Sunday, September 04, 2011

TIFF 2011: ACQUA (2011)—The Evening Class Interview With Raha Shirazi

Raha Shirazi was born in Tehran, Iran and immigrated to Canada with her family at the age of eleven. Her short film Four Walls premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2007, and has gone on to screen at international film festivals around the world.

In 2008 Raha was selected as one of six Canadian representatives in the Berlinale International Film Festival Talent Campus where she was also given the opportunity to pitch her upcoming documentary. Raha is focusing on post-production of
Picturesque, a narrative film funded by the Ontario Arts Council shot last spring in Mexico and her next project a documentary entitled, Prisoner of Tehran, funded by Canada Council for the Arts and Toronto Arts Council.

Raha Shirazi is an Artistic Co-Director of Plural Productions and holds an MFA in film production from York University with a joint diploma from New York University and Famue Film School in the Czech Republic, where she completed intensive training in the cinematic arts.

Her most recent film Acqua (2011) is premiering in the Short Cuts Canada programme of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Shirazi describes her film as a "reflection of spiritual traditions" that "organically brushes the portrait of a young woman's journey with water through the cyclical meditation of life and death." As Magali Simard notes for the TIFF catalog: "As winter borders on spring, a young woman silently walks alone to retrieve water from a natural source. A celebration of traditions,
Acqua presents the quest for water partly as a necessity, partly as a solemn pilgrimage. Raha Shirazi unfolds this idea with great visual scope and personal investment."

Acqua does, indeed, excel in its visual language, subtly revealing the role that ritual and vigil play in negotiating grief. Cinematographer Ita Zbroniec-Zajt's style has a touch of the Dardennes. Via abstracted close-ups, the beauty of water is expressed in varying patterns: from raindrops on a pool of water to bubbling flow. The fundamental truth applies: water is life.

My thanks to Alma Parvizian of Touchwood PR for facilitating an interview with Shirazi.
[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]

* * *

Michael Guillén: First and foremost, congratulations on being programmed into the 2011 Toronto International. How did that come about?

Raha Shirazi: Thank you for your kind words. I think Toronto International is one of the most important festivals in which a Canadian film maker can participate, not only on a national scale but also internationally. After the submission process, I was incredibly excited when I heard the good news. Although I've had the honor of participating in the festival previously, this opportunity feels completely independent of my previous experience at TIFF and I'm looking forward to the new and unchartered path the film will provide this time around.

Guillén: Already as a young filmmaker you exhibit an international pedigree. You were born in Iran, from which you emigrated to Canada, and then educated in Toronto, New York, and the Famue Film School in the Czech Republic. Does this comport or conflict with your being identified as a Canadian filmmaker? How important is it for you to think of yourself as a Canadian filmmaker?

Shirazi: The international pedigree, which you mention, is directly a result of my being a Canadian filmmaker. As a young country that is home to many first generation immigrants, I think it can be difficult for one to identify as Canadian. Yet with time, I have realized that a foundation of being Canadian has its roots in the terrain of multiculturalism: that is, being Canadian is an attempt to shape and form a new identity which embodies your culture and traditions at the same time as it makes room for and welcomes new ones. Nonetheless, I cannot deny how great a weight my Iranian roots carry in the process that is who I am and who I will be, and thus naturally their influence is heavy in my work. Yet I am neither Canadian, nor Iranian; I would rather like to think of myself as an Iranian-Candian filmmaker.

Guillén: Talk to me about your co-artistic directorship with Plural Productions, "a multiarts collective that encourages collaboration, support and innovation while actively seeking out artists in various disciplines around the world." What are you seeking to effect here? What is the value of a filmmaker participating in her own production company?

Shirazi: Plural Production is about art in all its forms. This collaboration started between myself, Cole J. Alvis and Chelsea McMullan after we graduated from York University. The passion that we shared for the arts brought us together and thus Plural Production was born. Our goal was to first create a space where we could all experiment with different mediums, work with different artists, and create multidisciplinary work that was new and exciting. Looking at the world right now one cannot help but think that the idea of borders is merely an illusion; the internet has provided us access to places and people that we would not otherwise be able to so easily reach and connect with. This is something that has definitely started to show itself in art on a global scale and it makes it much easier to connect and work with artists from different places and backgrounds. This can make for great and interesting work. I have learned a lot from this process and have been lucky to collaborate with artists with an array of experiences on a global scale.

Guillén: In her program note for Acqua, Magali Simard states: "Raha Shirazi unfolds this idea with great visual scope and personal investment." Can you speak to working with Polish cinematographer Ita Zbroniec-Zajt to achieve that "visual scope"? How you negotiated the look of the film? And what Simard is referencing by "personal investment"?

Acqua was made in a workshop that I completed in Italy with Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Frammartino in December—I was one of six international young filmmakers selected to participate in this workshop and Ita Zbroniec was another. As a director of photography, she was looking to collaborate with a director and—when I approached her with my idea—we instantly connected. I loved her work and she was interested in the story that I wanted to tell. Ita and I spent a lot of time location scouting, getting still images and looking at visual references to create a specific look for the film. By spending a tremendous amount of time with one another, we slow thought together, in harmony, as artists. It was absolutely magical. I had never worked with someone where I was able to connect with them so easily. By the end of it we both spoke the same visual language.

