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Interview: Iranian filmmaker Bahram Beyzaie discusses “Downpour,” his newly-restored, pivotal classic of Iranian cinema, screening at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, Sunday, April 28, 2013

Iranian film director and playwright Bahram Beyzaie will appear at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival for a screening of “Downpour,” (Ragbar, 1971), a classic of Iranian cinema, newly restored by the World Cinema Foundation. Photo: courtesy San Francisco Film Society.

Iranian film director and playwright Bahram Beyzaie will appear at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival for a screening of “Downpour,” (Ragbar, 1971), a classic of Iranian cinema, newly restored by the World Cinema Foundation. Photo: courtesy San Francisco Film Society.

Over the years, the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF 56) has showcased some remarkable Iranian films and this year is no exception.  Bahram Beyzaie’s Downpour (Ragbar, 1971, 128 min), poetic and executed in a neo-realistic vein, was pivotal in shaping Iranian new wave cinema.  It hasn’t been screened in the Bay Area publicly for years but the newly-restored classic screens twice at SFIFF—Sunday, April 28 and Sunday, May 5.  Beyzaie, one of Iran’s most esteemed filmmakers, playwrights, and scholars of the history of Iranian theater, will attend on Sunday, April 28, participating in a post-screening Q&A with the audience.   This event almost immediately went to rush sales but, so far, tickets are available for the second showing.

Beyzaie, currently teaching at Stanford, is part of the generation of filmmakers referred to as the Iranian New Wave which emerged in the late 1960’s.  Blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality, and transcending the realism of Iran’s pre-revolutionary era with a highly poetic approach to editing, dialogue and context, Downpour, was an early pillar of the new wave.  Remarkably, it was Beyzaie’s first feature film.   He was heavily into theatre at that time.  Despite being regarded as one of the best and most influential Iranian films ever made, Downpour was nearly considered lost as it screened so rarely.  Beyzaie had the only known surviving copy and was reticent to show it.  All other copies had been seized and presumably destroyed.  Thanks to Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, the surviving print, badly damaged with scratches, perforation tears and mid-frame splices, was restored in 2011 at Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna/ L’immagine Ritrovata laboratory.  Over 1500 hours went into its repair.

Downpour’s story revolves around Mr. Hekmati (Parviz Fannizadeh), an educated and progressive teacher who is transferred to a school in the south of Tehran, a poor conservative area.  When his pupils become unruly, he expels one young boy. The boy’s older sister, `Atefeh (Parvaneh Masoomi), comes to the school and protests the expulsion, speaking to Hekmati in private.  Another student sees them together and spreads rumors that Mr. Hekmati and `Atefeh are having a love affair.  As Hekmati tries to set the record straight, he suddenly finds he really is in love with her.  Caught between the overactive imaginations of his students and the idle gossip of neighborhood busybodies, the idealistic Mr. Hekmati quickly finds himself at the center of controversy.  Soon all eyes in the community are on him.  A rich story that explores love as much as it does control and morality, Downpour addresses Iranian society in a way that reveals what is intimate and poignantly familiar in our human condition.

I spoke with Bahram Beyzaie last week. He has been at Stanford for three years now and teaches courses in Iranian cinema, Iranian contemporary theater, and cinema and mythology.  His career as a filmmaker has spanned four decades and he has made ten feature and four short films and has more than thirty-five plays and fifty screenplays to his credit.  He is also quite active in theatre and his latest theater work, “Jana & Baladoor: A Play in Shadows,” was produced by Stanford University’s Iranian Studies Dept. and performed at Palo Alto’s Cubberly Community Center in 2012.

To what does the title “Ragbar” or “Downpour” refer?  It is about intellectual life in Iran at that time?

Bahram Beyzaie: It refers to intellectual life in Iran in general and not just at that time. The appearance of the main character in Downpour is very short, like a flash of a lightening.

A scene from Bahram Beyzaie's “Downpour” (1971), hailed as one of the greatest Iranian films,  restored by World Cinema Foundation in 2011, screening at SIFF 56 with Beyzaie in attendance.   Photo: courtesy San Francisco Film Society

A scene from Bahram Beyzaie’s “Downpour” (1971), hailed as one of the greatest Iranian films, restored by World Cinema Foundation in 2011, screening at SIFF 56 with Beyzaie in attendance. Photo: courtesy San Francisco Film Society

What was it like to make a film in Iran in the 1970’s?  You worked with few resources but produced a beautiful film.

