Cannes 2023 | Alireza Khatami and Ali Asgari: “For “Terrestrial Verses”, we had to find a form that escapes censorship and the Iranian authorities”

Alireza Khatami and Ali Asgari, the Iranian directors of the film

In the profusion of genres and forms that the Cannes Film Festival honors, the feature film by the two Iranians, Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami, Terrestrial Verses, stands out from the lot. Extreme simplicity. A unique device: nine characters filmed facing the camera, in a fixed sequence shot, address in turn an agent of the Iranian administration placed out of camera, whose voice we hear. Each of the exchanges reveals a piece of absurdity – dear to Iranian cinema –, dialogues of the deaf, endless negotiations, lame answers.

The comedy repeats itself, revealing the aberration of a system that has no other purpose than to control and enslave. Here, a man who comes to declare the birth of his son, to whom we refuse to attribute the first name of David; a student summoned by the headmistress on the pretext that she was seen on a scooter with a boy; a young taxi driver contesting a fine awarded for not wearing the veil…

Nine men, women and children parade, depicting the incongruity of the situations with which the Iranian authorities confront them every day. And what the two directors tell us about, present in Cannes for the presentation of their film at Un certain regard. Alireza Khatami lives in Toronto (Canada), Ali Asgari in Tehran.

How was the “Terrestrial Verses” project born?

Alireza Khatami: We met in 2017, in Venice, and then we wrote several screenplays together, one of which was shot by Ali (Just one nightreleased in France in November 2022). Last summer, Ali was scheduled to shoot another film in Iran for which the government did not grant permission. So we decided, with all that we had experienced ourselves with the authorities, and all that our loved ones had entrusted to us, to quickly make a film on this subject. But, to say all we had to say, we had to find a form that escapes censorship and the authorities.

Precisely, how was this form decided?

A.Kh. : We talked at night, and we read a lot of poems. Now, there is a technique in Persian poems called debate. Where two people discuss a specific topic. Each time, it is about a political or social subject. In most of these poems there is, what is often ignored, a lot of humor. So we said to ourselves that we were going to adapt the structure of these poems and make it cinematic.

Did you have nine stories right away?

Ali Asgari: We had fifteen stories, and we picked nine. It was very important to find an inner rhythm. That it’s not just skits stuck together, but that there’s a movement, a flow which connects them. We didn’t want to give the impression of a catalog of short films put together.

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