On location for Undo (Majed Neisi), Source: Majed Neisi

Smartphone Cameras: A Curse Or A Blessing? In Conversation with Majed Neisi

By Babak Vahedi

In the first part of this interview, which can be found here, we meet the young Majed Neisi who grew up in war-ridden Southern Iran and who later becomes a narrator of that difficult past. In this second and last part, Neisi will tell us more about his cinematic style, how he gains the trust of his subjects, and his interestingly unorthodox view about the younger generation and the smart-phone revolution.

In his early films, Neisi is always present not just as a cinematographer or director. Instead, you can hear him talking to his subjects. In Majideh, a film about a woman who bravely captures six Iraqi prisoners during the Iran-Iraq war and continues to single-handedly run her big family, and more explicitly in My Dishevelled Hair, a film about women forced to relocate to war-ridden Afghanistan and live a horrible life there, you can hear Neisi talking to the women of his films, asking questions, and sharing thoughts and compassion. Even in Mullayeh, which narrates the story of a woman who sings at religious congregations in a society intolerant of women singing, it’s as if we’re trusted with listening to a conversation between Neisi and his own mother. Curious about this intimacy, I asked Neisi about his role in his films.

“I’m so glad that you asked this, and you’ve already answered yourself when you asked about Mullayeh and suggested it’s as if I’m questioning my mother. There’s no doubt that in most of my films, especially the early ones which were dealing with women and issues around women, my main concern is my mother. I mean it’s as if I recreated my mother in each of these films to try to capture her issues and answer her questions.”

Still from Rusty People (Majed Neisi), Source: Majed Neisi

“I come from a traditional family in Southern Iran, so I’ve grown up with a truly traditional culture. As you said, although women in modern culture today haven’t reached their rightful status yet, it’s worse in a traditional culture, and more so in a war-ridden one. The war brought huge change for the worse and amplified the violence. When there’s violence the weakest are the first ones to fall and experience its consequences. It’s an undeniable fact that in the society where I grew up, women are oppressed to a great extent, and one of these women is my mother, whose own suffering I witnessed first-hand as a child… The woman in Rusty People is indeed my own mother. Although my father never lost his hands and legs, he wasn’t there much when my mother raised us single-handedly. Majideh is also my own mother, because during the war, as they’ve told us, mothers would carry their children, like cats carry kittens, and take care of them. Or in My [Dishevelled] Hair, the woman is in a way my own mother, because my mother was also married in a traditional way and she may say she’s happy now but who knows if she was happy back then or not.”

Like Majideh, who says about her life that “I decided to love my life.”

“Yes, and it’s as if I heard that from my mother when Majideh said that, even though it was her own words and I didn’t interfere in any way. I had heard my mother say many times that she decided to live, and many other women decided to live and in a traditional setting there aren’t many alternatives for them.”

It’s interesting how geography-defying this is. In Orange Bombs you hear them say that “It wasn’t that we fell in love and then got married, but rather we decided to love each other.”

“Exactly, this is a culture, a culture imposed on women. Like the imposed war they experienced. And to be honest, all these women in my films are my mother’s different incarnations, they were brave like her, strong like her, oppressed like her, but they all resisted, showed perseverance, decided to continue living, and they’re still fighting for life. Even when they’re being raped, they’re fighting for themselves.”

Still from Black Flag (Majed Neisi), Source: Majed Neisi

Then again, in Black Flag, we see a shift in this approach. This film is about Shiite militants fighting ISIS in Iraq. It’s the only film in Neisi’s works that deals exclusively with war, without explicit mention of gender or social issues. It seems most unlikely to see his involvement in this story, yet his presence is somewhat more personal in this film.

“Well, you know, structures change unconsciously. You structure your film, and the idea you want to begin with based on the situation you’re in. The fact is in Black Flag, I didn’t have much time to discover the feelings and inner thoughts of a soldier, or to even ask them. I didn’t have time to arrange picturing how they got left behind from the group, or how they got shot or other things of this sort. So, I thought the best way to picture and narrate their experience would be to picture my own real experience, which is now the same as their experience – me having the same thoughts and feelings as them. This is the reason why I have a stronger presence as the narrator in Black Flag, when compared to my other films. “

The next shift is in Undo, where Neisi brings together two war photographers from two competing sides of the war and records the encounter. Here, Neisi is completely absent.

