Bahman Farmanara’s life and work is often split into two broad categories on either side of 1979. Films made before and after the Islamic/ Iranian Revolution. But Bahman, who began making films in 1972, would tell you it’s been nearly the same, he has never been a favourite of the government like say, popular filmmaker Majid Majidi, it’s just that it was a little harder after the revolution. Something, that perhaps, made him sign up as a candidature for the office of president five years ago.
His newest film – Tale of the Sea – expected to release in Iran next month (‘if there is no government intervention’), is part of the competition category of the International Film Festival of Kerala. Bahman acted as the aged writer in the film, who comes out of a mental institute to live with his wife, but cannot accept the deaths of the loved ones and breaks down. “The idea for this film began…,” he pauses and then talks of 40 years ago, a time when Iran lost a lot of cultural figures. “Many artistes, filmmakers, musicians, writers… all have died, in the last 40 years. Rarely have any of them been replaced by the new people after the revolution. For me, because I belong to that generation, I meant to make a film about why have we stopped making great artistes, filmmakers and so on.”
You see his ache for what’s been lost to the past, in his film. The writer, going through depression, imagines those people who no longer live coming to meet him during his aimless walks. His movements are slow, his expression is frozen- “I forgot laughter,” he tells his wife in an imagined conversation. But the lines mean more than a lost man’s emotional trip. Bahman as Taher Mohebi the writer, asks his wife, “Which year is this?” and she tells him, “What difference does it make?”
Still from 'Tale of the Sea'
It is not the broken memory of a depressed man. It is an unsaid reference to that year when things went wrong. “The second time Ahmadinejad got elected (as president of Iran). It was sort of an electoral robbery. The man who was in the Opposition has been under house arrest for eight years. At that time, there were a lot of demonstrations by young people in my country. A lot of young people got killed. As a filmmaker, I could not be indifferent to what was happening in my country,” Bahman says.
Bahman’s open letter
At the time, he wrote an open letter, which says how could he be silent when so much was happening in his country. “I am an Iranian living in Iran and I do believe in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. But nowhere in that constitution is indicated that I should also believe all the Official Lies,” the letter starts. It says he has not signed any petition as a group, to protest. And he is solely responsible for his note.
The note says: “These days we are being invited to a Banquet of Silence; I believe that by attending it we will not only lose our own voice forever, but, more importantly, we will bring eternal shame on ourselves by ignoring the bloody death of NEDA on the streets of Tehran. I believe in what Shakespeare says in his play Julius Caesar that "A coward dies a thousand times before his death. The valiant never tastes death but once." It is in the hope of freedom and social justice for all Iranians that I take this perilous step.”
Bahman courageously goes on to state that it is not important if he does not make any more films (but he did). “But it is paramount that I do not dance to any Official Tune, because at the age of 68, it is not very honorable.”
Of bans and women
It is interesting he uses the word ‘dance’, something that led him to trouble a few years ago. I Want To Dance– the last film he made before Tale of the Sea – was Bahman’s way of defying the revolution by the simple art of dancing.
Still from 'I Want To Dance'
It wasn’t easy. It took him three years to bring out the film, because it was banned. “Since the revolution, people have not been allowed to be happy or enjoy themselves. So his (the protagonist’s) dream is that people dance in the street and be happy. We realise he is in a mental institution. He is imagining that people across the city are dancing.”
It does not appear Bahman cares about bans. He simply goes on being himself, like he did as a young man when he turned away from the textile business of his family that the rest of the brothers took over. Five years ago he signed up as a candidate to run for president. But he doesn’t seem keen to elaborate on that little adventure. “Good thing is I am not in politics. But my job is not to promote the government. I am to represent people. And I make films. We have filmmakers like Majidi that are very popular here. They are government filmmakers. They belong to the system of Islamic Revolutionary. I was successful before the revolution.”
The scripts they write should be sent to the authorities to check. That’s how his line in Tale of the Sea about the direct reference to a problematic year had to be changed to ‘Which year is this’. In his 1979 film Tall Shadows of the Wind, according to ‘A Social History of Iranian Cinema Volume 2’, the authorities viewed the film’s dream sequence carefully several times, even frame by frame, counting the scarecrows to make sure they were not twelve. It would have meant sacrilege. But Bahman discovered a varied number of scarecrows in each shot. Not that it helped him avoid a ban by the Forbidden Acts Bureau. He was accused of making anti-Islamic films and prevented from exiting the country for a while.
None of this has stopped him from expressing his thoughts or giving bold interviews. He repeats a joke he tells for interviews on asked about the representation of women in Iranian cinema. “I always tell it as a joke. When the revolution happened, we were 37 million - the whole population of Iran. We don’t kiss, or touch the women in our films. Somehow we have managed to be 80 million in 40 years so we are not portraying what’s going around.”