August 25, 2002|I met Babak Payami last week while he was drinking an espresso in a leather-upholstered booth at a chichi Denver eatery. In town to discuss his second film, Secret Ballot (Raye makhfi), Payami was not the craggy visage in a fisherman's knit-wool sweater with a shock of white hair--the living incarnation of Samuel Beckett as would befit the author of a film that plays like a cross between "Waiting for Godot" and "Endgame"--I expected. Instead, I was greeted by a compact, powerful-seeming man in a sweater. Articulate and confident, yes, but there the similarity to papa Sam ended.
Mr. Payami, the son of the chief legal advisor to the Iranian Oil Company, was born a child of privilege. Iranian, raised in neighbouring Afghanistan, and fed in the British and American consulates a steady diet of western film and images, Mr. Payami spent his university days at the University of Toronto in the Cinema Studies track, essentially teaching himself the technical part of the filmmaker's craft before making, in 1999, Yek rouz bishtar ("One More Day"), a charming, affecting comedy about a man and a woman from Tehran struggling with loneliness in a deeply restrictive society.
While the gender dynamic and the political commentary remains an important element in Secret Ballot, what emerges with the director's second film is a confidence in didacticism that transcends tedium with a sly sense of humour and a healthy embrace of the absurd. Secret Ballot is a wonderful film, one made under adverse conditions on what appears to be faith and that rare non-mortal brand of hubris. Mr. Payami has a firm handshake, speaks in clear, barely-accented English, and has a way of looking you squarely in the eye when he speaks. He has a quick wit and a sharp tongue, dismissing inanities with a flick of a thick wrist and addressing matters of interest with a devilish glint and the kind of restless energy of someone looking over your shoulder at his next project. My first question for Mr. Payami concerned what is exhibiting itself in his first two films: something of a fascination with loneliness, isolation, and sexual repression.
BABAK PAYAMI: I don't know, not a fascination, but maybe--well, I'm a single child, maybe that has something to do with it. I've been on my own, living independently so I have a good understanding of that lifestyle--it's more of a fascination with the relationship between the sexes especially in repressive societies. To study how internal inhibition is at play as much as external inhibition. On the one hand you live in a society governed by certain customs and traditions and even legal regulations that limit and restrict relationships and interactions cross-gender, but also those traditional customs inherent in people's mentalities as a result of which even if they have a chance at interaction in a community it's a struggle for them. A week or two after returning to Iran after a long time of not being in Iran, I had a chance to get on a public transit for the first time and I realized there was a metal rod segregating men and women on the bus. And I noticed a couple who were obviously not married and not related, but they got on from different entrances on the bus and they approached this metal rod and stood very close to one another. They weren't touching but I could feel the vibes between them--I actually got off the bus and followed them for a while and by the time I finished that trip. Couple of hours of following them I came up with the idea of One More Day. That's basically the recurring theme in Secret Ballot and I should also announce it's the same as the third film I'm going to make in Iran--another film about a man and a woman in the middle of nowhere. (laughs)
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Secret Ballot you talk a great deal about an imposing Kafkaesque "Law," a kind of general theory of ban rather than a literal legal ban. Is this something you're commenting upon directly in terms of Iranian culture?
Yes, I mean not necessarily only in Iranian culture. In a way the film portrays the absurdity of the indoctrination that mean nothing to people. I mean, on the one hand it's important to make laws and rules and establishments to serve the people, but on the other hand you realize that so often it's really not effective. The film starts with the extreme with the military establishment leading this monotonous life doing nothing, guarding an empty beach, justifying their existence and their ability to kill people through this unseen, nonexistent enemy--in this case a smuggler--and enter this naïve idealist who comes with these icons of progress, democracy, and reform without any sensitivity or understanding. The film doesn't seek to undermine the merit of the democratic process, nor does it seek to undermine the integrity of society at large. The film is intended as a study of the problematics of the integration process. It's an interesting opportunity where form and content can be so intertwined.
It's interesting that the two characters begin to converge ideologically.
Right, behind the uniforms they are human beings. At an iconoclastic level of meaning, the film portrays a situation where even the most rigid, most militant mentality, once they get a taste for real people they will inevitably be affected by it. On the other hand, much in the style of old romantic comedies, I aspired here for two opposing characters bringing that balance back--y'know (laughs), "bringing up baby." Through that persistence in antagonizing one another what results is some kind of a deeper understanding and affection despite the limitations of their inhibitions, despite their social restrictions.