The personal investment to which Simard refers, is the connection I have with the story: while the cultural practices of water that are depicted in the film were rooted in my past, the experience of creating these images was my present experience of being in Italy and furthermore, using my own body as a means to connect to nature, to go through the culture of my past first hand. Put differently, my personal investment in the film was not only the final product but also the overall process.

Guillén: Clearly, your "visual scope" was engineered through an eschewal of dialogue and a reliance on narrative ellipse. Can you speak to how you worked out telling this narrative purely through visual language? How did the script develop? Do you storyboard?

Shirazi: I have recently found myself drawn to the narrative concepts that explore the relationship between nature and human beings. What has happened to these relationships and how do they differ from one another when the geographical location of the individual (city versus rural life) changes? I also find myself more and more interested in the cinematic form of the hybrid. Where do the boundaries of documentation and fiction cross and how do we use these elements with care and precision to convey a deeper understand of the image itself? How much of film is visual storytelling and does narrative cinema depend on dialogue to carry its weight? These are the type of ideas that have shaped the premise of my recent works. I didn't know beforehand what I was going to make while I was there and I tried to find a connection between myself and the place in which I found myself. I allowed myself to be inspired and to truly connect to my surroundings and thus the story was born. I didn't have a script in the traditional sense, but I did have a clear narrative in mind and I storyboarded everything. My storyboarding was based on the locations that I found: I create a storyboard by taking photos at locations and so my storyboard is a series of stills.

Guillén: In your interview with Katie Uhlmann for TTN-HD, you specified Acqua was shot in Italy. Can you speak to that experience? And, again, how it characterizes you as a Canadian filmmaker to be shooting outside of Canada?

Shirazi: As I mentioned before, this film was done in a workshop with Michelangelo Frammartino, which consisted of filmmakers from seven different countries: four of these filmmakers were from Italy and six were from other countries. It was amazing to be around young talent that represented the future generation of filmmakers globally. We learned so much from one another and continually taught one another. The experience changed me for the better: not only was I able to make a film which is my strongest work yet, but I also learned and built friendships that will last me a lifetime. I think the experience reflects both my identity as a Canadian filmmaker and the future of filmmaking around the globe. With co-productions, immigration and globalization on the rise comes a new approach to filmmaking. There is a new generation of emerging talent out there which will use this to create interesting work.

Guillén: As the film starts out and the protagonist walks through the snow to fetch water, the audience experiences a cognitive dissonance. Why not melt the snow for water? It becomes instantly clear that this is a ritual pilgrimage for purposes of vigil. Where does this ritual come from? Is it invented? Is it Iranian?

Shirazi: Indeed, as soon as the film starts, the main character is surrounded by the element of water in its different forms: there is snow, rain, and many other forms, yet she is on a specific quest and on her way to a precise place. The story and the stem of this ritual is very real. In both Iran, and where I was in Italy, a long time ago women would travel from their village to bring back water. Fetching water was always a woman's job. Even now for purpose of vigil in these areas, women travel to a specific place and bring back water. I found an instant connection between these two cultures and that only brought me closer to my natural surroundings. The film became a ritual, a representation of traditions and their roots. I walked into the water, I carried it on my head in freezing weather as I hiked up the mountain. Using my body as a canvas, I was able to find the elements which connected my past, Iran, to my present, Italy.

Guillén: How influenced are you by Iranian cinema? Who are your influences as a filmmaker?

Shirazi: I love Iranian cinema, especially Iranian cinema before 1979. One of my favorite films is Gav (The Cow, 1969) by Dariush Mehrjui. Another favorite filmmaker of mine is Masoud Kimiai. Early work by Abbas Kiarostami is also inspirational: Close-Up is in my top ten list. And now after the Green Revolution, I am so interested to see what will come out of Iran. There is a film this year at TIFF, called This Is Not A Film by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Carl Theodor Dreyer, François Truffaut and Andrei Tarkovsky are just a few of my favorite filmmakers. In recent years, Michelangelo Frammartino's work has been incredibly inspirational for me.

Guillén: You are a clear example of a young filmmaker whose short films have been supported by Canadian agencies: the Canada Council for the Arts, the Toronto Art Council, and the Ontario Arts Council. Can you speak to your interaction with them and if they will be involved with you and Plural Productions to further your dream of a full-length narrative feature? What are your first steps to achieve that dream?

Shirazi: OAC, CCA, TAC have been crucial in my career as an emerging filmmaker. Without their support, all this would have never been possible. These institutions are why I will always remain a Canadian filmmaker. They have made my career possible and I hope that there is more support for them from the government so that the Canadian arts and culture can keep growing and flourishing to its fullest extent. By supporting artists that work internationally, they are making it possible for Canadian filmmakers to reach international success. Plural Production has been working with these organization in many different capacities, and will continue to do so; their support has made our projects possible.

As for the feature, I think it might be a bit more complex, I don't have enough information to answer that question properly except that I know there is not enough money from these organization to support all types of feature projects—I think it mostly depends on what type of feature film you are making and what your budget is. That being said, they have fantastic grants available for writing and I think that might be one of my next steps. At the moment I have a treatment for a feature length film that is also very personal, a story that takes place here in my city, Toronto. My next step will be to develop it further and whatever avenue makes that possible, I will seek to find.

Cross-published on Twitch.

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