Jaafar Panahi: “He will continue to work in prison”

uOnce again his chair was empty. Iranian director Jafar Panahi was not allowed to travel to Venice to attend the world premiere of his new movie “No Bears”. He was banned from acting for twelve years, yet he directed five films. He was also sentenced to six years in prison for “riot” but has yet to be arrested. In July – the “No Bears” campaign had already been completed – Panahi was arrested when he wanted to inquire about the whereabouts of fellow imprisoned Muhammad Rasoulof. So far not released. Actors Reza Heydari and Mina Cavani presented the film at the Venice Film Festival.

Globalism: A flashy set took place at the premiere of your movie on Friday – in the middle of the red carpet. Festival president Alberto Barbera called for it. Jury Chair Julianne Moore was also in attendance. And of course you are also in the middle. How did you feel?

Mina Cavani: Just awesome. And at the same time very impressive. It is a powerful sign when the world stands together against injustice.

Reza Haidari: As you know, some of the greatest movie artists of the past few decades have walked this red carpet. I had a great honor to be there. It was a bittersweet moment, to be honest. The movie show is great. Seeing people gather to demonstrate for Jaafar Panahi’s release is touching. But Panahi cannot be there. This is painful.

Globalism: Heydari, the movie is your premiere, even though you’ve been a part of Panahi’s team for a long time.

Haidari: This is correct. I’ve been working with him for many years, but I work as an audio engineer. I’m actually responsible for making his movie look good. I’ve also been booked as an audio engineer at No Bears. But then Mr. Panahi came to me with the idea that I should appear in the film too – like his deputy on set. This was completely unusual for me at first. But my objection faded. Jafar Panahi said I should act completely normal. I’d better forget everything I’ve learned about acting. And he simply became the deputy director of the film, where he was forbidden to work. I have to trust him and his experience. I finally did.

Globalism: Mrs. Cavani, it was less dramatic to you, wasn’t it?

Cavani: I am represented by profession. I have been living outside Iran for twelve years, namely in France. I would never have dreamed of working with Jafar Panahi – one of the greatest masters of world cinema. After all, I can’t go back to Iran. And since my builder lives there, that seemed completely impossible to me. But then came an offer to play a woman who lives in Iran and has to leave the country. She sent a video, and got the role.

The Empty Chair: Press Conference on La Beers in Venice

Source: Andrea Avezo

Globalism: How well did you identify yourself with the roles you play in “No Bears”? Were there similarities in your life?

Cavani: Fortunately I was not tortured in prison like my character Zara. But what I can understand very well is Zara’s desire to start a new life in France, and to have a happy future. She lives in her own kind of purgatory. She lost her happiness. Everything around her is just danger and darkness. My first years in France felt strange. I had to fight for this new happiness. I lost my country. I had to make new friends first. It was hard, it hurts. I had to constantly ask myself if I made the right decision. I know very well that I am torn between two worlds.

Globalism: Are you feeling better today?

Cavani: Yes, fortunately. But I cannot forget the early years in Europe. At the end of the film, there is a soliloquy given by Zara, revolving around the question of who is leaving the country, when, and why. I was very impressed by this. I burst into tears the first time I shot. And then my boss immediately declared: “Please again! And without tears!” It was not easy for me. To me, this scene sounded like Munch’s famous painting, The Scream. Someone is so angry for his life, so desperate, that everything has to come out with a scream.

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Globalism: How to make a movie that the state does not want? If I understand correctly, there was filming in Turkey – for example with you, Mrs. Cavani, since you are not allowed to go to Iran. It was also filmed in Iran. Then there was Jaafar Panahi, who was not officially allowed to work.

Haidari: I’ll give you an example. We started shooting in a small village on the Turkish border, but on the Iranian side. Since the film tells the story of director Jaafar Panahi, who directs the filming from afar. We always knew the authorities could come and get us out of there. On the sixth day the time came.

Globalism: “Authorities” means…

Haidari: …the police. The village elders were afraid that we would be arrested. But we were only told that we are not allowed to shoot there. In addition, we only later found out that the officials in the village got paid. To let us know when we get back.

Globalism: Have you already photographed everything you want to photograph?

Haidari: No not at all. After consulting with Jaafar Panahi, when the alarm went off, we left the village and fired in other similar villages. But we knew we had to go back to the Forbidden Village again. Jafar Panahi did not want to put us in any other danger, which is why we only shot with a mobile phone. I like to use a digital device as you have to record audio. I wanted to take it with me to the village. I was not allowed. Everything was very dangerous. Then we reworked the sound later in the studio.

Mina Cavani and Reza Haidari with the Venice Special Jury Prize for the film

Mina Cavani and Reza Haidari with the Venice Special Jury Prize for “No Bears”

Image source: Getty Images / Elisabetta A. Villa

Globalism: Jaafar Panahi is not allowed to work. But he always managed to make films. Is he too strong for the regime in Iran?

Haidari: I can’t tell you. But Jafar Panahi loves filmmaking more than anything else. He doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything. I’m sure he won’t be banned from working in prison either. I’m sure we’ll hear from him in the near future, although I don’t know how. Sometimes I find myself thinking I’d like to be by his side (Laugh), although, of course, it is horrific in prison. But it has always been a pleasure to work with Mr. Panahi to the point that I would very much like to continue to do so.

Globalism: Was filming a threat in any way?

Haidari: This is possible. There are scenes in the movie that we shot right on the border between Turkey and Iran. They play in the middle of the night. We drove to this spot in a car. We turned off the lights so we wouldn’t be spotted. When photographing, we only used moonlight. Suddenly there was a flash from somewhere. We had no idea what it was and immediately avoided looking for cover.

Globalism: For you, Mrs. Cavani, that was not a threat. As shown in the movie, you had no director by your side.

Cavani: exactly! Exactly as you see in the movie. Jaafar Panahi was never filmed in Turkey. But I still felt he was incredibly present. He can only communicate with us digitally, in this case via WhatsApp. But how he cared about even the smallest of things from afar, it was just unbelievable.

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Globalism: But you can’t meet him in person all the time.

Cavani: Let me – for a variety of reasons – best answer in the affirmative.

Globalism: I have known Banahi for many years. Has his style or modus operandi changed in recent years?

Haidari: No, I will not say. He still makes movies that are incredibly simple and deep at the same time. With his films, even if they are fictional, he comes close to life as you would hardly see it with any other director.

Globalism: Can you tell us something about how the film left Iran? There was a story that a movie of him was made out of the country in a cake.

Haidari: All I can say is that of course it was smuggled out of Iran. This was illegal. But that’s all I know.

Globalism: Mrs. Cavani, you cannot go back to Iran. What do you miss the most?

Cavani: my family’s home. What I don’t miss is the way you have to work there as an actor. What rules are there. Colleagues talk about the terrible censorship and how they suffer from it. Do I want to go to Iran again? Absolutely! But now I have no hope.

Globalism: Mr. Heydari, when you return to Iran, do you fear life and limbs?

Haidari: I can only tell you this: God protect me!

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