In Conversation with Mona Shahi
Translate to English by siavash saadlou
Little Boy, Mona Shahi’s second short film, was among Iran’s most noteworthy works of animation during this past year, and for all the good reasons. In terms of construction and depth, it by far outperforms her debut, Red Line. The same can be said of Fereshteh Parnian’s work. Personally, for me, exploring and attaining this visceral experience between the first two films is the core of this interview. In Little Boy, Mona Shahi virtually resists any direct reference to the essential ongoing core of the narrative. With unprecedented and self-conscious audacity, Shahi is well aware of war, its meaning and its surroundings. Maybe that’s why Little Boy successfully borders on such realism. One hallmark in the realm of short film that quickly catches my attention is the difference of quality between a director’s first and second film. The director herself might disagree, but the elevation of quality in Shahi’s second film is, in my opinion, a significant milestone. And the factors that bring about this difference are important as well.
Hadi Alipanah: Compared to Little Boy, Red Line, your directorial debut, was by far a simpler film in both its execution and narrative. Little boy is the film that draws me to you as an animator. What happened in between the two works? What was your journey like?
Mona Shahi: Red Line was my thesis work. It was made at a time when four of my friends and I—as the founders of Barfi Studio—wanted to create our works of animation using a technique we were skillful at: Anime Studio. I was pressed for time back then. Our works weren’t cut out, but we’d made them using a special technique in Anime Studio, which was exclusively used for cut out. We didn’t have enough time and budget for the project, and I had to align it with my thesis topic, which was about minimalism. All these factors led to Red Line. It all started with a rudimentary etude that had its corresponding atmosphere, with wildlife characters and perhaps an eye for television work. The film was a result of group thinking. That wasn’t the case with Little Boy because we had split up. I applied a more personalized and braver approach to narrative and visual content. A number of internal conflicts were there when creating Little Boy: the fact that I should make films every now and then, and whether or not there has to be a recurring theme shared between them or there has to be a change every time. When I first started, my taste was pretty old-fashioned. I’d gone from a bachelor’s degree in physics to a master’s degree in animation. Even when I enrolled in a background design course, my vision was way behind the then methods. But during my masters and ever since then, my taste has been evolving. The characters in my world used to be limited to animals and objects. The human character was scary to me because I felt it was too complicated. I was commissioned to make Little Boy. I had suggested a different story initially, with an ambiance similar to Red Line. For some reason, the story was rejected and, afterwards, Little Boy was created. My visual taste had changed. Some quality domestic works of animation had left an impact on me, especially the ones by Maryam Kashkoli Nia and Shiva Sadegh Asadi as well as some top-notch animation by foreign directors. I realized I should create a visual concept that would equal its complicated topic. I started working on Little Boy with unique graphics, a world of ashes and arsons. I loved for this world to be black and white, and I meant to create a confrontation between the two colors. I watched a huge archive of documentaries in the process and saw countless photos of war, all of which shaped my film.
HA: Have you watched so many footages of war?
MS: I watched footages of war, mass murder, and genocide. I watched some documentaries on war photographers because my idea began with a war photographer and later changed. I had seen lots of black-and-white pictures from World War II in order to get closer to its reality. I asked a friend, who was studying in Japan at the time, to send me a booklet from Hiroshima museum. Those photos had the same ominous black-and-white vibe to them.
HA: If we switch gears a little bit, you said that Red Line was the product of group thinking, a collaboration. On the other hand, people like Kashkoli Nia and other animators have gradually influenced your work and it looks as though a variety of tastes have felt an impact on Little Boy. How do you assess the impact of mainstream animation?
MS: Yes, the concept of group work takes significance either way, but in Red Line my experience was meagre and I relied on my sketches with no special approach to characterization. Red Line was a collaboration with Hossein Molayemi, a skillful animator; and the background design was done by Laleh Ziayi. A lot of what became the final work was because of my weak sense of recollection. I also had no idea of what my work had to be like. I just had a story in my head and the narrative you see on the screen. However, I think the visual style was fitting for that story and that I owe part of the film’s success to my friends’ artistry.
HA: How about the influence from the animators you mentioned?
MS: I gradually started to feel that I liked a different style of graphics. I found illustrations I could identify with and working on other animations made by my colleagues also shaped and sharpened my taste. In fact, painting other people’s animations allowed me to gain new experience which prepared me for giant strides. The archive on my mind started to evolve, and despite doing design work at the time, I decided to entrust the task of concept and background design to someone whose creativity and courage I could rely on. The task was entrusted to Mohammadhossein (Hojjat) Azampour. Based on my very rough designs, Hojjat created his own concepts. He actually transformed my chaotic, black-and-white mind to what you see today, with consummate creativity and similar to works of Kathe Kollwitz. The visual atmosphere on my mind came to life, thanks to Hojjat’s pictures. There was also a cohesion in the work, because Hojjat took perfect care of characterization and background design. I had a small role in designing the background, like the paintings on the wall.
