Surfing the Facebook page of Kamran Shirdel, a wonderful friend and artist and also pioneer of documentary filmmaking in Iran is always a delight. On his wall you come across many interesting and sometimes nostalgic stories about cinema. What I share with you here is a latter from the legendary Iranian filmmaker, Amir Naderi that was posted by Kamran Shirdel.
“I never met my father and my mother died when I was five years old, so I consider myself to have been raised by Cinema. I was born with it in my blood, and it is an inseparable part of who I am as a person. Growing up on the street the cinema became my only real home. I never went to school, instead, I spent my days at the Cinema, an aspect of my life that I put into my film Runner. I would do whatever I could to be close to the Cinema, sometimes selling sodas and snacks, sometimes passing out fliers, other times working in the projection room. In exchange, they would let me see the films for free, and I would spend my days watching movie after movie, trying to take in as much as I could.
The city of Abadan was I was born is among the hottest and driest in the world. It was built around the shipping of oil and iron and its waterfront was lined with merchant shipping ports. I grew up around those docks, which were filled with the scent of oil, and the ships I saw became my earliest creative inspiration. I became enamored with their shape and beauty, and I came to know them long before I knew anything of nature. My fascination quickly spilled over into airplanes, trains, and cars. I loved anything that moved, and always dreamed of moving with it. Even then my spirit was restless, always pushing me onward toward the next thing, toward something new.
Because of the outside influences brought in by the shipping trade, Abadan was a much more “Western” city than any other in my country. Foreign merchants, sailors, and oil workers were a common site, and I would shine their shoes for a change, most of which I would spend on movie tickets and magazines with photographs of ships or planes. But much more valuable to me then their money was the cultures they brought with them. Certain Movie theaters would cater to these foreigners, showing films from their countries in their original languages. It was at these screenings that I first saw a number of films that would stay with me forever, including Elias Kazan’s “On the Waterfront”, Joshua Logan’s “Picnic”, and Carol Reeds “The Third Man”. Even though I could not understand
what was being said, I recognized immediately their greatness, and they helped to foster my love for Cinema.
Through these foreigners I also discovered another Western influence that would have a profound impact on my life: Music. All day along the shipyards you could hear American Jazz and European Classical music drifting from the men’s radios as they worked. The music became soul food, enriching my spirit and filling me with passion and inspiration. A photo of the Italian conductor Toscanini gave me the idea that I could be a conductor, and when I was 17 I even had photos taken of myself conducting. I lost these photographs for over 30 years, but two or three years ago my childhood mentor, a sculptor named Barat Partovi, found them and sent them to me. I have sent them to you, Jean-Michel, because I believe anything you want to know about me can be found in these photographs.
It is also to Barat that I owe my love of reading. He introduced me to the writings of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekov, and other great Russian authors who quickly became my favorites, along with the writings of the French author Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose autobiography “Confessions” was an especially strong influence on me. I’ve never known why I gravitated toward these foreign influences more than the traditions of my own country. It was not an active denial of my culture, but a purely unconscious move. Truthfully, I have often felt that I missed out on a great deal not having explored more deeply the beautiful traditions of my country. All I can say for certain about it is that the western influences I uncovered during this period of my life laid the foundation for the person, and filmmaker, I am today.
As I grew up I found jobs working in photography shops, were I learned the magic of taking and developing photographs. I bought myself a little camera, and began taking pictures on my own. It was with this camera that I started exploring the nature of the image and began the long process of crafting my cinematic vision.
My passion for cinema allowed me to befriend a number of great critics, writers, and artists. Most of them where much older than I was, and I tried to learn as much as I could from them. During this time I also worked at the only good cinema magazine in Iran, which translated articles from other magazines like Cahiers de Cinema, Sight and Sound, Film Comment, and the French Positive as well as works by critics like Robin Wood and great directors like Hitchcock, Truffaut, Bergman, Renoir, Flaherty, Max Ophüls, Nicholas Ray, and John Ford.
It was also during this time working at the magazine that I started to understand how each individual aspect of a film was crafted by someone; a director, a cameraman, an editor etc., and that I could be one of those people; that I could make films. It was a huge breakthrough for me. After that whenever I watched a movie I would bring a notebook and take extensive notes on each element of production, rating and examining them in intense detail. I must have filled up hundreds of notebooks that way. In this way the movie theatre was my University. I became my own teacher, and I wrote my own textbooks. It was through this process that I began to understand how filmmaking worked.
In 1968 I made a bet with my friends that I could get a ticket to the very first showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey in London and meet Stanley Kubrick, who was my favorite director at the time, in person. They did not believe I
could do it, but of course I did. I sold everything I had, except for one single camera, and hitchhiked all the way there. Three years ago at the Venice International Film Festival Michel Ciment interviewed me and I told the whole story of this journey to him. I hope he will share it with you. But let me say that the trip opened my eyes to a number of paths I would never have imagined existed. I spent most of my time in London watching endless films at the Curzon Cinema. From there I went to Paris where I immersed myself in the French New Wave at the Cinematheque Francaise. When I returned home, I knew more than anything that I wanted to make a film. So I did.
