“The cinema is a space for discovery, and we have sought to really celebrate that”: Film producer Elhum Shakerifar discusses Poetry in Motion – Contemporary Iranian Cinema
Poetry in Motion is the stimulating new season at the Barbican, showcasing visually compelling features from up-and-coming Iranian directors. It has been commissioned by the Bagri Foundation, a UK charity that promotes the work of artists from across Asia and supports a variety of projects spanning a range of art forms, including dance, literature and music as well as film, to better represent Asian art and culture across the world.
Curated by Elhum Shakerifar and Faye Harvey, the season highlights emerging voices in the contemporary Persian film scene, presented through poetic features rather than those with a political stance. Some movies to feast your eyes upon are Atomic Heart, a hallucinatory journey through night-time Tehran, Janbal, which depicts Persian mythology and folklore through documentary, fantasy, performance art and poetry, and Ava, a lyrical film on the strained relationship between a young girl and her mother.
Elhum Shakerifar is a BAFTA-nominated producer and through her company Hakawati supports new talent and independent filmmakers. We spoke to her about selecting the films for Poetry in Motion and screening them for the first time in the UK, the poetry and inventiveness of Iranian cinema and the importance of celebrating new voices.
What first inspired you to curate this season of contemporary Iranian cinema?
It has always seemed to me that Iran’s poetry and of storytelling has impacted on Iranian cinema more distinctly than is ever celebrated. Over the years, I have also observed the emergence of distinct, bold and exciting new voices who receive limited visibility in the UK, and I wanted to create a space for that. Positioning the cinema as a unique space for discovery and discussion, this season was developed within that frame; it was supported to this end by the Bagri Foundation and it was co-curated with Faye Harvey and in collaboration with the Barbican.
What made you decide to select films that veered away from the politics of modern Iran and why?
This question is akin to asking Carol Morley why her latest film isn’t about Brexit. We didn’t have an agenda to address or not address certain questions with this season, we were keen to find distinct new voices, and chose to reflect on the art of each filmmaker’s craft through the frame of poetry, which was a shared personal passion of both Faye and myself.
During the film selection, were there any particular elements you were looking for and how did you find the overall experience?
The starting point in many ways was our opening film, A Dragon Arrives! by Mani Haghighi. Inventive, playful, irreverent – it is a cinematic feast that has delighted every person we have shared it with in the run up to the season. The fact that it hasn’t screened in the UK until now is surprising, but can perhaps be explained by the fact that it jars with the idea of Iranian cinema that people have come to expect. That expectation has created a certain rigidity that we’re looking to challenge with our selection. We were looking for bold, fresh, new voices in Iranian cinema and that was what was leading our search and selection. Many of the films play with form and play with expectations and have a freedom in form and narrative devices that is akin to poetry.
Were there any challenges you faced when selecting the films?
Our selection phase was long and we were able to look into festival archives, to connect with distributors internationally and to view and reflect on a large range of films. I think that the main challenge is always narrowing down a selection, when there is so much exciting work out there! But hopefully this season will open the door to others, as we have many more suggestions of films that should really be seen on the big screen.
What more do you think can be done to prevent stereotypes of Iran for people who don’t know much about the country?
The cinema is a space for discovery, and we have sought to really celebrate that with this season. We want to create a frame where people can learn about Iranian cinema and culture from within the cinema frame, rather than from news headlines. By framing a diverse selection of new voices through the evergreen language of poetry, we invite reflection and nuance, as well as a celebration of storytelling in its many guises through the live elements accompanying screenings – these will include reflection from poets and painters, and I hope will bring people to a more layered understanding of Iranian culture.
How can a wider audience become better engaged in Iran’s culture and film industry?
An open mind and curiosity is really all you need to better understand the world around you. The season is in many ways an invitation to learn about Iranian culture through the wisdom of its poetry and the inventiveness of its contemporary cinema.
What do you feel are the issues faced by filmmakers in Iran today and what can be done to prevent these?
I think that Iranian filmmakers are asked about censorship so regularly that a meaningful discussion about their work is actively curtailed. I think it would help filmmakers hugely if they were asked about their work and not to be representatives of their country constantly.
What advice would you give to filmmakers (particularly in Iran) who want to develop their work?
I would tell any filmmaker embarking on the long process of making a film to make it for themselves, and to know why they are making it. Whatever is driving you might be the only thing that remains from the beginning to the end of the process. Also to work with people you can speak to and understand what it is that you’re trying to explore and express. And finally, to be prepared for a long journey!
Where do you think Iranian cinema stands in the world of film and what does the future hold for it?
I don’t feel qualified to answer this to be honest! I believe that Iranian cinema continues to be wonderfully inventive and active, and it is also up to the world stage to be open to the variety of voices it is producing.
Photo: Courtesy of Elhum Shakerifar
Poetry in Motion: Contemporary Iranian Cinema is at the Barbican from 3rd until 24th April 2019. For further information about screenings or to book visit the event’s website here.
For further information about the Bagri Foundation visit the charity’s website here.