“Avini Owned a Spectacular Approach toward War Documentaries,” Says Agnes Devictor

“Avini Owned a Spectacular Approach toward War Documentaries,” Says Agnes Devictor

Ms. Agnes Devictor, Ph.D., is a specialist in Iran’s war cinema who received her political sciences doctorate with a dissertation on “The creation of a public culture policy of the I. R. Iran”. Her researches were mostly focused on the Iran-Iraq war and she has held numerous seminars on the subject. Of her favorite figures, we can refer to Morteza Avini, the martyr. Avini was a war photographer and documentary maker who was killed by a mine shrapnel shot 5 years after the Iran-Iraq war while inspecting the location of his new film, “the Chronicles of Victory”. The latest work of his is a well-recognized documentary piece aired several times by the IRIB. Following Ms. Devictor’s trip to Iran, we had the chance to hold an interview with her near the cemetery of the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war and know more of her activities.

AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with

 Agnes Devictor, Professor at the University of Pentheon-Sorbonne

Interview by Mohammadreza Nazari

 What made you interested in political science and starting your academic education in this field?

After my Bachelor degree, I started studying political science. After the first year, I decided to learn some things that will be of no use for me. I wanted to learn Arabic “just for fun” but I mistakenly went to the wrong classroom! The Persian teacher told us: “I am not going to teach you Persian anyway, but I’ll give you some elements concerning the Iranian History and its rich culture”. And he was right. I never learned Persian with him actually, but gradually I got interested in Iran. Then, I never thought of going to Iran, but after I got my diploma in Political science, I continued my studies in a PhD still in Political science. I started to think of going to that country. I choose a subject related to public policies, and more especially to the public policy of culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I wanted to study how and why this regime built a cultural policy after the Revolution, during very difficult times.

How old were you when you travelled to Iran?

When I arrived in Iran, I was twenty-three.

What was your biggest challenge when you first came to Iran?

I didn’t know how to speak Persian. It was the first time in my life that I was starting like a child to learn everything, for instance how to take a collective cab, how to take an autobus, etc. I had to learn everything. First I wanted to stay only for three months.

How did your family view your trip to Iran?

Strangely, my parents were not so afraid to let me go to Iran. Later, they told me they would have been more worried if I had gone in a big city of the US!

Do you remember the first things you saw on TV about Iran?

You know I was around seven. It was when my parents bought a TV and we had a TV in our place for the first time. I clearly remember images from the Revolution and from Ayatollah Khomeini. I was very impressed!

Did you come to know a revolutionary country when you visited Iran?

I was surprised when I first arrived in Iran. Well, it was very difficult at that time to get a visa and my main problem during years and years was getting a visa. After I got my visa and entered Iran, what was very surprising for me was that life was very quiet, people were not aggressive at all. When I got lost or needed to ask a question, people were very helpful. I couldn’t really talk in Persian at that moment, but I never felt lost or alone. I always had the impression that someone would be here to help me. The very first place I went to when I arrived in Tehran was the Farabi Cinema Foundation because I’d met the international staff in Cannes Film Festival six month before. The Farabi Foundation was next to the Abgineh Museum at that time. It was a very nice place. All the crew of the International section of Farabi Foundation welcomed me. They were very nice and generous. I would never have spent 4 years in Iran without them!

Which movie did inspire you?

I discovered Homeworks, a film of Abbas Kiarostami in a movie theater in Avignon (South of France), and Kiarostami was there. The film was a total surprise for me! I was not specialized at all in cinema at that time, but I decided at that moment to work on the public policy of culture and more precisely on the cinematographic field to understand how it was possible to make such movie in Iran, in a country considered as “authoritarian”.

Why did this movie surprise you?

The film was shot in 1988 at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. I was surprised that such a film, very critical against the educational methods, could be released in Iran at that time. Iran was described as an authoritarian state, but how an authoritarian state could produce and authorize such a film! A film that revealed that the children’s conditions in Iran were not good for social or economic reasons, that the methods to learn and teach were violent, but also with lots of humor, that the propaganda methods to celebrate the regime and its army were not so efficient! I think I really decided to work on Iranian cinema after watching this film.

