Arash T. Riahi talks about THE SOUVENIRS OF MR. X


«It's about the search for a good film, for the right images, the right framing, for the essence of animated images and the emotions it involves. And it's about the question of what's good, what's bad, how relative everything is, how relative film criticism is. I thought that a playful approach was precisely the right one, and I hope that the tightrope walk between respect and humor works.»  Arash T. Riahi talks about The Souvenirs of Mr. X, his first full-length documentary which premiered in Karlovy Vary's documentary competition.


Did this close look at the world of amateur filmmaking begin by chance at a flea market?

ARASH T: RIAHI: While at a municipal department's flea market I discovered some movies and an extremely complex-looking Super-8 camera, everything for a total of 1,000 schillings. At first I watched them without sound, and after seeing them on a sound projector, I realized what a treasure they were: the voice of the man describing the whole world and his travels. For example, there's Iceland 1-6 and then another Iceland summary, each role lasts 20 to 30 minutes. He must have spent an enormous amount of time on making them. One thing's certain, that the movies I bought first were all made by the same person, that's made obvious by the handwriting and the voice. In my film Mr. X is a compilation of several different people, he represents a type of individual. The important thing in The Souvenirs of Mr. X to me were the people behind these films, normal people who just make movies.


What about Mr. X fascinated you?

ARASH T: RIAHI: The films I had began in 1969, and the last was from 1984. I was obsessed with finding this man. I think these movies are something special, not artistically, but I was impressed by the effort required to create something with love without becoming famous as a result or being paid for it. This is a man who was fascinated by something and then made this dream living inside him come true in his own way. His movies have no artistic value, but they were important to him.


What moves a professional filmmaker to take a look at amateur films?

ARASH T: RIAHI: Amateur films are sorely neglected in cinematic history, and I thought it was important to pay more attention to them. You must remember that the first films ever made were the work of amateurs. The Lumière brothers filmed their families at dinner and their friends at work, and little gags, such as someone stepping on a hose to spray someone else. The subject of two people spraying each other with water is so common in amateur films, including the home movies I recently received from relatives in Iran. Amateur filmmaking began with 35 mm, it was then shot on 16 mm, then became smaller and smaller 9.5 mm and 8 mm and its image shrunk, too. Not long ago I realized that what I find fascinating about this subject and these images is possibly the fact that I've been living in exile for 21 years and basically have no images from my childhood. There aren't many photos. I'm fascinated by pictures of families where you can watch the children grow up. When I found some carefully made movies of trips through Iran from 1974 in the footage I do have, I thoughtæI was born in 1972 it would be great if I saw myself as a baby in them. I was very disappointed, as you can only see historical ruins and there are no babies in sight.


How did you approach the amateur filmmaker scene?

ARASH T: RIAHI: I met an Egyptian flea-market dealer who sold me some Super-8 movies, and in one box I found a periodical from 1977 entitled 50 Years of the Club of Amateur Filmmakers, with introductions by Kreisky and Sinowatz and a number of articles which gave me the impression that amateur filmmaking was more highly regarded then. There was also an article by Walter Spindler, who wrote of the trials and tribulations of an amateur filmmaker, of his children who suddenly didn't want to be involved anymore, of weather that wasn't right and that he lost four kilos during a "production". I thought it was funny and wanted to meet him, and that's how I was introduced to the club.


What was your first meeting with the amateur filmmakers like? Was there more distrust or curiosity?

ARASH T: RIAHI:  In the beginning they thought I wanted to join the club. When I explained I was making a film about them, they thought it would be an amateur movie. When Mr. X was first screened at the Diagonale four club members admitted they didn't take the project seriously at first, because they were used to being laughed at and no one taking them seriously. They found it hard to believe that someone really wanted to make a feature-length documentary about amateur filmmakers. After I visited them again and again over two and a half years, went to the national competitions and my cameras got bigger and bigger, they started to believe in it. Some of them were extremely open, though there were skeptics too, who opened up later. Austria has, I think, 80 or 90 clubs, they're organized into national competitions, and there are even international competitions held in a different country each year.


The film is a love letter to filmmaking. Why did you choose amateurs for it?

ARASH T: RIAHI:  Pros are talented people and receive money, awards and recognition for their work. Amateurs invest a great deal of time and money, and sometimes even lose their families: There might be more love involved than with a pro who makes money from it. Amateurs might experience some of the same things, but they don't earn any money and don't enjoy recognition, so I thought, in some way honoring their work is more honest. With Walter Spindler you can see the degree to which filmmaking makes his life worth living, it's the most important thing. It's all about love for the animated image.


In addition to the human aspect there's also a theoretical examination of animated images. Images produced by professionals, precisely edited, are combined with others filmed by amateurs.

ARASH T: RIAHI:  It's a theoretical examination too. This film was rejected for subsidies twice, partly because of suspicions that I planned to make fun of these people. I added 15 pages of theory to the next application to make it clear I was taking a serious look at amateur film, and that worked. This film could have been made a number of different ways, such as a classic documentary with interviews and scenes from the films inserted in between. In my opinion the investigative structure worked extremely well. It's about the search for a good film, for the right images, the right framing, for the essence of animated images and the emotions it involves. And it's about the question of what's good, what's bad, how relative everything is, how relative film criticism is. Another important thing for me was that it didn't get too serious because these people and their films aren't totally serious, and in the end, I make fun of myself. I thought that a playful approach was precisely the right one, and I hope that the tightrope walk between respect and humor works. The greatest praise I received was at the Diagonale, when the club's president said there's finally a film that shows us the way we are and, although the audience laughed quite a bit, he didn't think I was mocking them. It was extremely important for me to deal with the theoretical aspect, but in a sensuous way that was fun.