HA: So, you made your debut with a group of animators and later parted ways them, and your second film is the result of a small group work and was more tailored to your taste. But why is it that such group work rarely happens or is split up too soon? Why aren’t we seeing a group of animators in Iran forming a unified style? And isn’t such formation beneficial to Iran’s animation industry?
MS: I still haven’t fully come to terms with the idea of styles and schools; it’s as if we haven’t reached that level yet. Sometimes I think to myself that perhaps the peculiarity of what each and every one of us does is a style by itself. At Barfi Studio, we were a team and wanted to financially support ourselves by working professionally, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.
HA: Is Barfi Studio still in work?
MS: No, because we split up back in 2014. Even when I was signing the contract for Little Boy, I was asked if I was going to collaborate with the previous team of people at Barfi Studio, and when I said that wasn’t going to be the case, they told me they had hoped I would work with the same team as before. This shook me a little because I was worried I had to replicate the same previous style. I was somewhat distressed. My debut had gained some recognition and I had depended on my previous team, but I now had to make a change. I needed a brand-new experience. I wanted to find other artists who had learned a variety of techniques in design, writing and narration. For example, Hojjat helps me with something in this film, and I help with something in Maryam’s film. I think this rotation is a positive one because each of us can excel at our work with the directional and design outlook that we each have. I wanted to have options other than our own studio, so that if working individually, that strange progress can start taking shape after a certain point. I love to try out fresh combinations as much as possible.
HA: Why aren’t such groups coming together? Or why, instead of forming a group with the specific outlook, people merely come together as friends and in between there is some degree of collaboration? Why not making efforts to reach a unified line of thinking?
MS: The problem is that such groups don’t last long. In the past, people used to say that animation graduates aren’t good at what they do. In fact, they’re now doing a very good job. The audience has shown so many positive reactions, but the thing is that most people who graduate in animation have studied directing. So, they all have a label that says “I’m a director”. When they start a project with someone else, they find it difficult to collaborate. This is one of the human faults that renders us unable to accept working as subordinates. Because we haven’t learned to be good listeners or take orders.
HA: In your interview with Mehr News Agency regarding your appearance at Atlanta Film Festival, you had voiced your dissatisfaction with how animators and their success is often overlooked. What do you put that down to? Because the only time when animators are seen in Iran is when their film is selected for a festival. And although Little Boy has just started its festival tour and has been an instant hit, its director is still complaining.
MS: There was a miscommunication in that news piece, and I forgot to correct it. Now is a good time to do that. I had complained to Mehr News Agency, saying that why shouldn’t there be an animation from Iran selected for Tehran Short Film Festival. This is while my work, Maryam Kashkoli’s Nia’s and many others’ have been selected for international festivals, so why shouldn’t we get a chance in our home country? I wasn’t talking about my film. I was just wondering why no animation from Iran finds its way to the international section of Tehran Film Festival. And when the complaints are heeded, why is there just one film that’s accepted? My problem is that Iranian animation is not seen in the Iranian cinema scene. They don’t take us seriously, and as soon as we complain, they remind us that there is a festival dedicated to animation. We want to be taken seriously like other sections such as experimental, fiction, and documentary. We want to be noticed and taken under consideration about our accomplishments in narrative.
HA: I think what happens is that people in the film industry who often stand one or two generations behind find it impossible to change their taste. Their view of animation is what causes this. For example, Little Boy may be boring to the festival’s panel. They believe an animation should be funny and make them laugh. They think it has to be like your debut, Red Line. Don’t you think that filmmakers should start a trend that would make a statement to say that animations aren’t meant to be funny but thought-provoking?
MS: Yes, and it’s because they haven’t seen today’s films. Or they have an old idea of animation in their mind. This does happen in judging works of animation. I guess having younger filmmakers as panel judges or having animation, documentary and experimental works in one festival could make a change. I once talked to Mr. Sadeghi about this and he said most festivals prefer older, more famous judges. I even submitted a proposal to the Development Center that suggested holding consistent talk sessions on a work of animation and something other than animation. I haven’t heard back until today, though.
HA: This happens in the realm of criticism and we have felt its presence because of animation magazine. Our critics and those who have a say have no affinity for Iranian animation because there aren’t many strong feature films. Also, they are somewhat snobby in their approach. So many critics I look up to don’t watch animations at all. This is interesting to me and I don’t know what has to be done about it. Even younger critics are following the same path.
