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The Karlovy Vary Film Festival 2023 devotes a fair amount of its programming to Iranian cinema, with a special retrospective section entitled “Another Birth: Iranian Cinema Here and Now” showcasing nine of the country’s films made over the past four years.
While Iran’s recent nationwide protests, sparked in September 2022 when Mahsa Amini died in police custody after being arrested for violating Iran’s hijab law, and the brutal and widely condemned government crackdown that followed were not explicitly mentioned by the festival, he said the selected films offered an “insightful testimony to the searing creativity of Iranian artists in the face of challenging reality”.
Interestingly, outside this retrospective and among the feature films screened in the Proxima Competition in Karlovy Vary, there is a film by an Iranian director that directly challenges reality in his country, and which was, in part, from the calls for change that were part of the protests.
From the outside, the black and white line by Karim Lakzaheh Dark matter, which had its world premiere in the Czech Republic on July 4, sounds like an intriguing satirical comedy about cinema and filmmakers. An actor and actress can’t get cast in a mainstream film, so you decide to make your own, one that requires the little matter of burglary to help with the financing.
But as Lakzaheh, 36, explains, the fictitious film in the film defies Iran’s censorship rules, rules he says have stifled the local film industry, and sees films being made that can actually criticize society, but only within strict parameters. . Dark matter it also goes against the mandatory hijab rule, a decision he says was born out of an “internal revolution” to not “keep making fake photos”. That’s what, he says, has been felt by many young Iranians in the wake of the protest movement.
As Lakzaheh points out The Hollywood Reporterspeaking ahead of the premiere, thanks to the recent upheaval in Iran, his new vision of success isn’t about becoming respected or popular, it’s about directing “honest films.”
You prevented everyone, including the press, from seeing Dark matter up to the premiere in Karlovy Vary. Why was this?
I would have liked to show it. But all the producers and actors were still in Iran, and this film was made without the mandatory hijab rule, so it could have put them in danger until they left the country. So we were just being cautious.
Breaking this hijab rule, what does it mean for you and your cast and crew when it comes to going back to Iran?
We honestly don’t know. But usually the problem is getting out of the country. Going back, we have no idea what’s going to happen.
So what is it Dark matter From? From the description, it sounds like a satire on cinema and the film industry. It’s right?
Exact. But not to spoil the story, it is also related to the cosmos, dark matter and astrology. For a while I took an astrology course. It was just the basics. I combined this with my interest in cinema and history because of it.
But the main idea is basically inspired by our own lives, our attempts, trials and failures in making movies while most of the time we don’t have enough money.
And in the synopsis it says that the film your characters are making is a film that defies the rules of censorship. Is it simply because your female characters don’t wear hijabs?
Censorship in Iran is not just about the hijab or anything related to sexuality. Of course, this is important, but what is being widely censored in Iran is anything that is a new idea. They actually censor a new idea. So there is a new idea in this film that could be censored. This censorship prevented any new wave of cinema. That’s why in this film I have tried to follow, be inspired by or refer to the New Wave of French cinema of the 50s and 60s.
What kind of new ideas are blocked by censorship?
The most important thing is that there is an idealistic view of society. Every time you move towards the reality of the company, it might not necessarily be a new idea, but initially this is what might be censored. Just like in India, we have a Bollywood image, but the reality of society is very different. And that image has no place in Iranian films.
So is there a particular image of Iranian society that the censors want to project, at home and abroad, and anything outside of that could be banned?
There’s a nice point here. You may have seen some films shot in Iran made by directors like Asghar Farhadi which are good social films and actually criticize the society. But the point is, the producers and investors behind these films are actually the ones connected to the state, so even that criticism may be a false picture. So even though these movies criticize society, the fact is that these criticisms are actually false criticisms.
So, right out of my head, a Ken Loach-style film, a kitchen sink drama about poverty and corruption or mismanagement within the state, wouldn’t be allowed.
Yes, a Ken Loach film would be censored. But the point is, there’s always a pattern, there’s a cliché. And within those boundaries, you can move and you can make your critiques. But you can’t go outside those borders, or you’ll be censored.
So there’s a feeling that most of the movies we see coming out of Iran aren’t exactly the same, but don’t they really break the mold? As you say, there is no possibility for a New Wave.
Yes exactly. When a young director wants to make a film and enter the mainstream of the film industry, and based on making social films about society, he is not aware that he is, not exactly censored, but shaped and molded by the producers behind the film. They know that the level of criticism in the film is not dangerous. Every year, some young people go from shorts to features, but if you look at their features, you’ll see the pattern, you’ll see that the result is always the same.
What is the idea in Dark matter that would upset the censors?
Well, we should mention the hijab. This film was made without the hijab. But the story sees a boy and a girl get together, challenging mainstream cinema, wanting to do what they want, just like a teenager who wants to challenge his father and eventually find his own way.
Was the decision not to have the women in the film wear the hijab in response to the protests and everything we’ve seen happening in Iran over the past year?
Actually you will see in the first minutes of the movie, he is in hijab. But the decision to get rid of that regulation was a personal and emotional one: I decided I couldn’t go on making fake photos in a film. Because in our youth gatherings we don’t have the hijab. The real image of young people, both in terms of the hijab and their relationships, is actually the first thing to censor… this is the reality of that image that we actually experience.
What do you think the reaction to the film will be in Iran?
I really don’t care. I actually didn’t think about it until the moment you asked. Maybe I should think about it a little more.
Given everything that has happened in Iran over the past year with the huge number of protests and government crackdowns, what is the situation for filmmakers like you?
What happened to people like me is that that revolution happened within us. The hijab is still mandatory in society, but something has changed inside people. Our view of success has changed. And I think that’s one of the biggest achievements, one that can’t be achieved that easily.
Sounds like Dark matter it’s your film revolution
It is not a film that causes a revolution, but it is certainly the result of an internal revolution. I had an idea of success, as a relatively young person, to become famous, popular and so on. But now that has changed.
What is your new vision of success now?
Making honest films.
Obviously there are many directors who have left Iran to do the job they want to do. Is this how you see yourself in the future?
When we were teenagers, we would have gang fights and usually get beaten up. And sometimes we ran away. But when I ran away I had such a guilty feeling that I decided to stay and tolerate the pain of being beaten. Now I will go back to Iran and they will beat me.