War, exile, imprisonment, beauty and love – the material of great drama, and, in the case of Bahman Ghobadi, the material of his life over the past few years.
The Iranian director, who was at the centre of a high-profile case involving the 2009 imprisonment of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi by the Iranian government, has made his first film since leaving his homeland. Rhino Season is a poetic allegory of exile and sacrifice born of his own experience.
The last time I spoke to Ghobadi was in 2000, with the release of his first film, A Time for Drunken Horses. The movie, which won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, was the world’s first Kurdish-language feature and announced the arrival of a major new voice in Iranian cinema.
At the time, Ghobadi, handsome, brash and just turned 30, was dismissive of Western reporters’ political questions and insisted that Iran was the easiest country in the world in which to get a film made.
The honeymoon didn’t last. Ghobadi’s fourth film, Half Moon (2006), was arbitrarily banned and the government thwarted his efforts to make another one. He ignored the authorities and quickly shot an underground film about struggling musicians, No One Knows About Persian Cats, which was accepted for Cannes in 2009. One of his co-writers was also his girlfriend: Roxana Saberi.
A former Miss America contestant of Japanese and Iranian parentage, with master’s degrees in journalism and international relations, Saberi was a glamorous figure who did stories for the BBC, Fox News and National Public Radio among other international outlets. She was ready to return to the United States by 2009, but Ghobadi asked her to stay, a decision that later caused him a great deal of guilt.
In January, 2009, Saberi was arrested for espionage and thrown in the notorious Evin Prison, where she was isolated, blindfolded and interrogated. Shortly after, in a sham trial that was reported around the world, she was sentenced to eight years imprisonment
Three months later, she was released, days before Ghobadi went to Cannes with Persian Cats. He never returned, instead moving around between Berlin, Paris, Kurdistan and London. Saberi moved back to North Dakota, where she wrote a book about her ordeal, Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran.
Their friendship, though, continues. As I am led into the hotel suite for my interview with Ghobadi, I recognize Saberi, who is accompanying him as his translator. Along with her human-rights activism and speaking schedule, she says, she is writing a second book about Iran.
“It’s good we can talk, now that our governments don’t,” I say.
“Now you know what it’s like being an American,” Saberi says.
Ghobadi’s first film since leaving the regime touches close to his heart. The story was inspired by the incarceration of a family friend, a Kurdish poet, played in the film by Behrouz Vossoughi. In Ghobadi’s story, the poet is jailed, along with his wife (played by Italian screen star Monica Bellucci), in a trumped-up charge. Ten years later, the wife is inexplicably released and told that her husband is dead. She makes her way to Istanbul. Twenty years later, the poet gets out of jail and travels to Turkey to find her.
“I made this film for two reasons: Because Behrouz Vossoughi was my hero when I was a child, and for more than 30 years, he’s been unable to work at his art,” Ghobadi says. “It’s not just about Behrouz, it’s about thousands of people who have gone through these things who we think about and care about.
“The other reason was that I didn’t want to die. I was under depression. You know, when I was in Istanbul or Iraq, my country was so close, but I couldn’t go there. I made a plan just to make myself busy. I told myself, ‘Bahman, you have to be like the old days.’ Now, I have have many projects. I have new energy.”
Vossoughi, a gravely handsome 74-year-old, who frequently pats Ghobadi or reaches over and pinches his cheek in affection as the director talks, was a major star in pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema, with more than 90 films to his credit. All that ended with the revolution. He now lives near San Francisco.
In the early eighties, he says, he sought work in Hollywood films “but, of course, it was right after the revolution and the only thing the Americans wanted me to play was a terrorist. After a while, I told my agent not to bother. I’m very grateful to Bahman for allowing me to do a film that means so much to me personally.”
I ask Ghobadi whether there is an argument for staying in Iran and trying to change things from within. His friend Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon) had told him that he should stay. Panahi is currently under house arrest and forbidden from making films. Ghobadi breaks into Farsi again, and Saberi translates.
“For me, it’s better to live without looking over your shoulder, worrying about who is controlling your phone, maybe poisoning your food. I’m free – but I’m also not free because there are millions of young people living in Iran. A filmmaker can only do a little. I hope my film can help break the formula, to show you can make Iranian films outside of Iran and encourage younger people to stand up and express themselves.”