24Frames: In a conversation with 24 Frames news, Baran Sarmad, a young Iranian filmmaker whose recent short film Spotted Yellow is being featured in the Locarno International Film Festival at the moment, discussed her background as an artist and her journey to her success. In the following interview, you can find worthwhile information on the challenges of directing a film and what it is like to introduce new ideas and putting them into action.
1. Can you tell us a bit about your background in filmmaking?
My first experience in filmmaking was before studying at university, just a 100-second film in my room, with my own camera when I was around 18.5, 19 years old. It was more of an experimental film, but at the time, I sent it to a few festivals which led to some nominations and awards in Film Festivals. After I moved to Tehran to study Dramatic Literature, a friend of mine, Mohammad-Reza Meyghani, and I started an independent filmmaking studio together. We made our first film Daar, also a very short film, that I produced and Mohammad-Reza directed. Daar attended a few festivals as well and won some small awards. Our next collaboration was Cleaner, in which I was the producer and the editor, and Mohammad-Reza was the writer and director. This was a 12-minute film and our first experience working with a professional team. We had a big enough budget and equipment and rehearsal sessions this time. I received the “Best Editing” award and Mohammad-Reza received the “Best Young Talent” award at the Shabdiz festival. After that, Cleaner attended the Tehran Short Film Festival and gained a lot of attention and much positive feedback. It was after that, that we got known in the short film community. Cleaner also had a presence in more than ten international festivals, from some of which it received a few awards. Our next project was the first film that I directed, Spotted Yellow.
2. Where did the idea for “Spotted Yellow” come from? What inspired the pursuit of making the idea into a film?
I’ve been writing short stories since I was a child and I’ve always had this feeling that the world, nature, and animals are in a sort of alliance and unity together and they connect in a certain flow, whereas humans don’t seem to fit well in that alliance and are more isolated, more alone. When I was younger, I would ask myself: Why am I not the same as this bird? Why am I not the same as this leaf? Why are there so many restrictions and Dos and Don’ts on how I should behave? On the other hand, I was very imaginative and would make a story, a fantasy out of everything in my mind, and this fantasy and surreal themes would appear in my stories as well. Spotted Yellow’s idea started one night at a family get together, where everyone was talking about how they were progressing in their careers and other similar modern world concerns. I couldn’t really relate to what they were talking about and felt unfamiliar and like a bit of an outsider. By the time the party was over and people were saying goodbye, I decided to get away from them. I went outside and waited in the dark alley. As I turned around and looked at the other side of the alley, I saw this huge giraffe gently walking inside the alley out of nowhere, glimpsing at my direction and moving away, while the leaves of the trees were still shaking. That night when I got home, I would look at the table and see a yellow spot. I would go to my room and see the raindrop shadows on my ceiling as yellow spots as well. I thought it could be an interesting idea to make a film about a girl who feels like she’s a giraffe or wishes to be one, due to a feeling of detachment from herself and from the world which she cannot escape, similar to what I had felt. I talked about this to Mohammad-Reza and he too was excited about making this film happen, so he started working on the script, and I on the storyboard.
3. How would you explain your cinematic language? What contributed to reaching this specific style?
One’s own specific language or style is something that not only directors but all artists hope and attempt to reach, and I too am trying to get there. In order for me to be able to determine that, I have to have made more films to decide whether or not I have achieved it. Spotted Yellow is my first more professionally directed film, so I can’t really say that I already have come up with my own language, however, I have tried to get to realize the themes and the moods that I’ve had in mind. One thing I’d done in this film was to have a narrative that differs from the usual linear storytelling. I tried to focus on pictures and frames, the general form of the film, dialogue, colors, and whatever helped me narrate. There’s only one actress in the film and very little dialogue, but this does not mean my film isn’t trying to tell a story; just not in the way that we are used to. I think one’s living experiences and watched films contribute to what they essentially have in mind to represent in a film, but the moment I started working on this film, I decided to treat it as a blank canvas that should be painted from scratch to create my own universe, and without the fear of failure. There are quite a few filmmakers that inspire me, but one thing I specifically enjoy is the moments that the characters get to a point of dailiness, where they discover something new. I was touched by this through Chantal Akerman’s characters. I admire Yasujiro Ozo, and the relationship of the lonely girl character and the donkey in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar has undoubtedly sparked something in me. I am also much interested in painting, costume designing, and photography and I persistently follow recent trends in these areas which I believe affects my taste as well.
4. How did you and your screenwriter communicate your ideas and manage the responsibilities simultaneously? Were you willing to change the script due to on-set issues, if faced with any?
Mohammad-Reza understood my idea from the beginning and started the screenwriting instantly. We discussed every step together almost during the entire process. We would check out some locations for the film and the script would have some changes based on that. Once, not too long before shooting, I saw a landscape in one of the locations that I liked, but it had nothing to do with the script. I showed a picture of it to Mohammad-Reza, and the next day he got back to me with a new scene suggestion based on that single shot I showed him. In the end, it turned out to be pretty amazing. We were always in conversation about what was to happen next so we had several drafts before the final version. That is what I initially had in mind, to have an open mind to changes on the script and stay away from having rigid frameworks. Another time on set, we realized one of the rather big parts of the script was not helping the story or the character much, so we decided to completely delete that part. This went for editing as well. I had no problem giving up some lines or shots to reach a more minimalistic atmosphere which is exactly what happened after watching the first edited version of the film. Other than the parts that we voluntarily changed, there weren’t really many issues on set because each person knew exactly what they were doing. Even though our shooting was rather short and packed, we got all the shots we needed.
