When Pomegranates Howl Director Granaz Moussavi Talks About White Censorship and Chewing the Wall in This Interview

Filmmaker Granaz Moussavi’s latest film When Pomegranates Howl is a powerful ode to the great child-focused films of the 1980s, paying homage to the aesthetic of filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Amir Naderi. Here, we follow Hewad (Arafat Faiz), a young boy trying to make a life for his family by selling food and pomegranate juice on the streets. He is full of stories and hopes for his future, telling anyone he meets about his vision of becoming a movie star. His cart even has a poster for the 90s action film Eraser hanging on it, so keen is his drive for movie stardom. When he encounters an Australian journalist (Andrew Quilty), that dream becomes closer to become a reality.

When Pomegranates Howl is inspired by the true story of the devastating attack in Kabul, Afghanistan that was carried out by Australian armed forces, killing two young boys. Granaz pulls from her wealth of knowledge of Iranian filmmakers and instils the lead character of Hewad with a hope and yearning aspiration to become a filmmaker.

In this interview, recorded ahead of the films release at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Granaz talks about everything from white censorship, to a fantastic piece of advice she received from filmmaker Amir Naderi, and the role that sunglasses play in her work.  

It’s a beautiful film. I was both very moved by it, but I also found myself uplifted as well, by the story here. Thank you very much for sharing it. The film opens with a note saying: ‘This is to Amir Naderi’. Could you talk about who Amir is as a person?

Granaz Moussavi: He is a great filmmaker. He is one of the Iranian New Wave filmmakers. And he started his work in the early 70s south of Iran, and he’s one of the pioneers in the Iranian New Wave cinema. Then he moved to New York, and he has been making films from that end. His film, Vegas: Based on a True Story, [premiered] at the Venice [Film Festival]. These are all his American productions outside Iran. But he has made great films back in the 70s and 80s, while he was in Iran, and I’m very inspired by his work and what he’s done both aesthetically, cinematically and also, his relation to subject matters and children as some main characters in his 70s and 80s films. In particular, one film that I was very much inspired with is called Waiting [Entezar 1974]. It’s a short film that he has made that inspired me greatly. Cinematically, in this film [I’m] inspired by his work. So that’s why [there is] a tribute to him.

You did your doctoral thesis on the aesthetics of poetic cinema. And I’m curious about whether his work is part of that influence in your doctoral thesis as well. Can you talk about that a bit?

GM: Yes, he’s one of my reference filmmakers in my thesis and this particular film, too. I have worked extensively on [Abbas] Kiarostami cinema, so Kiarostami cinema has been my main point of focus throughout my academic career or as a scholar. But also Amir Naderi and Sohrab Shahid-Saless. These three filmmakers have been my main focus. When it comes to working in cinema, Amir Naderi, hands down, he’s a source of inspiration beyond [the] aesthetics of poetic cinema and all that in scholarly work, [with] his way of filmmaking and his energy.

As a little kid, I remember watching his short films on TV being mesmerised by his work and characters. But in person, I met him in Vancouver Film Festival. With my first film, we were in the same film festival. He had Vegas and I had My Tehran for Sale. And then one more time I met him in New York, and then a couple of times I spoke with him over the phone. The informal mentorship that he has given me is has really energised me to do this impossible work.

I really like to relay one thing that really affected me. I hope that if there will be other filmmakers reading this [they] would be equally inspired. I was just whinging about how difficult filmmaking is and not being supported. And, when you’re not doing mainstream, it’s just impossible. And he was telling me, “Stop whinging. If the door is closed, you have to go through the window. If the window is closed, you have to go through the chimney. If you can’t get anywhere and you’ve got walls in front of you, you have to start kicking. If you can’t knock down the wall, then you have to start chewing the wall brick by brick. That’s what you have to do. If you’re a filmmaker, you will start chewing a wall.”

So this idea of chewing the wall, brick by brick was honestly what energised me in the most difficult days that I thought it was impossible to step one more step forward, and everything was just a dead end. Then I started thinking of chewing the wall.

I love that. That’s certainly something I’m going to be thinking about a lot for sure. This is an Australian Iranian co-production. What does that mean creatively? And how do you go about establishing a film in a co-production relationship like that?

GM: Sure. It’s actually an Afghanistan-Australian co-production.

Sorry, my apologies.

GM: It’s alright. It’s also Iranian too, but Iran had a smaller role in terms of – yes, [there were] four countries, Afghanistan, Australia, Netherlands and Iran. We had talents from Iran, but in terms of financing the film, it was really Afghanistan and Australia. And by finances, I mean ourselves. Because we really didn’t have anything other than Adelaide Film Festival and a little bit from SAFC [South Australian Film Corporation]. Otherwise, the film was completely self-funded between myself, one of the Afghan producers, and also the Australian producer who loaned to the film. Our producer Christine [Williams] gave her own money to the film to be able to make it. I really appreciate everyone including her who sacrificed for this film to be made.

