An Interview with Ehsan Khoshbakht, curator of the retrospective ‘Noir Teheran’, a tribute to the genius of the re-found film director Samuel Khachikian

First of all I would like to know more about the whole process of bringing these four noir films by Samuel Khachikian to Cinema Ritrovato. You as a film curator, how did you proceed?

Well I started curating an Iranian strand for il Cinema Ritrovato two years ago. Naturally when you program for a festival like this you think about classic art house cinema, about the best examples of the modern period in a national cinema, in this case Iran. So I started with a program which was called The pearls of Iranian New Wave two years ago and last year I curated a retrospective on Hibraim Golestan who is the godfather of Iranian New Wave. So again I was dealing mostly with a kind of more art house version of Iranian film history. But then, when Golestan was here at the festival last year, he 94 at that time, he said something really interesting to me, he said: “I wonder why people are not talking about figures like Samuel Khachikian anymore”.

Well, I’ve always loved Samuel Khachikian and his films and that phrase really triggered something and I though “Wow, when in Bologna we screen films by John Ford or Hitchock or Howard Hawks, are they art house films? No, these are commercial films made for the public, for masses, and they were distributed in regular commercial venues. So if now, thanks to these screenings, we have a good understanding of the different moods of filmmaking in different countries which have strong film industries, why shouldn’t we use the same concept about the national cinemas which are less known in the western world? That’s how the idea of introducing the cinema of Samuel Khachikian developed into something which eventually became this program.

So I knew that I was dealing with a man who was extremely popular in his country, I also knew that it would be very interesting for an international audience, from the point of view of the re-interpretation of popular genres of western cinema – crime film, comedy, film noir, horror – into something which is specifically very Iranian. So these films look very familiar and at the same time they are very weird an unusual, because you recognize the lighting, you know were the mise en scene is coming from, but at the same time there is something that is essentially unusual and new and fresh about them. So that’s what I wanted to do: I wanted to make a case for this type of cinema and Khachikian was the best option because he was by far the greatest filmmaker in the pre-revolutionary days and his films were enormously popular to the masses.

He was also Armenian-Iranian, this is another major point. If you think of it, many filmmakers in Hollywood were all immigrant filmmakers, they were exiles, they were expats and were making films in Hollywood. So we have an Armenian Iranian from a family of refugees, born in Iran, of a different religion from the majority of his fellow countrymen and he’s making films for everybody and that’s also very intriguing and very important for my curatorial concept.

If you watch the films they come across beautifully: for example, the first film of the retrospective is Crossroad of Events that, like many film noirs, starts with a shot of the city telling you that the city has many other stories and this is one of them. So you focus on the guy at the crossroad but the very first thing you hear is the sound of the prayer, Adhan, so this is the first time the camera shoot the crossroad, but then the second time you hear church bells.

So he’s a man who is making films coming from a different cultural background but making films in a country of Muslims and in the process he’s introducing new ideas to the people of that country. And his films are a very creative act of reconciliation between these two different cultures.

So I thought there is enough good material for a program, but when you program Iranian cinema, the biggest problem is: where are we going to get the prints from? So the general belief was that these films had been lost forever or at least that the original camera negative were lost, which proved to be true – no negatives survive of these films – but fortunately there was some positives of the films deposited at the National Film Archive of Iran so I approached them. But the first reaction, as I had expected, was negative. Their argument was: look, we did a revolution and that’s exactly what we rebelled against, that’s just what we didn’t want to do: this kind of cinema. These values represented in these films are exactly the reason why the revolution happened, now why you want to promote them again? Why you want to keep this image of Iran? These are not even art house films!

It’s negotiation and you want to convince that person from the National Film Archive that this operation is important, that historical elements were relevant and that there was an international curiosity coming from historians and other people that usually attend festivals like Cinema Ritrovato. But the process took a very long time and I used to say ironically that it has been as long as a nuclear negotiation, tI was around the same times. So lots of back and forth emails and eventually they said yes, they imposed their own terms and conditions which were very restrictive, but ultimately it happened only because of the generosity of the Cineteca di Bologna. They said: “How about we help you scanning some of these films?” And that did the trick. So Cineteca di Bologna restored two of the four films: Anxiety and The Strike.

I know that probably deep down in their hearts the people from the National Film Archive were equally interested in this operation but they showed resistance, they don’t have that much freedom to do what they like. But in the end they did something marvelous, they said: “Ok, you restore two of these four films and we restore the other two for you. And they have sent us the film Storm in our City which was played yesterday here at the festival and it was absolutely outstanding: what they did in Iran is absolutely outstanding, it looked as good as some of the restorations done in the best institutes of Europe. So they care, but their attitude tells you different things. And then they also sent the 35 mm print of Crossroad of Events which was a very good copy, given the fact that is a copy from 1955, one of the first Iranian films after the end of WWII. So this is how all these pieces were put together and we managed to have the program in Bologna, but everything was kind of last minute, lots of doubts, lots of concerns, but it happened.

So the case of Samuel Khachikian’s cinema is very interesting because on one side it has quite strong commercial aspects, but then there is something very underground, so a very peculiar mix of tones and attitudes towards filmmaking. So now that these films have been screened after around forty years, do you think they will constitute a new heritage?

These films are available in terrible copies on the internet and still they’ve been viewed by so many people. Some of the copies available on line are so damaged that watching them on You Tube is probably more an act of active imagination: you can’t even see the figures! So you have to guess what’s going on, what’s the main action in the sequence. Here in Bologna we screened wonderful copies of the films, which of course people from Iran won’t be able to see. But speaking about the international community coming to the festival Il Cinema Ritrovato, I think it will be a huge revelation from many different points of view.