5. How were the different stages of your production? How did the necessity of visual effects affect your production process?
Our pre-production took a long time, but by the first round of Tehran Short Film Festival’s pitching forum, we had the script, the storyboard, and all the other materials needed. Eventually, we received the pitching award that provided the budget for this film. Because our character is someone we came up with ourselves and not a stereotype, in my sittings with our actress, we would discuss the character a lot and rehearsals weren’t in a “Do Exactly This or That” or “Say Exactly This or That” manner. Although I didn’t really rehearse all individual scenes with her, the actress and the rest of the crew had a proper vision of how things needed to flow and what needed to be done in each scene. This was a risk to take and I’m not sure if I will take the same strategy for my next film, but I am happy with the results on this one. Our post-production was also not a short or easy process. The visual effects part was the longest and hardest part of our production because I needed a real-life looking giraffe in the shots. We had seen examples of a bird passing by in a scene, but this time the animal was one of the main characters and an unprecedented one for that matter. The giraffe was a crucial part of our film, so we couldn’t really use one of those basic pre-made models, and our only options were to either get a real giraffe to play in our film or make our very own model. I spoke to two American and one French company who had experiences in Computer Generated Animals but the long-distance work made it difficult to pursue anything. Eventually, we decided that we can make it happen in Iran, and I spoke to Mr. Matoori who was very supportive and considerate of the difficulties and expenses of creating a well-made 3D model for a short film. This part merely took us 6 months but the realization of the idea and technical progress was astonishing to witness. When I saw the final result, it was almost like I could see what I saw that night after the party on a screen. It was really important to me to be able to present something that can compete in the international arena and not have any technical deficiencies.
6. You are one of the producers of this film yourself, how difficult is it to find a proper producer who meets the needs of a film? What are the difficulties of directing and producing at the same time?
The pitching prize we won covered a notable amount of our expenses, so I didn’t really need to have meetings to convince producers to work with me and the production was similar to other films we had made in our studio. However, the jury committee of the pitching forum consists of several producers who hear your ideas and select your work based on its qualifications. If you have a good enough pre-production and material to present that will allow the producers to see you know what you are doing, I believe it is possible for any film, with any genre, to get the financial support needed. Whereas if the only material you have is your script, it can be difficult for the jury to visualize what the final work would look like. Not to mention that in general, it is not easy to find a producer for a short film. Therefore, when we entered the pitching contest, we presented booklets of our future film to the jury, which included where the idea came from, the script, the storyboard, pictures of locations, templates of how the visual effects would look like, make-up tests, and more. In my experience of directing and producing at the same time, I can say that sometimes, it is difficult to do both jobs, especially on set; but when you have planned everything in detail prior to the production, it can be a rewarding experience to be able to produce your film yourself, since it also removes some of the outside forces implied on you if you work with other producers, especially in the aftermath of the film, like for the Distribution and Sales. However, having a producer has its pros as well, since in that case you don’t need to worry about the duration of the production, the number of cast and crew members, and how much that is going to cost you.
7. What are the main challenges you faced as a female director? Does it affect the selection and co-operation of the cast and crew during the production?
I think the history of all places, the religions, the cultures, and the customs have an obvious effect on the people who live in a certain society; living in Iran has a unique effect on all its citizens but especially on women, and I am no different and one can spot my experiences as a woman in my work. Yet, I feel like when you are determined to work as a professional, more so when you are a director or producer, it doesn’t differ much whether you are a man or a woman, because it’s the job in which you are completely responsible to control how things go. You should be the one who manages everything and determines how well your crew members are co-operating. You can be a male director and still have a taxing member that you argue with. I think it’s the same for women and is more dependent on your personal directorial or management skills. There were times that I had meetings with people whom I was possibly going to work with, but after a bit of talking I would realize we are not compatible to work together, so I would move on to the next person. Nevertheless, I have had encounters with professionals whom I felt have certain views on working with women, but you can usually tell from the first meeting. I choose not to work with these individuals.
8. What are some lessons you’ve learned from your films that can help other filmmakers on their paths?
One of our main goals in our studio is to try to get to a new form of narrative in films, and in Spotted Yellow, it was a great feeling to see what we had in our minds manifested. There were a lot of child actors in this film and directing them was very interesting. The fact that I had these new different ideas, tones, and locations and was able to unify them into a single art piece was a great experience for me. I think we are generally expected to be the same, think the same and act the same; in the Iranian film community, there are some significant films that are considered successful, and they each bring something new to the table but fit well in a more or less limited type of genre. Interestingly, this is also what international followers expect from Iranian cinema. I’ve received lots of feedback expressing the surprise of seeing a film like mine being made by an Iranian director. So, I think if anyone has any vision of a different voice to create, any kind of a new innovative narrative, they must try and make it happen without being fearful. Of course, this will require a lot of hard work, because when you’re trying to create something new, it has to reach a certain maturity for people to believe and accept the mood of your work.
9. Do you have any plans for future projects?
I’ve written another short script to work on, there’s also a feature script that is already drafted. At the studio also we are going to work on another short film which is going to be directed by Mohammad-Reza Meyghani and most likely will be shot in the upcoming months. The only reason that we haven’t started shooting yet is because of the pandemic and to prevent spreading the disease. At the studio, we don’t stop working on projects until they are finished and the creative process is always going on. Although even after the films are made, the release of the films opens up new challenges.
Interviewer: Parnian Gharehsoory Still Photographer: Mohammad Keshvari Poster Designed by Mohammad Hossein Hooshmandi