(Universal Cinema) Venice Film Festival 2022 | Interview with director Arian Vazirdaftari and stars of Bi Roya
Who is Roya? Who are we? Who and what defines us? In this thrilling first narrative feature by director Arian Vazirdaftari, the central themes of identity and memory are declined in a hybrid genre. What starts as an intimate drama echoing more traditional themes, soon becomes a disturbing social dystopia that only the Iranian panorama tradition could have gifted us with.
Roya (Tannaz Tabatabaei) is about to move abroad with her partner Barak (Saber Abar) when an intelligible young woman (Shadi Karamroudi) appears at their doorstep. Zaiba, that is her new given name, doesn’t, or doesn’t want to, remember her past. Roya instinctively welcomes her into her life. She can’t imagine, this is exactly what she is there to steal. Bi Roya is competing in the section Orizzonti and for the best first feature narrative at the 79th Venice Film Festival, where three other Iranian movies are also presented alongside it. In the vibrant heat of the Lido, I had the pleasure to sit down and talk with these “three musketeers”: director Arian Vazirdaftari and the two leading stars Tannaz Tabatabaei and Shadi Karamroudi.
Giulia Dickmans, UniversalCinema Magazine (UM): How do you feel about this debut? So far the critics have been very positive here in Venice. What do you expect back home? What do you imagine the main differences in reception will be between Europe and Iran? I mean, there are many layers in your movie. Bi Roya is about identity, migrations, gaslighting and gender roles, and mental illness, … I guess each society relates more strongly to one or the other.
Tannaz Tabatabaei (TT): Well, I am thrilled to be in Venice, so far it has been great to look at my work from the perspective of so many professionals. Here everybody watches the film in detail, and they are very conscious about it. Back home people know me, know my past roles, and barely focus on my current performance. In Iran, the audience is probably more familiar with the society, and its rules, so they relate more to the actors. Since the characters come from within that society, and each spectator knows other people facing similar challenges, probably they are not as intriguing as for the western public. They perceive the film based on cultural knowledge. On the contrary, the international audience doesn’t know me and my past, so they relate more to the universal message and the meaning of the character, rather than the performer. So far it has been a great new sensation.
(UM): At the beginning of the movie, Roya seems reluctant to leave Iran because like many migrants she is afraid of losing herself, her identity, to “become a nobody”. And this seems to happen anyway, regardless of leaving or not, she cannot escape her destiny. Do you believe in predestination? Is there a religious, spiritual, or mystical explanation for this script choice?
Arian Vazirdaftari (AV): No, for me, it’s more about how other people’s perceptions decide who you are. We tend to put too much credit on something like IDs, fingerprints, and such. We believe that this contains our true selves, that these are solid proofs of what we are, but it isn’t the case. We are much more volatile. And I was just thinking what happens if we question that? What could end up happening? How really can you prove that? And in the end, Roya finds herself in a situation that has no way out. She can either quit living or just accept the new identity and the new family. I don’t want to spoil the end, but I felt that there is no grief. There is some hope because she had stood up for a friendship.
(UM): She seems indeed quite present to herself, even in the end, and thereby not just a victim. This optimistic open end made me think of a sequel. Are you planning on that?
(AV): That is a good point. I never thought of that. What I actually wanted, or better, I personally like in movies, it’s when the end end is the new beginning. Because it really helps the audience to stay with the story, even after they left the screening. They can choose and imagine things happening after that.
(UM): For the three of you, in how far does this story relates to your biography, your personal story, or the story that every day intersects with yours?
(TT): When I first read the script, I was touched by the many different layers appearing: the psychological, the social, and the philosophical. I was impressed, and my challenge was to explore the narrative through all these layers. I didn’t feel this story was very personal in the beginning, but as I got further in touch with the character of Roya, it became more personal. Mainly because I realized that, like for her, the worst thing that could ever happen to me is to lose my identity
Shadi Karamroudi (SK): As a first impression, you might think that my character, Ziba, is evil or manipulative. So, it feels difficult to personally relate to her. But in my opinion, she was just destroyed. She was at the beginning like Roya is in the end. So, when I read the script, I imagined the whole journey that Roya went through had already happened to Ziba before. We talked a lot about it with Arian and built an actual background story, a whole different script with everything about her: her identity, what were her problems, and why was she kicked out from her family. That helped me understand the character and relate to her.
(UM): Is there an overarching structure to the drama? Did you want to create a dystopian world?
(AV): This circular narrative structure exists. However, I didn’t want to establish a repetitive pattern. Of course, the more mainstream solution would have been that, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to challenge the spectator and the characters. Therefore, there are some similarities among the stories of each person that goes missing, but also many differences. For example, the names. Because we all, as individuals, have a different story. I wanted the audience, once they managed to solve the puzzle, to find some mistakes that don’t add up to the whole picture. For this, I looked at David Lynch, because he is the absolute master in this, as you can see in Mulholland Drive.
(SK): I told him that he was very naughty in the script (everyone laughs) and that he plays around with the audience and doesn’t allow them to understand the formula.
(UM): Makes sense. I noticed that Iranian directors are excellent at kicking their hero’s ass. I mean, I know this is what they teach you in writing school, but there should be a limit, right? (Everyone laughs). I was thinking about it also yesterday when watching Jang-e Jahan Sevom (World War III) by Houman Seyedy. Seyedy is the producer of Bi Roya and you helped him in writing the script for his movie premiering here in Venice. And it is fascinating to see these intersections. The Iranian cinematic community looks quite compact and pervaded by solidarity, especially in these difficult times.
(TT): The Iranian film community is as friendly and supportive as possible. Of course, it is made of people with different views and opinions, and this makes it easier for some smaller like-minded circles to work together, but all in all, we try to support each other in the common struggle.
(SK): I think a reason for that, at least among actors, is that in Iran we don’t usually have agents. We scout and actively involve each other.
(UM): The other day, I was talking to the emerging Romanian director Mihai Mincan, presenting his debut narrative feature Spre Nord also in the section Orizzonti. And we agreed that this sort of “Romanian new wave”, as he called it, that is emerging at the moment, has to do with the fact that there is little cinematic tradition in Romania. Therefore the younger authors feel free to experiment and hazard. While for example young Italian or French directors always feel constrained by pre-existing models and authorial references. But then I wonder, how come Iranian movies are always able to surprise the public, despite the long-standing cinematic tradition well known all over the world? Any idea?
(AV): I believe the main reason is that we don’t have such a solid studio culture and tradition like other countries, for example, Hollywood. Therefore, the productions are very diverse. The atmosphere might be similar, but the masters working on the sets are different, and this enriches the final result.
(UM): Speaking of which, the thing that impressed me the most about Bi Roya was the ability, with which you as a team, mastered the climatic ascent of this movie. Made not only of small accumulating clues but also, and especially, through music, lights and acting. Was it very difficult? What do you think was the secret ingredient?
(AV): It was very difficult, especially because the shooting was not chronological. We shot the ending almost at the beginning. And it was hard to reach that emotional intensity so abruptly. There was a lot of rehearsing as well, first individual sessions with each actor and then we came together, and it was hard for them. They did a great job.
(SK): I admired Tammaz on the set because she was so good at finding the character. I looked at her and I was seeing the Roya we all had in mind for months. However, I believe we also had great chemistry among the three of us. We have this insider joke, that like the three friends of the movie, we are the three musketeers. (Everyone laughs)
(TT): The merit goes also to Arian. He is extremely talented. After collaborating with many prominent directors, I can say he is quite amazing. Not only he wrote a great script and as a director could create the whole atmosphere in every aspect. Still now when I look at the movie, I feel a bit like Roya.