What were the main intentions for the montage concept?

ARASH T: RIAHI: I wanted to make a portrait of people, their love of film, and amateur filmmaking in its entirety. The montage was intended to show to the extent to which life and film are interwoven. That's why there are associations in which everything's repeated, the pointing at something, all the little details in life, regardless of how unimportant, which are worthy of being filmed. The montage concept is not a game, even though it's humorous and works on that level. On a second level it's about showing the grammar of classic amateur film.


What were the main subjects in the footage you examined?

ARASH T: RIAHI: The main subjects in the 2000 to 3000 films I have are family, flowers, animals. Some of the scenes are staged, there are filmed meals and attempts to capture the feeling of sensuous moments, which never really works. Then there are short fictions and genres that don't exist in the world of professionals, such as record-album movies, landscapes and mood films, such as winter impressions. And what has become very popular lately are classic documentaries like those on Universum, in which animals and insects in the filmmaker's yard are filmed. Most of them are about 20 minutes long.


How much footage did you watch in all?

ARASH T: RIAHI: I watched between 400 and 500 films. I had two assistants who sorted them according to theme, and then I discovered more themes while watching them myself: people pointing at things, pans of flowers, place-name signs that prove the filmmaker was at a certain spot. In all I had about 80-90 hours of footage and an equal amount of Super-8 material. I started editing in the summer of 2003, it was an enormous amount of work. But editing this film wasn't any different than editing anything else yourself. I never could have exploited someone the way I exploited myself, I never could have explained it as precisely to anyone else. I got a lot of ideas while making the first cut. I worked on this for three years, though not continuously, and I'm glad it's finished.


The Souvenirs of Mr. X is your first feature-length film for theatrical release. What have you done before this?

ARASH T: RIAHI:  I'm self-taught. It all started in school, in an elective media arts course, where I made short films with Geza Horvath, a friend, that were then shown at festivals. At first we wanted to study something serious, as a Persian I started studying medicine of course, and I made good progress, but then fate struck: There was a program in the ORF's youth department where amateurs were given a topic. We made a three-minute film on "the kiss" which was well received, and then they asked us if we wanted to direct for TV. There was suddenly this opportunity. We made youth programs where we were given a great deal of freedom and could try out lots of different things. Later I worked on the Kunststücke arts magazine and learned a lot because again I had a lot of freedom and made more or less experimental reports on the art scene. At the same time I studied film arts and the humanities at the university. The disadvantage about never having studied at the Film Academy is that I don't have any shorts I made as a student, for which a feature-length film is now the logical next step. The consequence is that I had a long struggle for acceptance. Television was neither my dream nor my self-realization, but it gave me confidence. Gaining trust isn't easy in the film scene if you didn't study at the Academy. In the meantime I've grown accustomed to the idea that that's the way things are. I have the experience of producing over a hundred TV reports, and I've taken part in many excellent workshops abroad for screenwriting and direction. I had to work a lot so I can afford it – this training is expensive, but it's worth it.


Your production company, Golden Girls, doesn't concentrate on cinematic film?

ARASH T: RIAHI: We founded the company a few years ago after making a music video together with Raphael Barth, Christian Davidek and Geza Horvath, because we needed a company name to write an invoice. I was freelancing for the ORF and then quit because we were doing more and more for the company: advertising, TV documentaries, Eclipsa, a documentary about the solar eclipse in Transylvania, permanent installations for media environments at the Museum of Technology. As a result of course, my film took longer to complete than if I had concentrated on it exclusively. I had stop work again and again and do things for the company to pay the rent, on the other hand I never would have had the freedom to spend so much time editing it.


Being the screenwriter, director and editor at the same time is a big challenge.

ARASH T: RIAHI:  When you edit your own film, the claim is often made that you're too close to it. I think it works fine, but it's important at the same time to have people around you can discuss the film with. That went really well with Geyrhalter Filmproduktion, because there were lots of screenings with Markus Glaser, Michael Kitzberger and Wolfgang Widerhofer and we talked about the film regularly. It's important to share the film with others, then editing it yourself isn't a problem, if you're prepared to make the effort. Editing, especially my own film, has never been my dream. Because it's theoretically possible to do everything yourself, because it's easier now technically, you're forced to do it. It involves a lot of effort, but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing.


Is your film about a technical revolution?

ARASH T: RIAHI: In the Super-8 era people sat at home and cut their movies apart and then spliced them back together, that was a lot more difficult in the past. Of course, you could criticize my film by saying nobody shoots on Super-8 anymore. It's also a film about something which is in the process of disappearing. Nothing has changed about the essence, but the images have become sharper and more people have their own camera. But most vacation movies still look the same, up a church tower and down a church tower, pan to the left, pan to the right. It's just the medium that's changed.


Interview: Karin Schiefer (2004)