How long did you stay in Iran? What were your activities?

I went to Iran just for three months, but I actually stayed four years! After my first month in Tehran, I had difficulties to extend my visa, I didn’t really understand how it worked, and I had to stay for around 6 other months to solve this problem! But I did not know that I would come back and stay for three more years. At that moment, there were not a lot of books published on my PhD’s subject. So I really needed for my researches to stay a longer time in Iran. The French Institute of Research in Iran (IFRI) helped me a lot during all these years. The kindness and generosity of people working at the Farabi Cinema Foundation, Cinema Media International, Howzeh Honari, and some Iranian friends contributed a lot for my long stay in Iran.

In the 4 years of your residence in Iran, a huge political and social development took place. In fact, you came here at the time of Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani and then Seyed Mohammad Khatami won the office. What memories do you have from back then?

I was writing a PhD on the cultural policy of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance during the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the main character of my researches became President in 1997! I was glad, of course! But I was afraid that a totally new chapter of this history might start…and that my researches would have to take into account all these changes that were occurring when I was about to finish my PhD!

Mr. Khatami hoped that while he was in the office, major changes occur in the realm of popular culture. Did you see the changes?

The atmosphere was much better! I remember the end of all the Komiteh that controlled cars in all crossroads of the city. The “rupush” became a bit shorter and the scarf less tied. But I would like to pay a tribute to what Mr. Khatami did when he was the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guide (1982-1992). The success of Iranian cinema appeared at the end of the 80s in the national and international area. It is the result of the inventiveness of filmmakers belonging to the generations trained before and after the Revolution. But we have to bear in mind that the structure of production and the State intervention, that are often neglected in analysis because of the damage caused by the strong censorship which overshadows all the public intervention, must be taken into account to complete the understanding of the growth and of the recognition of this cinema and Mr. Khatami played a key role during his 10 years in the MCIG. If you look around the world, you will realize that the countries that have really strong national cinema are not a lot. To speak during the Presidency of Khatami, let’s say that the censorship was less, but the help of the State to the national film industry started to decrease a bit.

After Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, there was a more political environment in Iran. Did this environment affect the cinema? Would you say after the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, the Iranian cinema thrived?

First, I would like to be clear: during Khatami’s presidency, there was still a public policy of culture. Good and innovative movies where still produced. The public institutions of cinema still played their roles. But slowly, the State started to be less intrusive in censorship but also in all the other sectors, and then it started to support less artistic films also. They probably felt confident to the prosperity of Iranian cinema and decided it was no more the job of the State to intervene as much.

Could you elaborate more on it?

If the censorship was lightened, the support of cinema also would start to become less important. A very high quality cinema was created during the 80s under the Ministry of Khatami. In the two decades following the Revolution of 1979, the rise of Iranian cinema was clearly based on the formal inventiveness and narrative of Iranian filmmakers. But the policy of supporting the cinema that had developed in this period had helped this growth. Then, after Khatami left the Ministry at the beginning to the 90s, the policy of cinema was not so strong. And when Khatami came to the Presidency in 1997, his Minister of Culture and Islamic guide, Mr. Mohajerani released lot of censored films, made the censorship less, but also made the State less involved in film production. It was the idea that the State should not control everything and should be less invasive.

Given your viewpoint toward Iran’s cinema, have you been able to maintain a fine connection with Iranian cinematographers such as Kiarostami?

My PhD work was not an aesthetical look on films but an institutional approach on the policy of culture, on how state helps cinema and so on. But, of course, I met directors. I also worked for Locarno Film Festival in 1995 when it showed all the works of Abbas Kiarostami. And I met him at that moment and of course later on. He is one of the most important film directors of the world.

Weren’t you interested in participating in the making of an Iranian movie?

Actually not, it was not my job or my study. But I was present during the shooting of the film Poor Lover of Mr. Lialestani. It was an unbelievable experience! It was the first time I was on a shooting. Then I met different film directors, not always famous, some belonged to the elder generation, others to the new one.

