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Interview with Marziyeh Meshkiny, Director of “Stray Dogs”

Fri, 30/07/2004 - 00:00


Marziyeh Meshkiny, wife of the renowned Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, was born in Tehran in 1969. She learnt filmmaking at Makhmalbaf Film House, and gained valuable experience working as assistant director on Samira Makhmalbaf’s films “The Apple”, “The Blackboard”, “At Five in the Afternoon” and “September 11” and on Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s films “The Door” and “The Silence”.

Her debut film, “The Day I Became a Woman” was made in Iran in 2000 and was screened at the Critics Week Section in Venice Film Festival. The film has been awarded 13 prizes at international festivals in Italy, Toronto in Canada, Chicago in the U.S., Pusan in South Korea, Nantes in France, Thessaloniki in Greece and Nouveau Cinema in Belgium.

Meshkiny’s second film “Stray Dogs” which she made in Afghanistan in 2003, will be shown at 2004 Venice Film Festival. BIM, the Italian distributor of “Stray Dogs’” conducted the following interview with Meshkiny in connection with the film’s participation in Venice Film Festival.

Question: You are an Iranian. Why should you make a film in another country (Afghanistan)?

Meshkiny: I was born in Iran, but the entire world is my home. I have learnt that filmmaking is a way of alleviating the sufferings of human beings. Just as we have doctors without frontiers, we also have artists without frontiers. My compassion is aroused whenever there is suffering. Saadi, one of the greatest Persian poets, has a poem which expresses the same sentiment and has been posted on the United Nations’ portal:

Human beings are members of one another.

As they have been created from one essence.

When one member suffers pain.

The other members become restless.

You don’t deserve to be called a human being.

If you are indifferent to other people’s woes.

Afghanistan is Iran’s neighbor and its people are suffering. I made my first film “The Day I Became a Woman” in Iran, but it concerns the plight of women in all Eastern countries. My second film is about the homeless people in Afghanistan. I may make my third film in another country. Iran is my native country, but it is not necessarily the location of all my films.

Question: How did the story of “Stray Dogs” occur to you?

Meshkiny: I traveled to Afghanistan in 2002 as Samira Makhmalbaf’s assistant director in “At Five in the Afternoon”. In our search for suitable locations we visited a prison in Kabul one day. There I met children of female inmates who were leading the lives of prisoners beside their mothers. At first I though the children were also convicts, but then I found out they were children of women prisoners, and that they had no home outside the prison, and had to stay with their mothers in the prison during the night and leave in the morning to earn a living outside the prison. The story of “The Stray Dogs” took shape in my mind as I thought about the lives of those children.

Question: Stylistically, “Stray Dogs” is a Neo-Realist film. There is one specific scene in the film which is an homage to Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves”. What made you choose this style for the film?

Meshkiny: My first film “The Day I Became a Woman” presents a Surrealistic atmosphere. There are also Surrealistic scenes in the second film, but the overall effect is that of a realistic picture. The reason should be sought in the similarities between the post-war Afghanistan and the post-war Italy and the emergence of the Neo-Realist cinema. After 25 years of civil war and fights against foreign armies, people in Afghanistan faced a situation very similar to the social and economic crisis in Italy during the years 1945-48. “The Stray Dogs” is a film about people in the streets at a time when they have just come out of the inferno of a war.

Question: Did you have a prepared script or did you shoot spontaneously?

Meshkiny: As I said the subject was inspired by reality. I thought about the subject, did research work and talked to people, and finally I wrote the script. But I shot spontaneously new scenes that were inspired by the reality of the performers situations. For instance, there is a scene of dogs fighting in the street. That was not in the script. I shot the scene and used it to create appropriate atmosphere in a scene that is basically realistic.

Question: Why did you work with non-professional, ordinary people?

Meshkiny: A realistic film should be shot on real locations with real-life people. This will help the filmmaker to focus on the lives of real people which we often ignore.

Question: What problems did you have working with non-professional performers?