“And then in Undo, as you mentioned, I’ve chosen to be invisible. Undo was at first a structural experiment for me and I wanted to see if I could make an abstract film this time, and to see if I could narrate a subject this way. As it happens, in Undo I’m both characters and not just one. In my films, I always search for my own character, as if I’m looking for myself. I may meet many people, very interesting people with interesting stories, but I should be able to relate, to find the character that I’m looking for. And in Undo, both characters were me, I mean their questions are my questions, even the Iraqi character.”

“The first time I visited Iraq, I didn’t know why I was going there, and it was my first time traveling outside my country. I had just finished my mandatory military service and got my passport and immediately thought, well, there’s a war going on in Iraq and I should take my camera and go there. But, the first time I went there I was carrying a lot of preconceived notions as a result of all the propaganda I had been exposed to growing up. All that talk of “enemy” and that they were the ones bombing us. You see, when you grow up all those sweet memories of childhood get replaced by a realization and suddenly, you’re full of hatred. So, as I was entering Iraq it was to try to know who my enemy was. It’s clear how the system brainwashes you, even as a filmmaker, to the point that when you go to document the suffering of people still in war, you’re showing up with so much anger in your mind and in your eyes.”

“I thought I would never come back and I never forgot that when I crossed the border I kneeled down, took a handful of dirt, and put it in my shirt’s front pocket; you know, all the clichés and propaganda that make me laugh now.”

You see how much you can take the influence of the situation around you and grow with it. After I went there, I saw people as miserable as my own, and even worse; we had one war, but they had many, they had siege, they had dictatorship…”

And it’s still going on for them, as Ghasem says in Undo “you had 27 years to build on the ruins, but we haven’t had the chance yet.”

“Yes, they’re still dealing with it and I felt shame when I went there with all those presumptions that I had lived with and then saw Om Ali in Rusty People, and saw how humane her work was. It is not important that this woman is in my country or anywhere else in the world, she’s a human. And you see that her husband was also forced to go to war, including the war with us, and how suppressed he was. A young boy at the peak of his life had to spend those wonderful years in the war, and it was worse there. In Iran we have 2 years of mandatory military service but they have 8 in Iraq.”

Still from Undo (Majed Neisi), Source: Majed Neisi

“After that I visited Iraq frequently and was a witness to the backward path it has taken. So all those questions that I had when I was a child are voiced through the character of Mohsen in Undo, and the ones I thought of after visiting Iraq were voiced through Ghasems. This is why these two characters could relate so perfectly, and there was no need for my presence. I even remember that, you know at the beginning you can hear that I’m translating for them, I mean I translate Farsi to Arabic for Mohsen and vice versa for Ghasem. But then, as we went on, there was suddenly no need for my translation, and they were able to understand each other. And this was because they had shared suffering, this is a fact not that I want to brag or speak in the way of propaganda, they were talking to each other, asking questions, answering questions, all without any need for me to translate for them or be present.”

Even the shooting style in Undo, relying only on the longshots and avoiding close-ups as we have seen in Neisi’s earlier films, testifies to this change as if he’s trying to capture the suffering of not one but two nations in a frame.

Let’s go back to Black Flag. This is the most known of your films outside Iran and arguably in your career. Why is that?

“Well, for many reasons, and of course also because the film came out at the right time. I don’t want to say it’s a good film or not, but it sure was at the right time, at a time that there was no idea of what was going on in Iraq and everybody was confused.

“The other thing that I kept hearing about the film through feedback I received was how this film gets close to those people. Instead of just narrating their story from a third-person point of view like many films about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan were doing at the time, I was among those people. And so anybody who watched the film could relate to and identify with them.”

“I heard many times that my film made the audience understand and feel what was happening on the battlefield. When you see a soldier in the middle of the war, docking bullets, asks you to give him a DVD copy of the film later so he can see himself, these kinds of things you only see in Hollywood movies where they try to include a humane aspect and spice it up a bit. But these were real people, and when I built this direct unmediated relationship with them my audience was able to feel close to them. It’s very important for anyone watching a film to relate and feel close to the characters. You can use clichés and worn-out dialogues, but as long as you don’t create this relationship nothing happens, and this was the main strength of my film.”

Still from Black Flag (Majed Neisi), Source: Majed Neisi

“On the other hand, there was no film about these people. I mean, there were films about Kurds, and ISIS itself, but not about Shiite militants. There was a kind of ambiguity surrounding them and entering their circles was somehow impossible so there were many unanswered questions about them.”

Indeed, how are they beyond that political framework that is being used to define them. Like what you see in the film, that these are students, public servants, ordinary people, who had just heard the Fatwa and left their ordinary lives and took arms…

“Yes, but also, this was then and they, like any other group or cult or any other ideology, changed after seizing power and it’s no longer for the Fatwa.”

