Rouzbeh Rashidi (b. Tehran, 1980) is an independent Iranian-Irish filmmaker. His career began in 2000 and he currently has more than 274 works to his name (including shorts and feature films), which have always been completed with a minimum of financial resources. In 2000 he founded the Experimental Film Society (EFS), a group of directors who attempt to convey a new kind of orientation in the visual experience or, in their own words, to “adopt an exploratory, often lyrical approach to filmmaking and foreground mood, atmosphere, visual rhythms, and the sensory interplay of sound and image” – points that are extensively explained and explored in the EFS book ‘Luminous Void: Experimental Film Society Documents’. Like his colleagues, but in an even more radical way, Rashidi expresses an out-of-the-box idea of cinema that is geared to structure disruption. His approach is getting darker every year, and his vision deeper, reaching an astounding technical mastery. His latest project, ‘Phantom Islands’, had its world premiere this year at the Dublin International Film Festival.
Cinepaxy: Starting from the origins of your training in filmmaking, it would be interesting to understand how EFS was born. In what way would you summarise the objectives and principles on which it is based?
Rouzbeh Rashidi: EFS was born from the desire to create a society, a platform and an entity to produce my films and also works by like-minded people. I tried to initiate an entirely new system to demonstrate that creating cinema does not need to come from already-formed organisations; of course now this idea is very dated, as everything we do is ‘indie’ and ‘independent’ but in the late 1990s and early 2000s this would have been something exciting, especially in an environment like Iran.
CP: We know that all of your works have been carried out with restricted budgets. Do you consider that this lack of resources necessarily influences the quality of the work itself?
RR: So far, I have made 34 feature films and 240 short films (200 of them are part of an ongoing project called the ‘Homo Sapiens Project’). Out of all these films, only four of the feature films were made with funding and grants, and the rest were made entirely on zero budget. I look at everything that I made on zero budget as a crucial and vital aspect of becoming a filmmaker. I look at them like the notebooks and scientific results of Baron Victor von Frankenstein; the recordings and the scientific research that he made in his laboratory that led to the creation of the monster. This description is humorous and perhaps ironic, but not for me. I believe I have reached the limit with no-budget cinema and cannot push it any further, nor do I want to spend my time in such a way anymore. Those no-budget films are so crucial for me, and I enhanced my skills and craft with them. They made me a resilient and thick-skinned filmmaker, and now I am ready to tackle more ambitious films on a more significant scale and with bigger budgets and more professional casts and crews. But for me, all these categories have always been a phase: independent, experimental, underground, mainstream and what have you. I look at them merely as challenges. They are all simply filmmaking and creating cinema at the end of the day. Give me a small VHS camera and a close-to-nothing budget, and will I make films. Give me 100 million dollars; I will still make movies. But I would never compromise, that much I know.
CP: Your works always catch up with the history of cinema, as if to honour the cinema of the past. On the other hand, there is a breakup with it; a rejection that makes impossible – and that’s the point you’re talking about – a compromise that perhaps would be useful to move towards the festival circuit as well as towards commercial production. How do you see yourself in relation to these realities?
RR: I can answer this questions in two parts. Firstly, even if I wanted to change, I am absolutely incapable of it. I only know one way to make films and since the year 2000 I have been doing this non-stop. The history of cinema and the mechanism of the medium of cinema is everything for me. I think there is no national cinema or even international cinema; it has always been the continent of cinema where all films belong. Therefore, the only way that I could think to make movies is always to go back to the beginning of cinema, analyse what has happened from then until today, and then prepare my films accordingly for the future – which immediately becomes the present and past as soon as you make them.
Secondly, yes, only opinionated people won’t change. I am radical but not dogmatic – at least that is how I assess myself – I could be wrong of course. It is hard, almost impossible, to look at yourself as if from the outside. I believe, perhaps, that with ‘Phantom Islands’, I have reached the point where I had made a film that was accessible and capable of entering into the commercial system, and yet which has preserved my ideas about how my movies should function radically and on a personal level. It took me years to reach this formula, and I hope from now on I can reach a larger audience and access a better distribution system, and also go on to more challenging projects. Cinema is an utterly magical thing, almost like a séance or spell. I always surrender myself to this conjuring of wizardry and can only react based on my skills and cinephile knowledge. We’ll see what happens!
CP: Regarding your formula: its boldness demands an essential effort from people who want to be near to your work, something viewers nowadays don’t tend to sustain. Viewers could feel themselves estranged in dealing with your work, since the average observer is not accustomed to avant-garde work. Don’t you care too much about sacrificing the public?
