The 2023 Karlovy Vary Film Festival is dedicating a decent chunk of its programming to Iranian cinema, a special retrospective section entitled ‘Another Birth: Iranian Cinema Here and Now’ showcasing nine films from the country made over the last four years.
While Iran’s recent nationwide protests, sparked in September 2022 when Mahsa Amini died in police custody after being arrested for violating Iran’s hijab law, and the brutal and widely condemned government crackdown that followed weren’t explicitly mentioned by the festival, it did say the films selected offered an “insightful testimony of the burning creativity of Iran’s artists in face of the challenging reality.”
Interestingly, outside of this retrospective and among the features screening in the Karlovy Vary’s Proxima Competition, is a film from an Iranian director that directly challenges the reality in his country, and one that was, in part, was borne out of the calls for change that were part of the protests.
From the outside, Karim Lakzaheh’s black and white feature Dark Matter, which had its world premiere in the Czech Republic on July 4, sounds like an intriguing satirical comedy about filmmaking and filmmakers. An actor and actress fail to be cast in a mainstream movie so decide to make their own instead, one that requires the small matter of burglary to help with the financing.
But as Lakzaheh, 36, explains, the fictitious film-within-the-film pushes back against Iran’s censorship rules, rules he says have stifled the local cinema industry and sees features made that may indeed criticize society, but only within strict parameters. Dark Matter also goes against the mandatory hijab rule, a decision he said came out of an “internal revolution” to not “continue making fake pictures.” It’s one he says has been felt by many young Iranians in wake of the protest movement.
As Lakzaheh notes to The Hollywood Reporter, speaking ahead of the premiere, thanks to the recent upheavals in Iran, his new view of success is not about becoming respected or popular, but about directing “honest movies.”
You kept everyone, including press, from seeing Dark Matter until the Karlovy Vary premiere. Why was this?
I would have loved to have shown it. But all the producers and actors were still in Iran, and this movie was made without the mandatory hijab rule so it could have put them in danger until they left the country. So we were just being cautious.
In breaking this hijab rule, what does it mean for you, your cast and crew when it comes to going back to Iran?
We honestly don’t know. But usually the issue is getting out of the country. Going back, we have no idea what’s going to happen.
So what’s Dark Matter about? From the description, it sounds like a satire about filmmaking and the film industry. Is that right?
That’s exactly right. But not to spoil the story, it’s also related to the cosmos, dark matter and astrology. For a while I took an astrology course. It was just the basics. I combined this with my interest in cinema and story for this.
But the main idea is basically inspired by our own lives, and our own attempts, our own trials and failures to make movies while most of the time not having enough money.
And in the synopsis it says that the film your characters are making is a film that defies the censorship rules. Is that simply through not having your female characters wear the hijab?
The censorship in Iran is not just about the hijab or anything relating to sexuality. Of course, that’s important, but what gets censored widely in Iran is anything which is a new idea. They actually censor a new idea. So in this movie, there’s a new idea that could be censored. This censorship has prevented any new wave of cinema from happening. Which is why, in this movie I’ve tried to follow or be inspired by or refer to the New Wave of French cinema in the 1950s and 60s.
What sort of new ideas get stopped by the censors?
The most important thing is that there is an idealistic view of society. Whenever you move towards the reality of the society, it may not be necessarily a new idea, but initially this is what could get censored. Just like in India, we have an image of Bollywood, but the reality of society is very different. And that image has no place in Iranian films.
So there’s a particular image of Iranian society that the censors want to project, at home and abroad, and anything outside of that could be banned?
There is a fine point here. You may have seen a few movies made in Iran made by filmmakers like Asghar Farhadi, which are good, social movies and they actually criticise society. But the point is that the producers and investors behind these movies are actually those connected to the state, so even that criticism could be a fake image. So although these movies do criticise society, the thing is that these criticisms are actually fake criticisms.
So, just off the top of my head, a Ken Loach-style film, a kitchen sink drama about poverty and corruption or mismanagement within the state, wouldn’t be allowed.
Yes, a Ken Loach movie would be censored. But the point is that there is always a pattern, there is a cliché. And within those borders, you can move and you can do your criticism. But you cannot get out of those borders, or you’ll be censored.
So is there a sense that the majority of films we see coming out of Iran aren’t exactly the same, but don’t really break the mould? As you say, there’s no chance for a New Wave.
Yes, exactly. When a young filmmaker wants to make a movie and enter the mainstream of the cinema industry, and based on making social movies about society, they’re not aware that they are being, not exactly censored, but patterned and shaped by the producers behind the movie. They know that the level of criticism in the film isn’t dangerous. Every year, a few young people move from shorts to features, but if you watch their features, you’ll see the pattern, you’ll see that the result is always the same.
What is the idea in Dark Matter that would upset censors?
Well we should mention the hijab. This movie was made without the hijab. But the story sees a young boy and girl being with each other, defying mainstream cinema, wanting to do what they want, just like a teenager wanting to defy their father and eventually finding their own way.
Was the decision not to have women wear the hijab in the film in response to the protests and everything we’ve seen happen in Iran over the last year?
Actually you’ll see in the first few minutes of the movie, it’s with the hijab. But the decision to get rid of that regulation was a personal, emotional thing — I decided that I could not continue making fake pictures in a movie. Because in our own gatherings as young people, we don’t have the hijab. The real image of young people, either regarding the hijab or their relationships, is actually the first thing to be censored… that’s the reality of that picture that we actually live.
What do you think the reaction to the film in Iran is going to be?
It really doesn’t matter to me. I actually haven’t thought about it until the moment you asked. Maybe I should think about it a little bit more.
Given everything that has happened in Iran over the last year with the huge number of protests and government crackdowns, what is the situation for filmmakers like yourself?
What has happened to people like myself is that that revolution has happened inside us. The hijab is still mandatory in the society, but inside people something has changed. Our view of success has changed. And I think this is one of the greatest achievements, one that cannot be achieved so easily.
It sounds like Dark Matter is your own filmmaking revolution
It’s not a movie that causes a revolution, but it is the result of an internal revolution, for sure. I used to have an idea of success, as a relatively young person, of becoming famous, becoming popular and so on. But now this has changed.
What is your new view of success now?
Making honest movies.
There are obviously many filmmakers who have left Iran in order to do the work they want to do. Is that how you see yourself in the future?
When we were teenagers, we would pick up group fights and usually would be beaten. And sometimes we’d escape. But when I escaped I had such a guilty conscious I decided to stay and tolerate the pain of being beaten. Now I’m going back to Iran and am going to get beaten.