Gunnar Landsgesell interviews Arash T. Riahi about FOR A MOMENT FREEDOM

When people laugh, they open their minds

Gunnar Landsgesell: Your film has a very rich, compact texture. Is this the intensity of making your first feature film combined with the external reality of refugee experience?

Arash T. Riahi: Both. When I go to the cinema, I don't want the film to leave me cold; I want it to appeal to as many of my senses as possible. But although I did have the experience of escaping from Iran as a child, the film is only autobiographical to a small degree. My aim was to tell three stories about people who were fleeing from their country, based on the experiences of other refugees and what I myself had been through. Each of the stories is meant to exemplify one aspect of the situation. When we were making the film I divided it into three sections. Naturally I wanted the first stage, depicting the escape over the mountains, to be in a style which corresponded to the content. So the restless feeling, the sense of moving towards an unknown future for the refugees, was conveyed by means of moving, flowing camerawork. By way of contrast, the central section has a kind of stagnant, immobile quality, and so the style could be calmer. There were certain particularly emotional scenes when it was appropriate to break out of this placid style, when this apparent calmness - which is not really being calm at all - reaches flashpoint. In the final third of the film, when the stories begin to move in one direction or another again, the camera also follows these developments. But even though I come from a background of documentary and experimental films, I didn't want the form here to be pushed into the foreground; in my opinion that would not have done justice to the theme of a classic, humanist story.

Developing the screenplay took a very long time. What approach did you use, and what were the stages in the process?

When my application to the Austrian film subsidy authorities for assistance in developing the script was unanimously rejected in the year 2001, I then had to look outside this country and make my own attempt to gain international support to develop the script. I'm sure the tightly-woven nature of the film is partly due to this protracted developmental process, which extended over six years and involved 14 versions of the script. I never went to film school, but I took the screenplay to a number of international scriptwriting workshops and learnt a great deal about dramatic structure and narrative technique from successful writers and directors. For example, the script was one of two international projects selected by the Sundance Scriptlab from 2500 applications. And people like Sydney Pollack and Jacques Fieschi, who has written scripts for Olivier Assayas, made very positive comments about the screenplay in the Equinoxe Workshop. As far as the content is concerned, I knew a great deal about the subject from my own refugee experience, but I also learnt a lot by conducting a great many interviews with refugees and NGOs, as well as going on research trips to the Turkish/Iranian border. Those trips were mainly important because they help me find out what has changed about the refugee situation there over the last few years.

You tell not one but three refugee stories at the same time, which you merge together in the end. The sum total of what the refugee experience could amount to?

I kept on asking myself the same question. A lot of people advised me to choose a simple structure for my first feature film screenplay. But I don't want this subject to occupy my whole life. So I tried to deal with the subject as comprehensively as possible. I wanted to tell the story of somebody who managed to get away and of somebody who didn't manage to do so. The story of old people and of children, the story of how a married couple might behave in a situation like that – and of somebody who could hardly make himself understood in the language. So the idea was to make the refugee story as universal as possible. Of course the people in the film come from Iran or Iraq, but in terms of the interplay between the characters, they could be from anywhere.

Despite the universal relevance, somebody watching this film comes to feel close to the individual characters. What kind of balance did you try to achieve between the sometimes surreal humour and the politically motivated issues?

It was clear to me from the start that this is difficult subject, and also that I didn't want to make the kind of gloomy film that would appeal to a minority of the usual suspects. I wanted to make a more ambitious film that could create an audience for itself, because that's the only way a political film can really create awareness in society or prompt changes. If I had to describe my personal style I would say I tried to present the theme from a human perspective and clothe it with a sense of humour - not only in order to make it more bearable but mainly so that my message can get through to people in that way. When people start to laugh, that's when they open their minds. Then they are prepared to let a lot of information get through, even if it's uncomfortable.

You don't resort to fake documentary style with a shaking camera, but the images have a definite immediacy and seem "rooted in experience". What narrative strategies did you pursue?

Although I had previously only made documentary films, for my first feature film I was not aiming to shoot in as realistic a style as possible, to reflect reality. I wanted to create an interpretation of reality in the form of poetic realism. The appeal of a feature film for me was not as an opportunity to repeat my documentary work but rather as a way of using abstraction as a means of perhaps creating an even higher degree of reality than might be possible in a documentary film. That has a great deal to do with precision and preparation, and not much to do with spontaneity. It starts with the cast; right down to the smallest part, they have to correspond to the "reality" of the characters (almost all the actors are themselves refugees), and it also influences the narrative depiction of the characters. While I have to exclude some things in a documentary film because it's necessary to show consideration for the individuals, in a feature film I can go on to explore a very painful area.