You had conducted your research on Iranian cultural cinema after the revolution; why did you start a new study on war films?

In 2006, if I do well remember, I was in Lussa’s Film Festival, an important festival of documentary films. It was a special show on war films of the First World War. When I listened to researchers talking of the films shot during the First World War, I remembered all the films I had watched on the Iran-Iraq War. And I realized that I did not take into account that lots of these Iranians war films were made during the war. It’s not so often that a country produces fiction films on war during the war. Not only documentary but more than 40 fiction films were shot. I decided to start a new research on that subject and it was also a way to analyze the history of Iran and war through these cinematographic sources.

Cinema of war has different genres and styles. Which genre did you enjoy the most?

There were two different genres during the war. I would say “war films” and “films of the Sacred Defense”. War films were very influenced by Hollywood (by the Western, by the films of the Second World War, by the films of the Vietnam War…). Oghab-ha (Eagles) of Khachikian is one of them. These films that narrated the war and described the war thought Hollywood genres were very popular during the war. It was quite paradoxical in the Islamic Republic of Iran at that time! The films of the Sacred Defense were totally different. Some directors like Mollaqolipur tried to create a new genre, rooted in the Iranian and Shi’a culture, in the mythology of Karbala. In fact, it’s very interesting to underline that in Iran, the film production during the war managed to have two different ways to tell the war.

Consider the film Duel (2004) that was made after the war. The film was the most expensive film in the history of Iranian cinema. Has your view on the war film’s approach convinced you to ignore these films?

My study is focused on war films shot during the war, which is not the case of Duel.

 You have worked on the movie Leily Ba Man Ast (1996). It was produced after the war. Why did you study this film?

Actually this movie deals with how the films (TV news) were recorded during the war. It put into question the propaganda devices. It’s a kind of reflexive movie. And very courageous one! Tabrizi is not laughing at war. He is denouncing people that used war for their own profits, and also the way the media built stereotypes during the war. I loved it! It’s not usual to produce a comedy on war so soon after the war. 8 years is not a lot. I screened Leili Ba Man Ast in Switzerland and France. It was a great success and the spectators really enjoyed the film even if they did not have all the historical and ideological background.

There have been great satirical films about the war in France. If you were to compare those to films like Leili ba man Ast, what are the similarities or differences?

I think we can compare Leili Ba Man Ast with one of the best films of Chaplin called Shoulder Arms. It was made right after the First World War and it’s the story of Charlie (the Tremp) sent to the French war front. Leili Ba Man Ast is not far from that kind of “burlesque”. In France, you have to wait a longer time after the war to make a comedy, like La Grande Vadrouille.

You care about how the true story of war is depicted. That given, how do you assess the role of documentary film makers such as Avini in depicting these images?

Actually, I could talk about Avini for a long time. Not only did he record the war, but he also had his own reflection on how images work, what is true, and what is real. During the war, Avini managed to record the war and to put reality into question. He questioned each spectator on what he is watching, on what he believed, whether it is true or not. He demonstrated that the real is a construction. I think it’s not usual to do that with films during a war! During war, films show certainties and do not ask questions.

I walked with you along the graves of martyrs of war and saw your reaction to the pictures and names of the martyrs of war. It was interesting for me to see you pass the graves of many of the great commanders and martyrs and stop at Avini’s grave to look closely at it. How someone like Avini could have influenced a person like you?

I spent a lot of time watching his films. Once, twice, three times, and so on. So I have established a personal link with his works.

Avini once said that he is “among the few who would make films about war from an opposite point of view”. How much was this opposite view on the war evident in his works?

