Narges Abyar is an Iranian film director, author and screenwriter, best known for directing movies Track 143, Breath, and When the Moon Was Full. She graduated in Persian literature, and started writing books in 1997.
Her films sensitively picture the sufferings of women and children caused by the society, war or radicalism. Abyar’s Iran-Iraq war drama Breath has been selected as Iran’s submission to the International Feature Film category at the 2018 Academy Awards. She became the first-ever female Iranian director to compete in the category.
Here is a dialogue between film critic Sahar Asrazad and Abyar.
When we review your resume, you have a background in making short films, documentaries and literature. The point that comes to mind is that the path you took from literature to cinema is a function of a certain amount of intelligence in choosing an idea and a theme. How do you find a subject and an idea according to the resources you have and your background in literature?
Answering your question is a bit complicated. Especially for feature films, any subject that you find interesting can start writing a screenplay. But filming is an expensive process and takes a long time. The cost is very important in determining the subject. And it is important whether the investor is willing to allocate funds on this subject. For this reason, the director always has to prepare several subjects; one or two scripts should be ready. Filmmaker will offer these scripts to various producers to see who is willing to invest.
I started with a minimal story that did not involve strange happenings in the story. At that time, I had written three other screenplays. I wanted to make each of them as my first feature film. But in the end, I thought about which of these screenplays could be less expensive. It could encourage investment to invest in the project. I chose the story of Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. We made this film with ninety million tomans. Of course, I went to my next film very quickly, because my first film became a good example in my career. My first film had not been released yet, so I made Track 143. The issue of investing is very decisive in which subject you choose as a director. I have to say about choosing a subject that is your concern and close to your heart, because usually when a film is made that is good, the circumstance changes. Investors come to you to order things to make, and it is very important that what subject do I choose as a director to follow my own path? In fact, I have to use of my previous film’s achievement.
As you mentioned, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear are very prominent because of the story and empiricism as a low-cost debut film. But in Track 143, even though you approached the genre of sacred defense cinema, I think you have taken a bigger step in terms of form and direction. I want to ask how it is possible to go from experimental cinema to cinema with larger audience.
When I started producing Track 143, many people advised me not to make this film, because in those years our war cinema or war films were unsuccessful. They said that war films had become stereotypes and cliché. They have one-dimensional point of view. If you want to make this kind of film, you may become like war filmmakers. But I wrote a book and adapted the script of Track 143 based on my own book. And I was completely surrounded by that space, I think it was a good thing and I wanted to make it. That’s how I made Track 143. I never thought I would make a war film and to tell a story about war. It was my turn to make one or two novels on the subject of war.
In fact, you captured the consequences of the war.
Yes, and I had a social view on the subject of war. I still think war movies have a lot to do. For the subject of my third film Breath, I deconstructed again I don’t want to use my previous film’s achievement again. When it was screened at the Fajr Film Festival everyone was shocked. They saw a newer atmosphere with a child’s point of view. But over time, people commented that they saw Breath and they thought it was one of the best films they had seen because they identified with it. They found their childhood in it. The combination of the animation and live was a bit unusual.
Yes, it was exactly unconventional and in line with the spirit of empiricism that led you from a more straightforward film like a Track 143 to a complex film like Breath. I think the challenge you create for yourself is fascinating and very much related to your background in literature. I remember I was very surprised when I read the first draft of Breath. Breath became a feature and benchmark in your portfolio. You have a history in literature. Given that you are very fond of literature and have read and written books, I want to know when it comes to finding a subject, when to go to a story or a book, and how I found out that it fits the community and is empirically useful for your resume. How do you find out about this? Do you understand this instinctively?
In some ways I can say it is intuitive and in other ways it is rational and logical. When I made When the Moon Was Full, I really thought it needed to be told. In the world around us and in the countries around us, we have seen how religious extremism has caused catastrophes. I was looking for such a thing. I even travelled to Europe and went to refugee camps. I also found good ideas. But the atmosphere was foreign to our country. In fact, I had to hire foreign cast. I thought that maybe the audience’s understanding of such issues would be short. I mean the Iranian audience. I came across the subject of When the Moon Was Full. And it seemed to me that paying attention to three female characters from a female perspective could be a tangible and possibly believable look. This film was also unusual compared to my previous works. It had several locations and was filmed in three countries. We also filmed in different regions in Iran. I thought it was time to go for this subject. It was enough for two people to see this film and realize what an extreme point of view destroys, which is perhaps our only asset as human beings.
