Director Majed Neisi, Source: Majed Neisi
Life always Trumps War: In Conversation with Majed Neisi
By Babak Vahedi
Babak Vahedi of FCC interviews Iranian documentary filmmaker, Majed Neisi, on how he was able to gain the trust of secretive Shiite militants fighting ISIS, why he started making documentaries about war, his filmmaking style, heroism, and much more.
In the first part of this two-part interview, Neisi talks about the life of a documentarian under Covid-19 quarantine, and then goes back to his childhood to introduce us to the young Neisi experiencing war firsthand.
“War was a sort of game, for us kids,” says the Iranian war documentarian, Majed Neisi, with whom I had a chance of speaking at the onset of the Covid-19 lockdown.
A May Sunday morning in Ottawa, and late afternoon in London, I sat down behind my desk to speak with one of the few contemporary Iranian filmmakers whose work has a recurring and sole theme of war.
Neisi answered the Skype call, sitting under an unframed art piece I soon found out is an original piece by an artist who happens to be Neisi’s father-in-law. It is a double framed photographic collage, tying clouds to a woman sleeping restlessly on a couch in a room with a view of a tree struggling in the wind. As the interview progressed, I came back to this piece – thinking how it could serve as a great cover for a collection of Neisi’s films; framing the big picture of life under the wars, battles, and struggles that the women in his film endure.
As we started the interview, Neisi began to roll a cigarette for himself, which took a while as he simultaneously tried to recall his childhood memories and answer my question about “What is it like for a documentary filmmaker to be self-isolated at his home and do nothing?”
“Well, it was very hard in the beginning.” He admitted, “I really wanted to at least make a film about all this. Because, you see, I’ve always documented the war and, well, this is sort of another war. [Unfortunately] I have not gotten the chance. I would’ve liked to go to Iran and shoot it there. But I couldn’t, so I was at home for a week, feeling gloomy, but then, at the same time, I was editing one of my new films with the help of a friend, and realized this is the best time to finish it with him. So, as we didn’t have much else to do, we worked day and night together, although remotely.”
Neisi smiled when he joked that “in fact, I’m feeling a little upset now that the lockdown is over. I wish they would have extended it for a few more weeks so we could wrap up the film.”
Thinking about what he said, I wondered why he wanted to “go to Iran” to make a film about the current outbreak which took a huge toll in the UK as well. Why was it that a filmmaker based in London, whose career expands to many countries beyond Iran including Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, would prefer to go to Iran to document a humanitarian crisis that is hitting his new home just as bad?
Neisi filming in Iraq, Source: Majed Neisi
“Well, the differences are overwhelming. First of all, this type of issue is a time-sensitive one and one that requires a filmmaker to act fast. Undoubtedly, my familiarity with the culture and people there would have helped a great deal. And secondly, apparently it’s not easy to shoot a film like this here, or in many other countries, either. I didn’t go as far as trying myself, but heard from a few other filmmaker friends that the National Health Service (NHS) would not give anybody permission to capture the crisis on the front lines – presumably not to reveal their shortcomings. So, this was another barrier preventing me from shooting a film here. ”
Neisi has made more than 10 films so far in a career that expands to different countries and diverse subjects. He first started filmmaking in Iran, but has since made films in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Iraq as he continues exploring new ideas and regions. As he traverses new lands, I had to know, does he still consider himself an Iranian filmmaker?
“Well, whatever you do you’re an Iranian filmmaker after all. Whether you are an Iranian-American filmmaker or an Iranian-Canadian one, even if you don’t want to acknowledge it, you’re an Iranian filmmaker, and you’ll remain one until the end.”
With that confirmed, there’s a repeated introductory sentence that seems to follow Neisi like a spell everywhere he appears, in every database, every interview: “Majed Neisi was born in a make-shift hospital in southern Iran during a bombardment in the Iran-Iraq war.” But what happened next? How was his war-torn childhood and what gave him this eye, visible in every film he’s made, that looks stubbornly for the life happening under the dreary scenes of war and destruction?
Still from The Black Flag (Majed Neisi), Source: Majed Neisi
“War was sort of a game for us when I was a child” he remembers. “I mean, unlike others who were terrified of it, we, the children, loved it because with every siren there was a chance to play around. When the bombers would come to drop bombs over us, these were all fun and interesting things for a child, because they were different.”
“I remember a game we used to play as kids that my mother had invented for us. When we were playing out in the alleys and bombers would come my mother used to ask us to gather and put hands on ears and shout as loud as we could… Afterwards my mother, or one of the other women living in our neighborhood, would reward a winner with candy or something. It was only later that I realized this game was created to prevent damage to our ears, but my point is that we had a great time playing this game. You know what I mean, a game you play with all the kids in the neighborhood and one you were able to feel strong about when you had the loudest voice.”
