As you know last year, your works has been celebrated at Cinema Verite and some of them were screened, in your absence. This year, aside from the invitation, what made you to come to Iran and attend the festival?
Unfortunately, last year I was mostly traveling for the screenings of my latest film "Fire at Sea", which was nominated for an Oscar, so I couldn’t attend this festival. This prevented me to travel to Iran, as I was at the same time in the US for the promotion of my film for the Oscars. But this year, when I was invited as jury member to the festival - which was an honor – there was no way I’d say no. Also for some years I wanted to travel to Iran, since the Iranian cinema is well known all over the world. Personally, I think the Iranian cinema is one of the most important and influential parts of the world’s cinema. So I personally wanted to travel here.
With this interest in Iranian cinema, have you had the chance to watch Iranian documentaries that have been screened in recent years?
I have some brief knowledge of it but I cannot specifically name names. However, one of the best Iranian movies I‘ve seen in recent years, is “A Separation” - very impressive movie. In these years, all the filmmakers who introduced the Iranian cinema to the world have produced very impressive movies, even very revolutionary in ways such as narratives and global codes of cinema. Personally, it was always important for me to discover the universality of your cinematic language.
And what features did you find in this discovery that has attracted you?
Well, this capacity to look deeper into the world is commendable; not just in terms of the narrative but also in terms of offering a very special thing to the audience, while being able to portray it in a universal language. For me, personally, this has always been a big challenge in filmmaking. When you find your story, then you should look for characters who portray that story. This is what I always do in my documentaries; to find a person I can portray my story through them. So, the most important challenge for me has always been to bring the story to a universal level. This is the same capacity that Abbas Kiarostami's cinema benefitted from, and among its younger filmmakers, it seems that Iranian cinema still has the ability to achieve significant achievements.
In one of your interviews you have said that you prefer to use the word "people" in your documentaries rather than "character". Tell us a little about this.
Yes, I used to use the term as part of the cinematic language. But it's true that, especially in the documentary, first there are people and you are dealing with people, then as you begin to structure your film and story, people naturally become characters. Whenever I watch movie, I want to see this feature in it.
But especially in documentaries, we are in a challenging moment. There is a tremendous transformation in documentaries all over the world, especially in the language of this kind of cinema which is expanding. The line between documentary and fiction is getting narrower and narrower. A very interesting process is underway; you can explore the deepest and more and more make the line between fiction and documentary disappear. I personally do not like to separate documentary and fiction, but it's important for me to challenge the right and wrong. These two are very important to me.
It's amazing that now, all around the world, from China and the Middle East to Europe, the United States and South America, a feature film is undergoing such a change and transformation that the line between documentary and fiction is practically broken. I was very lucky to have one of my films featured in the Venice Film Festival competition, and my latest documentary has been featured in in the Berlin Film Festival’s main competition. For me, this success was gaining the goal that was always in my head from the start; from the day I started shooting my first film, “Boatman” in India.
You went to New York at age 19 and studied cinema. Why did you started to make documentaries from the very beginning, never changed over the years and you continued your filmmaking in this category?
Making a documentary gives me an infinite freedom. I do not have to narrate my story before shooting. I just need to have the core of my story and develop it in the process. So, this is a kind of lifestyle for me. You know that I do almost all of the stuff for my films alone. I make movies in isolation, without the presence of others; I shoot, making sound and produce my own film. As a result, making documentaries gives me great freedom unavailable in making feature fiction films. Because it has such a complicated and huge structure that you need to fully share your story with others beforehand, and I do not have the patience to do that.
On the other hand, I have no interest in writing a screenplay, because as soon as I put my story on paper, it no longer is attracted enough for me to make it. It is fascinating for me to search for my story, for people and characters and go for the unexpected encounters that are about to happen. Without these encounters, my movie will not be created and will not exist. So, I enjoyed this filming process very much, because my way of working requires something like that: discovering the story, discovering people and the structure of the film, and the way it should be edited. The whole process is my writing. In fact, I put my story on the paper by camera and quite mentally. As a result, the biggest challenge lies here; the fact that every time, I have to find a new structure for my next movie and to have a new story to narrate. I do not like to repeat myself. I want to discover a new language every time to narrate my story.
