09/10/2014 10:29 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Best of Venice: Ghesseha , Iranian Tales That Have Found a Way to Be Told


Fatemeh Motamed Aria in Ghesseha (Tales) by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad

The best parts of writing about films is learning the stories behind the story. Meeting the filmmakers, discovering the passion of the actors, finding out the hardships faced by producers, those all conspire to make a movie jump right off the screen, and become part of my life. This year, at the Venice Film Festival, I found quite a few projects that have settled in the recesses of my heart, the kind of films I wish I could watch again and again. Ghesseha (Tales) by Iranian filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-Etemad is definitely one of them.

I wasn't alone, because the jury of Venezia71, the main competition of the prestigious festival, bestowed upon Bani-Etemad and co-writer Farid Mostafavi the Award for Best Screenplay, singling out her Tales as the best story told on the silver screen.

Personally, I found Ghesseha touching, insightful, romantic in parts, jarring in others, but always human. I could connect to the characters, I found my body tense up during confrontations, relax at the resolutions, and love. Love a lot, thanks to some incredible performances by actors who are young and yet already legendary, such as Fatemeh Motamed Aria and Payman Maadi.

But my simple description of the film doesn't do justice to the eight years of self-imposed ban on filmmaking Bani-Etemad put herself through, the labyrinth she had to navigate to avoid the bureaucracy of the Iranian culture ministry -- which requires a license for a feature, but not for shorts -- and even filming surreptitiously with her actresses Fatemeh Motabed Aria and Baran Kossari, who were banned from acting at the time.

Then the 2013 presidential election brought a change of administration in Iran. And the new and improved Ministry of Culture and Organization of Cinema, swiftly gave Bani-Etemad a screening license, no questions asked. Yet the fact remains that if something in the film isn't liked by the powers that be, she could face obstacles ahead. And during her press conference in Venice, Bani-Etemad was very clear to state that she makes films for her country, and if a film "is not accepted inside Iran, I won't show it at festivals."

I caught up with ever-gracious Bani-Etemad and Habib Rezaei in Venice, on a calm afternoon, in the very green garden of a villa on the Lido. Rezaei plays the crucial role of the filmmaker in the film, delivering one of the most haunting lines in it, "No film can remain hidden," but also acted as co-producer on Ghesseha. The interviews were beautifully translated from Farsi by Maziyar Ghiabi.

At your press conference you said this film didn't present any more difficulty than any other film, and you wanted to remember the joy, not the hardships of it. But as women we get asked this often, was it more difficult or easier, in your opinion, to make this film as a woman?

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad: In reality, I think that on the level of the kind of work I do, professionally, there are no big differences between being a man or a woman. Many years ago, an era very far away from today, the work I'd chosen then seemed strange, could have appeared more difficult for a woman. But today I don't feel that my work as a woman filmmaker is any more difficult than for a male filmmaker. You can also ask Habib, another working filmmaker, if it's harder or easier to be a man filmmaker in Iran.

It's poignant to point out Iran, because there you have had women filmmakers working for much longer than in the U.S..

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad: Yes, exactly!

Habib Rezaei: This is not a personal opinion, rather an idea shared by many of my fellow filmmakers, that in doing a job in the world of cinema, as an artist, the problem is not whether you're a man or a woman, but the subjects you tackle that reveal the real problem. Making movies is the real problem, not who makes them.

Can you talk a bit about how the filmmaking community interacts in Iran?

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad: I can talk about this film showing here in Venice, and I can point to the great will and devotion that surfaced throughout this project, among all who participated. A great determination. Apart from commercial cinema that has its own rules and themes, the events that characterized this film is really the coming together of all these artists, working successfully together with devotion.

Habib Rezaei: Generally, cinema falls in the close-up, a bit like the metaphor of the birth of a child. The moment the child is born, everyone loves him and there are really no distinction whether he's born in Africa, Asia or wherever. The same goes for problems with a child, everyone tries to help a child, regardless of his origin, nationality. If we have this kind of cooperation that happens on an underground level, it is because we and our colleagues who are out of the country, we have this mutual understanding.

In the West, the East is viewed as a strange land, as I'm sure it's the other way around from the East looking westward. Do you think cinema, a film like this, can act as a bridge, a way to understand cultures different from ours?

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad: I think that cinema, and art, is the international language of the entire world, of all persons. It goes beyond physical barriers which exist between people and countries.

But only when you tell very human stories, like your film. Iranian cinema does that so well!

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad: Maybe this very realistic language characterizes Iranian cinema. It's a language tied to our daily lives, which permits us to express a concept that remains universal.

Habib Rezaei: Many years ago, a filmmaker friend told me that in Iran we have this attention, this wonderment with everyday relations, we take pleasure in talking with others, we enjoy everyday small events. And so our cinema as well, differently from the big blockbusters like Transformers, which play a lot with a 3D reality, we, with our simple, short tales, perhaps can communicate a lot more about the daily lives of people. We're not looking for the wow.

Was the order of the episodes, the short films, always meant to be what we see in the final film?

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad: Absolutely yes. The script was thought out exactly as is, to connect the various stories through the different characters. In a manner that could arrive to a kind of climax in the film that would include, in a very fluid way, the entire story of the film. This was well thought out in detail.

Habib Rezaei: I'll use what [Abbas] Kiarostami told us, after watching Tales, he insisted that we had improvised the last scene. He could not believe that we had spent hours writing every detail of the dialogue in which also the suspension of words, the long silences between the two characters were well thought out. Every evening, I wrote and re-wrote the segments, and sent them to the director so we could discuss all the words, the details and how the dialogue could be absolutely perfected and it is through this hard, tedious work that we were able to bring this piece to life.

Image courtesy of Noori Pictures and Rendez Vouz, used with permission.