"I have problems with the borders"

KurdishCinema.com / 5 August 2007

by Michael Guillen *

The eyes of Bahman Ghobadi are filled with mirthful light. He is a
small man but a few sentences into our interview made me realize I
was in the presence of a large, generous soul. Pertinent to our
eventual discussion, I am deeply grateful to the journalist who was
interviewing him before me since she could speak Farsi and offered
to help translate until his translator--who was late--could arrive.
Tlassi Lahidji, who arrived about ten minutes into our interview,
took over. Between these two women, I felt I was cared for by Farsi
angels. Tucked aside from the frenetic hubbub of the Sutton Hotel
lobby, Ghobadi and I talked about Niwemang / Half Moon, his entry
into the Crowned Hope commemorative.

* * *

    Michael Guillén: Bahman, all of your films are
    ravishingly beautiful. They are poetic and affect me
    emotionally. You strike me very much as a filmmaker
    who is creating poetry through a cinematic medium
    with far reaching political effect. By poetry I mean not
    only the lovingly rendered landscapes of Kurdistan
    but the humane portraits of the people who inhabit
    this landscape. Are you consciously using cinematic
    poetry to achieve a political end?

Bahman Ghobadi: I did not want to make a political movie at all. All you see in the movie is
the real life of the people. If you see a police man in Kurdish society, it is what it is, and I
never once had an intention to make a political movie. For example, nowhere in Iran--
except for the Kurdish people--could you see a police station. Secondly, when I was
younger I used to write poetry. My sister is a poet and her poetry affected me, especially
when I was younger. If you go to Kurdistan, you see this poetry in the everyday life of the
people. They always smile even though they have a hard life. Their situation is difficult but,
despite that, they are emotional people, kind to each other, always smiling. Poetry is an
emotional thing among these people.

The reality of my movie is earthshaking, huge, sad. I didn't want to show all of that directly; I
felt that would be bad for the audience and too much for them to bear. I wanted to present
this hard reality more smoothly. I wanted to express these difficulties but in a smooth way.

MG: I understand. You are trying to protect us through beauty and humor.

BG: Exactly. I try to balance this harsh reality with a layer of light beauty.

MG: All of your films tend to be journeys across borders. In Half Moon it seemed the
borders were also supernatural. Am I correct?

BG: It is true that my films have always treated this subject of the crossing of borders. But I
have always considered borders to be ridiculous and something that have to be
questioned. It is not only a Kurdish problem, of course. In this movie you can see that
everyone has problems because of these subjective borders. I consider borders to be
unnatural and something I fight against. That may not specifically answer your question?

MG: But I agree with you 100% and am satisfied with your response. It is my
understanding that Half Moon is inspired by Requiem Mozart and that Mamo moreorless
embodies spirit of Mozart . Can you talk a little bit about that?

BG: It is very interesting that you noticed this because that is really what I meant. Even the
name Mamo in itself... in the beginning I meant to call the character Mamozart, which in
Kurdish means "my Mozart, but this was really a kind of fantasy that I had, I wanted to do
something really crazy with an analogy between Mamo and Mozart because there were
many fantastic views on Mozart in this movie. My problem was not so much the Western
audience but the Kurdish audience itself. I do not think they would have accepted the
character if he was too much like the western Mozart. Because I did not want to hurt their
feelings, I had to respect their expectation of a Kurdish movie representing the Kurdish
people. So I had to remain in something more acceptable to them. Otherwise I would have
made something even more crazy and deeper with a western version of Mozart.
Now that I am mentioning self-censorship, I had to do it for the Kurdish people but I also
had to do it for the government. For example, I had a beautiful musical sequence where
women sang but I had to self-censor it for myself because I knew it would be a problem for
the government to accept it. So I cut it. The irony of it is that, even though I censored myself
so badly, last week in Iran my film was banned for the very first time. The accusation was
that the film was separatist, which is absolutely absurd. It is not a separatist movie at all.
That is the reason why now I regret my self-censorship. I feel now that, if it had to be
banned, I should have filmed it like I wanted to do in the first place.

MG: That is disturbing to hear about, not only the ban, but your regrets. There is an old
saying that death is the middle of a long life, and your meditations on death in Half Moon
were quite profound and far reaching and seemed to situate death in a broader context.
Can you talk some about Mamo is awareness of death in the movie and how you played
with that throughout the movie?

