Interview: Mohammad Rasoulof
All images from There Is No Evil (Mohammad Rasoulof, 2020)
Winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, Mohammad Rasoulof’s latest film, There Is No Evil, tells four stories. Often elliptical, they range far and wide within present-day Iran: a family drama, centered on a man and his wife and daughter, that evolves into something else entirely; a suspenseful prison tale about a man desperate to escape; another, partly told on the run, about a soldier on leave who must face his fiancée and his own deeds; and finally, a fraught, generation-spanning story of a self-exiled couple and their niece visiting from Germany.
This interview was conducted in Persian with Rasoulof, who was unable to travel to Berlin because of ongoing legal troubles in his native Iran. On March 4, 2020, Rasoulof was sentenced to one year in prison for creating “propaganda against the system.” Following the advice of his lawyers, he did not comply with the order. As of today, Rasoulof says the authorities have not officially done anything in response, and he remains uncertain about what will happen to him.
Why did you decide to divide the film into four different episodes instead of having a straightforward plot about the death penalty and its moral dimensions?
The first time I thought about this format, it was a solution to get around the censorship system and the restrictions which had been forced on me by the security and intelligence organizations. When you have fewer days than usual for shooting, there are fewer dangers involved in secretly making your film. When I decided to do it this way, it was a great opportunity to look at stories from different angles. Therefore, I can say that the diversity in the stories was a result of an unintentional opportunity which those restrictions forced on me. These stories are not about execution. I wanted to focus on the question of responsible actions with regard to whether one obeys or disobeys the orders of a totalitarian power. The main idea was to create a complex situation in which one can see the confrontation between two contradicting social values against the background of a totalitarian government. For example, being a law-abiding citizen is recognized as a social virtue, but in the structure of a totalitarian state, the law becomes a tool to suppress people, and obeying some of these laws clearly contradicts human values. In these situations, I was concerned with the difference between saying yes or no.
Your film seems to be influenced by Hannah Arendt, who believed that no human is born evil and that people are the victims of the systems in which they live. In some of the scenes in the third episode, the girlfriend’s mother tells the soldier that it is necessary to stand against whatever is immoral. Here you seem to have presented your answer to Arendt’s writings by emphasizing the necessity of condemning immoral acts. What are your views on Arendt in relation to the argument that you have presented in your film?
The first part of your question is mostly related to my previous film. The story of A Man of Integrity shows how the social structure influenced by the political power of a totalitarian state moves a person toward becoming part of the machine of dictatorship. But in this film I emphasized personal responsibility. After examining 3,600 pages of police interrogations done by Eichmann, Hannah Arendt said that she had laughed over and over again when reading them. Following Eichmann’s trial, she said that she did not see a monster in him but considered him to be a mid-level bureaucrat who would do anything for a promotion. My experiences of living in Iran confirm this view since the censorship system there depends on the very same people—bureaucrats who are willing to do anything just to rank up in the present system. Václav Havel reminds us that in this situation the power of the powerless is to say no.
Did you watch similar films on this topic, like Apprentice [Boo Junfeng, 2016], while writing the screenplay? Did any particular film inspire you?
I haven’t seen this film but I can guess that all societies which are controlled and suppressed by tyrannical governments might experience similar things. The reflection of these experiences in artistic works can be turned into representations of pain shared between human beings. Yet with all of the similarities in the topics, you encounter stories which are filled with various details which differ from others. When writing screenplays, I try to combine the topics I have in mind with my own experiences in life. I don’t remember ever writing or making a movie where I was influenced by a particular film but there is no doubt that cinema is always the main source of inspiration for a filmmaker.
Some of the film’s scenes, especially in the soldiers’ dormitory room in the second episode, feature long conversations about the moral aspects of execution. The dormitory conversation especially contrasts with the visual rhythm of the previous sequences and the one after it. Do you think that the visual language of cinema is insufficient to reflect the complexities of moral philosophy?
Dialogues are a part of the cinematic language of a film. When you want to find or write a story for a film, you somehow know beforehand what kind of performances you will have. The story itself will tell you. The difference between my recent films and the ones I made earlier, especially those two films you mentioned, is in the use of two different cinematic languages. In my early films, I resorted to using metaphorical language to get around censorship and avoid direct confrontations with the suppressive forces of the government. This tendency itself shows that metaphorical language, which becomes poetic at times, is a result of living under the shadow of a dictatorship. We can see numerous examples in our classical and even contemporary literature.