How did you arrive at the fade-outs and the non-narrative elements which you employ in many scenes so that the escalation is dampened down?

Quite often at the end of the scene there is a moment when the people are turned in on themselves - when they feel something approaching freedom. Those shots were not in the screenplay. I had planned them before we started shooting, and I wanted to capture certain quiet moments, like an actor's thoughtful expression for instance. With the everyday stress of actually shooting the film I had to fight for these shots, because they don't follow any narrative logic and their meaning was not appreciated by everybody on the set. But they do have a very important function for the atmosphere. I just used to say: "I need that shot for the title, or the closing credits." That's how I finally got my way!

Your editor, Karina Ressler, started work on the rough cut during the filming. How did that work out?

After the first week's shooting in Turkey we flew Karina out to be with us, and she started editing the available material on a laptop. We wanted to see if the timing of the scenes was working and to find the optimum rhythm for the editing. That was important, because it enabled us to work more accurately. And apart from that, the first rough cut was already finished by the time we had completed shooting. That version was cut exactly according to the screenplay. So then we put the screenplay to one side and only concentrated on what the filmed material offered us, rather than what had been planned initially. Fortunately, Karina Ressler doesn't have a dogmatic approach, and she is one of they best respected editors in the country. She is very open, and she is also prepared to do a lot of experimenting. That was fantastic, for somebody with as much experience as her to approach the material with so much enthusiasm and openness, as if it were her first film too! We tried using reverse montage or making the scenes interlocking - we just tried everything we could until it worked. For me the rhythm of the film was extremely important, and we really took a lot of time to get that right. Often you only need to cut or add a few frames to the scene to make it work properly.

Large parts of your film are set in the Turkish capital, Ankara, where refugees wait day by day for the decision of the UNHCR office there. The effect of "destiny", the personal stories and hopes, all combine to make a very rich ambience. What actors did you have in mind?

It was important for me to find people for the film who experienced it not only as actors but also as human beings. Preferably people who had been refugees themselves, or who had been through similar experiences; people who were prepared to go through hell with us while we were filming. Some of the people who came along to the casting sessions were so absolutely determined to be involved, because the subject matter meant so much to them, that I was very moved. But of course, the most important criterion in choosing the cast was acting ability. And that made it very difficult to turn down people who just felt they had to be involved because of personal convictions. But while we were shooting we also had to be careful because in the back of your mind you always had to be afraid of the long arm of the Iranian regime and its secret service. And the Iranian Embassy really did ensure that for a short time at least the Turkish regime withdrew our shooting permit for Erzurum. Fortunately, the production team were able to convince the local official responsible that the project was worthwhile. Things escalated to the point that he actually sent a military escort to protect us on the first day of shooting. Another problem was that some actors with refugee status found it difficult to get permission to travel to Turkey, because as a refugee you aren't necessarily in a very secure position there. There are lists on the internet of people who were abducted from Turkey and then executed. The father of one of our actors was actually killed in Turkey while he was a refugee.

Where did you find your cast?

All over the place, right across Europe. That's one reason the casting took so long. They were a mixture of both experienced and non-professional actors. It was particularly difficult to find people whose Persian hadn't been influenced by their time in exile. Incidentally, in Paris we held the casting sessions at Les Films du Losange, in what used to be Eric Rohmer's room. That was an honour, and you could feel a lot of the film spirit. Of course, the children were just running around without any respect for what was virtually a sacred place.

In some scenes you can sense how difficult shooting must have been. How did it feel to work with children and animals?

It's easy to write in a screenplay that a child is riding on a horse in a snowstorm. But when the wind is whistling around your ears at 120 km an hour and a frightened child is sitting on a horse which keeps on stumbling in the deep snow, that's something else. The whole thing was the ultimate challenge: right at the start one of the children fell off a horse, another actor hurt himself during a difficult scene and had to be in a wheelchair for a week, being carried up to the scenes on the mountain. There were conflicts between some of the actors, which I was able to smooth out after a lot of psychological work. When we were actually filming, the children were very spontaneous; often they would be perfect on the first take, while the adults needed two or three shots. That would make the children feel tired, so I constantly had to find the right balance. On top of all that, there were six languages in use on the set. I would be speaking to the crew in German and to the actors in Persian or English. The Turkish assistant director had to translate the whole thing into Turkish for the Turkish actors and extras. Two of the actors could only talk to each other in Swedish, and then they had to translate for us, and so on.

Didn't you ever feel you were losing track of things?

