Atiq Rahimi at TIFF 2019, Source: FCC
Breaking Borders with Atiq Rahimi
by Mehdi Pilehvarian, Marisa Sittheeamorn
Hailed globally for his outstanding films and novels, Atiq Rahimi is a true auteur whose works are meticulous and nuanced hybrids of his Afghan roots and French influences. Known for his great works such as The Patience Stone and Earth and Ashes, Atiq had the world premiere of his latest masterstroke, Our Lady of the Nile, at TIFF in September 2019.
Our team sat down with Rahimi, and was blown away by his deep wisdom, artistic process, and commitment to breaking down borders. We hope this interview inspires you as much as it did all of us.
FCC: Congratulations on your new film first of all. We are so happy to see that Our Lady of the Nile opened the Contemporary World Cinema section of TIFF 2019. What does this mean to you?
AR: I am very happy. I’m honored obviously to have opened the Contemporary World Cinema and especially this time, as I’m coming with a movie that is not from my country of origin or even in my language. I was in Rwanda and I worked with young actors who had never actually been in a movie before. It was also their first time coming to a festival, and for many of them, their first time leaving the country to go somewhere else.
FCC: Language is a precious thing for you. Before becoming a filmmaker, you were a novelist, and you have made three films adapted from literature. So, why this film? Why this novel? What is the inspiration of turning literature into cinema for you?
AR: I didn’t choose the film, it was the producers who offered it to me. They knew I had adapted novels to film before, but this is the first time I was adapting someone else’s novel. Before it was all my own writing, and when you make a film that is outside of your own culture and your own language, then having the novel allows you to go deep into the film, deep into the culture, and deep into its collective imagery.
Cinema is very close to literature as a form of art, and I believe all films require a certain level of adaptation. All films are adaptations because when there’s a script, there are words you are converting into images. Such process is cinema. Nowadays, 60% of the world’s films are actually adapted from novels. Some of them are known but others are not. So it’s hardly a new process, it’s an old process. It’s a known process.
FCC: You’ve made three films. Two in Farsi, and one in French. Do you consider yourself a French filmmaker or a Farsi filmmaker?
AR: [Laughs]. Just to go back to what you said before, I first studied cinema and then I turned to literature and started with advertisements and documentaries. I left Afghanistan when I was fifteen years old. I lived in India, and then in France. I’ve spent more time living abroad than in my own country. But of course, Farsi is a language I was born with. It’s my mother tongue so it sits deep within me. As an exiled person, I discovered another culture, another place, and that is the French language. When I write, I started writing in Farsi and then in French. And it’s quite interesting, I have this kind of mix-up in my head when I write, it’s like Schizophrenia. When I think in French I speak Farsi, and vice-versa. The opposite is true. I can also draw a parallel to my dual roles as both a writer and filmmaker. So when I’m making a film, I tend to think like a novelist, and then the opposite is also true, so that’s what happens to me [laughs].
FCC: So, when you write or when you make films, it’s not about language borders. It’s universal for you?
AR: Absolutely, to answer your question. What interests me is man, or the human being, not borders. Borders separate people, human beings, and cultures. But art unites them.
FCC: There’s a scene in Our Lady of the Nile where girls in the dormitory have a pillow fight in slow motion – a tribute to Jean Vigo’s, Zéro de conduite, with exquisite cinematography. What or who inspires your work when you think about writing or making a film?
AR: I’m very glad that you brought up Jean Vigo and Zéro de conduite. A great reference because yes, indeed, I wanted to pay tribute to him. Not only for the theme, because as you know, in the other film, there was a fight in the boys dormitory. But also because that film was the first sound French film- a very poetic experience and an important film for me. And the second person I wanted to pay tribute to, is Abbas Kiarostami. In Through the Olive Trees, there are two people going down the hill in the last scene. In my film, you have two girls going up the hill as well.
FCC: Women are at the heart of your last two films. I read somewhere that you said, “Change comes through culture and women change the culture.” What is the basis of your conviction?
AR: Yes, both in literature and cinema I am quite attached to women. I think for this particular film, I let my feminine side take over my more masculine side. There’s war in my films, and I believe that in any war, the first victims are usually women and also children. There are always children in my films as well, and so women become the central characters.
In this film, there are many Rwandan girls and I wanted to have a glimpse of the first victims of the terrible genocide that we all know about. Perhaps, these girls were the very first victims that preceded the main event. So I wanted to show what happened, what was brewing before the 1994 genocide – the foreground of it through the experiences of these women.
In Rwanda right now, there are many active women – as in 60% of the population is made up of women. It is a very feminized society and country. Even in government, there are many women. And as you know, the Rwandan genocide was atrocious and gruesome. In three months, more than one million people were killed. But the situation is contrary to my own country, Afghanistan, where the war still rages on, still continues. In Rwanda, there is some semblance of reconciliation and peace. I believe that was done thanks to women.
FCC: Your film is a co-production with France, Belgium, and Rwanda. How important are co-productions these days? What work do you think needs to be done from organizations like Farsi Cinema Center to promote diversity and cultural collaboration in the film space?
AR: Politics separates us and art unites us. The work that Farsi Cinema Center is doing is very important with these initiatives and we need to break borders, break what separates us. We need to create a shared life, society, and culture and its very important as well, that in the same film, we unite different cultures and languages. For example, in The Patience Stone, my previous work, I had an Iranian actress, Golshifteh Farahani, playing an Afghan woman, as well as Morroccans playing Afghan roles.
Same for this film. I had different actors from France, Belgium, and Rwanda, and everything was mixed in. So I like to do this fusion within films where I include everybody and there is diversity in the cast and the characters. I think it’s very important that, here, we can also promote our language and our own culture. It is hugely important to show that we’re not what the propagandized news shows everyday, and to show our own point of view on the world. We have a certain gaze on the world, and we can think.