RR: Believe it or not, I am 100% against elitism. I would never make my films for a particular targeted audience. In fact, one of the attitudes I genuinely despise in the realm of avant-garde cinema is the belief that certain films belong to a specific context. I never shared this snobbish view whatsoever. When I make movies I literally make them for anyone on earth regardless of who they are and where they are. I designed my works as autonomous entities that would either devour the spectator, or the audience would ingest them in bits. There is no neutral ground or indifferent possibility; again that is my intention. How much I succeed is a different matter, of course. In addition to that I believe that the audience, if given a chance, can easily connect with such cinema. I refuse to think the audience are inexperienced and cannot comprehend challenging films. This is not true. I’ll give you an interesting example: I brought one of my friends, who has no strong connection to cinema, with me to watch my feature film ‘Ten Years In The Sun’ in a cinema. After the film ended, he said I was tortured and to this day he is always complaining about the film. He describes the film as some sort of nightmare he had the night before, each time with a different version of the event. Sometimes when we are drinking with friends, he winds me up and tells everyone about his experience. This means the film is working internally, within his system. So I think cinema is only a matter of exposing the mind of the audience to the radioactivity of the film and they are changed forever. Films need to be continuously screened, repetitively; that is key. This is what I am after with EFS, a system that produces and shows the films on a regular basis, all the time.
Ten Years In The Sun (2015)
CP: So, how would you like a potential viewer to think about your work? As something to reflect on, or more as a visceral experience?
RR: Complicated question. To be honest, I don’t know. Perhaps I never will. Because it is impossible to know the audience. There is an active element of science fiction in all of my films, and whether they are projections into the future or past, they are always about how this machine of images works and creates dreams or nightmares. Therefore, the best and only thing for me to do is to look at my audience as aliens and extraterrestrial life forces. I assemble and make my films for such extreme circumstances. They can survive on earth or even in outer space. For me, logic and understanding were always overrated concepts. I prefer survival and co-creation with the audience during the viewing process. I look at cinema as a catastrophe: mushroom clouds, radiation and chaos. There is always a silence before the main event of a film (a great place to be to gather the material); then you have the main explosion, which has little place in my films (the script or storyline perhaps?); and finally the aftermath, the images and sound of what has happened, and how long their force affects you (which is the main carcass of my work – I call it ‘editing’). Cinema will always invade the audience, and you just have to keep making and screening films without hesitation.
CP: But where does it come from – this need to embrace an experimental approach?
RR: I just don’t know what is experimental and what is not. I literally have no way to distinguish between what I do and what mainstream cinema does. I think they are cinema. Only cinema. I never intended to become an experimental, alternative or even underground filmmaker. I just wanted to be a filmmaker and express my love for cinema, and share my most personal experiences. Sadly, it didn’t work like that. I had to choose a title or a category to survive. But a great deal of my decision-making, thinking, attitudes, and all of my films are not intellectual. They are deeply experiential and practical. I am a 100% pragmatic man. I set no store by systems or political imperatives. The socio-political trends of the day change so fast. New ones rapidly emerge; they are only like flash bulletins. I have no affinity with them. I live in my time, I see and experience what happens around me and I, of course, reflect this indirectly in my films. That should suffice. I don’t look at cinema as a tool or as a means of conveying information. I am not interested in films that are only text and have no respect for images and sounds. My primary focus and goal is to make my films, help my colleagues to make theirs, and eventually screen them all around the world. Then after all that I will stand aside and observe what happens as long as I’m still alive. And when I am dead, I do not need to worry anymore. The films will continue their journey. This is my whole philosophy.
CP: Concerning this, Snow said: “I do not have a system, I am a system.” Since you have no political imperatives and no sense of belonging to the experimental field, does experimentation mean to you just the recovery of an identity to overcome the image crisis?
RR: First of all, every single act and thing you do is political, whether it is consciously committed or not. That is why I believe that the very fact of making cinema is excruciatingly political and not merely through its subjects and themes, through filming protests or exploiting the documentation of the suffering of others.