Understandably, it’s definitely hard to gain the trust of those Shiite militants in Black Flag, but if we consider the traditional society in the areas you’ve made your films, with all that bigotry and rigid religious laws and beliefs, one can find building trust with women extremely difficult. How do you seek this trust?

“Well, in all my films I set upon building trust, I mean I won’t turn on my camera unless the person in front of it is at peace with it and this is the reason I get so personally close to my characters. I even share details of my own life, my own experiences, and even my own relationships, before asking them about theirs. In films like My Dishevelled Hair, when the character is a woman and in a very rigidly fanatical traditional society it’s very difficult to build that trust. But in any case, they’re human and you can start a dialogue with them and see how it goes and how they decide as a single individual.”

Black Flag was an entirely different thing. There I had to seek permission from a system and build trust with a very unbending system. And I was persistent, for months, I kept meeting different people. As a matter of fact, I think what made them finally accept my request was that they had it with me and were tired of rejecting me. And, ironically, they sent me to a corner that wasn’t supposed to see any action at all. It was as if they sent me to exile to a place not important. But the thing about war is it changes direction suddenly.”

“Later on, when I was filming my other film about war in Iraq and the same Shiite militants, they sent me to the frontline, to places that were supposed to receive and make attacks, because we were friends by then. But, as it happened, I used to sit there for months and nothing would happen, wishing somebody sent me to exile like before.”

With all the recent developments and new generations having access to advanced video making technologies with a touch on a screen, do you think filmmaking in the traditional sense is still relevant? And how can we distinguish amateur filmmaking from the professionals?

“I’m very happy about these developments. because I believe people today better understand the language of cinema. They all want to take pictures and make videos and each with their own unique taste and worldview. When my wife, for example, shoots a video, she’s not a filmmaker but you can see her worldview in the way she shoots and captures the video. So, naturally, the language of this medium has grown to something better and far more sophisticated, and if you want to make a film you have to try harder and be better because in the past nobody knew how to make a good film, and now the previously good films are average at best.”

“On the other hand, to answer the second part of your question, writing has existed as long as there has been paper and pen. Anybody literate enough to write was writing something, but one was writing simple things and the other was writing a book. Were all the literate people with access to pen and paper writers? Of course not. So, I believe this is an ungrounded fear. Let everybody shoot with their smartphone cameras, and what happens at the least, is that they add to the visual inventory of the world.”

Still from Black Flag (Majed Neisi), Source: Majed Neisi

“As a matter of fact, the best shot in Black Flag, I mean as a shot that represents the film, the logo shot that even defines the name of the film, isn’t shot by me. A soldier shot it. It is the frame where they take down the black flag of ISIS. I don’t mind, I even welcome it because if I was the one who was there, that shot may never have happened. I may have been too scared to shoot it or I may not have thought to shoot it that way.”

How do you find this new generation’s understanding of war? Considering that they haven’t had any direct sense of it and they have only known it through films and literature.

“They’re very far but at the same time, they’re way more realistic. The younger generation I know are more realistic – they have chosen to see, and they’re very curious and want to follow what’s happening now and what has happened in the past. They are very sincere and frank, and ask their questions outright, demanding clear direct answers. They don’t have any time to read between the lines, as my generation used to.”

Do you think their curiosity will solve the problem you mentioned earlier, about filmmakers, investors, and audiences having no interest in war documentaries?

“Yes, I think it will help. This generation asks more serious questions and those who are responsible and should answer them have no choice but to answer them without concealing no more. They are not like my generation, who used to get ambiguous implicit answers and had to live with them.”

What are your plans for the future?

“As far as my future plans, every filmmaker has a certain potential and makes films based on that potential. I wasn’t forced to leave my country and immigrate, I married a foreign girl and ended up living here. But, in the end, I know my potential and it’s in the context of that region. You know, the Middle East, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, a region I know intimately and I’m familiar with its culture, all its social forms, its literature. This is my potential and I’ll continue this course… And I’m happy with it, because after all, it’s better to have a filmmaker who knows that region to make a film about it than someone who sees it with a tourist’s eye.”

Final question, what has escaped your camera?

“Well, every film you make, from the moment you’re finished with it all the things you didn’t include swarm your mind but it’s done. When a child is born, you can not tell them to go back to the womb and come out differently. And, in a way, this is what makes you keep trying, you continue with all those “what if’s” to your next film and develop more as you go. You keep going, you keep experimenting, you hit a wall or miss it by an inch, and this is the cycle a filmmaker goes through in his professional life. I consider each film I make a piece of the puzzle that is my life.”

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