Iranian director Saeed Roustaee comes back with us on his very beautiful “Leila and her brothers”, a family story with tragic overtones presented in Competition at Cannes, and which deserved to be on the list.
After making an impression thanks to Tehran Law, Saeed Roustaee made his debut in the Cannes competition with Leila and her brothers. A film-river of almost three hours, which aroused great emotion at the time of its projection and put it in good place among the predictions for the Palme d’Or. But the jury of Vincent Lindon decided otherwise, and the feature film did not even appear on his charts, which many felt was an injustice.
A few weeks later, it is in Paris that we find its director to evoke this sublime drama. Either the story, with the accents of tragedy, of a family taken by the throat, where the interpreters shine and a good number of images and sequences remain in our minds long after the screening. Starting with this beautiful final shot.
AlloCiné: As in your first film, “Life and a day”, the family occupies a central place in “Leila and her brothers”. Why is this topic so important to you?
Saeed Roustaee: What is important to me is the individual, and what binds individuals together. But you should know that in Iran, the definition of family is perhaps a little different. The family nucleus is very important there. There are many bonds between the people who make up this family, and they are almost inseparable. Dependent on each other even, so we can’t not see it, and it’s perhaps unconsciously that this is found at the heart of two of my films.
Is it to support this idea that they are inseparable that many scenes take place between the walls of the family home?
There are two types of shots in my film. First those in the houses – of the family or of Manouchehr [Payman Maadi] for example – with lots of close-ups and close-ups. To show the connection between individuals, who are on top of each other. As their relationship is important, we are going to have closed and tight spaces.
And when we want to show the scale of the thing, the scale of the disaster, we will have shots like that of the factory: an overall shot and large spaces, because it is a question of the many individuals at the inside the factory, whose life will depend on its closure. And there it was necessary to give an impression of greater magnitude.
When we look at this family, we realize that there are many like this in Iran
In the way the characters are highlighted from the title, where Leila is quoted while her brothers seem more anonymous, we have the feeling that one of the aims of the film was to evoke the condition of women in Iran.
Yes quite. And this character is also important because he is strong. She is smart and proactive. She looks to the future and sees what’s going to go wrong. She tries to anticipate problems, where Alireza [Navid Mohammadzadeh] fled the situation while she stayed. Because she knows how to run things. She’s the one who goes to tell Alireza that she needs his help because he doesn’t take things with feelings.
She feels that she hasn’t succeeded, so she decides to take Alireza as an intermediary voice to reach her other brothers, and thus the result she seeks. She makes sense. He is someone who will not decide with his emotions. She wants to go, step by step, towards something better.
Was having so many characters, especially on the side of the brothers, a way of representing the different parts of Iranian society?
I didn’t see it that way. The spectator can of course deduce things or make this or that reading. But when I write, I don’t think of a character in terms of what he can represent vis-à-vis society. However, I have a lot of respect for women who are responsible for families, those who wear the panties, and Leila can obviously be one of those women who takes on all the responsibilities and will keep the pot going.
Characters don’t really have a function when I’m writing a film. Especially since, when you look at this family, you realize that there are many like that in Iran. And that seeing the problems and the evils of this family, many others have the same.
To stay in writing: the way you approach the sometimes conflicting relationships between generations is very reminiscent of tragedy. Was that one of your role models here, whether it’s Greek tragedy or Shakespeare?
These are things I think about before I start writing. And I thought about this tragic magnitude because, for me, it’s not just about societal problems: there are lives that will be destroyed, jobs screwed up. And even when we see comic situations in the film, there is also something tragic about them. Because it is almost comical to think that a life can go into a spin so simply.
We also feel this harshness in the verbal violence of certain scenes. How important was it for you to confront the viewer with these exchanges which can make them uncomfortable?
Everything has a logic. Things will be nested one inside the other so that we arrive, for example, at a form of insult. Or the fact that Leila is going to slap her father. It doesn’t fall from the sky, there are crescendos that make it possible to achieve this. Like the time they try to persuade the father not to give his gold bars at the wedding. They can’t take it anymore, they’re tired.
They will first be very nice to him, then they will go so far as to beg him and they come to despise themselves. This is what Alireza expresses when he states that no one is going to believe that the gift is from them, because no one thinks them worth it. He flagellates himself. And as nothing works, we end up with insults, verbal violence. But nothing comes from outside. I don’t tell myself that I have to put an insult in a given place. This comes from the heart of the story.
And contrary to these scenes of verbal violence, there is a great importance given to looks and silences. To what extent was the film constructed during editing in terms of rhythm, to give space to these breaths?
I find the rhythm more during the cutting and the production, not really during the editing. Everything is drawn in advance for me, and then there is a lot of rehearsal, even with the extras. If a dialogue starts and ends, the shot will go as is in the timeline and I don’t want to cut it. I know exactly how it goes, even if the film has an editor, Bahram Dehghani. A great person and full of ideas, in terms of assembly and structure.
Daily, hour by hour, the lives of Iranians are under the influence of inflation
Why did you need the film to take place in a specific year? Did you need an anchor to connect the story to the context of the time with the fall in the price of gold?
As a filmmaker, and even as a human being, it’s simply what I’ve been through since I’ve known myself. It’s everything that surrounds me, the sanctions towards my country and the consequences on the people around me or myself. It’s been going on for a long time, but they intensified under Barack Obama, and the pinnacle, of course, was Donald Trump. Daily, hour by hour, the lives of Iranians are under the influence of inflation. And that’s really something.
In the film, it is about a car that is quite inexpensive. At the end of filming, she was worth 100 million tomans. Today, a few months later, it is worth 250. So you see how we live, on a daily basis, with these problems? When I see so many social problems around me, I wonder how, as a filmmaker, as an artist, I can overcome them. I can’t, because the narrative is most important to me.
And since we are in a form of tragic comedy, these problems become the narrative. Because it’s almost more appealing to the viewer than watching a story like this. When you go up and down the street and find the price of gold bullion changing, it’s so comical that you think it’s not real. But it is, and that’s what makes it a tragedy.
Interview by Maximilien Pierrette in Paris on July 8, 2022