MS: Our work needs to be critiqued in order to be seen and become better, but who will critique our work? Does it have to be done only by people in the film industry? I don’t think so. Because part of what we do is related to visual arts and painting. This requires a different area of expertise. What we do is a collage of a few different mediums of art. We somehow need someone who has something to say about all of them. Therefore, the first thing we need is a group of fine, knowledgeable critics in the realm of animation. I grew up watching Disney works, and the first time I watched Spirited Away, I wasn’t an animation major at the time. I didn’t understand what the whole thing was about. I watched it two or three times. Later, I watched other works of Miyazaki and liked them a lot. I became familiar with Sylvain Chomet at college. I had a hard time watching his work. Later on, I realized if I wanted to thrive in animation I had to watch certain works and try to comprehend them. This forceful watching can help you progress. We should also find some universal statistics on animation and find people who know and write about animation. We don’t know what kinds of people are talking about animation. For example, why is it that our film magazines pay no attention to animation? It’s because cinema is more appealing and serious to a lot of people. Maybe we even need to have courses on how to write criticism at college.
HA: We need to pay attention to public policy as well. This is something that’s not clicking in the animation industry.
MS: Little Boy is a film about nuclear bombs. The story goes to the United States dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and being proud of it. I feel conflicted as to why this is not of importance to people in Iran. It’s not about being recognized, but why is it that we don’t support a film that promotes peace while our policies are involved with this very issue. Right now, the main issue about Iran that’s being discussed in the international community is the nuclear issue. My film takes aim at the inhumane use of nuclear facilities. So, how come no one has heard of it and I, as the director, should go the extra mile to inform the media about its existence? The film was even due to be screened on World Peace Day with the Prime Minister, Mr.Zarif, in the audience, but that didn’t happen either.
HA: I’m going to use this opportunity to segue into next question. Let’s talk about making a film about a historical event that takes place in the distant past and its consequences in a different country. Quality-wise, what kind of relationship needs to be established with the topic? The filmmaker’s distance with the actual event, doesn’t that distance the director from the reality of the situation? Doesn’t it make it difficult to connect fully with the topic?
MS: People say if you study human history, there are only a couple or a few decades when there’s been no war on earth. This is strange. First of all, I was born in the eighties during the Iran-Iraq war. We used to experience air strike alarms a lot of times. War is completely embedded in my subconscious mind. World War II is a war as well and all wars are alike. Secondly, one of the stories I read in my childhood was Sadako, a girl who had gotten cancer as a result of the shell shocks caused by a bomb explosion. She is told that if she makes a thousand paper swallows, she will see her dreams come true. She starts making the paper swallows, but dies before finishing making all of them. This story made an impact on me. It wasn’t far-fetched to me. War makes no difference if it’s about Hiroshima or Sardasht. It makes no difference at all, because the result of it is all the same. For me, the remains of something ugly caused by humans shows the human ugliness itself.
HA: You already responded part of my next question in your answer, but I want you to be more detailed. Little Boy is more about a certain context and environment than about a particular person. It’s about something happening on a larger scale. How did you come to this bird’s-eye view? Why didn’t you try to get closer to the main character and identify with him? A place where you clearly identify with the main character—in terms of graphics and designing face—is where he is painting. You have avoided too much detailing, so that the audience is more involved with the bigger picture.
MS: This wasn’t intentional at first. We discussed it for a while, but after a certain point we went for it very consciously and intentionally. There was little time and budget for the whole project. Why do I have a bird’s-eye view? Because I think to myself, did the pilot who dropped the bomb on this kid have an image of him in his mind? War is a beast that demolishes indiscriminately. I don’t want the little boy to be any special. He is like thousands of other children who die in a war. And who knows what these kids could have become? Maybe a physicist or a painter. We are all alike. And it’s important to realize that we each have our own unique dreams, like those painting on the wall.
HA: One thing that’s good about most works of animation, especially foreign ones, is that they have their own unique graphics. Maybe that’s what a lot of animators aspire to achieve. But Little Boy, as you said, shares as much with other works of animation as it is different from them. What helps you add that uniqueness to the film?
MS: Maybe it’s because in most cases animators try to replicate other people when it comes to concept design, but that wasn’t the case in our project. We didn’t imitate other animators. Hojjat focused on works by Kathe Kollwitz, an artist who has painted the pain of war and death. On the other hand, our memory is obviously influenced by other people’s animations and the result is what you just pointed to. What is fascinating to me was that Little Boy’s face reminds me a lot of Hojjat. A kind of uniqueness that comes across in the works of Kollwitz is rendered masterfully by Hojjat in his own way.
HA: You mean it’s related to the connection between the animator and the story?
MS: I think artworks that are special have some form of the artist’s painful memories. My film was screened during a gathering of Iranians in Toronto. A lady asked me if I could explain why my film was able to leave such an impact on her. She said it was very melancholic. I told her maybe because at the time when I was making the film I was really sad and had cried at the making of each frame. Maybe it was because I had lost a loved one at the time, which must have played a role.
This interview was published in the special issue of Animation Quarterly, Issue 4, Spring 2016