Meshkiny: Working with non-professionals and getting them to perform presents both problems and advantages. The advantages derive from the naturalness of the performers’ behavior. When you watch them in the film you are not reminded of scenes in other movies. They act, laugh, cry or express surprise in an original way that does not remind you of Marlon Brando or Allen Delon. They are usually unaware of the story line, and so their performance in a scene is new even for themselves. When they are supposed to be surprised, their behavior is a realistic response to a surprising situation, and when they are supposed to be ashamed, they really feel shame. They don’t “act” shame. I believe real life offers the best pattern for acting, and non-professional performers represent real life. I respect professional actors who can recreate real life with authenticity. They are gods of the acting profession but there are very few of them. You should also consider that there was no filmmaking or theater in Afghanistan for many years. They have just begun to discover their talents. And no doubt there will soon be professional people. For instance, the 7-year-old girl who appears in “Stray Dogs”, has an exceptional talent for recreating real-life  responses. I hope other filmmakers will give her the opportunity to develop her talent. Even if some other filmmaker had discovered her and used her in a film, I would have chosen here for my film. But unfortunately this sort of performers are very rare. Personally, I often find it difficult to accept professional performers’ acting as a real-life response. False acting betrays itself almost instantly, but you may have to watch a film for half an hour before you feel that the story is not true. And sometimes you will have to watch a film to the end before you can pass judgment on it.

The greatest problem with non-professional actors is their belief that a 90-minute film is shot during 90 minutes. They find it unbearable to work under projectors all day long for a two-month period. This is especially true with children for whom filmmaking situation should be made to resemble a game. They have to feel that it is not a serious job and that they are only playing a game. Otherwise, they soon get bored and their performance loses the vivacity which you expect them to exhibit.

Question: Have been influenced by the Italian Neo-Realist outlook. Meshkiny: From 1945 to 1948 over 40 films were made under the influence of the wave called the Italian Neo-Realism. I have seen only one, the most famous Neo-Realist film; Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief”. I respect the film, but the fact is that I have problems with the film even as a Neo-Realist picture. Most sections of the film appear to me melodramatic rather than Neo-Realist. The film is backed by a musical score in many scenes, and in general it seems a tear-jerker. In fact I have been more influenced by the ideas of Cezare Zavatini, the Neo-Realist theoretician; by his ideas of no using set-design and make-up, and making films on people’s daily live, outside the studio.

Question: Do you think things have improved in Afghanistan after the Taliban?

Meshkiny: The Taliban were the clearest embodiment of a medieval outlook in the contemporary world, and after their defeat, Afghanistan has entered its age of Renaissance. A year after the downfall of the Taliban I traveled to Afghanistan with Samira Makhmalbaf for her film “At Five in the Afternoon”. At that time the deeply-rooted fear of the Taliban could still be felt and women dared not discard their “burqa”. That fear has been portrayed in Hana Makhmalbaf’s film “Joy of Madness”. But a year later when I returned to Kabul to make “Stray Dogs” only 10 per cent of the women were still wearing the traditional Afghani veil. Gradually, it is becoming clear how the Taliban’s collapse paved the way for Afghanistan’s future development. At the time we were making Samira’s “At Five in the Afternoon”, Kabul streets were crowded with children begging from tourists. But by the time I returned to make “Stray Dogs” their number had decreased greatly. The streets were cleaner, many immigrants had returned home, and people were busy reconstructing buildings destroyed during the war. In general, you could feel the restored joy of life and hope for a better future.

Question: Are homeless children begging in the streets or children whose parents are in prison, like the child in your film, a general problem in Afghanistan?

