Iranian Directors Alireza Khatami and Ali Asgari on Making Underground Film ‘Terrestrial Verses’ – Watch Trailer (EXCLUSIVE)

This year at Cannes Iran is being repped by just one film, the timely underground drama “Terrestrial Verses,” co-directed by Canada-based Alireza Khatami and Iran-based Ali Asgari, premiering in Un Certain Regard. Shot after the Mahsa Amini movement started, “Verses” consists of 12 tableaus depicting the increasingly absurd and tragic plight that Iranians face in their everyday life with a scathingly ironic deadpan tone.

Variety spoke to the directors about how they teamed up and decided to capture the zeitgeist in turbulent Tehran.

How did the project germinate?

Alireza Khatami

Well, I was in Iran trying to shoot a film and Ali was by my side every day helping me. And then my film was shut down. In Iran you have to get shooting permission in order to shoot, and I was shut down. And at night we were going on this long walk through the alleys and reading classic Iranian poetry. This was our way of kind of trying to forget about the fact that the film was just killed. And during this conversation we noticed this technique that in classic Farsi poetry is called debate. So one person says something in one verse and there is an answer from the other person, so it’s a dialogue, that we call debate in our poetry.

And we realized that this is such a beautiful format of a dialogue to bring to the structure of a film. And Ali had a few stories that were very absurd. Something that happened to him, or to his friends, and then he said: “Should we make it into a film? Just like a poem, with the structure of a poem? So we will make – well – verses, and each verse is in conversation with the other ones.” A week later we had the script and two weeks after that we shot.

When was this happening exactly?

Ali Asgari

We shot the film in two parts. The first part was shot in and around September, before this movement [the mass demonstrations that broke out after the death of Mahsa Amini] that happened recently in Iran. And we shot three of the scenes at the end of September. And then the [Woman, Life, Freedom] movement started and after that we shot the rest of it around end of February and the beginning of March. But the fact is that after this movement a lot of things happened for both of us. We drew a lot of inspiration from this movement and especially from the Woman, Life, Freedom stuff. And I think it helped us to have it in two parts, because we learned a lot of things after all the things that happened. But the fact is that we tried not to be angry when we were writing the thing.

Let me ask you about your process. In working with your actors, was there some improvisation? Some films are very, very written and others kind of evolve as they’re being made. I’m curious about that aspect.

Alireza Khatami

This film was, very, very written because we had a philosophical angle we were going for and it’s a sensitive topic. We didn’t want to put anybody in trouble through an accidental improvisation that might have an implication for anybody. So we really thought about every word that was written.

The film’s 12 tableaus, let’s call them, it seems that each one has what you might call a topic, to be a bit simplistic about it. What do you consider to be some of the “topics” that you were describing or tackling or talking about in the film.

Alireza Khatami

Maybe I can tell you the umbrella under which we were thinking. We were interested to see how regimes of power manage life of citizens, starting by their very body. How you dress; what this body is called; what it eats; how it walks; what it wears; where it goes; where it sits.

Ali Asgari

From the first moment we talked about the project, it was very important for us to talk about the system, about the totalitarian system that wants to control everything in the people’s life. It starts from the birth of a child, to a person who is dying at the end of the film, in a way. And in between, there are lots of people of different ages, and different issues. It was very important for us to talk about this system. That’s why we don’t show the person behind the camera. Because we wanted to talk about the system. We didn’t want to show any faces. It was very important to show this: just some voices that are representative of the system.

Of course you don’t have a crystal ball, but do you think Women, Life, Freedom marks a tipping point?

Alireza Khatami

I can say on my behalf, I don’t want to talk for Ali. As you mentioned, Nick, there is no crystal ball. And I don’t think any of us in Iran and any Iranians outside the country is looking for a tipping point. But it is definitely a tipping point in consciousness. It’s a tipping point for awareness. A lot of us were sleeping before, but now we are awake. Now we know what has happened. Now we can look back and say: “This is what has happened to us. Do we want to continue that way? Do we want to keep that way?” That to me is a great news. That to me is the pure definition of hope. Will things change? Will the political landscape change? Who knows. But in this generation, I would say – especially the generation that is asking this, the Gen Z if you will – this is a generation that walks with awareness, with confidence, and they don’t take bullshit. And that is the tipping point, for me at least. That’s my perspective on that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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