I have come to believe that, as a critic, I do not want to make a film which uses language rooted in the acceptance of tyranny. I have decided to move beyond this language and aestheticism. I know that, for example, many people consider The White Meadows to be my best film. However, I deeply criticize my own viewpoint and today I consider the outlook in the film to have resulted from the acceptance of tyrannical power. Now let me get back to There Is No Evil. The dialogues in the first half of the second episode have a good rhythm and move the story forward at a good pace. The function of that conversation alone is seen not only in the second episode but rather in how this chapter of the film paints the background against which the other stories unfold.
The final episode in the film is similar to the story of Antigone, as it depicts what happens when an individual insists on what he or she believes is right and challenges the authority of the state. It will have surely grave consequences for both the individual and their family. How much of this last sequence is related to your personal life and your resistance against the Iranian state?
The fourth story is not autobiographical, but the questions that my daughter has always asked me certainly ignited my attempts to write the story. Each time that I see a photo of Narges Mohammadi or Nasrin Sotoudeh, I ask myself what kind of power these people have that they have gotten to a point where they refrain from pleasures and opportunities, and tolerate all kinds of difficulties in life, for the sake of their ideals. They even have to fight their maternal instincts because of the ideals and the values that they believe in. Your final choice is what distinguishes you from others. Nonetheless, my intention when writing the fourth story was to simultaneously show the difficulty and the beauty of saying no. The public has this clichéd fear of saying no to people in power, which is the result of a conservative mindset which prefers quiet comfort. Revitalizing the fear of confronting totalitarian power or creating a bloodthirsty monster out of the dictatorship in power is a defense mechanism in all of us that can result in normalizing complicity with the tyrannical power. I think that in many cases the cost of saying no is not as destructive as some people fear. If you lose one thing, then you also gain more important things like self-worth.
Almost all of your recent films feature scenes in showers or under water. Why are you interested in such scenes? Why is water and taking a shower a significant metaphor in your cinema?
I hear this a lot. A while ago, one of my producers forwarded to me a message from his secretary, who had written it after seeing There Is No Evil, saying that “In Mohammad’s films, someone is always taking a shower.” But this is not an intentional recurrent element in my films. Maybe my personal interest in water has had an effect on my attempts to use shower scenes in my films but I don’t think that water can be seen as a unified symbol in my films. For example, when the characters in Manuscripts Don’t Burn or There Is No Evil take a shower they want to rid themselves of pain and guilt. On the other hand, in A Man of Integrity the protagonist resorts to water.
How are you able to stay active in Iranian cinema despite being banned from making films in the country?
The problems that I faced with my last two films were resolved by having Kaveh Farnam as my friend and producer. He has a young creative mind that’s always in search of something great and he has a dedicated working relationship with the films that he produces. After A Man of Integrity and my return to Iran, I was in a dire situation because they seized my passport and the start of the interrogations brought everything into a halt. The production of Mahan, which was planned to be filmed in 2018 with my German producer, stopped and I did not know how things would turn out or when I could work again. The interrogations and court hearings became a routine part of my life and could have easily dragged me into an endless tiring fight. I did not want to be affected by all of this pressure. With support from Kaveh Farnam, I had the opportunity to work on a documentary project, unofficially and under a pseudonym, of course. I was involved with that documentary for a few months and it won the best documentary film award from Khaneh Cinema. After that project, I had a few offers for writing screenplays, all of which seemed really interesting.
We found a solution so that my screenplays could be sent to the censorship organization under a different name or a pseudonym and I wrote a few screenplays which were approved. My name is not mentioned in the credits in these films. Bypassing the censorship in that period was like a funny, thrilling game. Kaveh Farnam introduced me to Farzad Pak and I was touched by his personality and outlook on cinema. He persuaded me to try screening independent films within the framework of the system. This acquaintance soon turned into a professional triangle as we tried to support young talents working within the framework of Iranian cinema. However, the intelligence and military organizations meddled with the process, disregarding the permits which were approved by the censorship organization. After receiving the permit to make and screen one of the films which our three-member team made, Farzad was heavily interrogated beyond the confines of the law, and he soon realized that having permits would not guarantee the safety of professional independent filmmakers. That is how we decided to try our luck in making There Is No Evil. Farzad and his astonishing mastery of producing films gave me the courage to make a film like this.