Unfortunately, during my childhood and teenage years the state of cinema in my country was terrible. While Iran has always produced great poets, philosophers, artists and musicians, we had no history of great filmmakers. Their were a few talented directors who tried, including Ebrahim Golestan, Forugh Farrokhzad, Farrokh Ghaffari, and Jalal Moghadam, but they were hindered by the corrupt, profit-centric studio system that existed at the time, which refused to fund or screen artistic films, preventing their voices from being heard by a larger audience. Most of the movies shown where very commercial, either low quality Indian and Arabic films or cheap Italian comedies. However, my generation of filmmakers began to change all that. With every film we made, we watered the seeds planted by the great Iranian filmmakers that came before us. It brings me great joy to say that today those seeds have grown into a magnificent tree, and that the fruits it yields are plentiful. Iranian Cinema is now among the best in the world, and its young filmmakers continue to produce pure and original films. I hope that in some small way the films I made helped that tree to grow.
The first three films I made were for studios, which I found stifling. I soon realized it was not the way I wanted to make films. Even though I liked my second film, Deadlock, I decided to take a step back and tried to make what I feel is “Pure” Cinema. I started to draw from my own personal experiences, as well as what I knew of art, music, and design to create my films. The result was the film Waiting. I saw it again recently, and I found that even 44 years later, it still felt very fresh to me, as if I had made it yesterday. I have always been very pleased with the way that film turned out.
It was not long after that I met Kamran Shirdel, a director who made very beautiful short films, as well documentaries, which seemed very new to us. We would talk day and night about film, and he became like an older brother to me. He came from a good family, spoke many languages and had an academic background, having studied in Italy at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia before returning to Iran, and I, of course, was self-taught and came from no family at all. Coming from these different experiences we were able to learn a great deal from each other. During this time I also discovered the work of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who became my idol. From him I learned about the power of black and white, silence, and the camera’s ability to capture a moment forever, magically preserving it for eternity.
As I dug through my past, I realized that any summation of my life would be incomplete without mentioning two master filmmakers who are sadly no longer with us, but whose memory I will always carry with me. I am speaking, of course, of my dear friends Sohrab Shahid-Saless and Abbas Kiarostami. Iranian Cinema owes these men a debt it will never be able to repay.
Jean-Michel, you asked me about why I made my two documentaries, Search 1 and Search 2. The reason, very simply, was Rossellini, who Kamran had introduced me to. Rossellini is man who truly understood Cinema, and he has had a tremendous influence on my work. From him I learned everything about Neo-Realism, the springboard from which I discovered the works of the great European Directors like Antonioni, Fellini, Pasolini, Renoir, Carne, and Max Ophuls. Kamran, who I lived with at this time, also inspired me with his own work. I owe a lot to him, including those two documentaries.
After the revolution my country entered into a war with Iraq. I thought maybe, maybe I could make a film like Rossellini’s, a cinematic document of this period in my countries history for future generations to look back on. In the process of making those two films I also discovered two things that would stay with me forever as a filmmaker; the importance of sound and montage.
In 1980 I was in France for the screening of Search 1 at the Nantes Film Festival. After seeing the film Mary Meerson, Henri Langlois’ wife, told me she wanted to show the film at the Cinematheque Francaise. As a gift, she also allowed me access to their vast film archives, which at the time were among the most extensive in the world. It was there, face to face with prints of Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Ozu and others that I discovered my adoration for Japanese Cinema. Of course, I had seen these films before, but it was at that moment that I truly appreciated them for the first time. Their poetry and vision flows through my work even now. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to make my film Cut in Japan was as a homage to these masters.
After my documentaries I made the films Runner and Water, Wind, Dust, which I believe you know. One day, just before filming wrapped, I was out in the desert. I turned to my assistant and said “You know what? I think I have
done everything I can as a filmmaker in my country. Now I should move on, I should find something new”. It was then that I took the most important risk of my life, a risk I had long considered taking. Feeling like the little boy in my film Runner who so desperately wants to fly, I left the country that I loved so dearly and went in search of new experiences, new films I could make in new countries, in new languages, and in new ways. It has been a sacrifice, but after 32 years I can say confidently that it was a sacrifice worth making. In all that time I have never regretted my decision, even for a second.
These days I am in Los Angeles, which feels like another country, totally separate from the rest of America. Soon I will begin filming on my 21st movie. I cannot describe my excitement. I have more energy than I have ever had. All I can think of, every moment, is making this film. I think about it constantly, even more than I do about my own life, because Cinema is my life. I have dedicated my self to film and nothing else. Yesterday, I was taking my walk, whistling to myself as I always do, when suddenly I found myself screaming in the street “My God! I’m going to make another film. How about that?” My whole life, all I have wanted to do is make films, and make them my way. And I will.