"Because of beauty": Mani Haghighi talks about his latest 'Subtraction' & why he avoids explicitly political films

The Iranian helmer talked from Toronto, where his latest film world premiered, before moving on to the upcoming BFI London Film Festival.
"Because of beauty": Mani Haghighi talks about his latest 'Subtraction' & why he avoids explicitly political films

How can one describe Mani Haghighi, and do both the man and the artist justice? 

Perhaps it is a game of Subtraction, to quote the title of the latest film by the Iranian director, writer and actor, a puzzle made out of what one leaves out of the interview, including the lack of a usual narration and those typical expressions that are commonplace in interviews, to fill out the space and make them more fascinating. The visionary Haghighi doesn't need any of that as his work is at once spellbinding and ever unexpected. And he is a cool interview, each time bringing his own brand of depth, vision and wits to the table -- or in this case, the computer screen, as we sat across oceans chatting on Zoom while he attended the Toronto International Film Festival with his latest oeuvre.

Born in Tehran of artist parents -- his mother is translator and gallery owner Lili Golestan and his dad the cinematographer Nemat Haghighi -- and schooled in Canada, Haghighi blends those cultures seamlessly. And in these days of miscommunication, what a welcomed gift that is, he is. While you may not have watched all of his films, you've certainly seen him play characters in other people's cinema, like Asghar Farhadi's 2009 About Elly and the 2014 drama Melbourne directed by Nima Javidi. He's even the co-writer on Farhadi's 2006 film Fireworks Wednesday.

But enough introductions, as I promised I'll let Haghighi speak for himself. It's an interview you will want to read to the end.

As usual, you surprise us with your film. We've come to expect the unexpected from you.

Mani Haghighi: So that's something that would be expected -- that you're going to be surprised.

Touché. This film, where did the inspiration come from and why the name Subtraction -- which we kind of get at the end, but it keeps us guessing throughout?

Haghighi: The title of the film in Farsi is a pun, because in Farsi it's "Tafrigh" and tafrigh can mean subtraction, in the sense of arithmetics. But it can also mean differentiation -- the attempt to distinguish something from something else. So in that sense, it's a pun and I thought it was an interesting one because it's both getting rid of something, you know, like four minus two equals two. That's the mathematical formula of the film. But also, it's a question of trying to distinguish between two things that look alike.

The inspiration for the film? Before A Dragon Arrives!, with my writing partner [Amir Reza Koohestani] we wrote Modest Reception together and then we were thinking of what to do next. And we were talking about cloning and this has been something I've wanted to do for a long time. I've always been interested in making a doppelgänger plot, but I never was quite sure how to do it. Because it's such a cliché genre thing. And it was a very difficult thing to come up with, a new way of doing a doppelgänger plot.

So we had two ideas. One was to make it a double doppelgänger,  a couple meets another couple and that's mind boggling, it just can't happen. We were looking for something that was just completely inexplicable, and completely impossible.

There was that and then there was the second idea of making a sort of science fiction film. But one that doesn't look like a science fiction film at all. Making it looks like a social realist sort of Iranian drama, but at its heart to have this kind of bizarre science fiction element.

So how was it working with two actors, who have to, in turn, be on camera playing each two of each? Was it difficult from a technical point of view?

Haghighi: Not really, because as you saw, we kind of avoided having these couples meet face to face too much, so that it's very rare in the film that they actually kind of encounter each other. And really, the film is about Woman from couple A and Man from couple B and their relationship -- it's sort of a love story more than it is a doppelgänger story.

No, it wasn't difficult at all, because... let me put it this way. The initial temptation for the actors was to have these traits for one character and these other traits for the other character. So this one's gonna look like this and the other is going to look like that. And they were thinking about their differences. What I suggested to them was that they should just avoid thinking that way, and just do the character as it is on the page -- trust the fact that the differences are there in the choices the characters are making. So you don't have to speak in a different way or you don't have to look slightly different, part your hair in one way or another. Don't worry about any of this and think about the choices that the characters are making at each point in the film. And that's what differentiates and distinguishes them from each other. So in fact, once you do that, then you just have a guideline, like a script that just tells you what to do.

And it's amazing because here are these two men who are dressed the same and here are these two women who basically look the same, and yet, they are so separate one from the other and we can always tell which one is Mohsen and which one is Jalal, you know, who is who. That's great writing. How do you come up with such distinctive characters, characteristics?

Haghighi: Why is it that you can tell one from the other and you never confuse them? It's because, over the course of the film, you become familiar with the kinds of decisions that they make, and the kinds of attitudes that they have about things. It's not about how they look or the tone of their voice or anything like that. It's about how one of them is afraid of this and the other one is intrigued by this. So everything is terrifying to one woman and to the other one it is intriguing and interesting. One of them is avoiding it in fear and the other one is pursuing it in this kind of attracted way.

And once you have that, then it becomes very easy to distinguish them because it's just the way they're behaving.

How did you cast these two, I mean, these four roles?

Haghighi: [laughs] With a lot of difficulty! We had a lot of different ideas for how to cast it, and we wrote it for a different couple altogether and then as we were writing this, we decided that no, this is not gonna work out. Some of it was chance and scheduling conflicts and things like this... Taraneh [Alidoosti] I have worked with many times before. So she was in a way the easiest choice because I know her very well and I've acted with her a few times, I've written for her in films I didn't direct, I've written and directed her and have acted with her. So I knew her perfectly well and that was easy. And then Navid [Mohammadzadeh] that was just a question of people becoming available at the right moment and he's a very popular actor right now in Iran, one of the biggest stars.

Brilliant casting really because the two of them are really spellbinding to watch.

Haghighi: That's good to know.

So there is a lot of water in your film and it's constant in the sound and in the visuals as well. What is water to you?

Haghighi: It's not just water, it's specifically rain and then drinking water. So it's the thing outside going inside. It's kind of invading you in a way, you know the concept of what is surrounding you is beginning to go inside you -- that's the idea. I thought that these two people sort of being identical to each other wasn't enough. I thought it needed to be a symptom of something greater, that something bigger is wrong. Something really major is going off the rails. And so these weird things are happening all the time. There's like a nonstop rain and then there's people looking like each other and coincidences taking place. Just them looking like each other was just too small as a concept, I wanted the world to be just engulfed with this crisis, this malaise. And visually, rain does that, it's everywhere. I wanted something that was everywhere. And water does that.

And you sort of hint at the glaciers melting so there's this feeling of impending doom. And in fact, you know, I imagined the film going somewhere else completely. And I imagined tragedy hitting at some point very soon.

How close are you working with your art director, your set designers because your films have a very specific visual quality to them, and this one does too? Also very different from the last one.

Haghighi: That's an interesting question because I changed my art director for this film. I'd been working with the same person for a very long time and I thought that we were beginning to... he knew me too well. And he was expecting what I was gonna say ahead of time, and so it was becoming kind of stale and uninteresting for him. Not for me -- because I love his work -- but I felt like he could guess what I was gonna say, which is always a bad sign.

The first person I talk to when I want to start a film, when I want to start writing a film, is the art director. Because, as you said, I have these visual ideas that I want to have as starting points for writing, more than anything else. For example, in A Dragon Arrives! what are we going to have at the center of this thing? We're going to have this big ship and that's how it begins. So we have a ship... what are we gonna do with this ship? It always begins with a visual concept.

And it did here too. Basically, my relationship with my art director in this film had to do with avoiding clichés and avoiding things. There are all these ideas that could have happened, these thoughts that come to your mind immediately and basically avoiding the first thought that comes to mind and looking for the second or the third choice.

I like the fact that these two couples also live in very different environments.

Haghighi: Following that idea of being very careful about two things. One was that it should look perfectly real. There's no, you know, extraterrestrial presence. It's just normal life. So that was one issue and the other one was I knew exactly the way the interiors were gonna look. So we decided to build everything. Every single interior in this film has been built according to very specific plans, mostly to do with camera movements and things like this. And the idea was that they look real.

In Iranian cinema, even though one cannot talk about your work as just Iranian cinema and yet you are part of the Iranian film movement, but in Iranian cinema, a lot of times symbols are substituted for things that cannot be said. So what is it that you cannot say? Because you seem to be able to say everything in your film...

Haghighi: [laughs] If I could answer this question then I wouldn't make the film. And I make the film because I can't answer this question.

But I can tell you this, I can tell you what I was really trying to avoid. Let's put it this way, it's impossible to avoid politics when you live in Iran, so you just end up looking ridiculous when it's like an elephant in the room and you just have to acknowledge its presence. The challenge really is how to do that, how to make what you would call a political film or discuss politics, in the Iranian context without being didactic, without being like slogans, without being explicit, about things.

Not because of fear, but because of beauty. You want it to be interesting. I'm afraid that a lot of Iranian filmmakers are happy with making really explicitly political films, which I just don't enjoy. Let's put it this way, it's not something I'm against or anything -- it's just not my kind of thing to do.

Your films are really enjoyable, always, from beginning to end, and beautiful to watch.

Haghighi: That's what I mean it should be entertaining, suspenseful, you want to know what happens next. You want to be involved, you want to love these characters, and making explicitly political films, just deprives you of all these things that you can have I think, and takes over the whole project and it just flattens it. So I was trying to evoke, through explorations of paranoia and weirdness and the sense of like, Oh, my God, I don't know what's going on and there are questions I cannot answer. There are forces that are bigger than me, that are manipulating me, but I can't know what they are.

These elements in the film really kind of evoked the political mood of living in Tehran these days for me. We feel the way the characters of this film feel, if you know what I mean, this kind of endless fear, this endless search for certain answers and the sense of helplessness in the face of things. That's the kind of mood that I have these days living in Iran, and I was trying to reflect that in a way that was kind of poetic and interesting.

Can you say that without getting in trouble?

Haghighi: I don't mind getting in trouble. That's not an issue, it's part of the game and once you're in it, you have to play it.

Coming out of this film, it left me with a whole set of new questions and alternate realities, and the idea of how much we make up in our mind about another person as well in a relationship. But what would you want an audience member to come away feeling from the film?

Haghighi: Honestly I don't think that way. The interesting thing about making a film for me, I'm not trying to be sophistic about this, it's actually true, but during question and answer periods, I really enjoy when it's reversed -- when I ask questions of the audience, and they answer me.

So what did you think this meant? What did that do for you? Because I'm not here to give answers in the film, I'm here to ask questions. So one of the questions is, how does it feel when you're confronted with questions that you seem to be incapable of answering? How do you feel when that happens? Because that happens all the time. Like, there's a big question, I just don't know what to think about it, I don't know what to say, I have no idea what the answer is.

And so did you see that in my film, did I manage to kind of evoke that in the film, and if I've managed to evoke that sense for the audience, then it's already a form of communication with them. It's not a message really, it's more you know, a sense of I know how you feel. Sometimes I'm just like this and so you see, I feel the same way. But I put it in a different way.

It's kind of a reckoning instead of an answer.

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