Well, I didn’t have any other words other than co-production. But honestly, this film has been brutally treated in terms of support of a film. Really, a ‘co-production between Australia and Afghanistan’ is really under-estimating what we went through to make this film. And I don’t regret it, even though I literally lost my financial everyday life. I put everything on the line and I lost it. I lost my life saving. I lost my apartment I had to sell. I had to sell a little piece of land that I had overseas. The Afghan producer had to do the same, Baheer Wardak. And I even sold their jewellery that my late mother had left for me. I sold shoes, bags, you name it.

I don’t regret it even though it’s [a] crazy path that I went through. Why? Because making a film like this, that’s why they make it impossible. They make it this way so no one goes ahead and makes it. That’s the way that this system intends to deprive the audience from narratives. They either raid ABC, they either don’t try to get Julian Assange back, because they just want to shut every alternative voice [down], but in legal ways, in soft, white ways. And the system doesn’t support a film like this to be made for the same reasons because there are narratives that Australian audience should not be exposed to.

I know, it’s probably a little bit ‘ooh’ talking about this. Why? Because of mainstream media and the whole system, intending us to think within boxes and certain frameworks. So when I talk about reality like that, it feels so strange, but just think about it. I mean, it’s just pieces of puzzle next to one another, there are narratives, there are facts that us as Australians should not be knowing. So, when all that happens in this way, when it comes to film production, and the way that the system works, because we are in a first world, Western so called ‘free country’, they can’t come to me put me in jail or suffocate me physically, or censor me hard ways. [In the] same way that, for example, in other countries – I am also an Iranian – this kind of hard mechanisms are putting people in jail, and I call it black censorship, and all that happens in Iran, where they don’t claim as a democratic country, the system doesn’t claim your free or freedom of speech. I mean, brutally, they stand up there, and they say, “Yes, we do censor and you deserve it. Because our way or highway.”

Well, here in Australia, you don’t expect the same result, no matter what the means are, if the result is suffocation of narrative, and people who are storytellers, who are journalists, who are whistle-blowers, what’s the difference? I mean, to me, white censorship, black censorship, it doesn’t matter. The means aren’t important, the result is important. So if the result is that the mechanism hinders a filmmakers, a creators way, in order to stop them from telling Australian audience the narrative or story, what they have to say or what they have to reveal, then calling it jargon like “Co-production” is just too fancy. For a purpose, it’s just too fancy, but I just didn’t have time to come up with another term, like ‘white censorship’, that I created that, but I really need to come up with terms that apply to a saga that I for one went through.

So in that term, yes, it is an Afghanistan-Australia, co-production.

I love that answer that is so deep. And it’s something that certainly the media needs to be able to explore and discuss a lot more. Talking about Iranian voices being silenced, or banned or even imprisoned, not allowing these stories to be made in Australia, or not supporting the distribution of them, while not on the same level as imprisoning somebody, is effectively doing a very similar thing. For most of this film, I forgot that the tragedy occurs at the end, and then, of course, that hits even more that this is based on a true story. I kept on wanting the characters to be free of their fates, and to be free of what’s going to impact them and effectively claim their lives. It’s devastating.

GM: Exactly. In terms of the means, it’s not the same. It’s like capital punishment. Capital punishment is capital punishment. [It] doesn’t matter if you use guillotine or if you hang or if you shoot or if you use [the] electric chair, capital punishment is capital punishment. What censorship in all forms and shapes does is capital punishment to the soul of the storyteller, the narrator, the whistle-blower whatever you call it. So the result is the same.

Yes, those three filmmakers are physically in jail [Mohammad Rasoulof, Jafar Panahi, Mostafa Al-Ahmad]. We have to object. We have to resist. We have to say no, and all that. But at least we all know in the whole world that they are physically in prison. Does it make sense? At least it gives some credit in terms of “This is what we did.” The whole world knows about them, cinematically they are going to be looked at. I’m not saying that there are positive outcomes, not in that term. But I’m just trying to say that when something like that happens, the whole world sees, and inevitably, it’s going to make what they have to say be hurt.

Whereas this side of the world where we live, that we claim freedom, supposedly, we claim first world, we claim freedom of speech, when something like this happens, the whole society and the whole world is so quiet about that and nobody, nobody pays attention. People tend to forget easily about Julian Assange. People tend not to remember what happened to ABC three years ago. Let alone a little film like mine, and many other productions like this, no one sees us. People forget us. This is the dark side of white censorship. At least that side of the world, the whole world knows about you – petitions, signatures, watching your films, retrospective of your films, and all that. What happens here? Nothing. You just fade. You just get vaporised like in 1984. You get vaporised. Unnoticeable.

One of the aspects I’m really curious about in your films is the role of sunglasses. I’m curious about the status or the importance of sunglasses in your films?

GM: Subconsciously that comes to me from reading and writing so much on Kiarostami’s cinema. It’s like little screens. Like a little shield that gives you a little bit of privacy in public space, and at the same time is like a screen with a little bit of reflection. And it hides a little bit, it’s like a mask, like a little Masquerade. And so that’s with the sunglasses as an object, but obviously in the story in this one is quite different from the use of sunglasses in my first film, My Tehran for Sale.

