Arash T. Riahi about FOR A MOMENT, FREEDOM


First Exile Family Movie and now you are making For a Moment, Freedom – a second film where you include your own family story to some extent. Was your work on Exile Family Movie a sort of catalyst which prompted you to return to this subject?

ARASH T. RIAHI:  had the idea for a feature film, For a Moment, Freedom, much earlier; I started writing the story back in 2000. The Screenplay Forum offered me a six-month development period working with a dramatic adviser. At that time I was in my mid-20s, and it was pointed out to me that for your first film it's a good idea to choose a subject you know well, a story that only you could tell. That made it clear to me that in terms of content it could only go in this direction. About 10% of For a Moment, Freedom is autobiographical; the rest is based on true incidents which I was told about or read about, and on the story of my own sister. In comparison, Exile Family Movie was much more personal. The feature film deals with three different stories about people who are trying to escape, people in search of freedom. The stories are set mainly in Turkey and in the border area with Iran. Some of the stories end in Europe. Only two scenes of the film are set in Austria.

What do these three narrative strands deal with?

ARASH T. RIAHI: The main story is about two children, aged five and a half and six and a half, who are being smuggled out of Iran by two young men aged 20; the aim is to get the children to their parents in Austria. One of the other stories is about a family where the man is involved in politics; he has to flee to Turkey with his wife and child, and there he is forced to go through a bureaucratic nightmare in order to prove that he was being persecuted in Iran for his politics. The third story is about a friendship between two men, an older supporter of the Iranian opposition and a younger Iraqi-Kurdish English teacher. It's a sort of tragi-comic father/son story that contains the majority of the comic elements in the film. For me the proximity of tragic and humorous elements is extremely important. I regard humour as a survival technique, and if you don't keep at least a minimum of your humour when you are in such extreme situations as these refugees, you will be destroyed. After all, there isn't a great deal more you can hold on to.

Is it set in the 1980s or the present?

ARASH T. RIAHI: No, it's set in the present. There was a suggestion that we should transpose the action to the 1980s. But if you set a refugee story in the past, the danger is that the viewers will say to themselves: oh, it was only like that in those days. I did some research about the United Nations, I talked to refugees in the refugee areas on the Turkish and Iranian border, and I found out what has changed in the last few years. This is still an area with a strong flow of refugees. Of course, in the 80s there were more, but even today there are periods again and again when a great number of people try to escape over the border, depending on the current political situation in the neighbouring countries. While we were filming 40 refugees from Iran were caught and sent back. And it has certainly become more difficult to get to Europe. You register as a refugee with the UNHCR office in Ankara, Istanbul or Van, and if it is accepted that you really are a political refugee then you have to wait until you are allocated to a country with a refugee quota. It's certainly no fun. Even if you are given refugee status, you are just sent to some country at random, often without considering at all whether you have relatives who are already in another country. Two genuine refugees acted in the film; one of them has been waiting ten years for a country to accept him, the other for six years.  

So there is also a documentary aspect to this feature film?

ARASH T. RIAHI: It includes documentary elements to the extent that several genuine refugees play themselves in the film, and it is also based on true stories. Since I have made documentary films in the past, it may be that people expect a documentary feature film from me, but I have always aimed more for a sort of poetic realism. I wanted to use visual techniques and a mode of narrative which would allow the film to work on other levels as well as the purely documentary. While I was preparing to make the film one important consideration was the question: in what way can a feature film go beyond a documentary film? I had already made two documentary films which were in part very personal, and I didn't want to repeat myself in my debut feature film. I used to think feature films can never be more "real" or "authentic" than documentary films. But just making a feature film for the sake of it would have been too unsatisfying for me. I wanted to make a feature film which might even be able to approach its realistic subject, on a symbolic level, much more closely than a documentary film on the same subject. Because it's also true that people who appear in documentary films have their own lives, before and after the film, which means you can't ever show everything that is important to those people. You have to bear that in mind. In Exile Family Movie and also in The Souvenirs of Herr X there were many things which I did not reveal, from respect for the people involved. To that extent, making a feature film was very liberating. It may all be "fake", but perhaps that allows you to achieve a greater truth, because you can also use other forms and methods ? and you can be more radical.

After your two documentary films, what differences in terms of approach did you find here?

