Iranian multi-dash Babak Karimi is an actor, editor and academic who won the Berlin Silver Bear in 2011 for playing the judge in “A Separation”, one of several films in which he stars directed by his friend Asghar Farhadi.
Karimi also appears in the play “Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness” by Massoud Bakhshi, who circulated widely after winning an award at Sundance earlier this year, and in “Careless Crime” by Shahram Mokri, which has been sold to several countries since it was launched in Venice, including Germany and Italy. Herecently also executed with Sophia Loren in “The Life Ahead,” an experience Karimi “never imagined that fate would make me live,” she says.
Karimi, who has close ties to Italy, receives a Lifetime Achievement Award from the MedFilm Festival in Rome. He spoke exclusively with Variety from Tehran on how the Iranian film community is reacting to Donald Trump’s electoral defeat as he faced the pandemic and customary censorship, which has not stopped the prolific film production of Iranian cinema. Excerpts from the conversation.
How is the Iranian film community reacting to the outcome of the US elections?
Iran is a country that has always been culturally divided between those who are open to the world and want dialogue and different cultures and arts to mix, and the hardliners who want to close our borders. A kind of internal cultural civil war is underway. Trump and Biden each feed into one of these two factions. Trump’s policy helped push Iranian nationalists to become more conservative, and Biden will help open things up again.
What I noticed a few days after the US vote is that this division also exists within the Iranian film community. Some are happy that Trump lost and some are not. It is not a monolithic thing.
But didn’t the Obama-era nuclear deal lift some sanctions and give the Iranians more economic oxygen?
Yes, he did. The problem is that there is a lot of corruption. I don’t know what happened to the money that went in after the embargo was lifted. The import / export activity was starting to recover and the economy was improving. Then Trump came and turned everything upside down … Let’s not forget that now due to the (restored) sanctions you cannot transfer money to Iran from abroad. We now have many more poor people. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer.
How is the pandemic affecting the Iranian film community, especially production?
I just finished shooting a movie (a play by Moshen Gharaei with a working title that translates as “Penniless”) where every morning there were doctors on set, taking our temperature and measuring oxygen levels in our blood. . As soon as someone had something wrong they took a swab test. Then there was a disinfectant tunnel that we all had to go through before getting on set. The cinemas were opened and then closed intermittently. But even when they were open, people didn’t go much.
Do people watch Netflix in Iran?
Sure, many people watch it using a VPN (Virtual Private Network).
“Careless Crime” is inspired by orone of the key events leading up to the 1979 Iranian revolution in which protesters set fire to movie theaters to show opposition to Western culture. But it also involves the present with people who decide to burn a cinema Contemporary Iran. It sounds pretty provocative stuff.
It is a symbolic work that tells the cyclical aspect of a culture that is always under pressure. All leaders in the world would prefer that culture did not exist, because culture stimulates thought and criticism. This is all the more true today when the right wind is invading the world … It is a very allegorical and symbolic film.
Did you have problems with censorship in Iran?
All the films that are produced here must have censorship approval before the cameras start rolling. So once you’ve made the film, you need to show the finished product, as obviously many people show a certain script to start filming and then change it. The advantage we have of censorship in Iran is that you can speak to your censor. You make an appointment, you go to their office and you say: look, “let me explain this scene” and so on. You have to be a good speaker and also be very patient.
You spent a lot of time in Italy which led to you starring with Sophia Loren in “The Life Ahead”. How was that experience?
I will recycle a phrase that Roberto Benigni used when he was lucky enough to work with Fellini. He said he felt like a country priest who was supposed to serve mass with the Pope. I can’t find a better way to explain it!
The first day we met I told her that I never imagined we would meet someday, let alone work together. Obviously I didn’t address her as if we were by name, but I used the formal Italian way of talking to someone. And she took my hand with both hands and said, “Call me Sophia.”
For a woman like her, who would be entitled to all the whims and vanities of a star, she is so elegant but also humble. A perfect workmate. Unfortunately we only shot one day together, but it was one of those historic days that I never imagined that fate would make me live. I grew up with his films. In one of the pauses I said: “Sophia I have so many things I would like to ask you, and she said:“ Ask me anything, my dear. ”So we talked about De Sica, Charlie Chaplin, etc. on the move.
Do you think Italy should make “The Life Ahead” its Oscar nominee?
There are other big contenders this year, like the new films by Marco Bellocchio and Matteo Garrone. But I think Italy should honor the fact that Sophia has returned to the screen after so many years, and in such a memorable way. It is a tribute that it deserves.