I tried really hard to keep everything under control, but shooting under those conditions is exceptional. It was as exhausting as some sort of extreme sport. Every single day you have to give 200%, and you only have one chance for each scene. On top of that, we had to make a 120-minute film with a shooting schedule for 90 minutes. It was a miracle that we managed it. The fact that I was working with autobiographical material did help me to create an atmosphere of trust with the crew and the actors; I didn't need to establish my authority by shouting. I approached working with the children with a very respectful attitude, but basically I get on with children well, and I think they sensed that. In fact, we really became friends - in the end the little girl who had the biggest of the children's parts suggested that while we were filming I should be her second father! But probably no film I shall make in future will be as difficult as this first one was.

You were working with Michael Haneke's producers, Veit Heiduschka and Margaret Menegoz. Was that the ideal combination for this project?

It was a very good working relationship considering the size of the project. When the subsidy funding was secured, the only limitation imposed from the side of the producers was that I should shorten the screenplay from 166 minutes to 120 minutes. I very much appreciate the fact that people gave me their honest opinion on certain questions but left the final decision to me. To have such an experienced supervising producer as Michael Katz is incredibly important. He and his colleague Ulli Lässer always stood by me and supported the film, and if anything was theoretically possible, they would arrange for it to happen.

For a Moment Freedom cost €3.5 million, making it one of the most expensive Austrian first films ever. Did that put you under any psychological pressure?

The pressure was enormous, especially after the success of my last documentary film, "Exile Family Movie". I kept on thinking there are so many people in this world who are in need, and the money would have supported a lot of them for a long time. That's another reason why I didn't want to make a film just to satisfy my own ego; I wanted to make a film that is socially relevant and has a social message.

While you were preparing to make the film you made several trips to the Turkish border town of Van, but in the end you shot the film in the Kurdish town of Erzurum. Why?

There were a number of reasons. On the one hand I didn't want to risk the lives of some of my actors who were themselves refugees. I spoke to some refugees in Van who told me they didn't dare go into the town, because there were cases of people disappearing, apparently abducted by the Iranian secret service. On top of that, one time the army blew up a bag right in front of us because they thought it contained a bomb. The whole area is really not very secure, and we had enough insecure factors as it was, shooting in a place where there is no film infrastructure. We didn't need any more completely unpredictable factors on top of that.

But there are some shots of Van in the film.

For refugees from Iran, Van is a sort of magical place, like the cradle of mankind. A lot of people still become very emotional when they hear the name of the town. It's the first sight that meets people's eyes when they have escaped by making the extremely dangerous journey across the mountains. Something like a symbol of freedom. I myself spent a month there with my parents when I was nine years old.

You refrain from making statements about the political system in Iran; you don't offer the audience a single reason why these people fled from the country. Does the moment when all security is lost strike you as more crucial than a description of political conditions?

There are a few references, and some explicit dialogue, expressing opposition to the political system in Iran, and careful observers will notice this. But I didn't want to make an explicitly political film or a film only about refugees from Iran; I wanted to make a film about people who have to escape from dictatorships all over the world. People who demand their basic human rights and are prepared to fight for them, to make sacrifices for them. And if that isn't possible in the land where they live, then they are prepared to leave that country. I wanted to describe the refugee experience as an intermediate state, and above all as an extended experience of the political situation. So in the final analysis I wasn't concerned with showing how difficult life in Iran is, or how the refugees get on later, in Austria. By showing what people are prepared to go through when they escape, I think I am making it clear statement about what they experienced in their own country, which was so unbearable that it drove them to flee.

In Europe the subject of refugees is associated with a very one-sided view of people-smugglers. You counter this with a neutral picture of people who help refugees to escape.

In this part of the world the general view of people-smugglers is that they are gangsters who exploit refugees financially and quite casually risk their deaths. And it often is like that, but not always. There are also people who help refugees to escape for ideological reasons. I met people like that when my parents when I escaped from Iran. There are people who see their work as a struggle against the political system in these totalitarian countries. By enabling opponents of the regime to escape, they are supporting the resistance movement.

In the end, how much of your film is autobiographical?

About 10%. I also refer to experiences of other people in my family, and as I said, of other refugees. My parents had to leave the country virtually overnight, when they were betrayed. They were both teachers, critical spirits; as someone with left-wing views my father spent five years in prison, even before the revolution. In the period before we could escape we lived underground for a year, renting a room from a family. They didn't know anything about us! And because we didn't want their little boy to notice anything, I had to pretend to go to school every day. In fact I would go for a walk with my father, go shopping or go to the cinema. Maybe my love of the cinema dates back to that period. The school certificate I showed the little boy at the end of the year was from the previous year. We just changed the date. But that's a different film!

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