concerned artist than a deep-rooted activist. At age 16 he went to UK to study filmmaking. It was the year 1958 and England didn’t have a single film school teaching direction. So Farmanara enrolled in an acting school. He left Briton to join the Los Angeles University of Southern California to attend a filmmaking course following his father’s advice. He was graduated with Star Wars director George Lucas.

Another instance proves his existence as an artist happen after the revolution in Iran. He waited two years after the revolution to see for himself the changes in Iran. There was a lot of struggle for power and so little for culture and arts, says Farmanara. This forced him to migrate to Canada with his family. He wanted to secure his children’s future. But he couldn’t resist the temptation to stay afloat as he made his way back to Iran to make movies.

The Tale of the sea is a metaphor as much as it is poetic. The use of metaphors and closely knitted personal stories have become a pattern for Farmanara to bypass the censorship in Iran. The name of the character in Tale of the Sea is Taher, which could be roughly translated as Clean. It is not a coincidence, reveals Bahman Farmanara. I confronted him with a question on his retirement. With a strong shadow of nostalgia embedded in his movies, it is quite hard to evade that question. He has four projects coming up and he will be making movies as a gesture to rose his voice against the regime, but, is the movie really a hint, to the youth in Iran to pick-up the baton because the maestro needs rest? Well, Farmanara doesn’t mince words, as he chimes;

“Everyone has to hang their boots once. I’m not retiring and intend to wait for the death. I’d rather have a heart attack while making a film because the chances are I could fall on a beautiful actress on the last moment of my life”.

Featured Image: Iran filmmaker Bahman Farmanara poses for a photo with the author of this article. Farmanara was in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital city to attend IFFK, a week-long international film festival conducted by Kerala State Chalachitra Academy.

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