How do you work in Iran without having official permit?
If you mean having an official permit that would allow me to work in public, then I have to say that such a thing did not exist for me. You cannot shoot your film anywhere in public without a permit. Instead of going into details, I would like to say a few things about how to work with orders and documents. I have to remind you that people who work in the censorship system do not necessarily like the censorship orders they receive. If they cannot say no to censorship, sometimes they try to make up for it by showing their opposition to censorship in the rooms specified for censoring films. A few people decided to say no to censorship by supporting, and participating in, this film. Our main intention was to create an atmosphere for conversations on things that censorship had already declared taboo.
Your films have not been shown in Iran for a long time. Is there enough financial gain from their distribution outside of Iran to make it possible for you to continue working?
I think that only those who are not aware of public screenings in Iranian cinemas might think about the return on their investment in art films in Iran. The mainstream cinema in Iran is saturated with commercial films which cannot even be considered B-movies. Even these films face problems in providing a return on investment. The reason for bankruptcy in Iranian cinema is censorship, economic rent, and the big budgets provided by intelligence and military organizations for the expansion of their propaganda. With the current criteria in Iranian cinema, we made There Is No Evil with a budget almost three times smaller than it would normally have been. Our team’s policy when making the film was not to make either an expensive or an inexpensive film. We worked with a reasonable budget and used the international market as sort of a VPN against the censorship system in Iran. The film will enter the Iranian market shortly after international distributions in different countries.
It is true that you don’t make a dime from the Iranian market, but at least you can find your main audience and you can survive with income from the international distributions. This is the model which I would recommend to all independent filmmakers in Iran. As long as Iranian filmmakers are waiting for financial support from the government and are accepting the constraints of censorship, they will have a low likelihood of getting their films out to an international audience. For example, we had a good experience in finding our audience with A Man of Integrity and its European distribution. Before winning the Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival, There Is No Evil was bought by distributors from 25 countries around the world. You can add to that success getting funding from the World Cinema Fund in Hamburg, having support from German producers, and having the film bought by ARTE Cultural Channel in France and Germany. These numbers are not significant compared to commercial films but it has paved the way for independent art film producers.
What was the impact of the digital revolution on your work? Does it make it easier for you to make underground films?
The digital revolution changed the fate of filmmakers like me. I made the films Goodbye and Manuscripts Don’t Burn with extremely light and inexpensive cameras, a small group of people, and a tight budget. Nowadays you can make a film with the camera in your phone but this does not mean that you should overlook the tools that you can use with a touch of creativity. It is important for me not to involve the audience with my own production problems and obstacles. I do as much as I can to prevent these problems from noticeably affecting my production. Still, I think that if it becomes even more difficult to make a movie than my current situation, I will surely depend on technology to find a new way of making my films.
There are very mesmerizing scenes in There Is No Evil, especially in the third episode, in the forest. Their beauty amazed me.
The story takes a different turn in the second episode when the protagonist says no. A kind of voluntarism resulting from this moral choice puts his and his girlfriend’s life on the margins. Following that development, the third and fourth episodes are pictures of life on the margins, a life which is really beautiful even though it is really difficult to maintain. It’s living in the depth of nature and in alignment with it. This topic and these rays of thoughts helped us to shoot the film in remote locations and, as a result, we were less likely to attract attention.
Did you need permits to shoot in different locations since you are not allowed to work in Iran? If so, how did you obtain them?
When I’m writing a screenplay, I always try to exclude what might become problematic for shooting the film but sometimes it’s not possible. There were locations in this film where it was impossible for me to go. The main members of my team and I have been working together for years and we have reached a great understanding toward one another. Based on that understanding, I arrange everything with my assistants, director of cinematography, production designer, actors and actresses, and other crew members so they can continue shooting the film based on my shooting script without me being present in that location.
We almost find a different genre in each episode. What was the idea behind this?
