The acclaimed Iranian film director opens up about his decision to leave, and its impact on his deeply personal new film.
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24 Jul 2013 - 11:12 AM  UPDATED 24 Jul 2013 - 11:12 AM

In film circles there's nothing like the five days of the Toronto International Film Festival when so many major Oscar-bait films are thrown at you all at once. Five hours sleep a night is being generous. In the festival's slower second phase when these films are no longer on offer, you end up watching movies you might not otherwise have chosen. Rhino Season proved quite the undiscovered gem coming late in the 2012 TIFF program.

I wanted the audience to feel for a few minutes what it was like to be in jail.

The Turkey-Kurdistan co-production, which marks the first film by Iranian-Kurdish writer-director Bahman Ghobadi since he left Iran in 2008, screened under the auspices of “Martin Scorsese Presents”. That the film features Monica Bellucci in a supporting role must have convinced Madman to pick it up for Australia, though it's the story of the film's star, 75 year-old Iranian acting legend Behrouz Vossoughi and Ghobadi, now 44, that makes the film hit home.

“When I was in Iran making my previous film, No One Knows About Persian Cats, I was so nervous,” explains the director, who had previously made Turtles Can Fly and A Time for Drunken Horses. “Now it feels very, very good to make a film freely, to work without waiting years for script approval, without looking over my shoulder. I see a new calm in Rhino Season. If you look at my other films I was so angry. When I left Iran the old Bahman died. Now I'm the new Bahman, full of energy and I've started again.”

He explains how there are eight million people from Iran, especially Kurds, living as refugees outside of Iran. “I left Iran because I couldn't stay there any longer. For more than ten years I couldn't go to restaurants because my friends warned me they might put something in my food. When I went to the hospital for a blood check, they told me to be careful not to talk on the phone and to watch closely what they were doing with the blood. All the time I was just scared. When I left I was in Istanbul for two years and I made this film and also another film (the anthology film, Heartbeat of the World). I wrote my first novel and I was painting a lot.”

Quiet-spoken and small in stature, Ghobadi is an unassuming though passionate kind of man. His emotions rise to the surface when in the presence of Vossoughi who also had fled the terror of the Islamic regime. Hailed as “the unvanquished exiled Iranian film superstar who traded persecution in Iran for obscurity in the United States”, Vossoughi, who in 2004 appeared on Broadway in a play that became a huge success for the Persian community and remains an inspiration for Iranians around the globe, now makes his first film in 35 years.

“When something happened in my country I was in Los Angeles making a movie,” Vossoughi recalls. “After it was finished my parents told me, 'Iran is no good now. Don't come back.' So I stayed there until I could come back to Iran and I stayed there till now. When I was looking for work in America it was the time of the hostage crisis so they looked on Iranian people as terrorists. I started working in American television series [in clichéd bad guy Middle Eastern roles] but one day said, 'What are you doing? Nothing!' I said 'No, I don't want to play these roles.”

Nine years ago when Ghobadi was outside of Iran promoting Turtles Can Fly he met Vossoughi and offered him three options for movie roles. Vossoughi chose Rhino Season.

“Behrouz Vossoughi is my childhood hero and because he hadn't worked for 35 years after the Revolution I needed to come up with a good story,” Ghobadi explains. “It took me over four years to write something that I felt would be a good comeback.”

Vossoughi : “For all these years I was waiting for a good movie and I feel great because this story is very close to me.”

Ghobadi based Rhino Season on the story of Sadegh Kamangar, a pseudonym for an Iranian Kurdish poet imprisoned for 27 years in Iran. When Kamangar was finally released, he learned that his captors had told his family he was dead.

“He was a friend of my late uncle--who was killed in the Kurdish rebellion against the Iranian government--and I wanted to translate Kamangar's poetry into a film,” Ghobadi says. “He wrote poems about animals and talked about the role of water in his memories, so I tried to get close to this person when making the movie. I wanted the audience to feel for a few minutes what it was like to be in jail. Rhinos for me are a metaphor for these characters who cannot see or move. If rhinos want to go to left or right they have to turn their entire bodies.”

Ghobadi didn't work with a storyboard and there is spare dialogue in Rhino Season. “I wanted to make a film that was like visual poetry,” he says. His approach suited the still imposing and handsome Vossoughi, who has not lost his screen magnetism or his talent for delivering a slow-burning performance.

“When I was a star acting in my country 50 years ago I found the eyes were more important to show whatever you felt inside,” he says. “I was famous for that. When there is no dialogue I am happy.”

Monica Bellucci's portrayal as his wife, Mena, helped with the financing even if initially Ghobadi had wanted to cast an Iranian actress. “I contacted someone but they were scared to come work with me because my name is forbidden there. They told me I cannot go back. Monica looks like an Iranian woman,” he pauses, “and she's an incredible, incredible human being.”

Luckily Bellucci, 48, who speaks fluent English and French as well as her native Italian, didn't have much to say. Bellucci brought her natural poise and grace to the role, which as with so many previous roles, positions her as the object of male desire. In Rhino Season a prison guard is obsessed with her.

“When I met Bahman I was very happy to be part of the film because I respect him,” she says. “Through my work I enjoy the chance to get in touch with different cultures. Still, I never thought I'd work with an Iranian director and speak Farsi in a movie! But Bahman gave me the chance to play this incredible character, a woman who lost everything. Personally I've had the freedom of a normal life and when people ask me how I can understand someone who is so far from me, I point out that in Italy until six years ago a woman could be killed by her husband and he wouldn't go to prison because it was described as a crime of passion. I come from a macho culture where virginity was an essential thing for marriage. Women in my country had to fight for their rights and still they do, so that's why I can understand Mena quite well.”

Bellucci, who surprises with a stoic minimalist performance, enjoyed the challenge of playing both younger and older than her actual age. “In both cases it's not me,” she says, “but what I liked about working with Bahman is the instinct you bring to those moments when you really don't know what to do minutes before shooting. I loved the human experience and the chance to work with these incredible actors and artists. To me it was the same energy as the Italian filmmakers coming out of the Second World War with that painful history and a thirst for art. Like the work of De Sica, Fellini, Rossellini, Visconti, Bahman's film is so poetic, so visual and so beautiful.”

Scorsese is a fan of the director's too. “He's my favorite filmmaker, he's my friend,” says Ghobadi. “When I showed him Rhino Season he said he would present my film if I needed it and I said, 'Yes please'. He wants to be executive producer for a new movie I will make in New York. I also have other projects, one in Iraq and one in Morocco, but I don't know which one I will make next.”

Rhino Season screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival this month.