Mania Akbari’s provocative, revolutionary and radical films have recently been the subject of retrospectives at the BFI in 2013, the DFI in 2014, the Oldenburg International Film Festival in 2014, the Cyprus Film Festival in 2014 and Nottingham Contemporary in 2018. Her films have screened at numerous film festivals around the world and have received many awards including the German Independence Honorary Award in Oldenburg or the Best Film Award in the Digital Section of the Venice Film Festival. Akbari was exiled from Iran and currently lives and works in London, a theme addressed in “Life May Be,” a film co-directed with Mark Cousins. This film was screened at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and was nominated for Best Documentary at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Asia Pacific Film Festival in 2014. Akbari’s latest film, “A Moon For My Father,” made in collaboration with British artist Douglas White, premiered at CPH:DOX where it won the NEW:VISION Award as well as the FIPRESCI Award at the Flying Broom International Women’s Film Festival. She is currently working on a new project called “Libido” with her son Amin Maher.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Odesa International Film Festival.
When and how did your desire to create begin?
Mania Akbari: Creating and being creative is part of human life, and without those things, we would feel depressed and abnormal. I discovered the joys of creating and changing things from an early age and I always believed that my path would be filled with knowledge, creativity, and transformation. I was never good at Maths or memorizing things due to my dyslexia, but I was skilled at telling stories and creating images. Of course, art does not necessarily come from your strengths; being an artist is often a product of your weaknesses.
In the time you’ve spent in London, how have you changed? How has exile affected your art? Do you ever see yourself going back to Iran?
M.A.: I personally believe in making external and internal changes. Staying in one place and permanently residing in one place does not give me the ability or the power to recognize opportunities in the distance and, in some way, it brings the dynamism inside me to a complete halt. Living in a new country and a new city means living with a different language, culture, and history; ultimately, it is a beginning, not an end. I don’t believe in looking back nostalgically at the past. I have never been sentimental about memories, but the past is always with me; it’s a part of the identity of time, and the history of my mind, body, and existence.
Do you think you can you be a successful filmmaker without compromising your values?
M.A.: I don’t know what “a successful filmmaker” means. I don’t believe that I am a successful filmmaker. I’m the type of person who is never satisfied and is always moving forward. I hate reaching a destination because it means the end — it’s a kind of finish line. Being a successful filmmaker is a type of ending. I don’t want that label; it denies me youth, the joy of experiencing new things, and the power to take risks.
You have said that “Cinema, as Cinema, is not [your] main concern”. Can you ponder on this statement?
M.A.: I’m a strict and uncompromising person — I can sometimes be quite hard on myself, too. Cinema is a form of entertainment, and I don’t consider any form of entertainment to be a waste of time. I don’t have time for Cinema, but my life is entwined with art, philosophy, and knowledge; if a day goes by where I fail to discover something new within myself or my surroundings, then that day was a waste. My fervor for meaning and purpose follows me everywhere.
You have also said that you have chosen the medium of film to be empowered to tell your stories. Can you elaborate on that?
M.A.: Film is by no means my medium; my medium is anything that can help me articulate my ideas and be combined with those ideas to create a single concept and space. I used to write stories at one point in time, and my pen was always in sync with the power of my imagination. It was gratifying. These mediums, techniques, and technologies are like a new, digital language that you can use to turn your life into a fantasy and make your fantasies a reality. It’s truly amazing.
You make your films according to your own rules and process. Can you talk about that? Is it important for you to invent your own way of making films and how does that affect the stories you tell and the images you create?
M.A.: I catalogue my life and myself. I create a record of time with this new world of technology. I am a living archive and catalogue with a history in my mind and body that new mediums allow me to tap into. After recovering material from within myself, it no longer belongs to me; it becomes a story and a state of being for those who follow me, where its messages might be rearranged and its meaning might change and be transformed into another living archive.
In Abbas Kiarostami’s film Ten, you acted with your son Amin, in scenes that tell a semi-autobiographical story. What was that experience like?
M.A.: He was a serious artist in terms of his outlook and understanding of life in matters outside of gender, and he had a penchant for giving every moment a sense of purpose. He was concerned about being, rather than becoming. He was just caught up in life and ideas, and was always open to new challenges. But in the context of humanity, gender, and perspectives of modern psychology, he was an extremely anti-female and misogynistic person. I won’t go any further into detail than that. If he were still alive, I definitely would have tweeted about him using the hashtag #MeToo. Living in a society with gender equality like England’s allowed me to recognize my rights and boundaries as a woman; it took a lot of time and the help of my psychoanalyst for me to finally accept and believe that I was sexually assaulted and abused.
That’s why I don’t want to discuss the matter any further — as pleasant, engaging, and interesting as he was, being close to him as a woman was equally dangerous. He was raised in an Islamic society where all the laws are designed to favor men, while we women are all born as sinners. He was well aware of that fact and he never would have treated women from the West, who have equal rights, in the same way that he treated Iranian women. It’s tragic, but we’ve seen countless instances throughout history where women’s voices have gone unheard and forgotten, and efforts have not been made to help change the law and protect women’s rights. In fact, they’ve been suppressed by male authorities.
