Photo Courtesy of Leila Khalilzadeh
In Conversation with Leila Khalilzadeh
Interviewed by: Marisa Sittheeamorn
Leila Khalilzadeh is an Iranian filmmaker currently based in Montreal. She is the multi-talented genius behind several short-fiction, animation, and documentary films, which have been showcased around the world at festivals and educational institutes, including Berlinale. In the midst of writing her first feature film, Khalilzadeh collaborated with the International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal to curate a spectacular spotlight on Iranian Art Films for their 38th edition. While the festival was cancelled due to the escalating global pandemic, it was moved online, where a majority of the special program remains available to stream online through March 29th, 2020.
FCC recently had the opportunity to sit down with her to unpack the creative process behind piecing together the very special spotlight on Iranian art films.
FCC: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, and how you ended up in Montreal? I see you are a filmmaker, so what drove you to start curating film programs? How are the two (filmmaking and curating) connected to each one another, if at all?
LK: I have an MA in Cinema from University of Art in Tehran, and I am currently completing an MFA in Film Production at Concordia University in Montreal. In addition to my work as a filmmaker, I have taught film and animation courses and wrote articles for film magazines in Iran.
I came to Canada in 2015 to pursue my career. In 2017, I curated “A Retrospective of Iranian Short Films” at Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema in Montreal. It was a two-day event that showcased 23 exemplary Iranian short films produced in recent years. Now that I am completing my studies at Concordia, in addition to filmmaking, I am also working to expand and continue my previous experiences in film curating and festival programming.
My education in cinema has necessitated me to study films and make them at the same time. I do not consider the theoretical aspect of filmmaking very different from the practical side. Therefore, studying films excites me in the same way directing does. This is how I ended up as a film director and a curator.
FCC: How did you come to collaborate with The International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA) to create a Spotlight on Iranian Art Films?
LK: Thanks to the Conseil des arts de Montréal, I was awarded an internship “démART program” at Le Festival International Du Film Sur L’art. The goal of the internship is to make it easier for culturally diverse, newly-arrived or first-generation artists to integrate into the profession, while at the same time contributing to the development of participating organizations.
I conducted research on non-profit organizations in Montreal, and came to the conclusion that working as an artist or curator for FiFA would be an ideal choice for me. So I reached out to the festival’s executive director, Phillippe Del Drago, and he kindly agreed to have me on their team.
FCC: What was the curatorial process like for you? How did you arrive at the three separate screening sections, and finalize the film selection?
There is an overwhelming number of Iranian films on arts and art films which I either already knew about or found out about through my contacts, looking into Iranian official selections at major festivals, research on the internet, and the news. I took many factors into consideration in order to reach the final shortlist, most importantly the films’ quality, and then factors such as production year, duration, premiere status, and of course diversity. I had to exclude many good feature films because of their running time or successful short films because of their dated production year.
I wanted to categorize the films into three sections, so I had to factor in how certain films could fit into a unified section and correlate with each other, so as to give the audience a perspective on a certain theme. I discussed my choices with the festival team and made the decisions with their approval. I also benefited from the support of Momenta, a Montreal-based contemporary art biennale devoted to the image, in the curating process. I should also thank Audrey Genois (executive director) and other team members of Momenta for their help and support.
We decided on three sections: one dedicated to performing arts and the notion of performativity, the other focused on photography in one way or another, and the third one centered on film form as art. I titled the first section after a quote from Shakespeare: “The World’s a Stage,” and named the second and third ones “Double Exposure” and “Kaleidoscope” respectively.
We were all ready to proceed with the festival opening and film screenings, when COVID-19 quickly became a real concern in Quebec. FiFA was one of the first festivals that responded immediately to the situation and decided to cancel the physical screenings and networking programs as the festival management and team set their top priority on the health and safety of the audience, guests, and employees. The situation evolved rapidly and the time was tight, yet the festival team managed to organize a virtual festival.
Fortunately, I obtained the consent of 18 filmmakers of our shortlisted Iranian films to have their films streamed online during the festival. In this new format, the previously-planned categorization would not be as meaningful as it should have been with their screenings in a movie theater, but I wanted to explain what the process was like. We are very happy to have been able to keep the show running amid this difficult time.
FCC: Is there one section or film that you are particularly excited about? Why?
LK: I love each and every film that I have selected for the festival, and I am very excited to have the viewers’ feedback. It is a shame that we cannot meet them in a movie theater this year, but I am still looking forward to somehow receiving their comments and feedback.
FCC: You mention the presence of a “curious eye” in connecting all of the films. Can you speak to how you arrived at this idea, and why you think it is so powerful?
LK: It is not easy to put all the films made inside Iran and among the Iranian diaspora communities under one single umbrella. But, if I had to choose one, I would choose the “curious eye.” I think the new generation of Iranian filmmakers is deeply engaged with all the happenings in the world around them; they are questioning their worlds. This is what I call a “curious eye.” In looking for answers, they are breaking new grounds.
FCC: Diversity and equality sit at the core of your program, with more than half of the films coming from female directors. Why was this so important to you?
LK: We live in a diverse world, and to make it a better place to live in, we need to make diversity our strength — not a divisive factor. Hence comes the idea of inclusion. We should be considerate to include every diverse perspective of all genders, ethnicities, cultures, and so forth, and give them an equal opportunity to voice their opinions and thoughts. I tried to adhere to the idea of inclusion in every step throughout the process.
FCC: What do you hope for audiences to take away from the special program? What type of viewers are you hoping to attract?
LK: FiFA has its regular, enthusiast viewers who are interested in this specific category of films (films on art). In addition, we are expecting to have a number of new viewers from Iranian communities in Quebec and Canada, and also new non-Iranian viewers who are particularly interested in or curious about Iranian films and art heritage. We are working with Momenta and Farsi Cinema Center to promote the program and attract the biggest number of audience possible.
I hope the viewers will each take away a slice of the rich Iranian arts and culture, and also get a glimpse into how Iranian directors are exploring contemporary approaches to art form and responding to the world around them.
FCC: What do you hope for the future of Iranian Cinema, and Iranian art films especially?
LK: My answer is simple. Standing on the shoulders of deeply-rooted Iranian culture, I hope that Iranian cinema moves forward and pushes boundaries. That is the best means we have to express our thoughts and philosophy. I hope that films keep this dialogue going between all generations, past and present, to come.