Film In Conversation
Mohammad Reza Aslani with Forrest Cardamenis
Mohammad Reza Aslani, Amin Aslani, and Gita Aslani Shahrestani discuss how Western and Iranian influences converge onscreen, the film’s complex temporality, and its parallels with the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Chess of the Wind
Cinema history is littered with “holy grails,” lost works of established import that may or may not ever surface, from the extended cut of Metropolis discovered in the late aughts to Orson Welles’s likely non-existent original ending for The Magnificent Ambersons. But perhaps still more exciting is the revelation of a previously known masterwork, unfairly dismissed upon its initial screenings and then rediscovered only by accident.
That’s the story with Mohammad Reza Aslani’s 1976 feature Chess of the Wind, a film that teeters on the precipice between the traditional and the modern, pulling from both Iranian and European pictorial traditions to deliver a series of politically charged, even revolutionary tableaux. The only audience the film had screened for at the time was a group of hostile critics, who lambasted the film for its European aesthetic. It was promptly banned by the Shah’s government for its implied criticism, and after the Revolution the Ayatollah’s regime was no kinder to the film’s frank depiction of homosexuality.
Its rediscovery was equal parts serendipity and exhaustive search. Mohammad Reza Aslani’s daughter, Gita Aslani Shahrestani, an academic living in Paris, wanted to unearth the film, and eventually recruited help from her brother, Amin, still living in Tehran, who happened upon the reels in a junk shop in 2014. The family smuggled the film to Paris, and after extensive restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation, the film began, at last, to screen again—only this time, the reviews were rapturous. On the occasion of Chess of the Wind’s theatrical release at Film Forum, Mohammad Reza Aslani, along with his son and daughter—who served as translators and provided helpful context and clarifications—made time to discuss how Western and Iranian influences converge onscreen, the film’s complex temporality, and its parallels with the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Forrest Cardamenis (Rail): What kind of reception did you expect when this restoration [of Chess of the Wind] started to screen?
Mohammad Reza Aslani: No one can guess what will happen with a film. We tried to make the film without thinking about that. We just hoped that everything we knew and everything we had learned would make the film work.
Before this film, I made some short films—fictions, documentaries, and a year or two before that a serial, a historical work. With that, I tried to experiment with a different kind of style, taking from painting and poetry. I had already experimented with a lot before Chess of the Wind, so I had all of that with me. I was very interested in art films. I educated myself about this kind of cinema, and Chess of the Wind is from this kind of cinema, an artistic or author’s cinema.
Rail: How did your study of painting show itself in Chess of the Wind?
Mohammad Reza Aslani: I studied Western painting as a student. I was very interested in painting after the 15th century, like Dürer and Vermeer, but especially Dürer and how he used the hands in his paintings. He uses the figure of a man to create a certain idea. When he puts the figure in a place that helps to create an atmosphere and a spatial-temporal aspect of a moving image.
Instead of writing a story, we can “write” a spatial-temporal atmosphere. We can write or create a space rather than stick to the narrative of the film. The base of the film is not the story, but how to create this space. We have a spatial-temporal relationship that grows rather than just a story.
Rail: Something that contributes to that is the exterior sequences, where the women are discussing their lives and gossiping. When did you realize that those scenes would be a part of the film?
Mohammad Reza Aslani: From the start, these scenes were an important part of the script. These women are like the chorus in the Greek plays. These scenes provide a new temporary layer. We have three different presents instead of a past, present, and future. The chorus, these scenes of the women, are a flash-forward. But as we watch it, it’s the present. And when we watch the past, that is also in the present. So, we have different presents that succeed one another. Their dialogue is as if in the past, but their presence is in the present.
Amin Aslani: And I should add that when we see the last scene of the film, we come to the present, the time of the filmmaker and the crew. So, it’s as if we have four present times, all speaking about the past, but with presence.
Gita Aslani Shahrestani: The main story is around 1915 or 1916, after the Constitutional Revolution. The part with the women is in roughly 1925. In 1925, the Iranian King made military service obligatory, as they talk about in one scene. And the last scene is in the present.
Amin Aslani: In 1976, when the film was shot.
Rail: Can you talk more about that last scene? Was that in the script or did it come to you later?
Mohammad Reza Aslani: It was written in the script. During the scout, I needed to find a proper house for this shot, and I found one situated in a modern district, but I always wanted it because the whole film was kind of a metaphor for what was happening in Iran at that time, in the 1970s. At that moment, there were different political parties, like different movements in literature or different pictorial movements. All of them were against each other, trying to keep the power. They were not working together for the construction of the country. In the film, it’s not the history of when the film takes place we were trying to tell. We wanted to say something about the present, the society of the 1970s. Each group wanted power, and that was destroying the country. I wanted to show that.
In these conflicts within different political parties, their debate, on the surface, was about the reform of the society. But inside, the truth was that they wanted to replace each other or even to topple the regime and gain power and to eliminate one another instead of enhancing society. All these parties just thought about themselves. It was a catastrophe that I could see before the revolution, as if prophesizing it.
