Babak Najafi • Director
by Annika Pham
10/03/2010 - Babak Najafi, the 35-year-old Iranian-born director who has lived in Sweden since he was 12, won the Best Debut Feature at the 60th Berlinale for his film Sebbe [trailer]. He spoke to Cineuropa a few days before the film’s theatrical release in Sweden through SF.
Cineuropa: What does it mean to have won the award for Best Debut Feature in Berlin?
Babak Najafi: When you make a film, you’re not sure if people will be interested in it or not. By winning such an award, you realise your film has reached people. Also, for a first-time filmmaker, finding financiers is quite difficult, so winning this award hopefully means that making my second film will be easier.
When did you decide to become a filmmaker and what influenced your choice?
I was born in Iran and lived there until I was 12. In 1980, the war between Iran and Iraq started. I had a neighbour who managed to buy a VHS cassette video player. We lived in a building with several different flats. To forget about the bombs, we would call our neighbours and watch foreign movies that were not shown on national television. Every afternoon after school, I had a great time watching those movies.
When I moved to Sweden, in Uppsala, we had a media centre where they had workshops. By accident, I went there and discovered filmmaking. I then studied at Stockholm’s Dramatiska Institutet, where I met many friends with whom I still work, including my producers Rebecka Lafrenz and Mimmi Spång.
Sebbe portrays a side of Sweden rarely shown on film: the lower working class…
I wanted to tell a story about separation, an important feeling in my life and something very complex. I felt it was a good starting point for a story, something that could also happen to anyone. Then, regarding the theme of poverty, I felt that most feature films I had seen were not dealing with this subject. When you live in Western Europe, you’re so comfortable in your life. You forget about – or don’t want to see – those on the wrong side of society, because it’s easier. I felt it was important to talk about it.
Was it because you wanted everybody to identify with the main character that you cast a non-professional (Sebastian Hiort) as Sebbe?
When I see US movies, many films have a great story and are very well done, but I still look at Robert de Niro or Julianne Moore. I don’t see the human being portrayed in the film. Of course, I fully respect actors. But with this film, I needed to have an unknown actor to keep the story anchored in reality.
Sebbe has been compared to the social-realist films of Ken Loach and Andrea Arnold. How does that make you feel?
It’s a great honour of course. But at the same time, we’re all human beings with different backgrounds, therefore different creative worlds. If you have a story, you should just be honest with yourself, not try and imitate someone else. For me, one of the greatest filmmakers ever was Stanley Kubrick. All his films are very different. As a filmmaker, if you make a science fiction film, a drama or whatever, the important thing is to try to connect with an audience.
What will be your next project?
I am writing a new script right now. For me, writing is a long and demanding process. Again, I hope the story will have a universal appeal. It will have a political theme, something also very important to me.
As you mentioned politics, what do you think of your counterpart Jafar Panahi’s arrest in Iran?
I feel a great shame. When I was in Berlin, I met another great Iranian director. When I asked him what he was doing, he said: “Nothing! 60 or 70milllion people in Iran would expect me to do a certain kind of film with a strong story, that I just wouldn’t be able to make because I would be put in jail or killed.” I felt very sad. The question for a filmmaker is: Is it worth taking that kind of risk, putting yourself in danger, but most importantly your family? It’s a very difficult question to answer.