Directors, INTERVIEWS, Iran — 12/01/2011 7:07 PM

Mohammad Ehsani (Iran): “making documentaries with social themes can endanger the filmmaker in Iran”

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Mohammad Ehsani, the famous documentary filmaker and members of the  Iranian Documentary Filmmakers Association recently joined EADn. He tells us his story and describes the tough life of Iranian documentary makers.


Can you introduce yourself ?

I was born in November 1973 in Shishvan Village, in the suburbs of the town of Ajabshir in Eastern Azerbaijan Province. However, my childhood and youth was spent in Kermanshah, during the war between Iran and Iraq. I remember the 1st day of war very well, and a school destroyed by bombs and the bodies of the students being pulled out of the school ceiling with a crane. Almost all my childhood and youth memories are mixed with images and sounds of war and the bombing and shelling of the town. We were living there because my father was in the army and his place of service was Kermanshah.

After the war, we moved to Tabriz and I went to high school there. I also obtained my BA in English Language and Literature in Tabriz. All that time was spent in much hardship and shortage, and the country after the destruction of war was the only thing we were faced with in our adolescence.

At first, I was active in literature and theatre. I am active in literature now too. I have written one novel and a few short stories. However, I have focused mainly on cinema and the image of the magical imagination.

You have directed your first short film when you were 20 years old. Why and how did you get involved in documentary filming ?

Yes. I made my first short fiction film (5 minutes long) when I was 20, after joining filmmaking courses in the Youth Cinema Association in Tabriz, with an 8 mm camera. The first filmmaking experience was very amazing and I will never forget its joy and excitement. After that, I made a few other short fiction films which received some awards in the domestic festivals and one of them became one of the best films made by the university students all over the country.

My professional activities in the cinema started after graduation and coming to Tehran, by making the documentary Rakhsh on flesh, made with a professional crew in 2002. At first, I didn’t imagine my career in the documentary cinema would last long. However, little by little, I fell in love with making documentaries and with the suffering people, whom when I went to with my camera, they looked at the camera hopefully, and talked about their pains, so that their words, trapped in their chests, would be heard somewhere in another part of the world.

I think my enthusiasm and love for making documentaries will be with me forever, although I am trying to make my first feature length film and I intend to continue my artistic career in fiction cinema. 

I must add another point. In 2000, the Iranian cinema entered a new situation and the documentary cinema received more attention and was given a new life and identity, and this event had a great effect on me to become interested in the documentary cinema. This good condition started in 2000 and continued to 2005, and created the new generation of the Iranian documentary cinema.

How many docs you already produced and directed ?

I have so far made more than 7 short and long documentaries such as: Rakhsh on flesh (2002), The Lovers: The Victims (2004), Tabriz: Images from the Forgotten World (2005), The Unseeable Seeable (2010). These are my famous films screened in the domestic and international festivals, which have won some awards too. Their themes deal with various social, historical, and anthropological issues.

In 2004, your doc “the lovers” won many award all over the world. What was the impact of this film and its success inside Iran ?

The film The Lovers: The Victims (2004) dealt with a very sensitive and hot issue at that time in the Iranian society. It portrayed AIDS and AIDS patients in Iran from social and religious viewpoints. It was in fact the first film that dealt with the subject in a serious and comprehensive way, and interviewed AIDS patients in Iran, which were mostly from poor layers of the society, and depicted their life. The film was welcomed greatly in Iran and has been screened many times ever since. It has also been screened in many international festivals and has won various awards.

When you were released from Evin Prison the 11th of August 2009, after 13 months in Prison, you declared “I hope that I can continue my artistic activities in Iran and keep making movies in the near future.”. Did you managed to direct new documentary ?

My arrest and imprisonment in Iran, which happened after my return from the US in June 2007, struck a heavy mental and spiritual blow on me. I was in fact arrested and tried on a charge which is considered a privilege and advantage in the free world, and it is one of the prerequisites for success. That is, my efforts to contact the world and my colleagues in other countries, and to share the global thoughts and experiences. Most importantly, it was because of my independence and my paying attention to the social issues in my films.

After release from prison, I made a documentary last year about Shahram Nazeri, a national and traditional Iranian music vocalist, entitled The Unseeable Seeable. Shahram Nazeri is an Iranian Kurd vocalist that was awarded Chevalier des Arts et Letters from the French government in 2006. In this film, he talks about the unsuitable condition of the Iranian traditional music. We have not been able to screen the film yet, and we are trying to release it for the public.