Rail: That’s exactly where I was going next. Did you feel while you were making the movie that a revolution could be imminent? The movie seems to suggest or predict what was coming.
Mohammad Reza Aslani: No. Everything was very calm. We didn’t have revolution brewing, everything seemed very good. It was only after the [1979 Iranian Revolution] occurred that I understood that the film prophesized the event. It was calm at the moment, but everyone was still thinking about change; people wanted change. They were preparing, but it wasn’t very evident. It wasn’t until the next year that the change became visible.
Gita Aslani Shahrestani: I want to add that at that moment all the artists who were attached to the avant-garde, especially in literature and poetry, felt this need for change. You can see poems just talking about how something needed to change, something was coming. They talk about the conflict between the religious and the bourgeois and aristocratic values of society.
Rail: Going back to the atmosphere, the sound design is also very crucial. You can hear animals in the background throughout. Can you talk a bit about the sound of the film?
Mohammad Reza Aslani: At the time the narrative takes place, Tehran was more like a village. Those wild animals, wolves and such, you could actually find outside houses. But it’s a kind of symbol that the world outside is threatening the world inside. They symbolize a world that is invading the privacy and intimacy of the interiors.
Every filmic element has its own importance. The sound itself is a kind of dialogue in that it says something. The props in the film are like images themselves. But the sounds are almost breaking the walls and also breaking down the time. Every sound you hear in the movie has its own meaning. It all symbolizes something else. The pistol, the mirror, all the objects too. They are not used just as accessories; each one brings something to the film.
Rail: The last two reels of the film are tinted to resemble silent films. What about silent films was appropriate for the climax in light of the importance of sound?
Mohammad Reza Aslani: The images of silent cinema, because it doesn’t have sound, become much more important. In Edvard Munch’s The Scream, you see this figure is screaming, but you don’t hear anything, and it has a more powerful effect because of that. Cinema can also be enhanced by omitting the sound, or by omitting other elements, because omitting something enhances everything else. Auteur cinema is from the silent cinema. The art of cinema comes from silent cinema. Even in the early scene when they are working with these documents, burning these documents, it’s almost like a silent movie. There’s no dialogue, it’s very quiet. You can feel the weight of the silence. The dialogue is not just to put words in the film or drive the story of the film. They are important as sound. You have to think of them as sounds and not just words.
I learned from music that when you put silence and sound next to each other, silence can be even more important than the sound itself. So, in dialogues, the silences between the words reveal the truth. The dialogue itself veils the truth. It covers the thoughts and intentions of the speakers, and the silence then reveals what they are really thinking.
Rail: You have talked a lot about European art, but what of Iran’s own artistic traditions did you bring to the movie?
Mohammad Reza Aslani: The most important is an Iranian painting of the 19th century, Estensakh, by Mahmoud Khan Malek Al-shoara, which expressionistically depicts a scene of bookmaking, but in an atmosphere that looks as though something conspiratorial is being written. And one of the scenes, the second sequence, where they are writing the papers and trying to copy these documents, is exactly the same. The atmosphere of conspiracy in the film comes from this painting. It shows an act, but within this act there is conspiracy conveyed by the color and the light. I wanted the same for my film.
This painting is pre-Expressionist. It has an Expressionist style, and it’s a realistic situation—a man by candlelight copies something—but it has the atmosphere of horror or conspiracy. It’s the same thing as with sound and silence, in that the shadows are more important than the main figures. In Expressionist painting, we have the daily routines of life, but the shadows behind have more to say. Estensakh depicts the daily routine of a copyist but reveals the atmosphere of an era, of all these conspiracies taking place outside the frame.
The pictorial style of the film is taken from this painting. Throughout the movie, every scene reveals something which in turn hides something else. Whatever you see is, again, a veil of some greater truth.
Rail: Were there any individual films or filmmakers that were similarly important?
Mohammad Reza Aslani: We cannot talk about influence, but cinema started with Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Griffith, and then in Europe you had Epstein and the avant-garde, and after that Bresson in France and Rossellini in Italy. With all these cinematographic movements, it’s not just about influence. These provide the theoretical and experiential range of the cinema. We have that inside of us when we want to make a good film.
The important thing is to talk about the world with the cinema. All these different kinds of cinema we have, like Godard, someone like Akerman, they brought their view and their idea about the world to the cinema.
Gita Aslani Shahrestani: But how did this manifest within your film?
Mohammad Reza Aslani: Apart from the influence of literature, like Dostoevsky and Chekhov, Dos Passos, Robbe-Grillet, I looked to One Thousand and One Nights. I took this idea of these characters without names, whose names are just functions. They do their narrative duty. For example, here only the two brothers have names, but their names are of Arabic months, generic names.
Rail: We have time for one last quick question: has the success of this restoration led to any interest in your other surviving work?
Gita Aslani Shahrestani: Yes, we are working on other films. He made three films with Kanoon that we are trying to restore. We’re bringing these films and another produced by Iranian Television to France, where we will continue working for their restoration with the Cineteca di Bologna and French Institute. Next year, we will have with Carlotta Films his second fiction feature, The Green Fire, which he made in 2007.