3. ON FILMMAKING
ST: Your films are very entertainingpeople laugh and are moved. Theyre very approachable, but at the same time, it seems clear that theres a message that youre trying to bring across. How do you see balancing entertainment with message?
KL: I think that you go with a set of things because of who you are. When we did Shinjuku Boys, obviously I was going with the idea that we would show these people in a positive way, I mean that was the sort of bottom line, really. But each film is a kind of a journey: it changes you as you film it, and you change it. So you never quite know, but you try to make it as easy to watch as possible. But there are some scenes in the new film (Gaea Girls, 2000), for example, where we came back and we were crying, because theyre so painful. So obviously were going to try and... We dont want the audience to sit through it and be absolutely bombarded. It has to be a pleasurable process, and making it possible to enjoy something is part of editing.
ST: Divorce has awful scenes, then there were things like the judge laughing and the clerks daughter getting up and playing judge, so theres a lot of humor going on as well. Do you think about humor when youre filming?
KL: Definitely. With Divorce, it happened even when we were choosing the court. We didnt want to have a kind of judge like [the former Ayatollah] Khomeini, because thats what was everybody was expecting to see, and theyre not all like that, there are as many judges like Deldar [whom we filmed] as there are like Khomeini. Also, if youre going to spend every day in a court with a judge, you might have some kind of relationship with them. A judge who struggled with implementing the law, and obviously had doubts and problems himself, seemed more interesting than a judge who just saw things in one way. Because the film is also about how a society is struggling to impose an old system on a new developing society where women are changing. So choosing Judge Deldar was going to have a kind of lightness in it because he was quite a quirky guy. And there was Mrs. Maher.
ST: It seems very much to be about negotiation: about negotiation between the husband and the wife, and the judge negotiation with the law. The episode when hes going to jail Miriam and put her in detention for five days, then put her in detention for one day, after which she can can go home, is an example of this.
KL: That was a perfect example, because he really didnt want to send her to jail, so when he asked us if shed ripped up her divorce summons, we lied and said no, and thats wrong. That another thing thats happened at a lot of festivals: people have attacked us for lying, saying, Look, youre filmmakers, you had no right to change the process, you should have told him that youd seen her tear it. But there was no way we were going to do that, because we obviously didnt want her to go to jail, I would have lied more, I was really proud of Ziba that she lied. [The judge] wanted to use us as kind of an excuse. Hes not a nasty man, hes a kind man, but he was angry with her and she was a nuisance. He wanted to frighten her but he didnt want to send her to jail, so we were kind of convenient.
ST: Your choice of how to film has you very much in the room: you have a fixed camera, and youre just going back and forth between husband, wife and judge; we never see you, but we hear your voice, and the judge and sometimes the women turn and talk to you; then in the end you do influence one of the cases. How do you see your position as filmmakers in this small space and as taking part in the proceedings?
KL: Youre filmmakers and youre recording, but youre Ziba, who sometimes says things that when shed tell me Id say, Ziba, you didnt say that. For example, when she says to Barman, the other Zibas husband, Serves you right for marrying a fourteen-year old girl, she suddenly gets a rush of anger. Zibas volatility is something I really love, and something thats difficult as well. Its what makes her what shes like, and its what made the film the way the film is. So I said, Ziba, you didnt say that, but it was what she felt, and I felt it too. I mean, of course you shouldnt marry a girl whos still at school. Youre the people that you are, and the way you relate to people is obviously going to affect the film.
ST: Youre clearly interested in portraying some kind of truth; at the same time, you clearly have a strong connection to the women youre filming. As such, your films strike me as highly personal and subjective. Will Gaea Girls, about the Gaea Japan womens professional wrestling association, be in a similar vein?
KL: Yes. I do react very strongly to film and how I feel about things. I mean, with the Gaea Japan one, I feel like Ive made friends and that were really close to them now, and hopefully that will across in the film. It cant be objective at all.
We just finished it late last night. Its been like a kind of roller coaster, and as emotional as Divorce in the fact that was life and death, you know, people losing their children and all. But I think that for both me and Jano, it brought out a lot of feelings about being children, about authority, about discipline and all those things, because it has very heavy scenes of young girls being trained. Weve been struggling with what we really feel about things, and kept changing our minds about how we thought about things as we went through. Wed say Look, well film things as best as we can, and then well deal with this later, because it was too much... I mean, one moment you think, Of course they have to have this very hard training, because the ring is going to be really dangerous and theyre going to have to be really really brave and be able to put up with pain, its all about putting up with pain. And then wed think, Oh no, thats too much pain, I cant cope with it. And because you feel so close to these young women...
