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Barbara Wurm: Narges and Afsun, welcome – what a great combination for our interview! Narges, I’m so delighted to have your debut feature film SHAHID in the Forum line-up, an incredibly powerful, creative film that’s extremely inspiring and yet thought-provoking at the same time. Afsun, I’m really happy that you’re pre-selecting and advising for the Forum and that you’ll now also be holding this discussion with Narges – in German, thereby show how naturally polyglot and intercultural post-migrant German-Iranian everyday life really is. Thank you both so much!

Afsun Moshiry: Dear Narges, it feels a bit strange talking to you in German, as we’re both Iranian. It’s a kind of translated version of the way we actually express ourselves. That shifts the perspective – and you also toy with perspectives in your film SHAHID. There are many details that make this personal, hybrid film so exciting. Coming to terms with your family history and your life in Germany is a topic that highlights both interpersonal and intercultural differences. Would you agree we have internalised many aspects of Iranian culture and our having been brought up within it? This has an impact our lives whether we live in our home country or not.

Narges Kalhor: Thank you, dear Afsun. This is an incredibly interesting topic you’ve raised here. I agree with you. The systematic injustice in Iran has an impact on our behaviour. The consequences are with us, both in Iran and abroad. Our self-esteem is affected when we leave Iran as migrants. There is a feeling of happiness on the one hand and a massive sense of guilt on the other. Abroad and in Western culture, we are then directly confronted with a different kind of injustice. Here it’s the distinctions between “good” and “bad” refugees. For instance, the director Narges Shahid Kalhor is better off as a refugee than the actress in the film, who finds life abroad difficult. I decided to leave these realities “raw” and partly show myself as the antagonist in the film. I try to show that we’re in a vicious circle that turns us into perpetrators and victims over and over again. I try to reflect this through my own biography. So the perspectives are constantly changing. For “white”, privileged society, we are people from the Middle East and within our own society we have our own hierarchies.

AM: You’ve managed to weave this interplay of perspectives into your film in highly intricate fashion. You direct the actress who plays you. And there’s a moment of rupture when you step in front of the camera yourself. What does this moment mean in the overall structure of the film?

NK: When we were in the scriptwriting phase, I happened to meet someone on the underground who I’d met 14 years ago at the Zirndorf asylum centre. He spoke to me and looking up at him I realised he hadn’t come to terms with the experience of migration and the asylum centre. That encounter stayed with me. I spoke to Aydin Alinejadsomeeh, my co-writer, and said I couldn’t tell this story without daring to get in front of the camera myself. I didn’t have the courage at first. But me showing my face isn’t supposed to just portray me as the honest Narges exposing herself completely, it should also show the vulnerability and suffering related to being a refugee and that even after 14 years one still isn’t OK.

I’ve learnt that through self-reflection I can create an additional level

AM: Your vulnerability also stems in part from your family history: the name Shahid, which you want to get rid of in the film, the music and the performativity, the illuminating portrayal of your family history – it all comes across with a lightness, and yet it’s a great burden for you.

NK: Yes, totally. I’ve been here in Germany since 2009. I started film school in Munich in 2010 and until now I’ve only made films about myself. Until my previous film IN THE NAME OF SCHEHERAZADE, I wanted the audience to feel sorry for me. I wanted it to hurt. Now I’ve honed my cinematic language and my use of the essayistic form. I’ve learnt that through self-reflection I can create an additional level that is staged, such as in the form of a performance, like in SHAHID. In one scene, I’m crying and then mid-scene there’s a cut. That’s the moment I say goodbye to the pity of others. I no longer need it. This phase of crying and screaming is over. People like me want to be taken seriously and seen as independent figures in society. My great-grandfather was recognised as an important figure in Iranian history. That weighs on me. In fact, I bear the surname of a man from whom I fled. I symbolise this burden in the film by removing ‘Shahid’ from my name. I want to carry on rewriting the story – switching from the story of the men to the story of Narges – and in so doing change the way we look at the past.

AM: I totally understand your desire for this transformation and what it means emotionally. Recognising your roots, but also adding a new layer of meaning. It’s not just a name, it’s a process and a feat of strength. Tell us something about the “history of men” and the meaning of the name “Shahid” – also for you.

NK: Rendering the father generations aesthetically as a “great shadow of the past” ties in with my view of my roots. Everyone has stories about their own origins. Some are proud, some are not. I’m not proud of mine. As the character “Herr Ribbentrop” rightly says in the film, you have no influence over your origins. But the name Shahid is also the reason why my films are screened at human rights festivals, why I wanted to tell my stories with the camera. If I had a different name, my story would also be different. I haven’t had any contact with my father for years. He doesn’t want any contact either. I was the unmarried Narges who applied for asylum. My asylum application was covered by news agencies, they reported on my story. But that also helped me, otherwise I would never have been granted asylum within three months. This surname brings bad luck, but it also brings good luck too. It’s a double-edged sword. As women, we’re worth nothing in the eyes of the law in Iran, so standing out from the men and their names is an important process for me.

