One. On. One: Filmmaker Mania Akbari in conversation

Iranian director Mania Akbari talks to The Skinny about her fascinating work, recently represented at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, via a BFI retrospective and through the efforts of UK distributor Second Run

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 02 Aug 2013

The last few years have seen a noticeable rise in Iranian cinema’s international profile, both through relatively mainstream breakthrough success for films like the Oscar-winning A Separation and thanks to publicised restrictions on the country’s filmmakers, most notably the house arrest of director Jafar Panahi, as documented in 2011’s This Is Not a Film. With artistic expression so heavily monitored, many of the country’s best have chosen to depart and make films elsewhere, Abbas Kiarostami (Close-Up, Taste of Cherry) among them, whose most recent films – Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love – have been part financed in France and shot in Italy and Japan.

Mania Akbari is another filmmaker who has chosen to leave her homeland to continue her work, in her case spurred by concerns that her cast and crew on her film, which would end up being named From Tehran to London due to the circumstances of its completion, would face arrest on the basis of what has happened to Panahi and others. Now a resident in the UK, she is perhaps still best known to audiences here as the star of Kiarostami’s acclaimed 2002 film Ten, but various sources – the BFI, writer-director Mark Cousins and the Edinburgh International Film Festival among them – are serving to raise the profile of this most exciting filmmaker.

Her great film One. Two. One screened as part of the International Competition in the 2012 edition of EIFF, and UK distributor Second Run has now brought the film to DVD – the world premiere of the film on any home video format and the first Akbari effort to receive a non-festival release in the UK. While attending this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival for the UK premiere of From Tehran to London, Akbari sat down to talk to me about her work.

Your films – One.Two.One and From Tehran to London specifically – have been described as being quite theatrical in terms of their conversation set-ups and lengths, but very cinematic in that they are also heavily reliant on close-ups. How did these creative decisions come about?

The architecture and mise-en-scène within a space is very important to me. When I’m creating my frame, I really want it so that when each frame is seen the audience can imagine the space surrounding it themselves. The way that I’m creating the mise-en-scène within each frame, I’m trying to, every second, break the theatrical boundaries that people are seeing. In my view, I actually feel that it’s more like performance art than a theatrical performance. It’s as if I create a space for every single character and they come and perform within that space and share something with their audience, and then they leave.

With From Tehran to London there was the issue of having to change the shooting location, and some content didn’t end up making it into the film. Was the aesthetic of the film always intended to be as presented in this final version?

I really don’t know what it was supposed to be, but I know that the very thing that meant we had to stop shooting actually created how it ended up. I have this very big ball at home, and I always collect the spare change from countries I’ve visited in that ball. One day I was lifting the ball and a very fine hole was created in the middle but without cracking the whole ball. All the change then came out and emptied the ball, and I feel that’s exactly like my film. That the initial concept of it was emptied and what was left remained in my grasp. I hope that metaphorical image makes sense...

Can you tell me anything about films you may be working on right now?

I’m working on a script at the moment that I want to make in London. All the characters are Iranian and it’s about an Iranian family in London, and all of the events take place in London locations. I’m expecting it to be a very exciting experience, working there.

You have a retrospective of your work taking place through the BFI. How did this come about?

About 12 years ago I first met and had my first interview with Geoff Andrew from the BFI. Since then he has always followed my work throughout different festivals like Los Angeles and Venice, and has always written at least a paragraph about every film. I think that the significant moment was From Tehran to London because that’s when I left Iran and came here, and that’s how he named the retrospective “From Tehran with Love.” It’s also appropriate in that my films are usually centred on relationships, love and the struggles and paradoxes that exist within a love story.

With the creation of this retrospective, the people of London and the BFI also gave me a message, and the message is that my past and everything that happened in Tehran will be preserved and held on to, and given close attention. I find [the retrospective] a focal point within my career.

Due to the BFI’s interest in you, and Chris Fujiwara of the Edinburgh International Film Festival giving you such a prominent profile in the last two years, have you had any interest from British filmmakers regarding any sort of collaboration now that you’re based in the UK?

I think everyone knows that two filmmakers can’t really work together. There are parallels in such a relationship between that of a married couple: there’s the moment that they get married and there is the moment they’re divorcing and separating. There are ways two filmmakers can collaborate, but actually having this one idea and then having two people work on it, that’s very difficult.

One. Two. One is now available on DVD through Second Run

A Mania Akbari season runs at the BFI Southbank in London from the 14-28 Jul