Friday 26 February 2021

Home - In Conversation - Windows to Reality: An interview with Marjan Khosravi

24frames: When we talk about documentaries, we talk about how glimpses of certain realities are shown to us. The proper contextualization of these realities, however, is what could help us make a distinction between good and bad representations. In a conversation with Marjan Khosravi, a young Iranian writer and filmmaker, we discuss her career as a filmmaker, some of the differences between fiction films and documentaries, and ethics in documentary filmmaking. Marjan’s most recent documentary “The Snow Calls” is an official selection in the Student Documentary section of IDFA Film Festival 2020.




1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your filmmaking career?


I was born in 1996 and started my journey by participating in school plays in 2006, but the beginning of my professional work was around 2016, by being an AD in different projects. After that, I began making both fiction and documentary films and up until this moment I’ve made 2 fiction shorts and 3 documentaries, which thankfully have been very well-received and each had their own perks to them.




2. What made you decide to get into documentary filmmaking?


The first film I made was a documentary called Blood Cost which is about a subject that I’d been thinking about ever since I was young, and finally, the opportunity occurred for me when I was in my first year as a university film student and decided to make this film with minimum facilities and the help of a highly cooperative crew. Luckily, the success of this first film was a stepping stone for the rest of my path. After this, I made a fiction film and have been sort of moving back and forth between the two mediums, mainly because I don’t see them as too distinct from each other, especially considering what I hope to achieve with filmmaking, namely, storytelling. My documentaries are also Docudramas, so, they aim to keep the audience curious till the very end. I believe this makes it more interesting for my audience as well and maybe attracts a wider range of viewers. So, for the documentaries, I look for subjects with strong storylines and in the fiction, I look for stories that have deeper roots in reality.




3. What are the main production differences between documentary and fiction filmmaking in your opinion?


In fiction films, our top priority is to create a feeling and an illusion of reality, so the director is trying to make a film that their audience will believe and would accept its constructed universe. But, a documentary film is much more close to reality, even though it is not the whole of it; therefore, you don’t need to try to make it believable, since it is already established that what the audience is about to see is reality or at least a part of it. So, I think the main difference is that in fiction you are making your audience believe a story that tries to be as close as possible to life, but in a documentary, you are prominently representing life as it is. As for production, for me, since I am usually already familiar with my subjects for the documentaries, I enter the production with an idea of what I hope to achieve, but oftentimes the story moves as you get closer to your characters, and by interacting more with them and their life. It is very likely that through these interactions you will be able to unfold hidden layers to their stories. This year, I’ve been working on a feature documentary as well and it requires engagement to the point that I have to be patient but updated on how things are going in the lives of my characters, in order for the right time to come for me to continue shooting the rest of the events. The process is different from fiction since the costs of production are managed in a way that you need to be able to finish the production in a specific time frame. As a result, the pre-production needs to be more vast, and it is clearer what exactly you and your team, including your cinematographer and actors, should be doing prior to, and while shooting. The script also needs to be revised times and times before you get to the final version and it needs to be practiced and understood by every member so that when you’re on set, everything is as straight-forward as possible. So, the elements of unpredictability, spontaneity, and being open to expect the unexpected on the director’s side, could be what differentiate these two genres the most.



4. How do you approach the research procedure for a documentary? 


I believe that a documentary filmmaker needs to have great knowledge of different aspects of what they’re trying to communicate, whether it being through living and shared experiences with the subject and characters, or through extensive research which would also include spending a lot of time in the situations that are being represented. For instance, if I’m trying to talk about a tradition, a difference of opinion, or a dominant ideology of a group of people that I myself belong to, in this case being from the Bakhtiari tribe in Iran, or even more general subjects that could be more universal, it requires you to have enough knowledge about it to be able to discuss it without any ambiguity. So in a lot of cases, you have to have been in these situations of conflict or controversy to fully comprehend their dynamics. My films concern tribal issues and the ways these tribes make sense of the world, and my research on these issues includes every day and every year of my life that I have grown up under these circumstances; thus I have a highly integrated understanding of what I’m presenting. If I’m concerned about discussing something that is distant from my own existence, I’m obliged to study and tackle every possible angle to it to the point that I’m able to identify with it and if this process of researching and understanding is done insufficiently, the representation won’t be fair since it’s still an outsider perspective of it. Overall, when a film is going from a specific point of view on a certain topic or people, to a general conclusion, the filmmaker has to be especially mindful of how this generalization affects other members involved, to avoid emphasizing limited perceptions and stereotyping.