You used the word "absurd" before and I know you meant it one way, but your film reminded me a great deal of Beckett and the Theater of the Absurd. Any direct links or is it just an organic end result of the subject material?
(laughs) I take the comparison as a compliment. It's evident from the highly stylized form of the film that, unequivocally, I stand on the shoulders of the previous generation of Iranian filmmakers and hopefully I have at least attempted if not succeeded in doing so to turn the page, so in a way--the film doesn't use experienced actors but it doesn't have that kind of improvisational freedom. It's very stylized and with the subtle comic undertones you need a very precise syntax and rhythm for it to work and the film was more in danger of not working, of not being cohesive, than the other way around. So directly and indirectly, I can only say that I never had Beckett directly in mind, but I can't deny that to whatever extent, there was some influence.
My favourite scene in your film is a quintessentially absurdist moment when the girl stands next to a stoplight in the middle of nowhere.
That's my favourite, too, for that reason and because it shows the character beginning to question her values and the soldier participating in her education while coming to know her himself.
We've talked a little about your being raised in a repressive regime, what is your background in film--inciting forces in childhood?
Difficult question, but I always force myself to answer that question because my fascination with cinema goes so far back. I was always fascinated by how people express themselves through film and my father was a great influence in helping me to understand film more than probably people in my age group would be sensitive to. But if there's a singular moment in my adult life--and this is interesting because it was mostly subconscious--it's when I watched Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad and I feel that was the big thrust in pushing me into this world of abstract energy.
You saw this in Toronto?
Yes, I've spent most of my adult life in Canada and I saw that for the first time there.
What did you take from the Cinema Studies track at the University of Toronto?
It was very, very broad, but the Hart Film Board is an affiliate of the University of Toronto--kind of a subsidiary that goes back to the sixties, I think. It's a little club that mainly consists of a Steenbeck flatbed and a couple of 16mm cameras and people who had a knack or just an interest to be a filmmaker could join the club and I was a member of the executive board for some years there and that was basically my practical learning guide, in a way. Self-taught because it was not an environment where people helped you do it, but the facilities are there and if you can make anything of it, you can. It's a really nice facility and I owe a lot of my practical knowledge and motivation to the Hart House.
Tell me about going to the movies in Iran.
Well, I grew up in Afghanistan, we left Iran when I was seven as a result of my father's profession, and it was interesting because in Afghanistan I would go to the movies--I should say that we had videos as well--at the embassy cinemas. I remember I used to go the British Consulate every week and I was very fond of the films they showed there because I saw the Dirty Harry films and the Pink Panther films for the first time right there in the British Consulate in Kabul. Also the American cultural centre there for example, I saw films like The Last Waltz and Taxi Driver, and The Godfather--but just going to the public theatres in Afghanistan was very interesting because there was a mix of Russian, Indian, and Iranian films--very few American films were shown in Afghani theatres. That gave me an interesting mix because I'd bike to those theatres and my childhood was the best of both worlds. Relatively speaking, Iran at the time was a more developed country than Afghanistan, so I saw that cultural difference but also as a very young child I on the one hand was watching people, watching films with the public and on the other I was studying in an American school and watching the "Six Million Dollar Man".
The Iranian cinema makes 60-70 films a year, but we only see maybe five or six...
Yeah the majority of them are more commercially oriented films that are essentially just reproductions of successful western films. For example, I've heard of two or three different variations of Fatal Attraction.
(laughs) I think we've got that beat over here.
(laughs) Yes, but ours are without sex or violence. I frankly can't imagine what would be left. So that's the majority of the films that are made there but as in most other countries the amount of international-calibre, art-oriented films are mostly a minority.
They're the minority here, as well.
Exactly. I mean, occasionally you will find that extraordinarily rare film that blends the best of the commercial element with the best of the artistic element and I think that Hollywood has done a fair amount of that as well, but it's rare everywhere.
Tell me about the meditative, transcendental elements of your visual style.
The tradition of Iranian cinema is directly influenced by transcendentalism in Iranian poetry. We have a very rich tradition of poetry from classical to neo-classical to modern--incredible works--and they were a direct influence. Before movies, poetry was the epitome of expression and that has an indelible influence--but it's also a combination of culture and tradition and heritage.
Was it true that you weren't able to view dailies and didn't storyboard? If so, how did you come about your film's sometimes-painterly compositions?