“Well, this was my first encounter with war, I mean, there was so much life in it. I don’t remember this, but I know that my family had to move and take refuge in Isfahan. Later, as I looked at photographs from that time, I came across images of my aunt washing dishes, my mother cooking on the picnic stove, and children lying on the grass, one holding an ice cream cone as others posed, as four or five families with 20 to 30 kids lived in a public park for the first few weeks. We didn’t even have tents and I could see that it was very hard for the families, but the children were enjoying the happiest time of their lives.”
“I also remember we had this hobby in childhood. Our house was near a big steel factory, on one side, and oil wells, on the other, so it was a hot spot for the bombers. Each time, after the bombers left, we used to collect the shrapnel and play with it. Each of us had his own collection and we traded them between each other.”
“My point is, the first memories I had of war were all sweet and I didn’t have any fear at that time. I even missed it when it was quiet. But as you grow up you realize what war has brought upon your family, your father, your mother, their social relationships, their cultural ties, their economic ties, and this is very important because it becomes apparent that they never were able to return to the basic financial life they had before the war.”
“But in the end, inside the same deadly war, there was life. I mean, our families had children, the children grew up, they laughed, they joked, they mourned for the dead, they held weddings and brides bore children. Life continued despite all the hardships.
Still from My Dishevelled Hair (Majed Neisi), Source: Majed Neisi
Life with all its hardships and blessings is a recurring motif in his films which overshadows and goes beyond war – addressing issues that are intensified but not caused by it. Just like Majide, in the film bearing the same name, who grows up in a poor region and gets stuck in an arranged marriage, relates that “since childhood, I have been constantly fighting with life.” This is how Neisi addresses the war, through the eyes of the subjects who have seen it all and are now dealing with another imposed hardship in their lives. In Orange Bombs, a film that narrates the story of a couple who return to their orange trees after the war and must deal with the many remaining bombs under their trees, the woman proclaims “Whatever bad happens, we have to put up with it.” With this, Neisi’s camera captures the underlying issues lending their weight to war, issues including but not limited to patrimonial society, women’s rights, bad government, discrimination, and more.
These social issues are abundant in Neisi’s films, but as we discussed earlier, he believes that making war documentaries is harder than social documentaries. The question is, how does he draw the line between these two and separates the social from the war in his own films?
“No, I don’t draw a line between these two, and I merely mean social documentaries on war. Making a social documentary in my country is not so easy, you know? But then again, most Iranian filmmakers tend to make social films, no doubt. What I mean is you seldom see filmmakers interested in documenting architecture or sport. And this has a reason. Namely, we’re not in good standing socially and there are so many social issues and grievances that it’s hard to think of any other subjects. But, making a social documentary about war is a bit harder still. War is still a sensitive issue for our government, and it should be looked upon only in an approved way. It even has its own sponsors and producers. Private sector investors are not really interested in this field and want to avoid entering the world of propaganda, and filmmakers aren’t interested as well because… you know there were so many lies about this war that nobody likes to speak about. It’s only a propaganda showcase.”
Another striking feature in Neisi’s films is how humane and ordinary his subjects look and how he addresses them in a neutral and objective way.
Still from Undo (Majed Neisi), Source: Majed Neisi
“Exactly, I never create a hero in my films. I always stand somewhere in between to let the audience be the judge. Maybe it’s unconscious, unwillingly and naturally, but with my background growing up in a place full of heroes we never saw, heroes who had the status of divine angels, you know, these were our contributions to metaphysics, but then I’ve always thought they were human beings. No doubt they were heroic, but they were also humans like us, they ate, they loved, they had children, they made mistakes, they may have shouted at their children, may have had trouble at work, may have got fired. You know, what I mean is that they are not born angels, even if they become one later in life. I don’t believe in heroes in the way we read about in classic literature – like Achilles who became god, head only to toe.”
“So, firstly I’m against that kind of hero making and don’t understand why we have to make a hero out of an ordinary human being. On the other hand, I can’t stand making victims out of humans either. Because, after all, they’re humans, they have their own personalities, and we should address them accordingly. A person may be poor or suppressed or might have done something sinful or illegal, but nevertheless, we can’t treat them with contempt. A human being is a human being until he or she dies and no matter what they’ve done, they should be treated with due respect.”
As Neisi shares his thoughts, one glaring message becomes clear over and over again: life trumps war and all other human maladies every time, and goes on all the same.
Stay tuned for part two of the interview next week, which digs deeper into Neisi’s filmmaking style. Join us again as I ask Neisi about how he posits himself in his own films, and what it’s like to be a filmmaker in a world where everybody owns a smartphone and is busy making films and taking photos of their own.