You also go back to it as the starting point of your film 10+4. Can you comment on that? Can you talk about this film?
M.A.: Well, when you are close to death or faced with the very real possibility of death, it completely engulfs your existence; it’s like you just want to have your last dance with life and leave. When I had cancer, art helped me to escape reality and maintain hope as I was undergoing chemotherapy. I wrote the stories and extracted this fictional —or non-documentary— film from the depths of the bitter reality that is death, and just allowed my inner child to come out. That film was the product of the struggle between documentary and non-documentary, life and death, and being and not being.
Can you talk about the experience of working with Abbas Kiarostami, who was also your mentor and who taught you to be free? What else have you learnt from him about life and filmmaking?
M.A.: The greatest gift he ever gave me was teaching me not to follow in his footsteps or act like him. Barring his masculine disposition, I believe that he was a true artist before he produced Ten, but I don’t know how or whether it’s even possible to draw a line between him and that sense of masculinity. The fame that came after the release of Ten —which is a toxic and poisonous thing— pushed him to spend all his time and energy trying to hold on to that acclaim. He knew that the world needs a good story, and according to him, for the credits to roll and the French film critics to begin their analysis.
I learnt about film-making from a humble and experienced female documentary filmmaker called Mahvash Sheikh-ul-Eslami, and I worked as her assistant long before I ever met Kiarostami. But history and film festivals have continually erased her name because she wasn’t famous enough and she was a woman, not a man.
In your new film A Moon for My Father that you have made with sculptor Douglas White, you are looking at how memory is written into our bodies. Can you talk about that?
M.A.: Our bodies are our museums of memories, which shape our identities and give them meaning. The subject of my latest film A Moon for My Father is the relationship between objects and memories, and how they change and evolve into one another.
In that sense, you have a huge history with your body. You believe that our bodies have a deep connection with our minds and our identities. In your films you never have an answer about the body, but you are trying to question the body. Can you comment on that?
M.A.: My body is a mysterious entity because it possesses a flowing mind. Each moment that it absorbs new information, it is a collection of understanding and a lack of understanding: of knowledge and a lack of knowledge. Art is nothing more than that. Art is not an answer, but a platform for questions.
Does being a daughter as well as a mother and a sister play a strong role in your filmmaking? Have your family supported your filmmaking? If so, how?
M.A.: I have always hidden my films and archives from my family. They have no idea how many films I’ve made, besides my younger sister Roya who is an artist herself. I don’t find it strange. I had a friend who was a writer. Unfortunately, she passed away. At her funeral, however, her family had no idea that she was a writer; they had always assumed that she was a nurse because she had studied nursing. Art and artists seek a way of understanding their own particular language, which extends beyond the comprehension of many families. Our families live by social values and beliefs that are intended to steer everything towards normalization. Being an artist is a frightening thing for many societies.
You have made films both in Iran and in the UK. What are the differences, the challenges and the opportunities?
M.A.: There are definitely many deep and profound differences when your environment and the nature of your surroundings change. Colours, smells, architecture, form, space — all of these different geographical and cultural aspects play a central role in shaping your internal conceptualizations. I can’t say which country has been more difficult to work in because my creative journey is always a complicated process. I have always preferred to work with a small budget and a limited number of people, but in Iran I also had to work in secret with the fewest resources possible. Here, I just work with the fewest resources possible.
Your films often involve a blend of reality and fiction, and are meditations on beauty and body image. Can you comment on that?
M.A.: I believe that the conditions outlining fiction and realism are constantly changing. The virtual world has become more real these days than the space that we actually live in. Meanings and fundamental principles are all muddled together. I am exploring, unsteadily, in a space between the boundaries. From my perspective, nothing is completely fictional and nothing is completely factual.
Reality is prismatic and concealed within every prism are reflections of our reality. That is why I believe in the amalgamation of fact and fiction: the combination of imagination and reality is meaningful. Reality is hollow without our imagination, and so is imagination without reality too — they are empty and meaningless. We choose how to frame reality and every choice that we make involves a blend of reality and fiction. Our bodies and figures are a similar intermixture of our reality and an abstract image of our bodies — they are a collection of the tangible and intangible.
You characterize your characters as “damaged creatures wavering between drama and the reality of living, between drama and reality, between being and not being.” Why do you make them like this?
M.A.: Because that is precisely what life is about: we live in-between drama and reality. What reality is absolute reality? Life represents both drama and reality. Reality is miserable without the mind. It is truncated. Likewise, the imagination is just pulp without reality — it is feeble and sterile. We are always between being and not being — that is life. Certainty is finality. Death is the only absolute reality. But the route there is saturated by the imagination. Drama and reality pave the road.
