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“Imagination helps us navigate reality”

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Alireza Khatami • Director

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- VENICE 2017: Iranian filmmaker Alireza Khatami is presenting his debut feature Oblivion Verses in Orizzonti at Venice, where we spoke to him about fantasy meeting harsh reality

Alireza Khatami  • Director
(© La Biennale di Venezia - foto ASAC)

When the militia kills a young woman, the elderly caretaker of a morgue embarks on a journey to give her a proper burial, kicking off a series of unusual encounters. In Alireza Khatami’s Oblivion Verses [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Alireza Khatami
film profile
]
, screening in Orizzonti at the Venice Film Festival, fantasy meets harsh reality – which, as he told Cineuropa, is exactly the point.

Cineuropa: In Oblivion Verses, you combine reality with elements of fantasy. Yet your characters don’t seem to question what is happening around them.
Alireza Khatami: Fantasy is what guides them. In cinema, “reality” is given way too much credit. For the past century, all of the influential philosophers have emphasised that reality is only accessible through the faculty of imagination. There is no truth – only perception. Perhaps we can say that fantasy, just like a compass, helps us navigate our reality. It gives us a chance to discover everything anew.

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When did you decide you might want to explore it? You used to work with Asghar Farhadi, and that’s not what he believes in at all.
In Mr Farhadi’s cinema, everything is servicing the plot. I learned from him how to direct actors – he has a true talent for that. It helped me to ground my characters in their universe despite all the fantasy elements. However, I want to find my own way of doing things. The masters behind The Weeping Meadow or Modern Times didn’t need to sign their works – they are the only ones that could have made them. They inspire me a great deal.

For all the magical elements exhibited here, you were also trying to exorcise your own demons by referencing things you have actually experienced.
If I had to choose a tagline for this film, it would be something like this: “When the memory remembers you.” The assumption is that we are in control of our own memories, but there are times when it’s the other way around. Derrida, in A Taste for the Secret, spoke about that secret of which even you don’t know. We all have unknown ghosts from the past, buried within us somewhere. Every movie is an exorcism. But let me deal with my demons on my own [laughs].

Is that why you chose a mature protagonist?
When speaking about memory, we can’t have a 20-year-old protagonist. But when you are 75, there are layers and layers of memories you can recall. The only young person in the film is the dead girl in the morgue. The young is dead, and the old mourns. There is a great danger in simple stories, so even though the plotline is quite straightforward, I wanted to drift away from it as much as possible. These characters with their unfinished, sometimes untold stories, gave me the opportunity to expand the universe of the film. Even the main protagonist we know very little of. I did not want to show a hero that goes on a journey, and at the end of it he learns something profound. It’s not that simple. I am grateful for having worked with such an amazing cast. Most of the supporting actors had only one scene to work with, yet they created multidimensional characters.

This kind of structure is more widely accepted in literature. In cinema, there is this pressure to explain everything.
Literature is a much more forward-thinking medium. Take this film: everybody tells me, “Wow, it’s magic realism!” Why do they seem so surprised? Writers were doing it ages ago. A writer needs a pen and paper; cinema needs the whole infrastructure. That’s why it is a much more conservative medium. Authors experiment with storytelling much more and pave the way for the filmmakers. I would like to learn from them and see how I can push the boundaries of cinema a little more.

In my film, I was inspired by many texts. The whales, which tie the entire story together, have found their way into folklore, myths, poems and even Holy Scriptures. Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days, according to the Gospel of Matthew. Rumi sees the whale as the symbol of ultimate desire in his poetry, much like Herman Melville in Moby Dick. Mister Geppetto finds his son in the belly of the whale in The Adventures of Pinocchio.We all have wandering whales in our past; we just have to find a way to bring them back to the sea.

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