I’ve been living here in Germany for 14 years now, with a husband who isn’t from Iran and with a child born in Germany. I haven’t returned to Iran, but the events in Iran still affect my life and I have to position myself politically. That’s why it’s important for me to document this process in the films I make. It’s a kind of statement. I went to therapy for years because of my surname. Very few people would say they hate their parents and don’t recognise their roots. It’s painful for me, I feel like an embryo, without a protective space, it’s a borderline experience. That’s why therapy is built into the film. It took many years of therapy before I was able to make this film today.

I wanted to portray a woman who has to overcome certain hurdles in carrying such a heavy burden here in Germany

AM: The burden doesn’t get any lighter and ongoing self-censorship is a consequence. You’ve found your own cinematic language in which you succeed in doing away with self-censorship in playful fashion. How did you develop this cinematic language?

NK: I said to Aydin, my co-author, and Heiner Stadler, my dramatic advisor: In ancient Iranian myths, the fathers kill their sons, while in Western history it’s often the other way round, the sons kill the fathers. What if we rewrite the story so it’s now the daughters who rise up against the men in their family and resist? But because it’s a vicious circle and the resistance becomes routine, it never comes to an end. That’s how we developed the “shadows of the past” in the film. We kept them as a basic idea and they run through the film. The budget didn’t stretch far enough to make the film entirely fictional. We received funding for a documentary film, but I didn’t want to shoot my autobiography as a documentary. Then I came up with the idea of having someone play me. I wanted to portray a woman who has to overcome certain hurdles in carrying such a heavy burden here in Germany. I met Baharak Abdolifard in Austria and heard her migration story, which reminded me of my own. But every biography is ultimately different. I also wanted to respect these differences in the film. She’s still waiting for her Austrian citizenship. But there’s one common denominator: we no longer want to be victims. It was important to me to highlight the similarities and differences in the dramatic structure of the film.

AM: A philosopher friend of mine once told me you can’t be radical enough as a victim. During the protest movement in Iran and the admirable stand taken by women over the course of that protracted struggle, I liked to remind myself of this statement. It also takes courage and radicality to do justice to a transnational biography. As an artist who has immigrated, it’s difficult to express criticism in Germany. It used to be even more difficult – just think of the filmmaker Sohrab Shahid Saless, who came to Germany in 1974 with a certain idea and was then confronted with the bitter reality of what it meant to express a critical view in Germany back then. This topic is still relevant, although the structures have actually improved.

NK: I find the statement that as a victim you’re not radical enough an interesting one. But as a victim, you also have nothing to lose. If you have nothing to lose, you’re pretty radical. In IN THE NAME OF SCHEHERAZADE, Aydin was already at my side, and I had just had a child. Nobody wanted to produce my films. I was advised to make exotic, oriental films, films like those expected of refugees. I resisted this and then came to terms with it in my own way by developing something that also addressed this expectation in the film. I struck a nerve at that time and the audience responded well to the film. I’m not interested in making “red carpet films” in the artistic field and meeting the requirements of TV editors. I’m interested in developing my own language that lets something loose in the audience.

Not conforming to any norm was also part of the production process for SHAHID. I was asked, “What kind of film is this supposed to be?” “A musical?” It was only by feeling like I had nothing to lose that I managed to break through certain norms, even in Bavaria, which tends to work quite conservatively, and to encourage my sponsors to find new approaches with me. Munich is open and multicultural, yet films are still discussed and dealt with differently here. Then along comes an Iranian woman, lost in translation, and we have to find our own way. I’m a different person when I speak and write in Farsi. I write my scripts in German. That alone is a translation that alters the portrayal, the aesthetics of my being. It’s important and right that there are these multi-layered translations of stories in this country, with people writing in German – it’s only through this diversity that can we change the structures over time.

This film is probably one of the few that was given a chance, even though the script is complex

AM: Even so, you still managed to bring ZDF’s “Das kleine Fernsehspiel” on board as a funding body, and you also pay tribute to your crew by showing them openly in the film. Why was the perspective behind the camera important to you?

NK: I also edit other directors’ films, often the scenes where the camera happens to be rolling or where something goes wrong are cut out. But these moments have their own dynamic and presence. The perspective behind the camera is very exciting for me. I wanted to give this special presence space in my film, the real life that we actually miss. To my mind, new approaches and narratives are needed. It’s so difficult to get funding for these kinds of films. Funding is becoming less and less daring. This film is probably one of the few that was given a chance, even though the script is complex. “Das kleine Fernsehspiel” put their trust in me and supported us. It was an excellent crew, we shot in the Bavaria Studios, these “other” moments behind the camera were important to me and I wanted to give them a place in the film.

AM: Narges, we look forward to sharing your film with the audience soon. Thank you for having the courage to make this film!

NK: Thank you! It means a lot to me that we’ll be able to watch the film together at the premiere. I’m very excited and happy that our costume designer can come to Germany. We’re still working on the final touches before the premiere. The sound is good. The music is by Marja Burchard. I’m really looking forward to it!

Translation: Claire Cahm


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