Wednesday 29 September 2021

The Curious and the Downcast: An Interview with Kamran Shirdel

Kamran Shirdel at the exhibition. Photo (c) Houshang Golmakani

The Curious and the Downcast: An Interview with Kamran Shirdel

By Houshang Golmakani

An interview with the distinguished Iranian filmmaker, photographer, and writer about his latest exhibition of films and photographs taken during the days of the Iranian Revolution. I commissioned this for a winter 2019 issue of Underline magazine but by the time this was translated and edited, the Underline project was abruptly folded. I publish it here for the first time. — EK

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the revolution that saw the monarch of Iran overthrown and replaced with an Islamic republic, renowned documentary filmmaker and photographer Kamran Shirdel is now exhibiting his photographs and raw, unedited footage of the historical event for the first time at a gallery in Tehran. Born in 1939, Shirdel originally studied architecture at the University of Rome before going on to study film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. Upon his return to Iran in 1964, he produced a number of documentaries on Iranian social issues in the space of just a few years, the most famous of which include Women's Prison, Women's Quarter, Tehran Is the Capital of Iran, and his satirical masterpiece The Night It Rained. Due to their controversial subjects, all of these early documentaries were banned at the time of their release and Shirdel had several encounters with the Shah's secret police force SAVAK as a result. With the exception of his first and only feature-length film, The Morning of the Fourth Day (1972), Shirdel was forced to pursue industrial documentary filmmaking in the years that followed. 1978 saw a rise in strikes and social unrest that fuelled the fires of an impending revolution: the event that Shirdel had been waiting for ever since his return to Iran. Armed with a video camera and a camera, Shirdel took to the streets of Tehran, tirelessly documenting every development throughout the course of the revolution.

40 years later, and for the first time since they were taken, Shirdel's photographs and footage from those days are now being exhibited at the Nabshi Centre in Tehran from 30 November 2018 to 25 January 2019.  Shirdel, who was 39 years old at the time of the revolution, will turn 80 later this year. Despite his age and a spinal condition that requires him to use a walking stick, Shirdel still attends the exhibition almost every day in order to see the effects of his work first-hand. The exhibition itself is relatively large, covering two floors, with mostly large-scale photographs displayed on the walls and 40-year-old, antique television sets showing 8mm footage on repeat. Unfortunately, Shirdel's 16mm footage was confiscated in the days following the revolution and no trace of them has been seen since then. 

Thursday 23 September 2021

The Spat-on Messenger: Youssef Chahine in Conversation with Tom Luddy

Youssef Chahine

Bologna, June 2019. I spotted an Arab name on the badge of the hotel's night porter. When I asked, he turned out to be one—an Egyptian. I mentioned to him that Youssef Chahine's films would be playing in Bologna for the next few days. His face lit up. A floodgate of emotions, about Egypt, his past, and cinema opened, temporarily drowned him in nostalgia, passion and regret. He shared stories of Chahine, of his beloved Alexandria. He even cursed the extra who had forgotten to remove his wristwatch during the battle scene of Salah Eddin (a film about the Crusade, from the Arabs' point of view). According to him, by doing so he had prevented the film from entering the Oscar competition.

Very few directors can make that impact on their people, endowing them with a sense of pride and identity. Chahine's generosity with emotions is contagious. In reaction to a Chahine film, it is as legit to dance or holler as it is to write an essay. In Bologna the scholar and musician Amal Guermazi decided to sing, as her introduction to Al Ard.

Sometimes effortlessly Ophulsian (especially in the '70s, in the fluidity of his carousel-like narratives) and sometimes dialectically Chaplinesque, Chahine brought together the seemingly irreconcilable worlds existing in 20th-century Egypt and gave them a sense of harmony. There was a wise calmness about him. He had every reason to be angry, but instead he gave a sad smile which became the Chahine cinema.

Aligned with Pan-Arabic sentiments, he looked beyond Egypt, too. However, his Algeria-set Djamilah (1958) is nearly impossible to see in a cinema. Telling the story of the Algerian Independence War fighter Djamila Bouhired, it has been absent from recent Chahine retrospectives. It's an anti-French film, in exactly the same manner that hundreds of western films, including some French ones, have been anti-Arab. But it's more than just tit-for-tat—it is a celebration of change in the Arab world, done in the best of Hollywood traditions which Chahine adored. Find the film and show it!  (For the Chahine tribute at Il Cinema Ritrovato, we tracked down a print in Albania but the subtitles were so big, covering almost half the screen, in the process turning them into Godardian onscreen statements.)

Wednesday 22 September 2021

Sight & Sound's 100 'Hidden Heroes' of Cinema: Lily Amir-Arjomand

Lily Amir-Arjomand

From Sight & Sound magazine, Summer 2021, Vol. 31, Issue 6, dedicated to unsung heroes of cinema. This was my contribution, trying to go beyond the familiar names and professions one hears on a film set. — EK

Lily Amir-Arjomand (b. 1938)

One of the key architects of the new Iranian cinema, Lily Amir-Arjomand was most likely unfamiliar with even the most basic film terminology. But no matter when she had one thing that no one else in Iran has possessed before or since: trust in the filmmaker.

Emerging from a privileged background, this former classmate of the Queen of Iran was a technocrat with imagination. In 1964 she founded a library for children. Four years later Kanoon had become an impeccably streamlined production house for first-rate cultural goods (including films) aimed at children, with centres spread all over the country. And everything was free.

Saturday 11 September 2021

Alias Nick Beal (John Farrow, 1949)

Alias Nick Beal, publicity still

Written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato 2021. -- EK

In 1948 director John Farrow began a close, decade-long collaboration with writer Jonathan Latimer that resulted in ten films, including one marvel (The Big Clock), quite a few greats (Night Has a Thousand Eyes among them), and some obscurities. The intensely engaging Alias Nick Beal, their fourth collaboration, is a dark, claustrophobic variation on the story of Faust (Mindret Lord's original story was titled Dr. Joe Faust) in keeping with the increasingly relevant "political corruption" cycle of the late 1940s (the Oscar for Best Film in 1949 went to All the King's Men). Thomas Mitchell plays Joseph Foster, an ambitious district attorney who meets a shady character who offers to help him in his rise up the political ladder. But there's a price to be paid, especially when one is dealing with the Devil, alias Nick Beal.

Wednesday 1 September 2021

Duke Ellington in Isfahan

Duke Ellington in Isfahan 

Director: Ehsan Khoshbakht

UK, 12', 2018/2021, colour/b&w

World premiere: Telluride Film Festival 2021

This short documentary by the Iranian filmmaker, writer and archivist Ehsan Khoshbakht tells the story of Duke Ellington's concert tour of the Middle East in 1963 and the development of one of the most beautiful jazz standards.  

The legendary composer and bandleader was seen as the ideal cultural ambassador for the United States at the height of the Cold War, when President Eisenhower's desired perception of the US as a moral force for good in the world was being undermined by an awareness of its treatment of African-Americans. 

Arriving in Iran with his band, Ellington was inspired by the historical city of Isfahan and especially its architectural riches. It would give its name to one of the pianist's most enduring compositions, and the tour as a whole helped to shape a Grammy Award-winning album, Far East Suite, which showed how much Ellington had absorbed from the sounds of his travels. 

Using archival images and video footage, and with added insight from broadcaster and jazz historian Alyn Shipton, Duke Ellington in Isfahan shines a light on a largely forgotten episode in jazz history and political history, and provides a clearer sense of the ways in which Ellington's music was affected by, and reflects, his vision of the East.