Meshkiny: About two million people died in Afghanistan as a result of poverty, famine, war and homelessness in the past two decades. That’s about 10 percent of the country’s population. So, many children lost their parents, and if they did not have the chance of emigrating to other countries and could not be housed in orphanages, they had to live in the streets. The general economic conditions make it impossible to resolve such problems in the short run. When we were making “At Five in the Afternoon” we offered medical care to 800 children in an orphanage. Most of them were children of men who had killed one another in the civil war, and now their children were living together in an orphanage. You could say that the orphanage was a metaphor for the entire country. As a country that has gone through a civil war, the first thing people in Afghanistan should do is to forgive one another. Apart from children living in orphanages, thousands of children lead beggars’ lives in the streets of Kabul. They were very lively children who were playing happily in spite of their poverty. But as soon as they saw a tourist, they assumed such a woe-begone face that affected the viewers. Samira used to say “These children are exceptional performers. You could pick the best actors from among them.” Our group spotted 14 children who exhibited great talent for painting. We  paid them for a whole year so that  they would paint instead of begging in the streets. Each of them turned in one painting every month, so in the end we had 168 paintings. Some of those children were  then offered scholarships by other countries to study art.

Question: How did you find the girl in the film?

Meshkiny: The 7-year-old girl’s name is Golghati. You can see the scene of her discovery in the “Behind the Scenes” of the film. Among the children in the street, I saw a girl with a wild beauty; she was a combination of energy and innocence. I knew instantly she was the girl I had in mind when I wrote the script. I prayed she could perform. She didn’t understand me when I began to talk to her. Then I learnt that she had lost her hearing as a result of a disease. Fortunately, she regained some of her hearing ability through medical care. The girl was the sort of child every one wishes to have. She had not gone to school, but she was perfect proof of Cesare Zavatini’s theory. She was an actress who had been trained in the school of life. She observed a strange discipline. I thought, what amazing human flowers grow from the swamp of poverty and hardship!

Question: How did you get her to perform?

Meshkiny: In the original script, the boy was the principal character. But when I saw the girl and realized she had great talent for the expression of her inner feelings, the story underwent changes, and finally the girl became the principal character and the boy was relegated to a secondary position. This is one of those instances when realities of the moment modified the preconceived script.

Question: What are your feelings about the war in Iraq? Would you like to make a film in that country?

Meshkiny: I am opposed to wars, because wars only cause the slaughter of innocent people. Neither Bush nor Saddam and not even Bin Laden or Molla Omar were killed in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. These people sat in their palaces and pitted innocent people against one another. The most shameful aspect of the situation is the fact that Saddam was put on trial in one of his own palaces. Wars are designed by owners of arms factories. There have to be wars so that arms manufacturers can sell their latest products. Some people believe the U.S. started the war because they wanted to take possession of Iraq’s oil wells. I am not informed about that aspect of the international politics. I hate Bush who endangered American democracy by starting a war in the 21st century. On the other hand, I am glad Saddam Hussein is no longer in power in Iraq. He not only destroyed his people, but is also responsible for the death, and permanent disability of hundreds of thousands of people of my country. It is sad to hear those who were fighting Saddam until a few years ago now talk about him as if he were a hero. I am sure the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq was not motivated by a wish to save the peoples of the two countries. The capitalist West looks upon the world as a vast market rather than a family of human beings. I am also sure that for the Americans the taxes they pay is more important than the bloods that are shed in other countries. At the same time it is important that two dictatorial systems have collapsed. It is possible other forms of dictatorships may be imposed on Afghanistan and Iraq in future, but it has to be conceded that it was impossible to bring about any changes in the two countries through popular struggles, and the Afghani and Iraqi people could not have coped with their respective government without some sort of international interference. The fact is a few dictators like Bush, Saddam and Bin Laden had conflicts of interest and as a result the peoples in the two countries gained freedom which I hope will last.

If until now the peoples in the Middle Eastern countries led lives of fear and apprehension, now the dictators in the region are overcome by fear of being toppled. As for me I would be willing to make films in Iraq or any other part of the world if I feel that my work will help to alleviate people’s sufferings.

Question: Makhmalbaf Film House is an important film production company in Iran. What are the company’s future projects?

Meshkiny: Initially, Makhmalbaf Film House was mainly a film school, offering training courses in filmmaking. Now the training period is over and the company is engaged in creating art films. Its future projects include two feature films in Tajikistan and India, both to be directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf.