Iranian multi-hyphenate Babak Karimi is an actor, film 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 drama “Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness” by Massoud Bakhshi, which has circulated widely after winning a prize at Sundance earlier this year, and in Shahram Mokri’s “Careless Crime,” which since launching from Venice has sold to several countries including Germany and Italy. He recently also performed with Sophia Loren in “The Life Ahead,” an experience that Karimi “never imagined fate would have me live,” he says.
This week Karimi, who has close ties to Italy, is being honored with a lifetime achievement award by Rome’s MedFilm Festival. He spoke exclusively to Variety from Tehran about how Iran’s film community is reacting to Donald Trump’s electoral defeat while coping with the pandemic and customary censorship, both of which have not stopped Iranian cinema’s prolific film output. Excerpts from the conversation.
How is Iran’s film community reacting to the outcome of the U.S. election?
Iran is a country that has always been culturally split 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. We have a sort of internal cultural civil war going on. Trump and Biden each feed into one of these two factions. Trump’s politics played into the push for Iran’s nationalists to become more conservative and Biden will help open things up again.
What I’ve noticed a few days after the U.S. vote is that this split exists even within Iran’s film community. Some are happy that Trump lost, and others aren’t. It’s not a monolithic thing.
But didn’t the Obama-era nuclear deal lift some sanctions and give Iranians more economic oxygen?
Yes, it did. The problem is that there is lots of corruption. I don’t know what happened to the money that came in after the embargo was lifted. Import/export activity was starting to perk up again, and the economy was improving. Then Trump came along and turned everything upside down…Let’s not forget that now due to the (restored) sanctions you can’t transfer money into Iran from abroad. We now have a lot more poor people. The rich got richer, and the poor got poorer.
How is the pandemic impacting the Iranian film community, especially production?
I just finished shooting a film (a drama by Moshen Gharaei with a working-title that translates as “Penniless”) where we had doctors on set every morning, taking our temperature and measuring the oxygen levels in our blood. As soon as someone had something wrong they did a swab test. Then there was a disinfectant tunnel we all had to walk through before getting on set. Movie theaters have been opening and then re-closing again intermittently. But even when they were open, people weren’t going much.
Are people watching Netflix in Iran?
“Careless Crime” takes its cue from one of the key events leading up to Iran’s 1979 revolution in which protestors set fire to movie theaters as a way of showing opposition to Western culture. But it also involves the present with people deciding to burn down a cinema in contemporary Iran. It seem like pretty provocative stuff.
It’s a symbolic work that narrates the cyclical aspect of culture always being under pressure. All leaders around the world would prefer for culture not to exist, because culture stimulates thought and criticism. This is all the more true today when the wind of the right is invading the world…It’s a very allegorical and symbolic movie.
Did it run into censorship issues in Iran?
All films that are produced here have to have censorship approval before cameras start rolling. Then, once you’ve made the film, you have to show the finished product, since of course lots of people show a certain script in order to start shooting and then change it. The advantage we have with censorship in Iran is that you can talk to your censor. You set up an appointment, go to their office and say: look: ‘let me explain this scene,’ and so on. You have to be a good talker and also be very patient.
You’ve spent lots of time in Italy which led to acting with Sophia Loren in “The Life Ahead.” How was that experience?
I am going to recycle a phrase that Roberto Benigni used when he had the fortune of working with Fellini. He said he felt like a country priest who got to serve mass with the Pope. I can’t find a better way of putting it!
The first day we met I told her I never imagined that we would meet one day, let alone work together. Of course I did not address her as if we were on a first name basis, but used the formal Italian way of speaking to someone. And she took my hand with both of her 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’s just so elegant but also humble. A perfect work companion. Unfortunately we only shot one day together, but it was one of those historic days that I never imagined fate would have me live. I grew up with her films. In one of the breaks I said: ‘Sophia I have so many things I’d like to ask you, and she said: ‘Ask me anything, my dear’ So we talked about De Sica, Charlie Chaplin, etc. It was very moving.
Do you think Italy should make “The Life Ahead” its Oscar contender?
There are some other great contenders this year, such as the new films by Marco Bellocchio and Matteo Garrone. But I do think that Italy should honor the fact that Sophia has returned to the screen after so many years, and in such a memorable way. It’s a tribute she deserves.