When it comes to suffering for one’s art, Mohammad Rasoulof is the real deal. His latest effort, There Is No Evil, which focuses on the death penalty in his native Iran, was shot in secret due to an ongoing filmmaking ban imposed upon the director.
Set The Tape’s Nicholas Lay sat down with Mohammad at VIFF 2020 to discuss the project and find out what keeps him going in the face of adversity.
NICHOLAS LAY: Your work has long focused on Iran’s authoritarian regime from the perspective of the people it impacts. There Is No Evil does this through the lens of the death penalty; what was your goal going into the film?
MOHAMMAD RASOULOF: My filmmaking goal is not just to focus on the authoritarian regime or the power it wields, but rather what it does to the people and how it influences their lives. I look at the people and how they are confronted by the issues generated by a force like the Iranian state. In There Is No Evil, I wanted to discuss what would happen if people said no, if they rejected the things they are asked to do, and the consequences this would have on their lives. An important point is that in an authoritarian regime everything is unavoidably political, to the extent that even being silent is a political act because it enforces the status quo.
NL: It is rare to see the role of the executioner receive such a thorough and humanising examination. What drew you to the death penalty and the perspective of the executioner within Iranian society?
MR: What I’m looking at in this film is the role that every single person plays throughout the system, including both the executioners and those around them. One option for these people is to turn a blind eye and go along with the regime, the second is to try not to participate, and the third is to actively resist. I chose the death penalty as the central theme because it is the ultimate example of going along with the regime and participating in its rule, and in many cases the executioner personifies that.
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NL: You have faced numerous restrictive sentences in your home country, including a two-year ban on filmmaking, yet the film looks fantastic and is highly effective. How did you go about shooting in secret and what were the biggest challenges you faced?
MR: To be honest, neither I nor my crew are completely satisfied with the finished film. When we make a film we have to exert so much energy to work in secret and escape the eyes of censorship. Instead of putting all our energy into the artistic realisation of There Is No Evil, we had to diverge to make sure we covered our tracks, which is not a satisfying process. As usual, we tried our best to complete the film to the highest standard and to create a story that can be believed. I’m happy that I was at least able to realise the project, which was due in part to the help I received from good friends and my team, but the way we make these films is unnatural and difficult. During the second chapter we had to transform a closed school into a prison as there was no other way to create that specific look, and that was a very trying process. These behind the scenes challenges are not visible to the audience, so I want to try and make people aware of the hardships facing my team each time we shoot.
NL: Resistance to your work seems to come naturally in Iran. Does that adversity drive you artistically?
MR: I would not say that the adversity itself is what drives me. I’m a filmmaker with specific issues that I want to talk about based on my circumstances, but I would also like to make films about other subjects, whether it be love or any other area I’m interested in. The problem is that when you work within this kind of authoritarian rule, no matter what the subject is it will always be political. If you do not want to face that fact then you are turning away from the reality of the situation in Iran. Basically, you are lying, and that untruth will always seep into your films. It is important to have an honest relationship with your audience, so to ignore the repression would sabotage that relationship. It is tiring to work under these conditions and if I’m being honest I have considered leaving cinema behind. On the other hand, this is who I am, and being a filmmaker is one of the most important aspects of my life. I will do my best to carry on, as it is the audience and the message that drives me, rather than the censorship and what comes with it.
NL: It’s an outstanding collective performance from your ensemble cast. How difficult is it to attract local talent to what they know will be a controversial project?
MR: It is a very difficult process. When building my crew I always start by contacting my closest associates, especially my co-producers Kaveh Farnam and Farzad Pak, but also old friends and partners who I’ve worked with for a long time, like my editor Mohammadreza Muini, cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani, and production designer Saeid Asadi. We then slowly increase the circle of people involved with the production and start looking for our actors. We knew we needed real talent for this film, but many actors are afraid to work on such a project, which made for a long search. The casting processes for the four stories were actually separate, as we wanted to spend time with the actors first and really get to know their perspectives and motivations. When casting the second story, which involves a group of soldiers, we narrowed those in contention from 25 to five before the actors were even told they would be working with Mohammad. Eventually it was clear that the actors we had found wanted the opportunity to be accomplices in the act of saying no to censorship in Iran, which made for a strong crew and really helped the production.
NL: This is your daughter Baran’s debut performance. How did she get involved with the film?
MR: The idea to work together had been developing for quite a while. The fourth story, in which she stars, is closely related to our relationship and shares similarities with our own history. We have been separated for many years because of the travel ban imposed upon me, and when Baran was 15 she started to ask questions as to why we could not see each other very often. She then began to figure out that it was because of my voice and actions in Iran, so when writing the fourth story I thought about her and asked her if she wanted to play the role.
NL: Iranians around the world and some within Iran have no doubt seen the film. What message did you want to convey to them and what has their reaction been so far?
MR: I wanted to spotlight the question of resistance in Iran, and ask the people what their own roles and responsibilities are in this system. In what way are they taking part in this authoritarian regime? Recently there was an execution in Iran which became a huge public talking point, and people were linking the film and its focus to that execution, which did actually make some people question their role in producing and sustaining the current system.
NL: Earlier this year you were once again handed a prison sentence in Iran. You have avoided that sentence so far, but your situation remains difficult. What do you plan to do next? Are there other projects on the horizon?
MR: I have learnt to deal with this situation by always having several parallel plans in motion at any one time. My aim is to make people think, which motivates me because if I just sat around and thought about going to jail I would never accomplish anything. If I do go to prison or have a clear sense that the time is drawing near, I would make arrangements to continue my work from there. Of course I do not want to go to prison at all, but if I have to I will try to make something good out of it; something beautiful from within the hardship that I can share with others, whether it be a story about those in prison or something else that influences me.
NL: Thanks for taking the time, Mohammad, and good luck.
MR: Thank-you very much.
Catch up on our coverage of the Vancouver International Film Festival 2020 here.