ARASH T. RIAHI:When you are trying to make your first feature film and concentrating completely on that task, I think you could easily sink into depression, because it's a very long, drawn-out process, especially if you are learning the whole thing at the same time. I was able to avoid that fate because over the last few years I have made documentary films and experimental films. And I enjoyed making those films - I will continue to do so - because in my view the choice of genre is not the main consideration. The subject determines the form, and I make my decision without basing it on dogmatic criteria or particular schools. With a feature film everything is created in advance; with a documentary film it usually happens on the spot. The exciting aspect of making a documentary is that you can have an idea and a concept, and then you go out into the world, and what you find might well change your own ideas. With a feature film you are always following a story. In the best case scenario you have a script which works, and each day you have to bring to life those virtual scenes with the actors and the team, and make it all work. That is the pressure you're faced with every single day. You're happy if you can make things happen at least as well as in the script. Of course, it works best if the actors add something magical, something fresh to the whole thing. Working on a script can take years. There were 12 versions of the treatment until we got the final structure. Writing the first version of the script itself didn't take very long, but then there were 14 more versions until we were ready to shoot. I wrote the script myself, but there were always two dramatic advisers to help: Peter Berecz and David Wingate, who I have also worked with on my documentaries. The first timed script was 164 minutes, and it had to be brought down 120, which is another reason why there were so many versions. Shortening a script is difficult, and it hurts, but it's always a good way to get down to the essential aspects as well. In contrast, filming itself went relatively quickly, because we had to stick to the budget. We filmed for a total of 41 days. The unpleasant aspect of making a feature film is the enormous pressure based on financial considerations, and the feeling that you only have one chance to make each scene. If it doesn't work, you can't go back and work on it again, like you do when you're writing a script. Of course, this pressure also means that there's very little time for spontaneous aspects or improvisation. Next time I would definitely like to be able to include more of that.

There were certain specific criteria the protagonists had to fulfil; was casting the film very difficult?

ARASH T. RIAHI: We spent over a year and a half casting the film, in Berlin and then in Stockholm, later in London, Paris, Vienna, and then in Leipzig and Frankfurt. Things were made harder by the requirements we had: we wanted Persian actors who spoke Persian without any accent, some of them had to be in their early 20s, and of course above all they had to be good actors. Then we needed three children aged between five and seven who also spoke without any accent. On top of that, the people had to be prepared to work on a film that criticises the regime. That automatically excluded anyone who wanted to go back to Iran. Navid Akhavan was the first person we cast in Berlin, and he was great. We tried out a lot of other people for this role, but in the end we chose Navid. Fares Fares, an actor born in Lebanon, and two other Iranians came from Sweden; there were seven people from France, while Cengiz Bozkurt, who plays the hotel owner, is a Turkish star. There were three people from England, and Johannes Silberschneider and Michael Niavarani from Austria.
We found the little girl who plays my sister in Paris; it was immediately obvious that she is very talented. The problem that emerged with the children is that everything has to be organised very carefully and arranged with the parents. They have to travel to another country for two months with their child, come to some sort of arrangement with the school or kindergarten, and do without a holiday. When we found the girl we thought it would be ideal if the other children also came from France, so they could talk to each other and to the coach, and discuss the tasks in their own language. And that worked out well. There was some fear that the children - the youngest was five and a half - would be too young for certain tasks that were required from them. On top of which, the regulations in France are very strict; children can't work for more than two hours a day. They have to be tested by a child psychiatrist, but in fact the boy we were most worried about, in terms of the tasks he had to perform, did best with the psychiatrist in the end! But still, I was very aware of how difficult it would be with the children, and quite nervous about it.  

How did working with the children go in the end?

ARASH T. RIAHI: get on very well with children basically, which was just as well. For example, in the script it says: "The child starts crying as he rides through the mountains". So first of all you have to get the child to cry, but in such a way that it doesn't traumatise him. Then you have to make sure the child isn't frightened of horses, and so on. The actors playing the parents of one child were also from Paris. I asked them to do something with the child without the child's real parents being there, and to take the child riding on a pony so he wouldn't be afraid of horses. Then I asked each set of parents for a written description of their children. That enabled me to get to know the children, and we got on very well right from the very start. It was also crucial for me that the children should be happy when they went home after a hard day's filming, and look forward to the next day. The most important thing with children is that they want to do something. When they turn up in the morning and you can sense they are keen to do the filming, then it works out. If you see early in the morning that they're sleepy and reluctant to do anything, it gets difficult. Then you have to resort to unfair means like presents and sweets in order to motivate them. In one of the stories the children are the main characters, which meant they were there all the time. It was important to me to keep an eye on the children constantly, despite the stress, and to include their personal, spontaneous gestures. I felt happiest when a scene I had written worked just as well or even better because something spontaneous had occurred to me at some point, or the actors had managed to give the whole thing a fine finishing touch.

Looking at the film diary on the Internet can give the impression that a number of factors about the shooting made things more difficult?

