Perhaps no other filmmaker from Iran is able to convey the struggle of the younger generation in navigating the bureaucracy of modern Iran than Ali Asgari. From his short films, which have been showcased in festivals from Cannes to Venice, to his 2017 feature Disappearance, which played the festival circuit after premiering in Venice, all the way through to his latest project, Until Tomorrow which will see its world premiere at this year's Berlinale, Asgari's work has a common thread -- desperation. But this is not your ordinary Western world garden variety torment, Asgari's kind usually involves two individuals dancing a dance of impossibilities with the authorities of Tehran, trying to navigate a world that makes one's humanity a challenge.
Asgari was born in Tehran in the early 80's, which makes him the perfect filmmaker to talk about his generation and his hometown. After studying cinema in Italy, he participated in the Berlinale Talent Campus in 2013 and his short film The Baby, on which Until Tomorrow is based, premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival in 2014.
His latest film deals with a student, Fereshteh, who has to hide her illegitimate baby for one night from her parents, as they turn up for a surprise visit. Her friend Atefeh helps her and together they embark on an odyssey through Tehran during which they must carefully weigh up who their allies are.
I caught up with the filmmaker while he was in the editing room for his next project, a short. We chatted about making short films versus features, what it's like to be picked for the Berlinale and how he came to work with his lead actress, Sadaf Asgari -- a face we've come to see more and more in Iranian cinema.
As I read the brief synopsis of the film from the Berlinale line-up, I wondered if this is based on your short The Baby?
Yes, in fact the plot is the same and we decided to make a feature out of it. For me it was a kind of experience, how I can expand a short film to a feature. At the same time I felt that the situation here in Iran is now more similar to the short than when I made it. I did it before, my first feature is also based on a short but this is a bit different for me.
So Disappearance was also based on a short film?
The fact is that I come from a short film background and I really like short films. And I really like to see how it's possible to have the same elements in a short film and a feature together. I don't think I'll do it again because it's really difficult to hold the audience's attention for two hours, one and a half hours with just one plot. And this for me was the really big challenge.
It's interesting because nowadays more and more filmmakers are going back and forth between features and shorts, whereas in the past shorts were what you made before you began making feature films. What do you like in the process of each kind, what is more challenging in features etc.?
This is maybe a little cliché but I think that cinema is cinema, no matter what the length of the film. A short film is a more independent medium, because whenever I want to, I can make a short film. Even if it's still difficult because you have all the production and costs, at the same time you have your own freedom to make whatever you want, without thinking about the distribution and everything else. I'm in a way addicted to making films and it's not possible to make each year a feature. Of course, there are many filmmakers now who make a feature film every year, but in my case so far it's not possible to make a feature each year. And when it comes to short films, I have many ideas. With a short you have just fifteen minutes to make something that can affect the audience and that's very interesting for me, that in ten or fifteen minutes you can talk to your audience.
I remember some years ago, before I'd made my feature, I was in the United States at this film school and one of the students said, "your short film is very beautiful but when are you going to make a real film?" And I replied "what do you mean?" And he said "you know a real film, this is not a real film..." And I said "this is also a real film, but it's a short film." There are a lot of people who still think this way, and at the same time even the festivals when I make short films the programmers will say "no, Ali, don't make short films because you already have your producers and you know many people, the industry people know you and you don't need to make shorts." And yes, sure I don't need to find producers, shorts are no longer like a ticket to give to prospective producers to look at my work, and see how good I am at making films. It's more that it's a desire for me. I'm making a film in less than a month, if all goes well, in the Netherlands and I'm also producing two or three short films.
I'm assuming that a lot of your films are shot in Iran and you're multi-continental, have lived in Europe, travelled to the US. But are there still challenges for you shooting in your country, has it been harder or easier the more known you've become?
Sometimes it's easier to make the film because the people now trust me and know that I can make a film and maybe there will be some success with the film. But at the same time there are pressures that go with that because when people trust you, you should break their trust. So that becomes a bit more difficult. When I try to finance my films it's easier for me, but I'm shooting the film I feel stress that maybe it's no good. For short films I have much less stress, but when I make a feature film, because there are three or four producers involved, calling, wanting to talk to me, asking for changes, etc. In this case it's more difficult but normally try not to lose my control and do what my vision is. The problem is that when you are more known, more famous producers want to work with you and suggest others you should work, you know actors and that's a big challenge.
You are bringing me to my next questions which is about Sadaf Asgari, who shares your last name and is to me one of the most exciting actresses in Iranian cinema today. How did you form this long term collaboration with her?
In fact, she's my niece! I discovered her when I wanted to make my first feature, in a casting of around 100 girls. I talked with her and she was interested because she had started an acting class in her art school. I talked to her for ten minutes and cast her in the lead role in Disappearance. After that, I honestly didn't support her because I saw that she didn't need that. She's good just doing her own jobs and she worked a lot in many films. For my previous film I didn't think about her while writing, but for this latest project, right from the start I was thinking about Sadaf, because she has enough experience also to be the main actress and she's really talented and that's why I really wanted to work with her for my second feature.
And finally, what is it like to have your film selected for Berlinale? Why did you pick it to premiere your latest?
To be honest, I've always premiered my films in the summer festivals. I was in Berlin for the Berlinale Talent Campus in 2013 and when I was there the festival was really different from the summer festivals, like Cannes or Venice. I always really wished to be in Berlinale with a film because the audience there is a bit different -- apart from industry people, the normal people who attend the festival are different because Cannes and Venice are festivals happening in smaller cities. But Berlin is a very very big city with a lot of different people of different races from different countries. For me it was always interesting to have a film there but never did and always desired to have a project there. I always had it in my mind that Berlinale picks underground, avant-garde in different sections, and I knew that my film is not one for the main competition because it's a small and independent film, but when I heard I'd been picked I was really happy. I said in fact, I wrote on my Facebook, "Finally, Berlinale happens!"
And I heard this section is the only one which has an Audience Award, so it means that many people are going there to watch those films. That's really interesting for me.