BG: The relationship that Mamo has to death in the film is the very relationship I have to
death myself. I am a person who is deeply afraid of death. This fear is present in my
everyday life, when I am walking in the streets, when I'm working, when I go to sleep at
night, and when I think of what I am going to be doing the day after, I always have this deep
fear of death. Especially these days I have this very strong feeling and this very strong fear
of death. For instance, when I go back to my home in Tehran I always have this
premonition that something bad is going to happen, that there will be an earthquake, or
maybe there will be an American attack or some bomb. I live every day with this fear. I even
write it very often in my journal, in my diary, I am writing almost every day that I will die soon.
That maybe I will have ten or twenty more years to live, that I will die soon.

MG: I am disheartened to hear that and I hope it is not the truth.
I hope you continue to be a master for us for many years.
Perhaps you can find some solace in our American poet
Wallace Stevens who wrote that death is the mother of all

BG: I wish I could also think that. It might be true, but, at the
same time, this is a very deep shake that I feel in me. Just the fact of--not even death
really--but just thinking there is just one or two decades left for me to make films that
maybe after 20 years I will not have the strength left to make films is a real anguish to me
and it prevents me from enjoying day to day life. I can not take advantage of the present
moment and not feel the fear for the future.

MG: [The translator and I looked at each other with shared concern.] This makes me very
sad to hear this, Bahman. I wish you could enjoy the present and not be so frightened of
the future, which is uncertain for all of us.
I think one of the things that is most complicated for Westerners to understand is the lack
of gender parity in Iran and Iraq, the exclusion of women from the spiritual life of the
people. The hillside village of the 1,334 exiled women singers is unquestionably one of
the most indelible and unforgettable images of Half Moon. I know the other day in your Q&A
you specified that this was not a literal village, that it was a village conceived by your
imagination, but could you help me understand why women are kept from singing? Why is
it considered such a crime? I just can not comprehend it.

    BG: That is exactly my objective
    through this movie. I really meant to
    portray how unfair it is to keep women
    from singing. There are many Iranian
    women who are artists and for whom
    singing is a part of their creative
    expression and for whom singing
    adds meaning to their lives. And they
    are not allowed to sing. They do not
    have the right to go out and sing to
    other people and to have other men
listen to them. This is something that I find unacceptable. We have never approached this
subject in film before. None of us Iranian filmmakers have filmed this before. So I mean to
protest and to show that status of women is unacceptable in Iran. So I have done it for the
first time and I have don't think I have done it enough in this movie. I need to make another
movie to talk about status of women in Iran because it is unacceptable.
This village, it is true I said it was not a real village but it is not totally imaginary either. It is a
symbolic village because we say all the time that the world has become a global village,
and it is true. In fact, you could say that this village is quite symbolic of Iran. Iranian people
as a whole have been taken hostage like the exiled women in the village, where they are
imprisoned and they cannot sing because they cannot express themselves.

MG: Another image from Half Moon that amazed me was to hear the sound of Niwemang,
the woman singer, landing on the top of the bus. There is no way that I cannot think, within
our cultural context, that she is not an angel, a supernatural being who has come to help
them achieve their dream. Am I correct in reading her character as being that of a
supernatural being?

BG: That is true. I meant to show
her as an angel but she is kind of a
mixed angel. She is an angel who
comes from Earth but is at the
same time celestial. She is an
angel who is related to life as she
finally helps them to cross the
border into Iraq but she is also an
angel of death as she guides
Mamo to his death. So she is an
ambiguous angel. I meant to show
this figure as an angel but Hesho,
the first singer, she is also a kind
of angel. I wanted to show that,
when you see her hiding beneath the floorboards of the bus, it is exactly as if she is in a
coffin and dying too. The message that she left to Mamo is in some ways an implication
that she is daughter of Mamo . Her character is also a mysterious character who has also
something to do with the angelic. That is because I consider both these women as angels
because I consider that women in general are angels.
Further, these women who are artists I consider to be angels for two reasons. Because
they are artists and because they are women. I meant to make this film as a tribute to
women artists in Iran.

MG: To wrap up then, Bahman, I just want you to know that every day I will pray that you are
safe from violence and that death will leave you alone so that you can create more of your
beautiful films for us for many years to come.

[His smile is radiant and I feel bathed in the mirthful light of his eyes.]

source: * September 14, 2006 www.theeveningclass.blogspot.com