ARASH T. RIAHI: Apparently the rule is, for your first film keep well away from animals and children. I didn't know about this rule. But I came to the conclusion that if I could manage with the children and the animals, in future things could only get easier. Finding the children to act in the film was difficult enough, but getting performances from them was another thing entirely. Although after the first two days I stopped worrying about that. At first I didn't rehearse very much with them, because I was afraid it would detract from the freshness of their performances. In the second half of the filming, with the more difficult scenes, I did a lot more rehearsing. Interestingly enough, that prompted the children to develop an ambitious approach. When we were actually filming they often got impatient if we had to repeat a scene, but they regarded the rehearsals as a game. They would ask to rehearse a scene ten times, and the following day they were proud to show us what they had learnt. I was very pleased about that.
The next difficulty concerned the animals. One of the actors was extremely scared of animals. In the very first scene we filmed, Navid Akhavan fell off his horse and landed on a stone; he had to be taken to hospital. One of the actresses slipped on the mountain and sprained her ankle, and the next day she had to be carried up the mountain for filming. Lots of things just escaped being complete catastrophes.
The weather was another problem, of course. Just getting five horses up the mountain for the refugee scenes was difficult enough, but on top of that the weather was terrible; there would be a snowstorm in the morning, so you could hardly get to the location, the sun would be shining at lunchtime, and in the afternoon it would rain. In terms of continuity it was awful. Some scenes we filmed once with sun and once with snow, losing a lot of time in the process. Apart from that, it was extremely cold. Erzurum is 2000 metres above sea level. I started really looking forward to filming the studio scenes in Vienna. The really big problem turned out to be conflicts between the actors. After the first ten days some of them couldn't stand each other, there were problems between the parents and the child-minders, and so on. Sometimes I had the feeling that after shooting or even while shooting a scene I was more like a psychologist than a film director. I was the person they could talk to about emotional matters, partly because they could discuss everything with me in Persian. Of course difficulties like this are a lot to do with the individual people, but I'm sure the situation was made worse by the fact that the actors came from all over Europe, and almost all of them had equal billing because there were in effect ten or twelve leading roles. In the end I was happy that we stuck it out until we finished filming, and the actors also tried their best to put aside their personal differences for the sake of the film. I felt it was essential to remain neutral, to talk to everyone, to listen to everyone, and to try to be there for them, even if it was exhausting.

When you were choosing locations, did issues of security have to be considered as well?

ARASH T. RIAHI:Definitely. When we were scouting for locations we had intended that some of the filming would take place in Van, the border town where all refugees come when they have crossed the border; as a child I was there for a month with my parents, too. But when we got there... once there was a bomb scare, and right in front of us the police blew up a suitcase that had been left in the street. The refugees, who live outside the town, told me they were afraid to go into town because of people from the Iranian Secret Service. And there are also conflicts between Kurdish and Turkish fighters. So we decided filming in Van would be too risky for the actors, since most of them had been refugees themselves, and also for me. Instead we filmed those scenes in Erzurum, in the interior of the country.

When you look back, how do you feel about the experience of shooting your first feature film?

ARASH T. RIAHI: The most difficult aspect of this film is also its strength, of course; the fact that it is not set in Austria, and instead of telling a classical story it combines three interwoven narratives. I am sure it took me so long to get the film on its feet because it's so complex and on such a large scale. If I had wanted to make an intimate feature film set in Austria I would probably have been able to do it four years ago. The film was expensive, because we spent a month and a half shooting on location in Turkey, where there isn't any real film infrastructure, and on top of that we were filming with 30 or 40 actors who had to be flown in from all over Europe. It wouldn't have been possible to make the film in this form with a small, inexperienced team, and I'm really pleased I had good people with a lot of experience. But that can also be exhausting, because when you're directing your first feature film you always have to argue a lot with your experienced team until they accept your ideas. For example, I wanted to do some things that didn't necessarily tell the story directly but conveyed an atmosphere, and things like that were not in the script, of course. I had to fight for them on every occasion, because time was very short. The total shooting time we had was what you need for a 90-minute film, and we filmed a 120-minute film in that time, which was extremely difficult. On top of that I was made to feel quite nervous about making this first film by people saying things like: "You can't imagine how difficult it will be". Well, I have done other things before now, and I'm used to stress. The only thing that was really exhausting was the conflicts between the actors. Filming itself, the pressure and the stress, was what I had expected, and of course you go through an enormous learning process in a short period. After the last film there is also the pressure to succeed from outside, which I could really do without - but I suppose it's all part of the job. The three films I have made since 2003 are projects I have had in mind since my early 20s. When I have finished these three, then one chapter in my life has been concluded. I also have a huge sense of relief that this hurdle of making my first feature film has been overcome, whatever happens to the film. I think it's rather like climbing over the Great Wall of China; afterwards no other wall is quite as intimidating - even if it is in fact higher.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
Translated by Charles Osborne
© 2007 Austrian Film Commission