Bahram Beyzaie:  Downpour was an independent film, and had no official or commercial sponsor.  It was spontaneously made with no prior planning.  I wanted to create something that went against Iranian commercial cinema and its affected/ pseudo-intellectual films.  For the first time in Iranian cinema, the protagonist is an educated person who is not ridiculed or humiliated by the filmmaker.  In those days, Iranian traditional thinkers were in the position of humiliating the intellectuals.  This film, as well as my third film, addresses the very common educated figure without exaggerating their intellectualism.

What was it like to make a film in Iran in the 1970’s?  You worked with few resources but produced a beautiful film.

Bahram Beyzaie:  Downpour was an independent film, and had no official or commercial sponsor.  It was spontaneously made with no prior planning.  I wanted to create something that went against Iranian commercial cinema and its affected/ pseudo-intellectual films.  For the first time in Iranian cinema, the protagonist is an educated person who is not ridiculed or humiliated by the filmmaker.  In those days, Iranian traditional thinkers were in the position of humiliating the intellectuals.  This film, as well as my third film, addresses the very common educated figure without exaggerating their intellectualism.

Who is the most interesting character in the film to you and why? And has that changed any over time?

Bahram Beyzaie:  In this story, the central characters are the most interesting to me.  The main male character, Mr. Hekmati, is misplaced and certainly a stranger.  As for the female character, `Atefeh, this was the first time a female central character was not a prostitute, singer, dancer, or a villager who was seduced by rich figures.  Instead, she is a young woman who has a job and tries to find her position to help her family.  In Downpour,`Atefeh is presented in a traditional appearance, but in her hidden self, she wishes for change and independence.

A scene from Bahram Beyzaie's “Downpour” (1971), hailed as one of the greatest Iranian films,  restored by World Cinema Foundation in 2011, screening at SIFF 56 with Beyzaie in attendance.   Photo: courtesy San Francisco Film Society

A scene from Bahram Beyzaie’s “Downpour” (1971), hailed as one of the greatest Iranian films, restored by World Cinema Foundation in 2011, screening at SIFF 56 with Beyzaie in attendance. Photo: courtesy San Francisco Film Society

What more can you add about Iranian women in at that time?

Bahram Beyzaie:  There was a diversity of female figures in the 70’s—from deeply religious and fanatic, to traditional, to very sophisticated women who were university professors, painters, writers, poets, theater activists, some filmmakers, administrative personalities, nurses and medical doctors, and so forth.  For example, Downpour’s composer, again for the first in Iranian Cinema, was a woman. It is a great sorrow that Iranian cinema clung so to outdated clichés and portrayed women either as low class singer/dancers, prostitutes, or, if they were educated, as silly, rich, or negative figures.

 How did you select the actors in Downpour and were they well known at the time? Did their participation in the film have any significant impact on their careers and did you ever work with any of them again?

Bahram Beyzaie:  Some of the actors, including the two main male characters— Parviz Fannizadeh (Hekmati) and Manouchehr Farid (the butcher) were my friends and colleagues in theater, talented but not as successful in their careers as they deserved to be.  Before Downpour, they had one or two film experiences with very short parts.  The central female character `Atefeh (Parvaneh Masoomi) was unknown to the audience at that time. We discovered her from a TV commercial, maybe her first and last.  Later, I acknowledged that she had a film experience in a supporting role.  All the boys were my neighbors and had parts in my first short film. I worked with a couple of these boys in my next short film.  I worked with Parvaneh Masomi and Manouchehr Farid in three other movies, and Parviz Fanizadeh won his life’s sole acting prize for his performance as Mr. Hekmati in Downpour.

How would you describe the storytelling style you employed in “Downpour,” other than allegorical?

Bahram Beyzaie:  Poetic maybe. A poem about daily life.  Most of Iranian artistic language is allegorical, metaphoric, or poetic. More or less, you can find metaphors in other countries’ artistic languages as well, but it may be the core of Iranian artistic expression.  So is mine in my own way. You know, my father and grandfather were poets too, but their styles were different from mine.

Bahram Beyzaie in the 1970’s, a pioneer of Iranian new wave cinema.  His father, uncle and grandfather were famous poets.

Bahram Beyzaie in the 1970’s, a pioneer of Iranian new wave cinema. His father, uncle and grandfather were famous poets.

What are the characteristics of a great story?

Bahram Beyzaie:  I don’t have a good short answer for all tastes.  I wish you could watch my last theater work “Jana & Baladoor: A Play in Shadows” which was produced by Stanford University’s Iranian Studies Department —it had music, poetry, puppets, myths, and was a legend of the four mythic siblings representing the four basic elements of earth, water, air, and fire, who battled to redeem the world.