As regards cinema itself and what I do, I feel close to Jean Epstein’s ‘Le Cinéma du Diable’, Marguerite Duras’s use of images to evoke an infinite possibility of interpretation, and the whole aesthetic of horror, science fiction, B-movies and erotic cinema. Combine all this with an emphasis on craft and the skills of photography, editing, and sound making. A place where anything is possible and imagination can form a visionary universe. I firmly believe that we have only unlocked a tiny portion of what cinema is. This question ‘what is cinema?’ is always what drives me to make a film. Indeed, it can be used to tell stories, but that’s the only form most viewers are very familiar with. It does not interest me. As Jonas Mekas said, more than 90% of people do not like films, they like stories. It is the truth. I am like a scientist; I work in the laboratory of cinema and record my discoveries and findings. This notion is very intriguing to me. Because, I believe, the melancholic and sadomasochistic patterns of destructive behaviour intrinsic to us as human beings keep repeating and regenerating themselves. In order for us to survive, they grind our relationships, friendships and even our entire lives into ashes, dust, and ruins. With this waste material, we turn towards cinema, which subjects it to further metamorphoses. It processes, and is permeated by, our intimate detritus, allowing us to regard it as an alien child now born and wandering the earth: both us and not us. It’s a tragic reflection of our past and a mute teller of our distant future. It is a phenomenon that devoured us to exist only in a present tense. We created cinema merely to venerate a hologram of everything we have demolished. Ruins of time made with kino¹ apparatus.
CP: So cinema reflects on the past. But how can it reflect on the present? What’s the role of the author in this?
RR: Remind yourself of the past until you commit the crime of watching it. Once in this state, it becomes the present. It is a mutation. It is a gaseous state of mind and feeling. It is an extraordinary phenomenon. This question, ‘what’s the role of the author in this?’ is exactly why and how I make films. As soon as I know the answer to this, I will immediately give up filmmaking and devote my entire time to watching movies – which is equally productive, surprising and rewarding. Mystery; not knowing; uncanniness and the art of the ghost are what the cinema is for me. I always made films to seek answers and never to provide them – if such things as answers exist, of course. Nevertheless, I believe all these concepts are already present in silent cinema, buried somewhere between 1895 and 1927.
CP: That’s entirely clear. You were previously talking about different destructive human behaviours. Is what you present through your characters’ deportments (idiosyncrasies, chronic behaviours symptomatic of hidden tensions and issues) born of a possible tendency to the grotesque, or is it the realistic mirror of the way you see reality? I’m thinking about the way movies like ‘He’ or ‘Tenebrous City and ill-Lighted Mortals’ looked at man.
RR: Is there any difference between the conditions you are referring to? Maybe. Maybe not. In the end, cinema is about the machinery of images and sound. We all have personal views, ideologies and agendas. We all have a massive amount of experiences and events in our lives. So it’s only natural that when you decide to express yourself with a medium, they will all pour into it. You can’t control it. In most interviews, I’ve always tried to talk about the technicalities of cinema; the craft and history of the medium. I’ve resisted speaking about the human condition or even philosophical matters. So now, if you would like to know, I must say I believe most people are suffering and by that I don’t necessarily mean financial hardship or political and social repression. This anguish and adversity is much more profound and deep-seated. I see this in my family, some of the friends and other people I know – in everyone. At least that’s my perception of the places and people I’ve encountered over the years. They are in agony, and this pain is severe. Naturally, my feelings have all gone into my films, and made them so bitter and challenging; but they are personal, and I reflect things as I experienced them. The rest is out of my hands.
CP: While it is true that films come from feelings, the reverse is also true. I mean, through film you can figure out a way to behave and/or react to the general pain you just mentioned.
RR: Absolutely. It’s like Raúl Ruiz said: “Whenever we see a film, we in fact see two films: the one we watch, and the one that watches us”. Cinema is like an infinity mirror. It is a pair of parallel mirrors, which create a series of smaller and smaller reflections that appear to recede into an infinite distance. You can never know which side is the truth, which side is the lie, which part is fiction, which part is reality; what dimension is the cinema and what dimension is the filmmaker. Perhaps you can only surrender to its optical illusions.
CP: All this talk about dimensions of fiction and reality immediately reminds me of ‘Trailers’, where this situation is covered from the inside. We think it represents, in many aspects, a successful outcome in your career: cinema constantly reflecting on its own position. What is metacinema for you? And what is its expressive potential?
RR: ‘Trailers’ is a very special film for me. It really destroyed me both physically and emotionally. I had hoped that it would be received better but somehow it was discarded by almost every festival I sent it to. It was a challenging film for me. After ‘Trailers’ I was not the same filmmaker anymore. It changed me forever. Now I am in a period of films like ‘Phantom Islands’, which is a film between ‘Trailers’ and my other earlier projects, and also something new where I can reach a larger audience and achieve increased accessibility. Each film carries enormous responsibilities and frustrations for me, especially when they are not shown properly and are ignored. I am a prolific filmmaker, and I make films to remain calm and sane. It has a therapeutic aspect for me. As for what you ask about metacinema and its expressive potential, I think I prefer to dispense with the question for now. Because once you know what you need to achieve, you will eventually achieve it and stop experimenting. I prefer to be in a constant state of scepticism and chaos. This way, I can always push my boundaries to greater extremes.
¹ The highest tier of artistry in motion pictures.