Issue 8: Winter 2011
Experimental Film Society: Rouzbeh Rashidi in Conversation
There is a strong argument to be made that Iranian born, Dublin-based experimental filmmaker Rouzbeh Rashidi is the leading figure in Ireland's underground alternative film scene today. Before even watching his work, the sheer volume of his output startles. With twelve features and sixty shorts completed over the past year alone, he creates at the rate of a one-man film industry. More importantly, the quality of these uncompromisingly personal, formally challenging films is often extraordinarily high. His distinctive, minimalist vision, which favours immersion in poetic mood and subjective rendition of place over narrative conventions, is now gradually gaining international recognition as one to be reckoned with.
It might seem surprising that a filmmaker who not only has such an apparently individualistic attitude, but who is also so exceptionally busy with his own work, is equally concerned with fostering and promoting the work of others. But Experimental Film Society (EFS), the organization Rashidi formed in 2000, is largely devoted to doing exactly that. Although it takes care of publicizing Rashidi's films, it also archives and presents programmes of works by over a dozen other underground filmmakers scattered across the globe. Some of its members are well established in their practice, but Rashidi is quick to emphasise that EFS has also rescued and restored films that would have completely vanished without its intervention, and encouraged gifted filmmakers to keep working when otherwise they might have given up after one attempt.
Although EFS is international, a group selected by Rashidi on the basis of aesthetic affinities, it began in Iran and can be seen as defining an Iranian experimental cinema that is otherwise invisible. Of its current members, over half are Iranian: Mohammad Nick Dell, