Sunday 29 November 2020

Home - In Conversation - Personal Growth in a Cinematic Way: An Interview with Mahyar Mandegar

24Frames: Some know cinema to be an escape from reality while others believe it’s one of the most tangible forms of communicating the unique or shared experiences. In a conversation with Mahyar Mandegar, award-winning Iranian director, we discuss his career in the realm of cinema from a young age up until now and how growing up and life realities affect your view and practice as a filmmaker. Among his many notable achievements, Mahyar’s latest short film “White Winged Horse” won the special mention of the Generation competition section of the Berlin International Film Festival 2020.




1. How long have you been in the world of filmmaking and what are some of your most rewarding pieces of work?


I started right after I got into university when I was eighteen, so it’s been six years that I’ve been active in this field. I made a film in my first year, which was my first experiment and didn’t get screened anywhere, but the first film that I would consider was made in a more professional setting is Blue Sky, Clean Earth. That was four years ago and the next film would be White-Winged Horse that I made last year. Just after that, I made a documentary, Margarina Bailarina last summer when we had a joint Tehran University of Arts/Babelsberg University project. It was exactly two months after the production of White-Winged Horse and happened very quickly. Blue Sky, Clean Earth is very important to me because it was kind of where it all began. After it was screened, some people liked it and I started getting recognized as a director. Plus we won a couple of prizes and that helped create a reputation for us, however small, which opened new doors along our path. I’ve learned a lot from each film but the period after White-Winged Horse by the end of the documentary is when I think of as the most fruitful, in terms of the lessons I learned. At the beginning of this period, I was having some philosophical crises about whether the approach I was taking was the right one. I asked myself why is the final result of White Winged Horse was so dry, so artificial even though it was the exact replication of what I had in mind before making it. I was quite repulsed by the film at that point, so for the documentary, I decided to do the opposite by not focusing much on script or decoupage, and went straight to shooting the footage. Getting closer to the lead character –what I didn’t really do in the previous films- helped me experience a new world through him, to capture various feelings that we couldn’t have achieved any other way. So I realized how effective it is to experience making documentaries, before narrative filmmaking. Along all of this, I also work as an editor and have been working on editing projects simultaneously.



2. Your films have quite different themes and genres, is that something you are purposefully implementing or, do you plan to eventually make films in a more specific genre?


To me, it really depends on what the idea that I’m planning to make into a film requires, rather than having a prior plan on my mind to make a film in such or such genre. For example after Blue Sky, Clean Earth, I had written a thriller script for a horror movie that didn’t work out in the end. Likewise with White-Winged Horse that I had this idea of someone living their hometown and returning to it as a winged horse;  thus the idea required elements of magical realism and fantasy to be applied. I think as your general mood in life changes, you get new ideas, and I choose the genre best suited for each specific thought, instead of picking a genre to work with and then brainstorming for a story that fits in that.



3. When making a film, what do you hope to achieve the most? Self-expression, relating to the audience, or something else?


I’m very interested in psychoanalysis, but I’ve only been to a psychoanalyst once because I’m afraid of getting too conscious and critical of why I do the things I do. It is interesting that you mentioned self-expression because that one time that I did visit one, he asked me what my film was about, and as I was explaining he would say why and where each of the components of my story was coming from. With White Winged Horse, as I had the plot and was working on the script, I started to think about what the idea’s origin was and I realized that I’d been dealing with the phenomenon of immigration for a while, and many people close to me were leaving the country or planning to, and how these events can make one feel alone or left behind; and that precisely shows in the first scenes of the film. So this personal feeling is present in your work. In a way, you are always trying to express yourself, even with your wordings. My goal was to understand what was happening in the process of maturing an idea, but to avoid pushing it in the script. It’s quite tricky to let your insights present themselves naturally in your work instead of consciously forcing them into it. We’ve seen many films that try to feed you a certain emotion or ideology but consequently, the audience will have trouble believing the world you’ve created. However, no matter what you have in mind, eventually, you want to communicate it to some people so it is also very important to know who you want as your target audience. You can seldom meet all of your audience’s needs and make a piece that is able to provide for every taste, therefore knowing who not to listen to and which comments to ignore is crucial for progress in your later work.



 4. What is your process of scriptwriting like? How flexible is it?


I find writing a script a painful process. I try to adjust my ways based on the experiences of myself and tips from friends who’ve been on this journey longer. One of those tips is to not keep everything in mind and turning your ideas into actually written versions, because otherwise, you won’t be able to see your errors. I still haven’t applied this but I’m planning to. The way it usually works for me is that I’ll have dozens of ideas in my head and then I grow fond of one or two of them and try to keep and gradually develop those. I make up full sequences in my mind and then create a timeline for the events that are going to happen. Sometimes this process takes so long that it even bothers me. Writing the script for White-Winged Horse took me six months to a year to complete, whereas if I had written down the first draft since day one, and would work on the second draft the next week and so on, it might have taken me one-third of the amount it did. Additionally, before making the documentary I used to be very reliant on the script. I would even ask my script supervisor to use a timer while shooting to make sure the times matched what I had set them to be beforehand. But even though I would plan the shooting to its details, oftentimes it doesn’t go exactly as planned and you have to keep some flexibility to deal with such situations. I tried to remain much more open to letting the flow of the film go as it goes in Margarina Bailarina and I noticed by doing so we were able to capture certain emotions in a way that couldn’t be done any other way. When you’re dealing with actual people in a film, you can’t be too much in control of what they’re doing if you want reality-like results and you have to let them grow into the character and allow it to proceed naturally. You set the tone for your cast and crew and should only lead them to the destination after that.



5. How do you interact with your DP during pre-production, production, and post-production?


Up until this moment, I have involved my DP in the process as soon as a viable written version of the film has been ready. I care about their first reaction to see whether they find the idea interesting or not because if they understand what you’re aiming to do properly, as you work on the script, they can give you important comments on how to be more accurate with your cinematic tools. So the DP is the first person I try to include in the process and as it gets to more serious stages I keep adding other members such as the set designer or the custom designer and the composer. You want to create a collective unconscious and a shared language of your film with all of the members so that when you are on set, you can be sure everyone knows what they’re doing and can also communicate with each other. I guess it is more important in the case of the DP since he/she plays one of the most important roles, alongside the lead character(s), and is present until the final stages of the film such as color grading which is in post-production.




6. What role does “Fine Art” play in your films?


I feel like I’m not academically qualified to judge for example whether or not my shots are vibrant in terms of the composition of the frames, or what exactly are the colors doing for me, but I’ve been lucky to work with people who did poses that knowledge. Other things that have helped me were the filmmakers or painters or photographers who knew what they were doing and by looking at their art and analyzing those I’ve learned how to apply some of what they’ve done on my films; basically, I can tell intuitively what could help elevate my narrative and what wouldn’t work but I can’t be explicit about the factual reasons to why it is the way it is. I watch a scene in a movie that is pretty much close to what I want to achieve and I will ask my crew or actors to watch it too and usually they understand what I mean what they need to do. I think it’s really true what they say that one of the best ways to learn cinema is to watch films. I acknowledge that there are many different psychological or even mathematical reasoning behind every effect that a shot has, but also, I think there isn’t a certain set of rules or frameworks that guarantee you’re going to successfully channel your messages to your audience so it all depends on the final package of all the points you take into account that creates the mood you’re looking for.



7. You edit your films yourself, in what ways does that help your storytelling?


I think editing your own films puts more pressure and restrictions on you, rather than making it easier, meaning that the possibility of this process going wrong is much higher. For starters, you’ve been deeply involved with the script for a long time, as well as being present on set and knowing how each scene has been played out; therefore you are aware of details about the characters and sequences that your audience is not, and so while editing, your viewers might miss out on some parts of the story, just because they seemed obvious to you. The opposite scenario could happen as well, in a way that there are parts of your film that are more sentimental to you but don’t necessarily help the story flow, so as the editor, you have to step out of your personal preferences and do what’s best for the film. When you collaborate with a different editor, since they probably haven’t been on set and have less prejudice about the script, they are faced with a pile of footage that they have to make sense out of, and this process of understanding a story through orderly images is closer to what the audience experiences. Thus, generally speaking, it’s a very difficult and meanwhile a risky process to edit your own film. The only time that I applied this quite well, was the editing of my documentary, which was a highly complex but rewarding process. Since we didn’t really have a script, I had a vision of what I wanted my final product to look like and I edited based on that. The result was disappointing and I had to spend several months working on it, to the point that I no longer knew how I could change it or make it better and that’s when I truly learned how it could help to have an editor who’s not you. I consider having an editor for my next film but frankly, I’m a bit worried about that person because I know it’s insulting when the director asks if the editor can add this many frames to a shot or cut this many frames from. So I’m afraid of treating my editor that way. Although I might reach a level of maturity to stay completely outside that arena myself and accept that the unconscious understanding between the crew that I mentioned earlier can be extended to the editor as well.



8. How do you manage to select the right team to collaborate with on your projects?


It has happened that I’ve worked with a member on one film and since I was happy with the outcome, decided to do other projects with that specific person as well and I believe that during the making of each film, you learn to understand each other’s language better. But it differs from project to project, especially in the case of actors where I want them to be suitable for my character and not merely good actors. For instance, when we were auditioning children for White-Winged Horse, there were kids who had many different acting skills, but there was one of them whose responses sounded exactly like what I had in mind for my child character, so we decided to work with him. For other members of the team, it can depend on their background in their field and asking people who have collaborated with them to see if it matches your style, and the final step is in-person meetings in which both parties decide whether or not they are compatible.




9. How have financial challenges, including finding a producer affected your filmmaking?


In my opinion, we have a big issue here in Iran, and that is a lack of an organization of some sort to provide a financial basis for short filmmakers specifically. Of course, this is true for other countries as well. Since there isn’t an industry and a return of capital for short films, individuals are less likely to want to invest in them, thus there’s a need for governmental support. The first step towards that is universities supporting their film students by providing either equipment or a budget or linking them with producers who are interested in short films. I was at the Beijing Film Academy, one of the biggest film academies in the world, and they had studios so professional that many television series or feature films were created there. The money that the university receives from these big projects is one of the sources that help students who want to make films, making it a highly productive circulation. We have studios and equipment in our university but they are most likely from fifty years ago and not all that useful. On the other hand, we have the Iranian Youth Cinema Society but there are several issues and difficulties there too. Especially with the growing number of candidates and limited budget of the organization, the question raises that, which films have more potential and are eligible for the support. Now when younger directors ask me where and how to find a producer, I really don’t know what to respond because every time I look at my own path, it seems that luck has a had a great role in it and it was a path that worked out for me but might not go well for someone else. Blue Sky, Clean Earth was screened somewhere and by chance one of the audiences who was a producer liked it and got me into a festival in China and the film was awarded a prize that provided money for the next film and even after that, I got lucky when another producer liked my new script and wanted to work with me. If any of those things had not happened, my path could have been over. Of course, even in that case, I would look for an alternative solution but it might’ve taken a much longer time and been much more difficult then. A new possibility at the moment is looking for foreign producers because of our currency value that allows foreign producers to make good films for a smaller amount of money. However, because of the sanctions and issues of transferring money to Iran, that too is a risky path.



10. Why do you think genres such as fantasy or comedy are less likely to be seen in Iranian short film forums?


The process of being a filmmaker here nowadays kind of looks like a marathon where there are a huge number of people running towards a finish line but every minute someone is falling and that’s the end of it for them, more so if they have just started the journey. It is so competitive that you want to make sure all the trouble you are going to go through to save money and collect a team and put a significant period of your life will not go to waste. Your work will, unfortunately, either get selected by a festival which will to some extent guarantee your future progress, or it won’t and afterward, it is going to be really difficult for you to continue because not only you are out of money, but also your reputation is not good enough to attract future opportunities. That is the main reason why the majority of directors take paths that have been proven successful before. Thus the chance to be experimental, to try out different genres has been taken away from them. This has been something I struggle with every time a make a film too. After White-Winged Horse was accepted at Berlin Film Festival, at one of the Q&A forums, I was explaining how immigrating from my country to other places had affected my film, and someone asked where the country that I was referring to was; that was a great moment for me as a director that my work was watched not just as an Iranian film, but merely a film. It wasn’t what people are used to watching from the Iranian Cinema. So I truly think the reason why we have little variety in genres here is a risk/award analysis and it’s a strategic choice to assure future progress.



11. How would you say your style of thinking and working as a film director has changed since your first film? What are the top lessons you’ve learned during these years of activity?


One thing about filmmaking is that from the beginning to the end of the path for each film, in a sense you grow older and wiser. It is tiring but you also gain so many new experiences from it. It’s like any other challenge, where you go through different hardships, and in the end, you too have transformed into a new version of yourself. You make a film but the film shapes you too. These changes that happen to you are affected by the political, economic, and societal status of the place you’re living in, as well as your personal growth. When you start at eighteen your views are different from when you’re 22, and naturally what Trump does in the United States isn’t completely irrelevant to how you see the world. I tend to focus less on the cinematic lessons I learn from each film, even though the experiences you gain without a doubt will come in handy for the next projects. What I always find fascinating though, is the living experiences I gain each time. When I think about how I change in the 1-2 year work on each film, the new people I get to meet and work with, the way I behave in certain situations and towards others, all of this seems to have a deeper effect on me and it’s more significant to me to think about and analyze, even if it’s more layered and complex. The biggest lessons I’ve learned so far are more or less the ones I mentioned earlier, to first of all write down any idea that you have and work on drafts instead of keeping it all in your head till you think it’s ready, and this way you’ll know much better and sooner which parts you need to keep, change, or get rid of. The second thing is that if you think you want to do something new and bring another hue to the palette, despite the fact that certain paths seem more doable, go in it with full force and create something different but just as qualified to compete. I don’t like nagging about why there are only limited spots in the international festivals for specific types of Iranian films, and there’s this false argument that these types of films are the reason why other styles and experiments cannot make it to international forums. What I say is that if those films need to be seen, there’s ethical or political reasoning behind it and it should be there; it’s like other topics that need to be talked about via cinema, like lgbtq+ rights or racism. So yes, when you make a different film, it won’t be competing in the same category as the usual ones, but if it’s good enough it can be categorized with other films which have the same tones and atmospheres. There’s enough room for everyone to compete, in my opinion, and what our cinema lacks right now is different perspectives, so if you have that, work on it and you will find your place.



12. Are you working on any new project at the moment? Do you aspire to make feature films down the road in your career?


I’m currently working as the editor for a feature documentary. It’s been almost a year that I’m working on it, since about the same time we were making Margarina Bailarina, but other than that it’s not yet very clear to me what I plan to do next. On the one hand, I’ve always wanted to make a feature film by the time I was 25, something sentimental like what Hemingway or Orson Welles did, but now that I’m getting there, the idea seems a bit scary to me and I am considering delaying it for further future. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking that it might be helpful if I study some more and make a feature film in 3 or 4 years when I’m closer to 30. So I’m quite conflicted myself, I might start working on another short film or even writing the script for the feature one, but for now, I’m focusing on the editing.




Interviewed by Parnian Gharehsoory


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