You know, three nights ago, we came back to the hotel, and Jano and I just sobbed, because wed seen our favorite, this girl that we absolutely loved, Takeuchi Hatakyu, being really beaten, and sobbing, and being turned to all the TV crews at the end and told, Tell the room how long you can submit to this pain. Jano and I were crying, and then the other TV people started filming us, because they thought it was hilarious that we were crying. We went home and said, Why didnt they think that was painful? Why werent they shocked by what happened? Then wed think, Well, do I feel critical of it? Then we saw her debut match, which was two days ago, and she was absolutely brilliant. That was moving in another way. She comes on, and she there is, and a few days ago she was just a little girl, and shes turned into something else, she suddenly looks like a wrestler. And you think, Well, they have made her into this, and this is what the whole thing was for, but you still sad for her that she had to go through so much.
ST: Speaking of dramatic moments, Id like to get back to Divorce. Any court proceedings have an element of drama, and some of the scenes in Divorcesome of the women, Miriam for examplewere incredibly dramatic. So youve got a documentary which is also dramatic.
KL: It is a kind of acting, but theyre acting for the judge: theyre acting out their rage or their despair or their need, really, so that he will then be in their favor. Their passion is all theyve got. Its what struck me first, that the passion was all coming from the women, and the men had the right on their side. So the women had to go with that to get the judges sympathy. But then you realize right at the end that even he was sympathetic to Miriam. He said, Look, the children do better at school with Miriam, theyre not doing the work. There is a great belief in education there in Iran, which is really good, everybody thinks that girls should be educated. So hes obviously on her side, but law is against her. Theres nothing he can do, so hes caught there. But I suppose she felt like I want my child so much hes going to have to let me give the child. But even she cant get him to do it.
ST: You dont use a narrated introduction, then say, Heres the past history, now let me show you something, you just jump right in. Im assuming that this choice of seeming non-structure was actually quite conscious.
KL: Ziba and I really agonized about this, because we didnt want a lot of narration. Films filmed by westerners about Iran, in particular, always have a voice telling you what to think and putting everything into a kind of normal framework, like, This is wrong, and, we do it better in the West, that sort of thing. We wanted people not to worry about what was happening so that they could feel comfortable enough just to enjoy the stories. In the three weeks before we finished it, we spent ages writing the narration, trying to cut it down as much as we could; but some things were very difficult, like the whole idea of the bride priceyou could write a whole book about it. Ziba tried to make things understandable in a very succinct way.
4. ON DISTRIBUTION AND AUDIENCE RECEPTION
ST: I noticed that Divorce was a Channel Four production. What do you think about the relationship between television and documentary film-making today?
KL: Its always really hard to get money to make these films, because theres a real slant away from subtitled films in England, and people think that no one will want to watch them, and that theyre not going to be shown. The Iran one took about three years to get the money because there was the added thing of the women having their heads covered. People said, You wont be able to recognize them, theyll all look the same, itll be very un-sexy. Do you know what I mean, its not commercial. I went to the BBC to try to get the money and couldnt get it; [Channel Four] was the only place I could get it from.
Its very much about finding the right person in these companies. I went back to True Stories, [a series Id worked with before,] to try and do this one about Gaea Japan, and the guy didnt even write back to me. So then I had to go the BBC, and thats where I got this money. Its almost like you have to find the right person, because the guy who gave the money for Divorce had left. It might seem like its the TV, but I think its very much the actual relationship that the filmmaker can have with the person giving the money. Gaea Girls is funded by a guy called David Pearsonhed made a long film about a man changing sex into a woman, and so he was interested in Shinjuku Boys, and now this one. But he was the last resortI think I got twenty rejections. Its this Japans expensive, you know, subtitles, women wrestlers, you know... who cares sort of thing.
ST: Your films have all been aired on and funded by television, but do they screen in theaters as well?
KL: Yes. Particularly in the US, more than Britainits quite hard to get theatrical screenings in Britain, but the US seems really good, actually. Divorce was shown at Film Forum and in lots of cinemas all around the US. There were also a lot of Iranians at the screenings in the US, so thats been good. Im really keen for my films to be shown in cinemas, where the idea is that a group of you are watching it together. Thats why theyre all on film and theyre all made for cinema.
ST: Has Divorce been shown in Iran?
KL: Whats really fascinating about theaters in Iranactually, I remember being really surprised by thisis that you go through doorways into the court, you sit in different places, everythings very very separate in the court, but when you go the cinema, everybody sits together, and its dark. That said, weve got lots of copies of the video there which circulate among womens groups and its gotten loads of reviews, really nice reviews, in film magazines there, but we cant get it shown in a theater. Our dreams is to get it shown in a cinema in Teheran and have those big anarchic groups own women see it. I think that would just be fantastic, but I dont know if we will get it shown there or not.
I had a showing of Divorce in Vienna, at the Viennale, with many Iranians in the audience. It was just lovely, women coming up and hugging me, lots of very strong, warm responses. And sometimes [there are] angry men, saying, Why havent you put in the mens point of view? And Ive just said, The whole society is there to implement the mens point of view, so thats why the film is there, and also that were women, so were obviously... Its just quite strange, that: you see so many films made by men about men, and nobody every says, Why havent you shown the women? But its something you always get, you know, Why have you only shown the women? But then sometimes its very kind of angry, like the women who didnt like them sitting down, the women who say, Why have you shown working-class women, why cant show the middle classes? even thought Massi is kind of middle-class. But [weve also gotten] that kind of a thing, people thinking it shows a bad image of Iran.
