Locarno Film Festival

In PARADISE, Iranian filmmaker SINA ATAEIAN DENA Brings Fresh Eyes To a Story About How We Treat Each Other

Shot without permission on the hectic streets of Tehran and co-produced by Jafar Panahi‘s brother Yousef — who also enjoys a fleeting cameo, Paradise is a quiet character study chronicling everyday sexism in today’s Iran. Blending real and fictional elements to create a complex, multi-layered narrative, the film centres on Hanieh, a disaffected 25-year-old schoolteacher who lives with her married sister and commutes long hours each day to get to work at a school on the outskirts of Tehran. Sensitively played by Iranian visual artist Dorna Dibaj, the only non-actor in this cast, Hanieh seems to observe Iranian society  with fresh eyes, a freshness that is equally imparted by the on-the-fly, undercover nature of the filming.

Paradise premiered in the main competition at LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2015 where this interview with Sina Ataeian Dena was taken.

Dana Knight: What was your creative process like working on this film? Did you start from a story or was it more character-based?

Sina Ataeian Dena: There was a kidnapping scandal 10 years ago, South of Teheran, and what was interesting about it was that this guy that in the end got arrested, was always there and he never caught anyone’s attention, he was always there playing with kids, then he would kidnap, rape and murder them. Horrible story. So this was the starting point but then we came to bigger concepts: violence in general, the abstract concept of violence. Then I decided to put the kidnapping story in the background of the film. When we had the first draft of the script it was very clear that we wanted to talk about violence in a wider sense. This type of violence, kidnapping and rape, is the physical aspect of it but there are non-physical ways to release and reproduce violence.

Knight: Although Paradise focuses on aspects of violence in Iranian society, at the press conference you pointed out that the film is universal in its themes, being a story about how we treat each other.

sina Ataeian dena

Ataeian Dena: Yes, the story is based on an universal concept in the sense that anything we do may have consequences for another person and the effect of that may be something we don’t necessarily want. And you have this kind of violence everywhere, in every human being and society, it’s a characteristic of the species and our interaction as a species.

Knight: Going back to your creative process, you said this project was a collaboration of several artists. Did you collaborate at the screenwriting stage too?

Ataeian Dena: No, I wrote the script alone. It was for the first time that I did not ask for the opinion of my best friend who is also my co-writer.

Knight: Why?

Ataeian Dena: Because this was a story I wanted to tell and I did not want to change anything  about it. Also during the shooting, my producer always had some different opinions about how to deal with the situation but I really insisted on what I wanted and at the end he told me he is convinced. Also during the editing, my co-editor always wanted to take out some frames but I really wanted to show it the way it is.

Knight: Could you talk about these areas of slight disagreement?

Ataeian Dena: First of all, not all of my colleagues knew that this was a feature film. Because I did not want them to have to share the danger and the responsibility with me. They did not have permission to shoot and if you take part in a short or documentary it’s ok. But for a fiction feature , it’s a sensitive zone. So not many of them knew what exactly we were doing. Also we had different versions of the script for different actors, for different colleagues who gave us locations, who provided cars and extras for us.  At the end I apologised to all of them for not being honest but I was in a state of mind where I had to tell this story and did not want to compromise. From a certain point of view, maybe it’s not really ok, but …

Knight: You probably felt it was what you had to do as a filmmaker in order to make this film.

Ataeian Dena: Yes, I felt that I was responsible to tell the story as it is. And it’s the first time that as a filmmaker I made something that is 100% my input, I’ll go to court with it for everything!

Knight: How did the collaboration with Dorna Dibaj come about, the Iranian visual artist who plays the lead in your film.


Ataeian Dena: I met her in a dentist’s office. She was sitting there and I asked her what she does, she said she studies art, sculpture, she makes statues. Then I told her about the project, she said she was interested, she seemed really excited. Then she went to a primary school in South Teheran for a year to teach these children and experience the atmosphere and catch the spirit of the whole thing. I was very surprised that she was willing to go through that experience, this showed me she is the right person to play this role.

Knight: Was it her idea or your condition for casting her in the role?

Ataeian Dena: This was my condition actually. It is difficult to work with me because I always need time. I need time and preparation and rehearsals. And I have some close famous actress who really wanted to play this role, they are like celebrities in Iran, which meant that they could have also brought money. But in the end I chose Dorna. Although she has no experience with film.

Knight: What acting instructions did you give her? Or was she very natural in front of the cameras?

Ataeian Dena: We had an amazing coach for her, my favourite Iranian actress, a real artist. She practiced all the scenes with Dorna, we had really long rehearsals, sometimes we invited other actors or actresses. We tried to do it in real locations, in real or similar conditions. Then when everything was ready we started to shoot for a few days. Then we had to wait for a few months to prepare everything again.

Knight: Are the pupils Dorna’s real pupils at the school where she taught?

Ataeian Dena: Everyone, except for the main protagonist, is a professional actor.

Knight: But not the children, the girls?

Ataeian Dena: No, we picked them. But for all the other roles, even very small roles, like one scene, I chose professional actors. I like this combination, the main character provides a fresh performance, it’s new and different from what you might expect. It’s also more believable, more real. I like working with non-actors. […] Also the cameraman, the sound technician, they had no experience.

Knight: That is a very risky choice, no?

Ataeian Dena: For me it is more risky to work with professionals if they are my age. If they are older and have a lot of experience, then yes, it’s easy to work with them. But not is they are around my age.

Knight: Why? Because of some kind of professional rivalry?

Ataeian Dena: No, I think this exists everywhere. I worked in Europe and I felt it was the same. Normally you have an easier relationship with people who are established professionals. It’s human nature. But when it comes to actors, it is a challenge to combine professionals with non-professionals, you need to balance their performances to have something smooth.

Knight: Considering how prominent Iranian cinema is and how high the expectations, was it difficult for you to choose a project to focus on, especially for your first feature?

Ataeian Dena: No, it was more like this: I normally have 5 or 6 different projects running at the same time in parallel and you give them a push for years and years and at some point you realise one of them is possible to do. So this was the first opportunity that arose for me.

Knight: I know you went to film school in Teheran and wrote a thesis on comic books and cinema. How did that come about, are you a fan of comic books? And did you take any insights from comic books that you could apply in cinema?

Ataeian Dena: I actually come from animation. I worked as an animator and visual effects supervisor in Iranian cinema. […] This thesis you mention is a rotoscoping film from 7 years ago. In this film I wanted to try out different ideas that you can develop in comic books but which are not in films. Also storytelling techniques and visual art things. It was for the first time that I showed something to a public and won some awards. It was a nice experiment. Because it is very difficult to finance a short film in Iran, even more difficult than a feature film. With a feature film you have some kind of idea of how to screen it or make money with it but for short films the financing comes from some governmental bodies and it’s not easy.

Knight: What directors do you admire the most in Iranian cinema and also world cinema?

Ataeian Dena: In Iranian cinema I like the New Wave Iranian Filmmakers. They are unfortunately not so well known outside Iran, some are but not everyone: Amir Naderi, he is a master of cinema, his film The Runner is like the Bible for me, it’s an amazing film. He lives in New York and makes films there. Also Shahid-Saless, he lived in Germany for a while. Parviz Kimiavi. Of course, Kiarostami.  I also like the Japanese cinema tradition very much, Yasujirō Ozu.

Knight: Are you already working on your next project?

Ataeian Dena: Yes, this film is part of a trilogy. We shot half of the first episode and we’re about to shoot the second episode.  All the films in the trilogy tackle the concept of violence in different aspects and from different perspectives, with a different cinema language.


DER NACHTMAR:In the Hands of German Artist AKIZ a Sculpture Becomes a Lunged Creature that Breathes Life Into a Different Kind of Horror Film

German visual artist AKIZ premiered his feature film DER NACHTMAR  at Locarno 2015 where this interview was taken.

der nachtmar poster


Knight: I was a bit surprised to see a film like Der Nachtmar in the Locarno line-up, I must confess I’m not totally sure what to make of it!

AKIZ: This film is nasty and it hurts, it doesn’t really fit in here.

Knight: It’s definitely an unusual creation. You’re an artist and you’re probably used to having total freedom in your creative endeavours, film is a much more conventional art form but I felt that you took this freedom to cinema.

AKIZ: Thank you for saying that. We definitely had limitations, we had no money for this film but also there were no strings attached! We could do whatever we wanted, that’s why the film turned out to be the way it is.

Knight: Let’s talk first about the screenwriting process, how did the story take shape in your head, how was the creature born?

AKIZ: I was obsessed with this creature, I initially had the idea of making a sculpture, not a film. The idea gradually evolved and took many forms,  it took me almost 10 years to make it into something moving, I wanted it to have lungs so it can breathe. All this time I was taking notes, scribbling down ideas but again, not with the intention of making a film. But at some point I spread out all the notes that I had and it became like a collage, putting together a broken base of something, trying to fit all the pieces together so that’s how the story was born.

I used a technique that artists from the 1920s used, écriture automatique, writing without the intention of writing something, like painting a picture. I never thought of the audience, never asked myself what does the audience want to see? what do they expect? what would surprise them? It was a very egotistic process, I guess, I focused on what was interesting for me.

Knight: Certain scenes create conflicting emotions, did you expect people to laugh at certain scenes?

AKIZ: Interestingly, I never saw the film with an audience. Here in Locarno I was there only at the beginning and at the end, so I don’t know what scenes the audience found funny or what kind of laughter that was…

akiz photo

German visual artist AKIZ

Knight: For me, the interest came form the ironic contrast between how the creature is perceived to be – scary and frightening,  and how it really is – cute and harmless, almost comical.

AKIZ: I agree, the creature is cute, it has no teeth and no blood so there’s nothing to be scared about! It’s not a monster, for sure. But even a bird can be scary in a place it doesn’t belong to, say you see a bird in a living room that wants to escape, people don’t know how to handle it. 

Knight: At the Q&A, someone asked whether the creature was real or not? I must confess I was caught up in the same dilemma while watching the film: is the character going crazy or is the creature real? There are a lot of frames in the film where the creature appears on its own, that seems to convey the idea that the creature has its own existence, independently of the characters. But you must have deliberately played with audience expectations here.