My career shows that I’m interested in trying different forms. In this film I had four different stories, each with its own unique atmosphere. I could have put all of these stories into one specific form and made them similar to one another but I follow my own rule, which is that each story tells you how to look at it. The stories were diverse in terms of narration, atmosphere, and characters and each episode emphasizes one part of the concept. I wanted to expand this diversity and thought that what unifies these stories is not a visual form forced on them. I was looking for invisible threads of form and content to connect these episodes together.
It is hard to ignore the beautiful score of the film. How was the work experience with Amir Molookpour, the composer?
As it happened, we had a short timeframe for preparing the score for the film. Molookpour joined us when the film was in the process of the first editing draft. I wanted the musical score to be as close to the thematic elements in the film as possible, and although Amir is great at composing music for orchestras, he does not force himself to use orchestral music everywhere. For example, for the second episode’s music Amir selected intimidation, loneliness, and heroic behavior as the main elements for the rhythm and instruments. However, the same episode featured the song “Bella Ciao”: the screenplay mentioned it in order to show both the romantic desire and the rebellious nature of the characters. Later, in the fourth episode, you have another performance of “Bella Ciao” which Amir arranged to trace back to the second episode. Amir’s music is definitely another invisible thread which connects the stories is the film.
How did you shoot the prison scene? Did you build that place from the ground up or did it already exist?
Clearly, we couldn’t have a prison as a location for our film. From my own experiences of being in the 209 Ward of Evin Prison, I knew what kind of location we needed. We spent a great amount of time searching for places to build a prison but we unfortunately couldn’t find a way to build one at a reasonable cost. We eventually found a relatively good place but it was small. What you see in the film as the prison is the corridor of an old abandoned school which, combined with the atmosphere of a factory and another location, creates our imagined geography of the prison. Finding such a place was possible thanks to the great connection between Ashkan Ashkani, the director of cinematography, and Saeed Asadi, the production designer. The idea of a long continuous shot in the prison corridor with the camera moving around made it difficult for us. Our biggest problem was the short length of the main corridor. Finally, after we worked really hard for it, we succeeded in shooting an important continuous shot in which we created space for the movement of the camera and used one corridor in a way as if there are two corridors. That’s how we got the required time for the scene.
There are some beautiful shots of foxes and other animals in the film. Did you use special effects for these scenes or were they real?
The scenes with the fox were all special effects. Mohammd Lotfalli and his team worked day and night and with great passion for their job in order to add the fox to the original footage. The German special effects team was surprised at how good their work was for having had such a short period of time to do it. These experiences show that if the censorship system would allow it, Iranian cinema could play a significant role in film productions around the world.
Since you are banned from filmmaking in Iran, how do you find professional actors and actresses for your films? Is it easy to get people like Zhila Shahi to work for you?
I owe the casting to my assistants, one of whom was directly responsible for casting the actors in each episode. The whole directing team worked in harmony and had great teamwork, which is how we found a great selection of actors and actresses for all of the episodes. During the casting process, one serious question that we had to ask ourselves was, “Who can we ask to come and play the parts?” We were sure that we did not have a broad range of choices. By looking at the resumés of the actors and actresses, and based on an understanding of their social behavior, we could somehow predict to whom we could offer the roles. Some of them received our offer to be a part of the film and they were honest and said that although they were more than willing to work on our project, they were afraid of working with us. Some of them showed great enthusiasm at first but kept making excuses and ultimately did not come. Still, a great number of actors and actresses who were cast came with enthusiasm and love for the film and played their parts without any fear. Nonetheless, I think that agreeing to be a part of the film itself became a test of whether or not someone said no to censorship.
I heard that you have a specific way of working with actors. How do you prepare your actors for their roles?
Casting is sometimes easy and sometimes difficult. Usually I have a few examples of voices and physiques which are close to what I have in mind for the film and when I’ve created that image of my preferred type of actors my assistants provide a list of suggestions. For example, the second episode was unique. We needed 10 young soldiers, a few officers, and some prisoners who sometimes had very small roles. They were selected from three different groups of people who were invited after initial tests by my assistant, Bardia. After several rehearsal sessions, we selected a few actors from these three different groups and divided them into smaller groups based on their suitability for the roles. The final selection was done based on different criteria. For example, the actor chosen for the role of the soldier at the penitentiary affected our other choices because we needed diversity, but that meant having a diverse group of actors who were also good at acting.