When you find the subject, it is because of your own personal experience or the documents you have made. I want to know how you understand the ability of that subject or idea to be expanded to become a feature film. And how is it that you can maintain tension and attract the audience? And film by film, your connection with the audience has increased.
Honestly, it is unconscious. I have the original story. Then I develop it. I make the plot, I make the more colorful drama. Something that happened to me, as I said I was an editor, I am very upset that I am rewriting the scripts of others and it is published in their name. So it was very comfortable for me when I wrote my first novel. I wanted to make a feature film, but circumstances forced me to make a documentary. The documentary helped me discover something in myself and in writing the story so that I could keep a realistic atmosphere in my story. And much easier to do that, and all those years I was working in the field of literature. It helped me get to know the drama in a good story. Sometimes people send me their life stories on my Instagram account. Recognizing in a moment that a story can be dealt with and dramatized is fascinating and not a cliché, I got it through my experience during storytelling and it is because of my documentary experience. Part of the story is also intuitive and inspired and the other part is the practice that your mind has been working on for years, reading a story. Well, subconsciously you can find the best of the many subjects.
You have made the most of your writing and literary background as well as documentary filmmaking. Now you have a mindset that helps you with this set of experiences and it also comes from your own personal spirit. Every new film is a new experience and you do not follow on the success and path of your previous film, even if your audience rejects you. I think this is your spirit because of your empiricism and wants you to try and make mistakes. You do not want to be a cliché. As a female filmmaker, explain a little bit about this.
Yes, filmmakers can always be more scared and take less risk after making a new film because they want to repeat the success of their previous one. Or make your new movie in the same atmosphere as the previous one. In my opinion, after a while, the filmmaker becomes a cliché with this view. That is, such a view stops the artist. It makes them not want to experience a new ground. Especially in filmmaking, there is a risk that the film will fail commercially. Critics do not like it, people do not like it. The filmmaker may not be able to make his next film. But in literature, the writer may often write a book that is not published or is unsuccessful. But the author goes to the next book. Even in theater, many directors and playwrights are taking risk. Of course, theater requires risk. Of course, it’s a different experience. I enjoy it a lot because creativity is there and they take risk, because it does not cost much. But we do not have this in cinema.
Yes, because cinema is an expensive art form.
Right, and we should always be conservative. And the filmmaker must be conservative so as not to lose the statue. That is why directors who take risk may fall or rise. I myself prefer to take risk.
My impression from your work as a female filmmaker is that, you have a humanitarian look rather than a feminine look. Now you can focus on female characters. In fact, your story gives value to something that is a current concept in human life. Now it may be more prominent about female characters. I mean, I do not want to limit you to making films about women because you are a female. One of the features of your work is a scrutiny of the less paid female characters. Especially in Iranian cinema, the variety of female characters is not great and we are slowly moving towards active women. What is your point of view?
Because I am a woman and I subconsciously prefer to go to topics that I know. Well, I usually go to more women in my movies. This does not mean that I just want to make films about women and that my only concern is women. No, I want to tell universal stories that cover both genders, and I unwittingly went to women in my recent films. According to my knowledge, in all countries, not only in Iran, women are viewed as second-class citizens. The number of working women who have social status, are managers, filmmakers and presidents, you actually realize that it is all about inequality.
Historically, we claim that conditions have improved over the past hundred years. We desperately need to have a feminine view in all areas. Not just filmmaking. In filmmaking, we also need to look feminine in a masculine world, and we do not have this. In Iranian cinema, even when a film is made about women, most of whom were male filmmakers; it’s the masculine view that dominates the story. Our world needs more motherly perspective. This is separate from feminism. Motherly look has a greater sense of responsibility. We don’t see this in Iranian films; I can only mention Ali Hatami’s Mother, or Reza Mirkarimi’s As Simple As That.
The 2021 FIFF is underway in Tehran until June 2. The festival is presided over by Iranian film director and screenwriter Mohammad Mehdi Asgarpour.