Telluride Film Festival, 2017: Mark Danner Interviews Mohammad Rasoulof




MD: First I just want to say what a pleasure it is to be on this phone call. And what a moving extraordinary powerful film Mohammad has made, so it’s a pleasure to do this.


MR: Me too, thank you for your kind words.


MD: Let me ask first, one of the things that struck me is that in previous—in some of your previous films, notably Manuscripts Don’t Burn the antagonist, as it were, was much more of the regime. And this film, it seems to be much larger than that. The antagonist seems to be larger. And I wonder how you might characterize that.


MR: I just want to give an explanation here, that has to do with the film’s title in Farsi, LERD,. LERD as a word is what falls to the bottom when you make wine. It’s the sediment or dregs. And that is the Farsi title of the film. 


The meaning of LERD for me, when I chose the word as the title of the film it was because I believed many problems started first from levels that were higher up, from the level of politics, those that are in power and gradually they came and settled within the general culture. Now you can no longer look for the problem within politics. It now resides in the place that belongs to everyone. It has penetrated the general culture and things are much worse that what I had believed.


MD: So LERD in a sense, to him represents a kind of transformation of the entire world, of people’s relations, that is actually affected, originally affected or caused by politics?

MR: It is precisely that. One could say that it starts in politics and penetrates the structures of education and then from within that structure it enters social institutions where it is transformed into something that is at the very heart of popular culture.


MD: That’s beautifully said. It’s fascinating to me that Hadis for example, when she tries to use the techniques of corruption herself as principal of the school, it backfires on her because she is coping with someone who in a sense is much more fundamentally corrupt Abbas. And it seems to me that there’s some kind of basic corruption, even before the government, of corruption of tribe and of power.


MR: This is very correct, but we must keep in mind that a new class has taken shape that is composed differently, that is its own tribe, made up of people who seek to be close to the ruling body, they may not belong the ruling body, but they make themselves resemble them, for their personal profit, for their group's benefit, they create a space where the central power is nourished, while they themselves also begin to grow in girth, expand and become pervasive. A large portion of the members of this new class consist of military and paramilitary groups


MD: That’s fascinating.


MR: You can even identify some of these groups that are trying to kind of stick with the centers of power, within elites. [very unclear what he means by elites, the word is very generic].


MD: That’s a fascinating answer. I wanted to ask about a bit about the protagonist, Reza, that actor seems to me to give an absolutely extraordinary performance. I think an American or European audience to some degree might identify it, or find that he recalls a bit, the figure of Job—the long-suffering noble man, the man who’s being tested in his belief and his integrity. And yet, Reza is different from Job in that he eventually proves to be better at working the system than almost anyone. I wonder if you had thought of this comparison before and if you think it is at all relevant to who Reza is.


MR: I think this comparison with Job is a really interesting comparison, but what attracts my attention where Reza is concerned is seeing this character within the social structure of Iran. The role of that structure is indispensable. What, in my opinion, ultimately drags Reza into the game is the structure; and the forces he faces, his antagonist, is this structure that is comprised of the forces of power, of capital, and of those who, in order to attain that power and that capital will attach themselves to the governing body.


MD: I was going to say in the end he is able, when he decides to, in a sense, take part in the system, he’s able to triumph as a strong player in the system as it exists.


MR: The truth is that Reza did not want to enter this game. The film begins at a point where he’s run away from a society that wants to dissolve him inside itself, a structure that wants to dissolve him within itself. He's run away from the capital. He's run away and come to the north of Iran where he's made a place for himself and he wishes to be his own man. In truth we meet Reza's character in a place where he has already lost once.

And he's chosen not to win. Given the choice between being a tyrant or a victim, he’s decided to choose neither. He's separated himself. But so long as he insists on preserving his integrity, others treat him as though he were an idiot. There’s a scene in the film where he goes into a coffee shop and nobody sees him because everyone’s playing the game. In the end, however, when he has taken his revenge, and when in order to defend himself he has turned to a form of incursion into other people’s rights, then he gets respect from society. And what this is trying to say is that for me what matters is to see here how society strives to make him seek shelter in one transgressor against another transgressor.  


MD: Yes, I see that and that’s beautifully stated I think. I have only one more question, the coffee shop scene I think is very vivid and I remember it well. The other series of scenes that I think are some of the most beautiful in the film, take place in the cave. And it’s almost as if Reza has run to Tehran to the North and now he’s retreating to the cave, the beautiful cave itself. I wonder if you can say something about these scenes? They seem almost autobiographical. They’re so powerful.


MR: (laughs) Yes, it’s my personal experience.


MD: (laughs) I thought that, something told me that.


MR: Yes, it’s my personal experience. I don’t know how wise it is to state it. Solitude is frightening, when you live in a society where you don’t wish to surrender to social norms. And day by day you grow lonelier, and the only choice that remains for you is to withdraw and to be alone with yourself.

For me, Reza is a pleasing experience in the sense that each time that anything from the outside puts him under pressure he’s able to seek and find an inner sense of serenity, a little bit like the fish immersed in water, he attempts to simplify life and with his homemade wine, to forget the thing that's in front of his face, or behind him, that's happened in the past. It's his only defense mechanism.


MD: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. And we’re so excited to have this extraordinary, extraordinary film at Telluride.


MR: Thank you and I hope I will be able to meet you soon, I have an appointment tomorrow morning in the U.S. Embassy in Munich, and I hope I am able to obtain a visa.


MD: We all hope so too, we hope to see you too. And congratulations on the film.


Mark Danner in conversation with Mohammad Rasoulof, director of A Man of Integrity, for the Telluride Film Festival. 

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