‘Just sit and gaze at the sky’
Mehrdad Oskouei, 42, travels around the world with an amazing repertoire of films. Unlike many Iranian filmmakers forced to live in exile, he says that it will be impossible for him to make films if he ever chose not to live in Iran. It is one thing to screen films abroad and quite another to make films outside Iran.
Even if he travels to study or attend a festival, in the end, he returns to Iran. And no, he says he has zero problems making films in a country where it is perceived that the government is unfriendly to activities like music, dance and films.
“My country is my inspiration. The Iranian people are an inspiration. Without this inspiration, I am nothing,” he says. He was in Vienna recently for the screening of some of his award-winning work.
Ask him about censorship, about orthodox religious heads and moral policing in Iran, and Mehrdad smiles. He is not a political scientist, adds the maker of The Other Side of the Burka, when asked what life is like in Iran these days.
The filmmaker suggests that all those who want an answer to that question should see his films. The Other Side of the Burka is a documentary film about a certain corner in Iran where the suicide rate among young women is very high.
When he first heard about this place, it made him curious. He packed his bags and hopped onto a bus to meet the women living in this part of the country.
He returned with a film that captures in considerable depth a life of suffering of women as told to the camera in their own words and against the backdrop of where they live and work. The conclusion is that it is the cruel practice of patriarchy that is responsible for making the life of women miserable in this part of Iran — and not the government. Once there is no finger-pointing at the government, the censor board has no problem in ‘okaying’ the film.
He is quick to add that the film is in no way a reflection of life led by all women in Iran. “In my country I have met women who are miserable. But I also know very many successful and very happy women,” he says.
He also made Nose, Iranian Style about young Iranians smitten by faces they see in foreign fashion magazines who decide to go for a nose job to imitate the nose they liked in the photograph. Mehrdad decided to make this film after he came across a news item that called Iran a world leader in rhinoplasty (plastic surgery of the nose) with an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 operations each year.
The protagonists of all of Mehrdad’s documentary films are ordinary citizens who are encouraged to talk about their joys, sorrows and aspirations on camera. It bothers him that the majority of the population is marginalized in society. He travels the length and breadth of Iran in search of extraordinary stories about ordinary human beings. He likes the idea of giving a voice to the voiceless.
He is deeply interested in matters concerning women and children. In It’s Always Late for Freedom, he explores problems faced by teenaged boys in the context of drugs, poverty, and troubled relationships of their parents. In The Last Days of Winter, he accompanies a group of juvenile offenders on an excursion to the Caspian Sea. On the way, the youngsters talk of the offense committed by them and their life in a correction home. They also tell the camera what bothers them most and the dreams they nurse.
The inspiration to single out everyday heroes comes from Mehrdad’s admiration for exceptional souls like Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Charles Darwin and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Talking about Gandhi, Mehrdad is reminded of his last trip to India. He would love to make a film on the work of Father Francis of Varanasi, founder of a cooperative garden and charitable trust.
The visit to India is important for another reason. One day he came across an elderly gentleman who seemed to be doing nothing. On being asked what he was doing he replied that he was gazing at the sky.
He says that he gets very excited every time he is reminded of that incident. “Nobody does that anymore. I mean just sit and gaze at the sky; that is the problem with us human beings,” concludes Mehrdad.