Avini created a very singular approach of the war and of war documentary films. He developed it since his first steps as a “viewer” of the war. Haqiqat, his eleven-part serial, was shot during the first two years of the war (1980-1981). Even if it is not the most well-known series by Avini, according to me, it plays an important role as one of the very first experiences of filming the battlefront, and thus became a theoretical and methodological basis for his other works and for his stuff. The specificity of Haqiqat, that will also be present in most of his works, lies in the use of time: time taken to record war on the frontline by his camera operators (sound and image), time taken to edit images in Tehran (by him). Thanks to this time, another meaning may appear during the editing process. There is also the time given to the spectators so they can reach their own approach of war, beyond the appearance of images. The use of different mediations between the recording of the events and the reception of the film by spectator are also elements of this ensemble we call “the staging device” (dispositif de mise en scène). In the eleventh episode, “In Ast Fathol Fotuh” (The Conquest of the Conquests), it is through the filming of Avini editing the film that the very special relationship between the war recorded by camera operators inside the trenches and the spectators is created. Avini plays a role of mediation. By filming in such an obvious way this step in the documentary creation (the gesture of editing), he decides to make not only the “sewing together” of the film obvious but also to consider it as a component of the aesthetics and of the meaning of the film. The representation of the gesture of editing underlines that the reality of war does not lie only in the mechanical recording of battles on the frontline – recordings wonderfully performed by Avini’s operators – but in the reading of these pictures by the film director in his editing room, in Tehran. The signification of war does not lie in the immediacy of images. These images need to be questioned (by the editor and by the spectator), and the editing gesture is one way to reach a deeper meaning of the war. To the discourses on the objectivity of TV reports shot in the urgency of war (recorded on the battlefront and immediately sent to Tehran for TV news), Avini answers by a slow and subjective construction of meaning. .

Which cinematographers during Iran-Iraq war were more influential and which one of their movies has been very effective? In simple words, which Iranian war film has been the most effective?

 Eagles remains long time at the top of the box office! So it was very influential. But other films were important in terms of creation like Neinava of Mollaqolipur.

 Of course, this movie was not made during the war.                          

Not at all! Neinava was screen in 1983 and shot just before. The first short film Mollaqolipur made was the Thirsty Water Carrier (Sagh’aye Teshne) in 1982.

It was not a good movie in cinematographic terms, but it’s an adventure, because Mollaqolipur created something that had never happened in cinema before. And this is very important. The film Border (Marz) by Jamshid Heidari is an important film in the history of Iranian cinema. It’s the very first fiction film made just some months after the beginning of the war. It’s like a John Ford’s films where a small group of civilians represent the nation to fight against the enemy. Heydari managed to elaborate a kind of representation of the Iranian nation at war, right after the revolution. He also questioned who the enemy is and who the national collectivity is. It’s a very complex film. The Scout (Didehban) by Ebrahim Hatami Kia is another example of a good film shot at the end the war. The film Rahai (Liberation – 1982) by Rasul Sadr ‘Ameli also was a very interesting film. It’s difficult to answer to your question. I would like to quote all of the films shot during the war! As real masterpieces? Marriage of the Blessed (‘arusi-ye khuban) of Moshen Makhmalbaf, and The Research II (Jostejuw ye dovvom) of Amir Naderi. Making war films during the war requires making cinematographic choices that are also political. For instance, when a director decides to put someone inside the frame, it’s a cinematographic choice, but it’s also a political one. For instance: where staging the enemy? In the front? In the back? In the border? Beside or outside the frame?

You mentioned the movie The Scout, a brilliant work by Hatami Kia. How did you find Mr. Hatami Kia’s documentaries and war movies?

Hatamikia did not shoot a lot of fiction films during the war. He was a camera operator for the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution and when he had times in the warfront, he decided by himself to shoot short fiction films. They are very interesting! The Scout was also a major film when it was screened.

During an indirect debate Kiarostami questioned Hatami Kia’s movies fundamentally and said that he believes films made about the war have their audiences only for a while and then lose them. Do you agree with him?

I have no opinion because I was not in Iran during this “debate” and it’s not related to my work.

Your experience in the war theater can help you do research work on other countries in the Middle East. For example, the changes that have happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. Have you studied the war theater of Iraq or Afghanistan?

