It is a surprise that Reza Mirkarimi isn't discussed more - perhaps it is because his work doesn't fulfill the global cinephilic expectation of Iranian cinema: films where human beings transform into concepts. Instead, they forge an existence as autonomous, sovereign beings full of whim. The participants in his films are self-propelled motors whose various functions he employs as instruments of the narrative: they glance, sigh, frown and glare; they lumber, collapse, dart in a frenzy and then come to a halt - as such, they consistently shift positions through the houses (apartment blocks or as in this case, a large family home), allowed as they desire, to deposit the narrative where they go or abandon it fully. In Mirkarimi, therefore, there are as many stories as there are rooms; in Mirkarimi, there are many stories but no concepts. Kaz Rahman sat with the director at the conclusion of a special screening of A Cube of Sugar (2012, a masterpiece) to discuss his special, exclusive method.
When I saw A Cube of Sugar, it really reminded me of customs in Hyderabad (in India), where my family is from, especially in terms of the wedding ceremony, the general mood of the house, its sudden reversal and then, the funeral – and also, with some of the ideas: the buried manuscript, the djinns, the fluctuating electrical supply. I would like very much to learn how you arrived at this very Persian approach – how much of the film, essentially, is documentation of a set of customs and how much of it is based in fiction?
A Cube of Sugar is at first, a monument built to the memory of traditional Iranian history. It is structured to resemble a photo-album. Your assessment is correct – a set of traditions, a recollection of history, these are very important to me. But my larger ambition with the film is to imbue a narrative with these, to fill the new, imagined lives with them.
In terms of the style, your choices indicate an interesting departure from the traditions of the masters: Kiarostami, or Makhmalbaf, or even Panahi – you use a lot of close-ups, a number of jump cuts, the hand-held camera.
In my previous films, I employed the approach you talk of – I like to think of it as a simpler, more fundamental manner of making films: the slow, calculated camera; the long take, but to me, A Cube of Sugar seems to resemble the branches of a big tree, with its leaves a series of separate, isolated details. When the wind blows, it is essential that you hear all of them move and rustle with it. I think also of the Persian carpet, a Kaleen, on whose surface a large collection of details are woven – when these are seen in isolation, they do not reveal anything, but when viewed together, in totality, they become new sentences. Therefore for me, with the use of close-ups, or jump-cuts, or the hand-held camera, I have tried to make a film that resembles the Persian carpet.
You also achieve this distinctiveness with the acting style of the performers – the actors in Iranian cinema tend to move towards ultra-naturalism, but in A Cube of Sugar, they are more flamboyant and seem to possess a special character. Do you wish to comment on this?
It is an interesting challenge; we had to work very hard to attempt a resolution. There is, needless to say, a very large ensemble of actors and as a result, their approach must be modulated to co-exist coherently with each other. At the same time, it is essential that all of them can become co-habitants within the house within which the film takes place. You must also understand that the house in itself is not a real, actual house – it is a structure, a building that we redecorated for our own purpose, for the purpose of the story. We then created a detailed mise-en-scene in terms of the movement of the camera and its positions. A series of theatre and student actors were then invited to live within the artificial house and act out the entire film so that we could further determine the feasibility and practicality of our design. This stage of the process was executed without any artificial lights, with a small handicam. It was after all this that the actual cast of the film began to populate the space. This also helped us to conserve time, as the planning allowed us to shoot a lot of our takes in four to five attempts.
I quite agree – the design of the house itself, the space occupied by the diverse characters of the film is very impressive in the claustrophobia it evokes. But I also want to discuss your use of time itself. As it is, it is difficult to explain, but there are occasions in the film when time feels stretched out, elongated, and then there are others when we begin to witness it as is: for instance, we are waiting for the wedding to happen and then suddenly, the uncle dies.
It is a yield, I feel, of the fact that the family is composed of individuals who belong to a diversity of age groups: there are those that are old, but there are children as well. It is important to realise that time does not register equally for everyone – for some, it passes slowly, while others never know where it went. My example of the branches of the tree and its leaves is true in this case as well, for the film does not tell a singular, linear story, but many parallel ones. The death of the uncle however causes the household to accumulate inside one room, at one spot in the house and these different registers of time are deposited together. When they disperse again, the sense of time in the film is splintered again.
Is this therefore a conscious decision – to play with time, or did it develop during the theatrical work you did with the actors – say, in the rehearsals or in the preparation? How much of it would you to attribute for instance, to the editing process?
I must return to the example of the carpet. But first, I think the approach was developed during the writing of the story itself and not during the editing process, no. When you stand still and stare at one corner of the Persian carpet, it is easy to get lost in the intricacy of the design and not really be able to understand or appreciate the larger idea of which it is a part. It is imperative therefore to understand that slowly, the minute, little details add up to something larger, a more elaborate meaning.
The concept of the carpet as a structural reference – it is similar to Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh…
I am not sure these are similar films. Makhmalbaf’s film is really about a journey, travel, about different groups of people – while A Cube of Sugar takes place inside a single location and is about these people who belong to the same fiber.
I noticed your depiction of your characters’ religious habits in the film: the grandfather at the end, who performs a long prayer, but there are performances also of the azaan, and of the namaaz – and it struck me as being very focused and sublime. Very still and beautiful.
In my films, I am always searching for the moral principle that guides these individuals – for me, religion can become an essential refuge while seeking definitions of morality. I feel religion by itself is important, because it helps forge a moral regime. I think in order to experience truth, we do not need to venture far outside of ourselves and witness external grandeur or large events – instead, inside of ourselves, in the minutest of details, of the sort that we may often ignore, we can find the truth. This, to me, is religion’s primary lesson. For the characters in my film too, their pursuit of religion is entirely personal and not meant at all for the rest of the world.
Would you like to talk about your latest film, Today?
Today is a film – it is a story without a hero or a heroic figure. Inside the film, everyone lies in wait for someone outside of them, instead of foraging inside themselves, to assume correct action or behaviour. As a result, everyone embarks on the criticism of another individual in order to deflect, as a result, criticism of their own self. It is an immoral society, where there is eloquence and speech, but very little action. I want to depict an individual who is silent, but is perhaps an unknown hero – a simple, ordinary man, a taxi driver, who from outside may seem like an individual engaged in an insignificant vocation, but essentially, he is not an exhibitionist. For me, his silence is a response to the cacophony that surrounds him.