Iranian director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad goes full circle with Tales
She is one of the Arab world’s best-known and best-loved directors, renowned for her humane and socially conscious storytelling, but for the past eight years Rakhshan Bani-Etemad has not released a fiction feature.
This was partly an artistic choice, as Bani-Etemad, known also as the First Lady of Iranian Cinema, turned in two documentaries in those years. But it was largely circumstance: Tales, the 15th feature of a three-decade career, has been sitting on the shelf since 2011. It was only when there was an easing of regulations at The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, following the election of President Hassan Rouhani last summer, that Bani-Etemad gained approval to put the film on screens.
“Within the last year we saw the people who are now responsible for filmmakers have a different way of thinking,” the director explains, following the movie’s regional premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. “This gives us hope that conditions are now different, and now it’s more [possible] to make the films I want to make.
“The situation is complicated – at the same time there are pressure groups opposing all these liberties, and there is a continuing conflict between all these groups.”
So restricted is filmmaking in Iran that Bani-Etemad told authorities she was shooting short movies to avoid the arduous necessity of getting a feature film approved. This led some to assume Tales’ fabric of interwoven characters was a repurposed compilation of shorter works.
In fact the director always intended to create a feature.
Revisiting seven characters who have appeared in her previous films, Tales is a moving and carefully plotted window into Tehran’s working classes, detailing the gritty realities of abuse, addiction, bureaucracy and love. Winner of the Best Screenplay award at Venice, the script moves between the downtrodden and disenfranchised; a taxi driver kicked out of university for political activism, a retired civil servant financially cheated by the system, a wife fleeing a violent husband, a former addict determined to help others in her place.
“Sometimes when you leave a cinema, you wonder what happens to the characters in their lives,” says the director, explaining her decision to revisit familiar faces years later.
“It was a kind of experiment to go back. These are characters that I have always remembered fondly, and I wanted to pay respect to them, bring them back to the screen and see how their lives have changed.”
It’s clear this work, more than any other, was a labour of love, with four months put aside for rehearsals alone. The script meanwhile, co-authored by the director, took years to gestate.
“I live and breathe the dialogue for a very long time, and then only when I feel I’m ready do I start to write,” Bani-Etemad explains.
“Writing for me is like cutting off a piece of my body onto paper – it takes a lot of time and emotion for me.”
Now midway through a run of 10 festivals, Tales premiered in Venice and moved on to Rio, Hamburg and Vancouver, with Vienna, Thessaloniki and Stockholm to come, and there are plans for a general cinema release in Iran later this year.
All this travel has given the director, now 60, plenty of time to reflect on the state of the region’s cinema. Frequently sitting on festival jury panels, taking a health check of the Middle East’s contributions to global cinema is inevitable.
The greatest problem, Bani-Etemad says, is not a lack of talent, but a lack of collectivism across the Arab world.
“We are so close geographically and so close culturally, but we are so far in cinema,” she says.
“We watch more American and European films than we do from our own region. There are always shocks [at festivals] from time to time that re-energise the people, but we have never formed a movement in the region that has an identity of its own.”
Bani-Etemad’s next contribution to that movement will be another documentary, her fourth and set for release early next year, exploring the environmentalist movement in Iran.
“I feel like I’m making documentaries with all my films,” the director adds.
“I’m dealing with real people and real society all the time. It’s only when I come to the process of filmmaking that it becomes a feature film.”
Updated: October 28, 2014 04:00 AM