After finalizing the casting process, I rewrote parts of the screenplay, especially the dialogues, based on those specific actors. It happens frequently that I revise the screenplay based on our selection of actors. I have different experiences with different actors based on their skills and their adaptability. Each actor approaches his role differently. I just try to pave the way for that actor to reach that role. I usually explain the character which they are going to play so they can create the details of those characters with their creativity. I usually have great interactions with actors and actresses. They are free in rehearsals to share their suggestions with me and, in a way, it is like a tennis match between us where both sides are actively shaping the process.
How was the experience of working with your daughter? Did being her father create a different working relationship than you normally have with a performer?
Baran and I have been waiting for an opportunity to experience working together in a film. She has an independent personality and our relationship during shooting was completely professional.
How many takes do you usually shoot for each scene?
Everything depends on the situation but usually I shoot the scenes with several takes. The rehearsal is also divided into two sections. Some of the scenes are rehearsed before the shooting begins, which happens a lot, and some scenes only need preparation in front of the camera.
The fact that you wanted to have a unique form of shooting the film surely impacted the editing process. How do you work with the editor?
Mohammad Reza Moeini is not only an amazing colleague but he’s also an amazing friend. He has edited almost 80 feature films, most of which are among the finest films in the history of Iranian cinema. I feel pure calmness when I’m working with him. His son Meysam Moeini feels the same when working with him. The three of us make a great team. Our work starts from the screenplay and continues until the final sound mix. I personally have mastery over the hardware and software aspects of editing and can easily edit the film based how I imagine it in my mind but this is not what I expect when editing a film. When a director has a deep connection with a film editor, he has significantly fewer fears about not being able to re-create the world that he imagines in his mind when working with others. A pure interactive working relationship improves the reflection of what the director has in mind on the screen.
During shooting, I try to use differ methods for filming each scene so that they can be cut in different ways. This method increases the possibility of being creative when editing the film. Yet when you have a unique form in shooting the film and follow it to the end, during the editing process, the film follows the same form. I have not yet felt the need to have an editor during shooting. The film editing team receives the raw material and they do initial cuts for some of the scenes based on the screenplay, the shooting script, and the space left for their creativity. We watch these scenes and discuss the approach to editing the film and the rhythm of the film, and from these few scenes, we reach the required dialectics to continue the editing process. This connection continues to exist during the editing process and until the final mix. My editors and I have reached a great understanding over time and there are few fundamental differences in our collaborations.
You’ve also been active in recent years with producing films other than your own. How do you see these experiences? What are your criteria for working on those films?
I have faced more restrictions by the intelligence and censorship organizations over the past two and a half years, and my initial response to this situation was to try more. The only thing I could do where nobody could stop me was to write, and my writings got past the barrier of censorship by using pseudonyms. Some of those films were shown and a few other projects are still in the process of being made. My role in producing some of these movies was mostly in providing consultation, which happened mostly thanks to the shared goals and special support of my producer and dear friend Kaveh. He has supported me and has been by my side since that first day when they seized my passport.
Big co-productions have been few and far between in Iran, but your film was co-produced by several countries and companies. What was this working relationship like? What do you think of the usual bureaucracy of co-productions? Did you experience a different atmosphere with this co-production?
The international co-production for There Is No Evil was achieved through sharing the workload. I managed the story and the art division, Farzad was the executive producer, and Kaveh managed the process of securing the budget and distribution. Kaveh was fully ready to have all the aspects of the film under his control but we felt that we needed to try new ways of securing the budget and expanding our activities. After the German team gave the screenplay for There Is No Evil to the World Cinema Fund in Hamburg to find German producers, we received great feedback on the story, which they believed had global aspects and impact. After a while, the ARTE channel also gave positive feedback on the story and that’s how they entered the project. Kaveh has a keen eye for film distribution and believes that we must revolutionize the international distribution of Iranian films.
Amir Ganjavie, a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture, is a Toronto-based writer, cultural citric, festival director, community activist and filmmaker. He has contributed to UniversalCinema, MovieMaker, Bright Light Film Journal, FilmInt, Mubi, Fandor, Senses of Cinema, Offscreen, and Reverse Shot. He has recently directed and produced a feature film titled Pendulum.