You have written a book about Hitchcock; tell me about your early cinema experiences in Iran. What did you like and was anything restricted?

Bahram Beyzaie:  After watching Chaplin’s “City Lights” I began to discover serious cinema by watching three black and white films: Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”, Ophüls’ “Letter’s from an unknown woman” and Carol Reed’s “Third Man”. Later Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” was a shock to discover oriental culture and cinema and great heritage of theater forms. In addition, I loved the great films of German expressionism, work of French masters, Italian neo-Realism, Russian epic cinema, Nordic classic films, British iconic films and American classic cinema. Tehran had a Cine-club and a very important film center which showed all these films on the big screen. Furthermore, the Italian, French, German, American, and USSR cultural centers were active as well in screening their classical films and they were all open to the public.  I remember watching Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin in the Russian cultural center.  I will never forget the joy of watching Satiyajit Ray’s “Paterpanchali” in the Indian Cultural Center. I remember the Americans had three weeks of American Classical Cinema and I watched all of them. It was usual and normal to watch international films in Tehran at that time – when I was twenty.

How did you eventually become the chairman of Dramatic arts at Tehran University?

Bahram Beyzaie:  It was the subsequent of my theater background. In high school I discovered Shakespeare and Greek masters of tragedy, and then suddenly I returned to Iranian traditional theater forms to research the Oriental theater — Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian. I started to write plays and became a stage director. Because of my works I was invited to teach theater at the Tehran University.

What was your involvement in the restoration?

Bahram Beyzaie:  It happened by the kindness of others. One of my colleagues attending a film festival met someone from the World Cinema Foundation and they spoke of Iranian films and me. My colleague was asked about my films and she explained that Downpour was the only film that was here and had English subtitles but could not be screened due to being the only subtitled copy of the film that existed. Hearing this, the World Cinema Foundation agreed to restore it and they did all the work in Bologna and it took about a year. Thanks to their hard work!

A scene from Bahram Beyzaie's “Downpour” (1971), hailed as one of the greatest Iranian films,  restored by World Cinema Foundation in 2011, screening at SIFF 56 with Beyzaie in attendance.   Photo: courtesy San Francisco Film Society

A scene from Bahram Beyzaie’s “Downpour” (1971), hailed as one of the greatest Iranian films, restored by World Cinema Foundation in 2011, screening at SIFF 56 with Beyzaie in attendance. Photo: courtesy San Francisco Film Society

What are you teaching at Stanford?

I’ve been at Stanford (visiting lecturer in comparative literature) for three years now, teaching Iranian cinema, Iranian cinema diaspora, Iranian contemporary theater, and cinema and mythology, which is an analytic view on numerous great films in general from the angle of mythology.

To view a 10 minute trailer of the unrestored Downpour click here.

Downpour/ Ragbar (1971): Directed by Bahram Beyzaie, Screenwriter: Bahram Beyzaie. Cast: Parviz Fannizadeh, Parvaneh Masumi, Manuchehr Farid.  DigiBeta, b/w, in Persian with English subtitles, 120 min.

Bahram Beyzaie Films: Vaqti hame khābim (When We Are All Asleep) (2009), Qāli-ye Sokhangū (2006), Sag-Koshi (Killing Mad Dogs)(2001), Mosaferan (The Passengers)(1992), Bashu (The Little Stranger)(1989), Shayad Vaghti Deegar (Maybe Some Other Time)(1988), Marg Yazdgerd (Death of Yazdgerd)(1982), Tcherike-ye Tara (Ballad of Tara)(1979), Kalagh (The Crow)(1976), Gharibe va Meh (The Stranger and the Fog)(1974),  Safar (The Journey)(1972), Ragbar (Downpour)(1971); Amoo Sibilou (1969)

(Other restored films which have screened at SFIFF in recent years include Federic Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (Italy, 1960) SFIFF 54; Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (India, 1958)

DETAILS:  Downpour Screens Sunday, April 28, 12:15 PM, Kabuki AND Sunday, May 5, 3:20 PM BAM/PFA).  Check ticket availability here.

SFIFF56: April 25-May 9, 2013.  5 Screening Venues: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post Street, San Francisco; New People Cinema, 1746 Post Street, San Francisco; Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street, San Francisco; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive Theatre, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. Tickets: $15 for most films with a variety of multiple screening passes. Special events generally start at $20  More info: (415) 561-5000, www.festival.sffs.org

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April 27, 2013 - Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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