In 2008, I organized a seminar in Iran with Avini’s camera operator Mr. Mostafa Dalahi and with Ahmad Shah Masoud’s camera operator, Youssouf Janessar. I wanted them to discuss together. The wars they recorded were completely different, but these wars happened at the same times during the 80’s. I wanted to know how they filmed the war, the technical problems they faced, the kind of choices they had to make. It was very interesting. Both of them were fascinated by the other and were curious of the work of the other. At that moment I was not interested in Afghanistan’s wars but later I worked on film shots during different wars in Afghanistan since 79 and slowly I got involved in a new research.

One of the subjects you have worked on is the presence of children in Iran-Iraq war movies. We should differentiate between child soldiers and those who volunteer to defend their homes during the war against invaders. You must separate between the two. Child soldiers are the children who have not reached the legal age and they hand him a gun and send him to the battlefield. Like what we have seen many times in Africa. A young child who has not yet reached the legal age; when his house is attacked and he defends himself, the two are very different. But in your work you have put the two together. Why?

I was asked to be part of a book on children soldiers. And I was asked about my point of view on cinema. How during the war, children of the Basij were considered in Iranian cinema. I’m not dealing with how children were or were not soldiers in reality. My researches focused on questions of representation, like for instance in Mollagholipour’s films I mentioned previously. In this article I underlined that since Iran was invaded by Iraq, people had to defend themselves and this was the purpose of films like Neinava, The Thirsty Water Carrier. My angle is not about films on children in war. My question is how Iranians decided to represent children involved in the war, during the war.

You wrote a book and on the pages 160-181, you used the term “child soldiers”. A Child soldier has a specific meaning.

It’s because the name of the book was “L’Enfant Soldat”. I had to use the expression of the book L’Enfant Soldat. Anyways, Mollahgholipour staged in his films a soldier kid: the child carried a Kalashnikov in both films and in Amir Naderi’s film Jostoju-ye Dovvom (1981) (Research 2) children, or teenagers, had a gun to defend the city. The question is how these films depicted these children in the battlefront.

Have you worked on the status of women in War Theater?

Well, during the period I studied, women did not have the main roles except in the film Border by Jamshid Heidari where the female character is very strong. The status of women in the other films shot during the war is limited to mother, exemplary wife, good sister, dedicated nurse…

What do you think about Masoud Kimiaei?

He is an important person in the history of Iranian cinema. And he is one of the “pillars” of it.

How do you see Mollagholipour’s place in Iranian cinema?

He contributed to the creation of a genre inside Iranian cinema and inside war film especially.

Who do you think is the best female director of Iranian cinema?

Rakhshan Bani Etemad without any doubt. But I don’t like the distinction between male and female directors.

Who is the most powerful actress in Iranian cinema?

The answer to this question is difficult. Susan Taslimi was a kind of an icon at a certain moment.

Susan Taslimi does not play in Iranian cinema.

She does not play now, but she did earlier.

Among the film actresses that currently play in Iranian movies. Name someone from women playing in Iranian cinema whose performances really caught your eye?

Niki Karimi, Fatemeh Motamed Arya, Leila Hatami.

What about actors?

Parviz Parastui, Ali Mosaffa…

What makes Parviz Parastui different?

He can play almost any role. The way he walks, the way he uses his body and his face completes the narration of his character.

What was the most influential film on your life and has affected you mentally?

Impossible to answer!

What role would you play today if you were a serious actress and which movies and directors would you work with?

It’s not my job. You know, I’m very glad that people are painless and are working very hard to make films and I myself just like to watch.

Our interview is now drawing to a close. I would like to know your opinion about the political impacts the recent years have left on Iran’s cinema, during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s time for example.

I think that there was no decision to help the diversity of cinema in Iran. On the contrary, the real benefit was for the private sectors and it was not the best moment for Iranian cinema.

Do you think Mr. Rouhani’s administration will help improve cinema in Iran once again?

I think Mr. Ayoubi (in charge of cinema inside Ershad – Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance) knows cinema and what he really wants to do is to change and improve. But he also will have to keep things that are going well since years and years. I’ve recently heard that The International section of the Farabi Cinema Foundation could be closed down. I would say it could be a sad decision; this institution did a lot for Iranian cinema aboard. I hope it’s just a rumor Iran produces much!

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