5. How do you usually come about the subjects and the stories of your films?


What I do is try to depict my worries and concerns – which I’ve been carrying on from an early age – through my films; there are many subjects that are not being talked about, especially regarding the tribes in Iran, even in Iran. So I try to find subjects that are closer to what I have in mind that needs to be dissected. It has happened a few times that during my production, I ran into a character with a different worldview and that character has introduced me to an even better, more inclusive, and more impactful way of expression. My characters are usually acquaintances, friends or relatives, or people with whom I share a direct or indirect emotional bond with and I try to avoid working with complete strangers. This is because I believe in that case, the trust and the proper connection that needs to happen between the filmmaker and the character won’t take form and as a result, the idea for the film won’t be realized the way it should.




6. Some documentary filmmakers don’t get into, or hide a percentage of the reality of the lives of their character, in favor of the story. In your experience, is that something that needs to be done for the sake of storytelling? If so, where is the ethical limit?


Something that is more common in documentaries, in comparison to fiction, is that even though after the shooting is done, we present the footage with a more or less clear storyline to the editor, a lot of times a shared decision is taken to change the order of the narrative, with the purpose of keeping the audience on their toes. This is something that we did in The Snow Calls as well and the editors play an important role in this process. However, it’s still very important to keep in mind that deception should be avoided and these sorts of playing with the timeline of the events of the film should merely be used to add excitement to the way truth is being told. Even if the characters of the film never get to actually watch it, it should be produced in a way that if/when they do, no feeling of betrayal to their trust would arise. As soon as this interference starts reshaping or challenging the truth, the director should take a step back and turn to the original idea again to remind himself/herself of what was the aim here. Surely if the directors decide to put more emphasis on their personal beliefs or those of the audience in order to get more aligned with their thoughts of how things should happen, interesting or even positive outcomes -for the film- might come along but the priority, in my opinion, should remain to be ethical and truthful.



7. How far involved do you think a director should get with the characters?  What do you do on set to help your characters feel more comfortable sharing their life with your crew and being in front of a camera?


As I mentioned earlier, I make sure that there is some sense of familiarity between me and my subjects, and from the beginning, I want them to be open to me and accept me as someone who’s going to tell their story. What I do from the first official meeting with the characters as a director is that I enter their space with a camera to establish how the nature of the relationship is going to look like and that for the time period that I’m going to spend with them, so will be the camera; even if it’s a distant relative or someone that I‘m meeting for the first time.  If they accept this, then they will also have no fear of being in their natural state and showing the realities of their lives in front of a camera. However, it is immensely important to me to be ethical in these situations. It happens often that when my camera is rolling, the character is opening up about such details of their lives, and afterward, at the editing stage of the film, I realize even though they gave me their permission to use the footage as I wish, certain parts of it may cause hurt and pain to people involved in the future. In the cases when what is being said and shown doesn’t help the narration of the story in a significant way, especially if I see a possibility of the characters changing their minds on parts of what they have said and shown later, I prefer not to use those parts of the footage because of ethical concerns. There’s a famous saying that a documentary is not showing all that’s being said, but also knowing which parts shouldn’t be shown. There’s no need to show every single issue that is mentioned by the characters during the shooting and at times retelling those might even distance the film from the core idea of it in the first place, as well as violating the boundaries of those being represented.