I suppose any film is going to be celebratory and also critical. Dream Girls is quite heavy at some points, like the whole cleaning thing and the army drills, and for me it was about showing how thats kind of part of the whole culture. Its a bit like England; I went to boarding school and we and to do similar cleaning, so the way people try and break womens sprits really struck a chord with me. So its a double thing.
ST: I saw Dream Girls in Canada at a lesbian and gay film festival, and Shinjuku Boys in Tokyo with friends familiar with onabe, biological women who live and work as men, and observed very different audience reactions. With Dream Girls, the audience was obviously looking for indications of gender and sexuality and desire, whereas people Ive talked to in Japan often say Oh, its those crazy fans again. With Shinjuku Boys, it was Oh, I know this person, I know that place, a very different reception again. So its back to the insider/outsider question again, but how much do you think about audience when you make a film?
KL: I suppose in a way I think of women watching Dream Girls, but the wish is that it be for as big an audience as possible, really, to also show men that Japanese women arent submissive. But the main idea is that somehow this one about these wonderful actresses could be an inspiration as well. But also, theres just a sense of pleasure in making the film just for itself. You do think of the audience but only at the very beginning and then once you start making it youre just not thinking of the audience at all; the film starts taking on its own momentum.
Really, all you can do is be as honest and truthful as you can. We did think very carefully about [Shinjuku Boys main characters] Gaish, Kazuki and Tatsu, and we sent them a video before we finished it just to make sure they were happy with it, and that wed somehow been truthful to what they were like and treated them well. Ziba had a huge row at a festival in Sheffield because someone attacked Divorce by saying Look, people are sitting on the floor, youre going to give people a bad view of Iran. Thats something that didnt even occur to us, you know, but she was really upset. We said, But people do sit on the floor... You could actually drive yourself mad if you were always worrying.
5. ON JAPAN
ST: A very basic question: Why Japan?
KL: It all started, really, because Id seen a lot of Kurosawa films. I loved Kurosawa, but you never really get close to the women. Theyre always there, and theyre very beautiful, but theyre very silent, and theyre always in the background. And then I read this article about this women called Hanayagi Genshu, and the article said that shed stabbed the head of [her school of dancing] and shed gone to prison, and she was against the emperor. I thought, Its hard enough being a rebel in the US or England, how amazing that for a country like Japanwhat must this woman be like? So there was this kind of complete curiosity and then this determination to come make that film, and then one sort of led to another. Once you come here... I kind of fell in love with the place. The more you come here and meet people and make friends here, its not Japan anymore, its Gaish, its Kazuki, its all the people. Jano and I are already talking about coming back and doing a little follow-up or something to see how theyre doing in five years time or something. Jano got a few of her friends who live in Tokyo to go and see Shinjuku Boys, and came and met Gaish just after, and he was very happy and said everything was fine.
ST: Why the womens pro-wrestling theme? Why Takarazuka, and why onabe?
KL: Why the womens pro-wrestling? For that same reason: its a very strong image. In England, even people you wouldnt expect it from say, Oh, women are very meek in Japan, arent they? and stick in that word inscrutable. And theres this idea that Japanese people dont show their emotions. But that could also be a kind of nasty thing, which infers that people are hiding something, that theres something sinister behind it. I dont know if its a hangover from the war or what, but theres definitely this sense that Japanese people dont show their emotions. So Ive always wanted to have very emotional films in Japan, and people being very open, which is why I loved Gaish and Kazukithey were so open and they trusted us so much. They took us into their world, and talked about things that I dont think many English people would have done. Gaish showed us some films that had been made by Japanese film crews, and one of them was like a wildlife film, with this woman in a hat out in the corridor outside his room stalking along, and saying Oh [gasp], mens shoes! Oh [gasp], mens underwear. It was like he was a scary beast, and they were going in to film him. Once we talked to him about the kind of film we wanted to make, he was really excited about it, and I think he did enjoy doing it, we all enjoyed doing it together. It sounds very kind of do-goody, but its all about breaking down barriers and showing that of course were all different but of course were all similar.
But with this wrestling one, it was almost like, God, Im so admiring of themI mean they are different, theyre just really strong women. I couldnt have dealt with the half of what theyve all had to go through to become wrestlers. I hope its not going to be too strong for people, I hope theyre not going to find it too upsetting, because theres a kind of a happy ending. Like Divorce, theres a definite beginning, middle, and end, and you dont know how it will end until you get there.
ST: From what youve said, Im looking forward to seeing the film when its done. The best of luck for it, and thank you very much for taking the time for this interview.