First of all they will understand that there was an Iranian cinema before Abbas Kiarostami, that’s the most important thing. There was an Iranian cinema since the beginning of twentieth century, there was a film industry after WWII. There were genres of films that were popular. When you watch a film by Khachikian you will immediately understand that this film has been directed by a man who knows cinema inside out. How? Because Iran in the 50’s and 60’s was a mecca for film lovers, It was probably even more vibrant than some European cities. Because in European countries, let’s say Italy for example, you could see Italian films, American films, French films. In Iran you could see them all plus you could see Indian films, Egyptian films, Turkish films, Russian films, because geopolitically Iran was interested in all these countries. So these films arrived there and then they would get screened in public cinemas, mainstream cinemas, I am not talking about underground venues. This was in the 50’s and the 60’s, in the 70’s things changed a bit. So Khachikian is the product of a cinephile nation, obviously he was a genius so he absorbed everything and watching any of his films will reveal many different influences: that’s very interesting for the audience here, because they know the references, for example they know how the musicals and sci-fi traditions are incorporated Into these films.

So it’s a mish mash of many things and I hope that showing these films here, the audience in Bologna could enjoy them from an historical and understand Iranian cinema better – not only Iranian pre-revolutionary cinema but also Iranian mainstream pre-revolutionary cinema which is the main point of this operation. And the other thing is that the international perception of how film genres work can drastically change forever: because for the past three decades It’s been common to sees films which are a playful mixture of many different genres, a sort of post-post-modern cinema: let’s think of some very trendy filmmakers like Tarantino and people from his generation. But then you come across films like Storm in Our City by Khachikian made in 1958 which starts as a horror film, then shifts to a social melodrama, then to a comedy, then later to a musical and there is also sci-fi, fantasy and crime in it. And he does it so smoothly, we don’t almost realize that this film is shape-shifting all the time: the whole thing stays together, it’s one film. This is pretty much a kind of cinema that you can only see in countries like Iran at that point. Film conventions in western cinema were very clear and precise, there was very little subversion of those narrative codes. But in Iran you could do anything you liked, as long as you were keeping the story interesting. The film has a free form because of that, there is a certain modernity to it, that you don’t have in Europe or America and that’s very refreshing.

All this constant shifting of genres in Samuel Khachikian’s cinema seems to be put together by a quite peculiar sense of humor, there is a very comical side to it, especially in Anxiety. There were some points that almost gave some hints of Commedia all’Italiana. Do you have any comment about his ability to be comical in his films? Maybe this has to deal with his personality?

Well, actually the interviews I read from him they don’t promise any ironic or witty guy at all. I have two theories for that. One, as you mentioned, the Italian tradition of comedy, which of course was huge in Iran. Again it was one of those countries where, you name it, people like Pietro Germi and Dino Risi were extremely popular. Almost every film that was produced in Italy in the 50’s and the 60’s was screened in Iran. So Italian cinema was the thing, And in fact there were many remakes of Italian films, which is the subject of a documentary that I am making called Film Farsi. So there were even remakes of films by Fellini, only emphasizing the comical side, the light side of Fellini. So that could be really an influence.

But aside from that I think that his ironic view of Iranian society comes from the fact that his filmmaking, especially in his early films – Storm in Our City and Crossroads of Events – is usually a set of comparison. So these films are made as contrast films: you always see two version of everything. You see traditional version of something and you see the modern version of something. You see people sitting on the floor in a very traditional way, with the banquet waiting for the Persian new year and then, exactly in the next shot you see a new year party, Christian style, with all those costumes and people dancing to western music. And the clash of modernity and traditional values is the key theme of Iranian cinema. And the beauty of Khachikian is that he can propose this idea with so much wit and so much fun and through lots of incredible images that work very well in his films. So what you see as some kind of irony is essentially that inner conflict in Iranian society, which he presents as something funny, but that can also be very dark. For istance Anxiety: it has very little humor in it, it has some scenes, like the gun that is actually a lighter – but generally speaking is a much darker vision of modernism arriving in Iran. First he introduces all the modernist ideas, he’s inventing some of them, because I doubt that they existed back then: charities, radio, America cars, crime writers… And then he destroys everything: you realize eventually that the author is the real criminal. He has a very subversive take on modernity and modernization of Iran in the early 60’s and towards the end of the 70’s, when the Islamic revolution utterly stopped his career for a long time.

In one of your articles I’ve read some very bitter quotes from Khachikian’s last days of life, in regard to his frustration for having being neglected and forgotten as a director for so many years. This retrospective must be the most beautiful homage: this must be really gratifying for you – as a film curator – also in terms of cultural responsibility.

This is the most important thing that I’ve done so far, period. I mean, I have screen many great films in the past, but this project is very personal, exactly for the point that you raised. Because they treated him like rubbish, they destroyed him and I will never forgive the people who did it to him, it’s really important to me. I’ve been texting his family every day: I’m texting them, I am sending photos of the crowd attending at his films, because they care a lot. When I called his son to inform him about the retrospective on his father I could tell he was thrilled but I also felt that he was very sad, because this ignorance towards his father’s legacy. This is a project of great relevance and now, considering the scanning of the films in Bologna, I think we have also created something beautiful for Iranians. Who knows, maybe in six months time they will be able to screen it – maybe in sixty years time, we cannot predict it- but at least now there is a version that can go, which can be screened, because the positives couldn’t be screened before, they couldn’t even pass through the projector.

So they are ready to be screened.

Anytime, yeah, they are ready.

Laura Di Nicolantonio, Corso di Alta Formazione redattore multimediale e crossmediale della Cineteca di Bologna.