AKIZ: Not really, because I never really cared about what the audience might think, if it’s real or if it’s not real. For her it’s real. There are people out there who hear voices, sometimes there’s someone there, at other times there isn’t. Everyone has its own reality. At night you may see something which you remember the following day and you know it was there. But no one else saw it. So what is real?

Film is the art form that comes closest to the perception of the human mind. But I never asked myself what is real and what is not real in this film.

Knight: Your focus was elsewhere, the question of the real was not something that interested you.

AKIZ: No, not in this film.

Knight: So what was it that interested you? The symbolism of the story itself? The character accepting and integrating the less flattering sides of herself?

AKIZ: Yes, and that’s the meaning of the story in a nutshell. That’s the basic story. I was also interested in the non-linear narrative: you have a creature at the beginning and people don’t know what it is, then the creature hurts people and they must find ways to get rid of it. What is also interesting is that after the parents see the creature, there is a shift: all the terror and panic goes to them. The girl comes to terms with herself. I wouldn’t say this is symbolic or metaphorical of a human being who comes to terms with herself but that is the storyline. Another thing that was important for me was that none of the characters, like the parents, are really bad people. They don’t have something bad in mind, they are just helpless. They think what they are doing is right. in order to deal with the problem.  Every character deals with the problem in the way they believe is right.

Knight: They all have their own perspective.

AKIZ: Yes, and that’s where the drama is.

Knight: The last scene in the car was very puzzling to me.

AKIZ: Interestingly, that’s the first image of the film that came to my mind, the girl and the creature escaping in a car. For me, they are going to the next level. wherever that may be. She is like a warrior for me, so wherever she goes, it’s on a different level.  So was the audience laughing at this scene?

Knight: Yes, because it was such a surprising scene, no one saw it coming. Sometimes when we are really surprised by something, the reaction is to laugh. How was the transition from art making to filmmaking for you?

AKIZ: As long as there isn’t someone forcing you to do things in a certain way, there is no difference. With film, the main difference is that you have a lot of people working for you. Taking a picture and making a sculpture requires only one person. Also when you’re writing, you’re by yourself. But the film required the collaboration of so many people, as you saw from the credits, the music, the editing, the writing.

Some people don’t like it if you’re calling your film an art piece because that sounds pretentious or arrogant.. Because film is supposed to be entertainment. But art is also supposed to be entertaining. Every good art is entertaining. And I like it when people don’t label films and talk about them in terms of a horror of thriller.

Knight: Every film should be its own thing. Its own creature!

AKIZ: Its own creature, exactly! But at the same time, my film is a classical story. It’s twisted, but it has a beginning, a middle and an end!

Knight: That it has, for sure!

AKIZ: I guess, the most important thing for me is that everyone has the ability to see its own thing in the film. People like it because of personal reasons.

Knight: Do you see art like a sort of sounding board, like in therapy? You actually have some funny scenes with a psychiatrist in the film. You seem to say we need to come up with our own answers instead of being offered an answer. Or in the case of film, a message.

AKIZ: Absolutely. And for me the purpose of art is to workshop things. You have a piece of paper, put some paint on it, close it, open it, and you have a symmetrical image. That’s what artists used in the 1850s, that’s what they started with. Because you look at that form and you see what you want to see. That’s the purest art there is. Someone told me the creature signified something very specific to them and that’s the idea.

Knight: What was it like for you to collaborate with so many people?

AKIZ: I did films before so I am used to collaborating. What was nice about this project was that because we had no money, people were only motivated by their desire to do something different. So you end up with a crew where everyone really wants to do what they do.

Knight: So the production went seamlessly.

AKIZ: Yes, it was seamless. Sometimes I had to do the sound and editing by myself because I did not have a very precise idea of what I wanted, or because there was no one available. For the music for instance, the guy who did the score is a close friend of mine, I gave him an idea of what I was looking for, there was a back and forth, it was a very close collaboration.  And I worked very well with the main actress, she’s so smart, I didn’t really direct her.

Knight: A very strong performance yes, she was very believable in the role.

AKIZ: Wow, yes. And she never took acting classes. She understood very quickly what it is about. I did not storyboard anything, maybe some visual head shots. But my direction of her and of everyone else was very free. I never said to them: you sit here, you do this. I would just say: You come from this scene and now you want this and that. Then I would ask them: where would you sit, what would you do?

Knight: So you gave actors absolute freedom to create their own character in a way?

AKIZ: Absolutely, because actors know more about their character than I do. Also that’s the reason I used no lighting, only available light, to keep us free. You can put the camera anywhere you want.  Maybe the film doesn’t look like a documentary but we shot it like a documentary.

Knight: Are you already working on your next project?

AKIZ: Yes, because this film is part of a trilogy. Der Nachtmahr is about Birth. The second one deals with Love and Light. And the third one is about Death.

I made this triptych that is 2 meter tall and 6 meters wide. The left wing is Der Nachtmahr that you just saw. The right wing is the Death but all of them are about this creature, this entity that enters society and messes up everything, like a demon.