This was a result of an incredible, probably adolescent sense of self-confidence that we had during the shooting. It was a trance-like state almost where like a fakir focuses on an elephant suspended in mid-air and one blink and the elephant comes crashing down, that's how my DP and I felt during the shoot--that we were so concentrated and shared such a sense of confidence, particularly with non-professional actors. The film was so stricken with technical difficulties, like a monsoon rain that would interrupt filming for ten days, we had to keep everything clear in our minds because they were so muddy everywhere else. But when you reach that depth in your soul--and this was my relationship with my cast and crew--you think of those things as small and you just go with it. You're so focused on what you're doing, I mean, I look back and it's like a dream to me now--I worked so hard to understand the material, to create a totally enveloping environment. That hopefully this film is not seen as a judgmental or political animal, but a collaborative product of convicted people.
Did you ever experience a divorce from that culture, tradition, heritage that you mention?
Being brought up and educated in the west that divorce was certainly a danger, but no, I always had deep roots in my culture and my own ethnic background. I've never been alienated from myself, which is a common threat to immigrants--people think it's an outside influence, but really it's the self that reflects that alienation with your heritage. Because I was fortunate enough not to have that happen to me I believe that I was able to lend a sense of commitment to the Iranian point of view, but also a universality that has been embraced by North American audiences. I was filming Secret Ballot during the Florida election fiasco and I actually wrote and added a scene to the film that I don't disclose, but it's in honour of the whole fandango.
Did you ever consider moving the film outside of Iran considering the difficulties of working there?
No, not for this film and not for the next film. I don't want to recreate the atmosphere, I want to mingle and resonate with the environment. That chemistry is what makes the film and I don't think I could recreate that in isolation somewhere else. I, personally, need the sights, and the people, and the sounds to be true to myself, and to my work.
Has your film been shown there yet?
Not yet, we're still working on getting the exhibition permit for it. It's not easy, it's sort of this cat and mouse game that you have to keep playing until the film gets a chance.
How far along is the semi-privatization of Iran's film industry and how has it affected the cinema community there for good or ill?
Well, it's on it's way but the major resources are still in the hands of the government--the major labs, the major facilities, the equipment. So it's on its way to becoming privatized but as you say it's only partly there. For example the exhibition and distribution resources are fully under a government monopoly. The half-hearted way that it's happening now is having a very negative effect, it's increasing the production costs while, simultaneously, the exhibition resources are extremely limited. You'll go into a city and see only two or three screens and since ticket prices have always been fairly low they can't now justify an increase to improve facilities. A lot of people in Iran nowadays will hear in the media that the Iranian film industry is bankrupt and cannot sustain itself so it's all at cross purposes--this haphazard approach to privatization might look good on paper or as a propagandist tool, but in essence so far I think it's been counterproductive.
Do you see the future of Iranian cinema as bleak?
I think for me part of the beauty of Iran is to always expect the unexpected--it's such a vibrant and diverse society. From any point in Iran if you travel two hundred miles in any direction you're in a completely different country with a completely different background: Mongolian to Arab and every stop along the way--as many different religions as well. This contributes greatly to the vibrancy of film and the art community in general and I'm sure we'll continue to be surprised by films coming out of that area. That being said, I don't mean to say that limitation and governmental intrusion is good for Iranian cinema, but I have faith in the persistence of Iranian filmmakers and artists to do what they have to do to overcome the obstacles.
So ironically there's a fierce winnowing process in the search for a more pure artistic expression.
Yes. If it's too easy it takes your goals into a different direction. The fundamental difference in these two extremes--the Iranian New Wave, and I really prefer that term to the "Neo-Realist Movement," and Hollywood--is the economic machinery in commercial cinema is so imposing that it manipulates the subject matter. The expense and the marketing considerations for the works that are created mandate that the works become for the consumption of audiences that are just passive recipients of stimulus. They don't have to invest anything, it's the experience of a roller coaster ride where the other end of the spectrum minimizes the machinery to the extent of becoming so inconspicuous that when the film then becomes the mercy of its subject matter. When the content manipulates the cinematic machinery that creates the kind of film that is only complete with the input and participation of the audience. So the best of Iranian cinema--and I hope mine falls into this description--the best of Iranian cinema is meaningless before the audience perceives it and interprets it through their own prism. The film flowers into whatever meaning it's to have in the heart and mind of the individual spectator, and that is only as it should be.