Your provocative, revolutionary and radical films have been the subject of retrospectives at the BFI London in 2013, the DFI in Denmark in 2014, at the Oldenburg International Film Festival in 2014, the Cyprus Film Festival in 2014 and Nottingham Contemporary in 2017. How do you feel about your work being honored?
M.A.: I always doubt myself and assume that everything I create is full of flaws. It is those imperfections that spur me on; they infect me with an urge to exert myself, and persevere, and think, and reflect. It’s a dangerous task to review one’s one work — it’s daunting. I don’t think about them. They’re a sign of the end: they represent old age and decrepitude. That doesn’t benefit me. I always want to think with the mind of a young person; to understand contemporary language and keep pace with the progression of art’s language and form.
Talking about art, you have said that life without art is very fatiguing and boring, that life needs art but that art also depends strongly on life, that you believe that art and life need each other for their own survival. Can you elaborate on that?
M.A.: Yes, I do believe that art and life depend strongly on each other. Otherwise, they’re like a body without a head, or a head without a body: they cannot survive without one another. It is the artist that gives meaning to them.
You also said that you don’t know what an artist’s role in society is. Can you expand on that thought?
M.A.: I don’t think that artists have a serious role to play in today’s societies, given the values that most societies now hold. The idea that artists must be responsible, however, is another matter entirely. An artist’s responsibility is to bestow meaning on different situations and also be perceptive to things that society and politics don’t see or tend to just ignore.
I am undoubtedly a feminist. In other words, I am seeking a new understanding of equality and human rights.
“If I try to forget about being a mother during the making of a film, it is as if I have ignored an important part of myself” Can you elaborate on that quote you have said? Can you talk about motherhood and how it affects you as a woman and as an artist?
M.A.: I don’t think that being a mother is a temporary experience or state of mind that you can just try to ignore during the making of a film. Being a mother becomes a part of your existence and it always stays with you, wherever you go. It is an irreversible state of being; when you try to ignore it, it becomes even stronger. The heavy burden of your maternal instincts makes you want to forget about the enormity of your responsibility, but the feeling always comes back with a vengeance. I enjoy the responsibility that motherly love brings; it proves to me that I am strong and able to love and be loved. It’s a sign of being a healthy human being, in some ways.
You are a photographer, painter, actress, filmmaker. Which hat do you like to wear the most?
M.A.: I am not a painter, or a photographer, or an actress. I’m not a filmmaker either. I am an artist and in the pursuit of art, I might utilize some scientific technology invented in future decades, whatever it may be, to augment and give new meaning to our abstract and physical worlds. These titles are all distinguished by the techniques that they employ. Charlie Chaplin was a painter, an actor, a writer, a filmmaker, and a storyteller, in my opinion. But ultimately, he wasn’t any of those things — he was an artist. Maybe, one day, the mere act of talking will be considered important in the same way that speech and dialogue are considered important nowadays. Maybe I’ll just talk. I really don’t know. I don’t have any patience for these titles. In fact, I’m tired of these routines, and names, and labels that serve the capitalist system rather than the betterment of humanity. Everything is in disarray these days and the world is in crisis. Does it really matter whether I consider myself a painter or a filmmaker?
It does not, actually! But are you a feminist?
M.A.: That’s a strange question and somewhat of a cliché, in my opinion, because it’s like asking me: “Are you a woman?” I am undoubtedly a feminist. In other words, I am seeking a new understanding of equality and human rights.
The situation of women in film has been a hot topic for the past year and a half. What is your opinion on the matter?
M.A.: I approve of any type of film that focuses on women and their stories and experienced points of view, except for certain films that try to appeal to Western audiences by portraying Middle Eastern women as being vulnerable and victims, and continue to promote that same brand of violence and victimhood. I oppose any type of cultural degradation in the media.
Who and what inspires you the most?
M.A.: Architecture. I have a soft spot for architecture and it teaches me a lot about film. It teaches me about art. Architecture is my teacher. I used to keep up with different architects from around the world and think about the constructions and abstract ideas that they devised to serve humanity. I consider architecture a profound art form that exploits both the imagination and the physical, and continues to serve humanity time after time. It is capable of shaping the identities of people who inhabit its structures in a real and completely tangible way. Whenever I visit a new country or a new city, I always spend several hours wandering around because a city’s architecture is a translation of the cinema, paintings, and history of its people and a memory of their lives. Buildings are like spokespeople that stand firmly before you, carrying an entire history.
What are your favorite films?
M.A.: I have three favorite films from Iran: A Simple Event directed by Sohrab Shahid-Saless, The Mongols, directed by Parviz Kimiavi, and Close-Up, which was directed by Kiarostami. My favorite filmmaker of all time has to be Frederick Wiseman.
What are your next projects?
M.A.: I can’t talk about it right now because we’re still in the pre-production stage, but I will be collaborating with my son, Amin Maher.
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Odesa International Film Festival.