8. How do you direct your cinematographer and what’s your relationship like prior/during shooting?


What I think is that there are two main pillars that should be taken seriously in documentary filmmaking; firstly the relationship and interaction with the DP, and then with the editor. If these two members are chosen incorrectly, the result of the film might be something odd and not at all close to what either had in mind. Before moving on to the production, the director should communicate all the necessary or even additional information about the idea, the characters, and the tone of the film in detail. I attempt to not only reach a mutual cinematic or technical language with my DP, but also an ideological understanding of the story, even if it’s just for the duration of the shooting. Filming a documentary is rather delicate and if the DP is not on the same page with the director or as concerned about the story, then the film is going to be treated from two different worlds, two different perspectives and this clash will show in the film. There’s never too much explanation of what each and every shot is supposed to do for the film. At times, the DP should know and understand that he/she might need to step aside and not intervene in what’s happening and not be offended by this. This also implies that when I’m talking to my characters and an important piece of the story is taking place, I won’t need to stop, prepare the crew and get back to shooting, but with a simple gesture, my cinematographer would know that it’s time to start recording. Oftentimes these spontaneous shots turn out to be some of the most effective ones. So it’s really important for both the cinematographer and on the next step, the editor to understand and feel what is at stake at every sequence of the film. An obvious example of this could be a situation that the cinematographer’s beliefs are different, or opposing to those of the director. If they find such situations funny, or insignificant, they will treat their role that way too and as a result, it would damage the quality of the way they shape the film.



9. How do you usually handle spontaneous changes on set? How devoted are you to the script?


We talked about the added unpredictability in the production of documentaries; it is important to note that although sudden changes in the plan can happen during the making of a fiction film too, normally these changes affect the production of the film, not the story of it; so it might add to the costs of the film, but it most likely would not change the direction. The truth is in documentaries, unexpected events are almost inevitable and there are many parts that could affect the story which is out of your control; so you have to be quite prepared to roll with them and put them to best use. Through consultations with other members of the crew, sometimes these changes can lead you to new ways that you had never thought of before, but are actually better than your primary ideas. The flexibility of the director is crucial to documentary filmmaking because if you stay rigid about a premade script, the process can not only fail, but also be very frustrating for you at the same time.




10. How do you keep the coherence of the idea on set? How do you choose when to roll the camera and when not to?


Frankly, I’m not a big fan of the idea that we should simply record every minute on set and see how it goes afterward, and that we can change the story if needed in post-production. Many of my colleagues don’t really plan ahead what they want to reach before the shooting, and many times this leads to a loose basis of the film. This approach causes confusion for the director, but it will make the job much more difficult later on, for the editor. Hence, I try to have an initial script, and even a shot list, and then fit the unexpectedness somewhere along those lines. Another thing that I do, is to make my script into parts, and at each stage communicate and explain to my characters what I’m about to do or record as well. This makes it far less annoying for me and the characters since I won’t be changing angles all the time, or asking them to reposition or repeat what they’d just said. It has happened that I’d started a project without a shot list, but usually, it only multiplies the workload, rather than making it easier. When you’re clear with yourself about what you should or shouldn’t do in regards to the story or the characters, it saves a lot of energy for everyone.




11. What are some ethical lessons that you’ve learned over the years that you think beginner documentary filmmakers should consider?


During the making of The Snow Calls, we took a lot of shots of the man of the family; shots that look very prestigious and at the same time, as some say, quite festival-pleasing in the way that they make a character appear more bitter and farther away from who he truly is. I never used any of those shots. I insist on the importance of understanding and getting as close as you can to the way your characters look at the world and where they are coming from. It’s important to ask yourself whether a character who’s a bit on the darker side of the story, a bit antagonistic, is truly as dogmatic in his being or not? Could it be that he’s actually more flexible than it would seem, more caring than it would seem? Could it be geographic determinism or the preconditions of his existence that have affected his behavior? So, when I get close to my characters, I can know better what is fair, and what should or should not be said about them. People working in documentary should always, always keep in mind that when it comes to documentary, you’re a person who’s full of good traits, but also full of flaws and shortcomings, so you are in no position to impose unjust judgments on your subjects or use your camera as a weapon to expose their wrong-doings. Everyone is raised under different circumstances and with different perceptions and there are no inherent or definite mistakes, per se; therefore I try to leave the judgment of what’s right or wrong for my audience.



12. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your feature documentary “Womanly Migration”?


Womanly Migration is a film about the important roles and decisions of the women of the Lor tribe. It focuses on a woman who’s been raised with certain traditions but is now facing challenges that modernity has imposed on the decisions of her husband and children, and their impacts at this point of her life. There are also parts about Bakhtiari tribe migrations and how they’d been in the past and their changes through the years. It is a 72minute film which will hopefully be ready by May of this year.



Interviewed by Parnian Gharehsoory

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