Your documentaries dealed with critical social issues in Iran. Two of your films, AIDS in Iran and Striking the Strings of the Harp, about illicit drug use, have been used as evidence in your legal file by the government. How can you direct new doc with social topics ? Can you shoot and produce these docs in Iran ?

At present, making documentaries with social themes has become very difficult in Iran, and it can endanger the filmmaker. However, there do exist documentary filmmakers who approach social issues despite the dangers and make films financed personally by themselves, but due to the limitations imposed on the screening of such films in Iran and the low budget for production purposes, they lack a high quality.

In 2007, IDFA’s Jan Vrijman Fund supported his project Opium in Iran. Since then, did you received new support from Europe ? 

No, I have not received any support.

Have you already done international cooperation for some of your docs? If yes which countries and broadcasters? If not, why?

Unfortunately, one of the main shortcomings in the Iranian cinema and consequently the Iranian documentary cinema is the few number of joint cooperation and production projects with other countries and the international producers. One of the reasons is the inability of most of the Iranian filmmakers to speak English and to pursue joint production projects. Another reason is the limitations imposed by the government. Most of the joint production projects in the Iranian cinema have been done by a few renowned filmmakers through international film festivals, while the Iranian filmmakers are very eager for this type of cooperation.

I had an international cooperation for the making of the documentary drama Tabriz: Images of the Forgotten World with an American producer in 2005.

Did you already distribute some of your docs in the international market? 

One of the other main problems and shortcomings in the Iranian cinema is the distribution and sales of the Iranian films especially documentary ones. We have unfortunately had no progress or development in this regard. Only a few private sector companies had a relatively successful activity in this regard, but their permit was annulled by the government last month and one of the said distributors, Ms Katayoon Shahabi, was arrested and imprisoned.

Do you have current doc project ? Are you looking for European / international partners ?

Yes. At present, I am making a documentary whose filming has recently ended. It is about Lake Urmia in Northwestern Iran. Lake Urmia , the second largest salt water lake in the world, is drying up due to the construction of numerous dams on rivers that feed the lake, and the construction of a dirt bridge on the lake that has halved it. It is an environmental – social issue that has affected the life of the people in the region, and as a crucial environmental crisis, has caused much worry and concern.

The film is at the beginning of the editing phase, and to start this part, I am in need and eager for cooperation with the European producers to complete the film.

How many directors or producers are members of the Iranian Documentary Filmmakers Association ?             

As far as I know, Iranian Documentary Filmmakers Association has more than 350 members, and the Association receives many requests for new membership. Another active entity in Iran is Iranian Documentary Producers Association.

As a member of the Iranian Documentary Filmmakers Association, what do you think about the evolution and development of documentary industry during the recent 5 years in Iran?

I have to say with utter sadness that the industry and art of Iranian documentary cinema have been on the decline in the past 5 years, and have not had any development. After the revolution, the Iranian documentary cinema has experienced a relative development and the opening of the working atmosphere only in the period between 2000 and 2005 during the reformist office of Mr Khatami. During that period, Kish Documentary Film Festival was founded. It was managed independently and played a key role in the growth of Iranian documentary cinema, especially the social documentaries, and introduced a new generation of Iranian documentary cinema. However, it was sadly closed after 5 years. I took part in the 2 last years.

After that, Cinema Verite Festival was founded, which is being financed by the government. This festival gave new hope for the development of the Iranian documentary cinema. However, only its first 2 years were held in a proper way and since then up to now when it is being held for the 5th year, it has declined considerably.

Can you see/watch documentaries from Europe or other Western countries in Iran ? on TV ? online or video ? 

Yes, but in a limited way. That is, mostly through satellite channels or travelling to international festivals to take part in them.

Have you recently watched a European doc you really appreciate ?

Yes. I have watched some of them as “ When china Met Africa “ & “ Blood in the Moble “ and.. and I really appreciate them!

Interview by mail on 15 Novembre 2011

EADn doc projects database:

. “Loneliness of lake Urmia”


. Documentary filmmaker Mohammad Ehsani imprisoned in Iran (Reelisor, 18/03/2009)
. IDA Member Freed From Iranian Prison (24/8/2009)

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