So your approach to filmmaking is totally experimental?
I don't know, I usually prefer to run away from such labels. For me, the documentary cinema is essentially experimental, since from the beginning of documentary’s history, since (Robert) Flaherty, this cinema has always been unbelievable and revolutionary changes. It is this transformation of cinema that enchants me. So, I don’t think my works are experimental, but the documentary cinema essentially must be so. Without experience, the documentary is doomed to end. I think that this applies to all the arts.
Since you are actually alone in the whole process of filmmaking, what challenges does it make for you?
For me, it's hard to isolate filming from directing and the rest. I cannot possibly imagine myself working with a cameraman or a sound recordist. It's very important for me to make an intimate connection with the world in front of me and its people. As I mentioned earlier, the word "encounter" is of great importance to me – encounter with people – and this is where the structure of my film begins to form. So, first you encounter a place, then you encounter people and then it’s these people who reflect the core of the story. As a result, working alone allows me to create the desired intimacy in encountering the place, its people and things around. It seems to me that when twenty people are around, like when you are making a feature film, the intimacy I seek is lost. I lose the intimacy component that is important in my work.
As a result, I'm not able to separate the filming from directing and sound recording. When I look at the lens of my camera, I’m like a scientist who looks in his microscope and discovers a world. As a result, I can't just look at my surroundings and order something to be done. When the eye looks out of a camera, the thinking process happens in a different way, and I discover the realities that are not possible without a camera. It is the camera that does the isolation from the outside world and provides the necessary information for narration. As soon as I put my eye on the camera, my mind begins to process and edit the film.
Does spending this amount of energy alone make you tired?
Of course it makes me tired. From my first film, "Boatman", I said to myself that I would not make another movies again, and every time I say that this is my last. My films are made in a long process, often several years. It took just four, five years for me to make my first movie. "Below Sea Level" took several years. "Sacro GRA” took three years to make. The last film "Fire at the Sea" took one and a half year to make. This movie I'm about to begin making, I don’t know exactly how long it's going to take. Therefore, in making each movie I face a great challenge, and that's why I completely lose my personal life, because all my life becomes the story I'm about to tell. So, after making each film, I'm completely exhausted. But in the other hand, after finishing each film, I must completely abandon my past and forget it. Every time I start a new film, it's as if I'm going to make my first film and it’s the first time I’m about to get involved with cinema art. That's why I don’t have a long filmography and so far, I have only made five films, each time deciding it’s the last.
It might be interesting for our audiences to know how do you invest so much energy and time on low-budget and self-produced films? How do you spent whole your time on your documentary making and still have a life?
It was not like this in the past, and I had to work much more. One of the reasons for my works took so long to make was that I had to do other things like filming for other projects to make a living. I’ve never took money from any foundation, organization or studio for making my films. I’ve always made the money for this. Sometimes I didn’t have a penny and start from nothing. It was only after the success of "Sacro" in Venice that things changed, and after "Fire at Sea", the situation has improved considerably. It is a great blessing for a filmmaker to be able to devote all his time to the film he is creating and to have no financial interest. This happened very late in my career.
How is the documentary cinema and the support of it in Italy? Over past years, regardless of the Venice's gold lion award, which is a great honor, have you ever received financial aid or sponsorship from studios and film production companies?
Well, the situation has changed a lot recently. When I was making my first films, "Boatman", "Below Sea Level" and "Sicario", there was no support from Italian cinema. I was a completely castoff and marginalized creature who nobody paid any attention or interest to him and his films. In the recent decade, the situation has changed, and documentary filmmaking is taken more and more serious. In the whole world, the status of documentary cinema is improving, and in addition to the support of big and famous studios, it is also welcomed by cinema audiences. The nomination of "Fire at the Sea" in the Oscars is a proof to this claim.