In that scene for [When Pomegranates Howl], I really wanted to show that the little kid, even though he’s so deprived, even though the pair of cheap sunglasses are like novelty to this poor kid, he doesn’t forget morality. According to his Islamic beliefs, when he finds an object, he has to ask three times who this belongs to, if after three times nobody answers, then you are allowed to take it. You are not allowed even to take something that you find. So this little kid still sticks to his principles. And even when he finds something in the middle of the street fight, he’s compelled to stick to his morals. And he asked three times in two languages. I mean, I don’t expect people to pick that but he really asked that question in two languages that he knows, the two main languages in Afghanistan, Dari and Pashto “Whose sunglasses are these?” Three times he asks, and when nobody answers, then he just takes it.

So the reason why I put it there, then he’s able to negotiate over that like a token. Because he doesn’t have anything else to swap so he uses that like the token for flying kites. And then it becomes like a heritage that is relayed from one kid to another because life goes on and other kids are going to wear it after Hewad is killed and this story continues.

And in the final scene, as you can see, the war game continues. The imitation of killing continues, so who knows who the next kid is going to be? The sunglasses represent that physical transfer of that notion, the idea that pain, the plight, the life that goes on and everything about childhood that is transferred from one to another. And the other side of the coin in that situation is also the danger, is the same destiny is going to happen to whoever who wears it?

I love that answer because it leans into what I was reading from it, which is that transference from child to child. Also, I don’t know if this was a conscious choice or not, but as soon as I saw Hewad wearing the sunglasses, I immediately got the image of Kiarostami wearing them. It’s an iconic image of his physicality. And I got the feeling that there is almost like a baton being passed on from one filmmaker to another. Hewad never gets to actually film anything, but he does in a way. We get to experience him in the alleyways, getting to ‘shoot’ his friends and re-enact things. And so it’s that transference of one storyteller to another. And that is what I found so beautiful. And in many ways, you’re carrying on the baton for them. Do you see yourself as somebody who is continuing that legacy of being able to pass along these kinds of stories and usher in a path for future filmmakers who might watch your films and go, “I can do that”?

GM: Definitely. I’m really glad that you raised that, because it was actually conscious what I was trying to do in this film. Iranian cinema was known to the west mainly in the 80s. The Iranian New Wave started earlier on, as I mentioned, that was before the revolution in the 70s, but by the time that films were made and then finally they hit some prestigious international stages, one after another, it was the 80s that the world started noticing what’s happening in Iranian cinema scenery. And definitely Kiarostami was one of the pioneers. And because I’m also coming from the scholarship of cinema, film studies, so I always have all this love for studying filmmakers and all that. I’ve got a kind of compartment in my brain being engaged with that [laughing]. So that was definitely part of it.

Afghanistan itself, is very much like Iran a few decades back, by the look of it. The Iranian cinema has changed so much, it’s not much about children subject matters. It’s not much about the trends, fashions, manners, aesthetics of Iranian New Wave cinema in the 80s. But I just thought it’s very relevant to Afghanistan today, so I wanted to recreate or import that fashion of that [Iranian] New Wave cinema with children as main subjects to Afghanistan today. And inevitably, I had all these references in my head including Kiaromstami, Sohrab Shahid Saless, and Amir Naderi. Definitely they had roles here and there and this is definitely one of them, to remind of that cinema. And I think this film a little bit resembles that cinema, or at least remind people of how it was.

I’m curious for you, living in Australia now, do you consider yourself an Australian filmmaker telling international stories or you are Iranian-Australian filmmaker? How does identity play into your role as a filmmaker from an Australian.

GM: The question of identity is a very complex thing. Like, I’m definitely Iranian-Australian, or Australian-Iranian because most of my life I’ve been in Australia. All of my meaningful life in terms of an adult has been in Australia. I’ve been in Australia since I was 20/21. In Iran, I was a student, I was a teenager, stepping out of my family home to the world, and then bang, I was in Australia with a whole family, including my extended family. Outside Australia, not only I don’t have any family or relatives, I don’t even have graves to go to. My graves are in Australia. So my people who are related to me and who are lucky and alive, they are in Australia, and in Canada, my father’s side.

And the graves of my loved ones are in Adelaide. Adelaide will be my shrine forever. My parents, my grandmother, my uncle are buried there. My memories from university time, I became a filmmaker in Australia, I’m trained as a filmmaker in Australia. I did drama acting in Iran a couple of years, but I studied film, I became a filmmaker, I thought of becoming a filmmaker in Australia.

When I think cinema, and when I want to express myself on cinema and about cinema, I don’t think in Farsi, I think in English, because I’m trained here in Australia. So as much as a poet I’m Iranian, as a filmmaker I’m Australian. I’m not familiar with the Iranian film industry, I haven’t worked much there. But that’s mixed identity, because I can’t detach myself, a poet separate from a filmmaker. At the same time, I’m both, but one is more Iranian than Australian, which is poetry. And one is more Australian than Iranian, which is filmmaking. So it’s a bit mixed up. But that’s how I think a lot of first-generation immigrants are.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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