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Michael Guillén: Bahman, all of your films are ravishingly beautiful. They're 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 didn't 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's 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's true that my films have always treated this subject of the crossing of borders. But I've always considered borders to be ridiculous and something that have to be questioned. It's 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's my understanding that Half Moon is inspired by Mozart's Requiem and that Mamo moreorless embodies Mozart's spirit. Can you talk a little bit about that?
BG: It's very interesting that you noticed this because that's 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 wasn't so much the Western audience but the Kurdish audience itself. I don't think they would have accepted the character if he was too much like the western Mozart. Because I didn't 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'm 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's not a separatist movie at all. That's 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's disturbing to hear about, not only the ban, but your regrets. There's 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's 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'm a person who is deeply afraid of death. This fear is present in my everyday life, when I'm walking in the streets, when I'm working, when I go to sleep at night, and when I think of what I'm 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'm writing almost every day that I'll die soon. That maybe I'll have 10 or 20 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 beauty?
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 won't 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't 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't comprehend it.
BG: That's 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 women's status is unacceptable in Iran. So I've done it for the first time and I've don't think I've done it enough in this movie. I need to make another movie to talk about women's status in Iran because it's unacceptable.
This village, it's true I said it was not a real village but it's not totally imaginary either. It's a symbolic village because we say all the time that the world has become a global village, and it's 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's no way that I cannot think, within our cultural context, that she's 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's true. I meant to show her as an angel but she's kind of a mixed angel. She's an angel who comes from Earth but is at the same time celestial. She's an angel who's related to life as she finally helps them to cross the border into Iraq but she's also an angel of death as she guides Mamo to his death. So she's an ambiguous angel. I meant to show this figure as an angel but Hesho, the first singer, she's also a kind of angel. I wanted to show that, when you see her hiding beneath the floorboards of the bus, it's 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 Mamo's daughter. Her character is also a mysterious character who has also something to do with the angelic. That's 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're artists and because they're 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.
[Bahman's smile is radiant and I feel bathed in the mirthful light of his eyes.]
Cross-posted at Twitch.
09/16/06 UPDATE: At Bahman Ghobadi's official website Mijfilm, there is a listing of interviews stemming from his previous features that are crucial not only for understanding his films in individual depth, but for appreciating the man more, as well as his beloved Kurdistan.