Kiarash Anvari is an Iranian film producer, screenwriter, editor and director. His short film Duet premiered at Palm Springs, Matsalu and Signes de Nuit; he also edited Ava, which premiered at Toronto where it won the FIPRESCI Prize and an Honorable Mention for Best Canadian First Feature Film. Anvari's feature film debut The Pot and the Oakpremiered at Rotterdam, Jerusalem and Febiofest Prague.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Kiarash Anvari discusses hypermasculinity in Iranian society, abstraction and enstrangement, creativity amidst obstacles and his next project.
FILMATIQUE: The Pot and the Oaktraces the rapid unraveling of Borzoo, a middle-aged Iranian man, when he discovers that he is impotent. While the circumstances of his life— the deterioration of his marriage, his declining career— are tragic, the film is interspersed with moments of dry humor. What was your inspiration for this film?
KA: In my opinion, the tragedy is not that Borzoo is impotent, that his marriage is deteriorating or that his career is declining. The issue is deeper: he's not in a fit state to adapt himself with the reality around him. He's not able to face it. In other words, he doesn't have the capacity to accept the truth, just as a small pot doesn't have the capacity to hold a huge tree. In this sense, he sees himself as Hamlet—but unlike Hamlet, he has no charm. He is neither beautiful nor subtle, neither a poet nor a philosopher. He's neither romantic nor young like Hamlet. He doesn't express his feelings, but that doesn't make him an introvert or a tactful person. He simply doesn't know how to express himself. That's why every time he decides to emancipate his feelings he does it in the wrong way.
If I want to describe his character in a sentence, for example, I can say that he’s the intellectual model of Travis Bickle. In fact, the humor of this film comes from this contradiction within Borzoo's character. For me, he's like Lucian Freud's portraits. From the facial expressions of people in Freud's paintings—the exaggerated wrinkles on their faces, the form of their eyes and gazes—one can perceive their uneasy souls, their loneliness, their psychic wounds, their mental and physical disabilities. But at the same time, these characteristics give these paintings a form of a caricature. Tragedy results from contradiction: the combination of a human being's suffering and inner complexes with distorted comic attitudes and appearances.
FLMTQ: Borzoo's inability to have children mirrors and perhaps contributes to his failures across other arenas of life. Meanwhile Hilda, his wife is steadfast and strong in her decisions. To what extent do you believe Borzoo's impotence allegorizes a certain generation of Iranian men? Were you seeking to draw a portrait of masculinity in contemporary Iran, or simply one of an artist in existential peril?
KA: The place where an individual lives and grows is a part of his/her being and has a deep connection with his/her mental and emotional state. Therefore, Borzoo's hypermasculinity complex is the result of the community in which he grew up. This is not just Borzoo’s story, but the story of all men who have been raised in such circumstances. As an Iranian, I've also grown up in a society in which manhood and masculinity are always deemed superior. During all these years, and due to some fortunate social changes, I saw the gradual disappearance of this supremacy. Nevertheless, there are still those who do not accept these social changes and resist these developments.
The film is about them. It's an allegory of the gradual disappearance of patriarchal thinking and the shaky situation of masculinity in Iranian society. Many films have been made on the status of Iranian women and how much they struggle with the patriarchal community around them. As far as I'm aware, never before was a movie made to look at the gender conflicts in Iranian society from another angle. However, I didn't want to judge the situation. I just wanted to observe and let the viewers judge. I wanted to let this situation gradually unfold in front of the viewers' eyes. Because I believe if you want to make something worthless, first let it expand. If you want to get rid of something, first let it flourish. This is a subtle understanding of the law of being. And, as Bresson says, "Truth must not be sought in events, people, and things, but one must find it in the emotion that all of these exclaim."
FLMTQ: The film's cinematography often frames Borzoo and other characters obliquely— through windows, from behind or in piecemeal fashion, only revealing their hands— during seemingly important conversations. During Hilda and Borzoo's final conversation, for example, the camera rests inside the café on the table and objects left behind; the couple is glimpsed out of focus through the café window as they bid farewell. This visual occlusion adds tension to the film's atmosphere as there is always something withheld from us. What motivated you to shoot the film in this way?
KA: "Cinema does not reveal, but hides." My motivation was this statement from Carl Theodor Dreyer, which has been engraved in my mind since film school. I believe that, as Bresson says, emotions can lead us to truth only when images becoming empty of certain aspects of everyday life and move toward abstraction to the point where they lose their communication functions. In this case, each shot and camera angle becomes a subject of the film itself and this gives the film the sense of ambiguity, mystery, and remoteness that, in my opinion, are the essence of any artistic work. It's only in this way that a work of art, in each and every encounter, will be something new, exquisite and full of wonder. This also reminds me of Godard's saying: "We must not film things, but what is between things."
FLMTQ: The Pot and the Oakis a very accomplished first feature. Can you briefly discuss the process of making an independent film in Iran? What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them?
KA: There is no such thing as purely independent Iranian films, unless you decide to take risks and create an underground film without government permits. However, even if you succeeded in getting a government permits on a fake screenplay, you must still observe some red lines and limitations. Nevertheless, there are methods to circumvent these restrictions, which I believe can lead to creativity. There are so many spectacular examples of these creative moments born of constraints in Iranian film history.
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects, and if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
KA: I'm developing a script which, in line with The Pot and the Oak, continues to examine the state of masculinity in a patriarchal society like Iran. This time, the story is being told from the point of view of a teenage boy who struggles to find his place as a man in a patriarchal society despite his gender dysphoria.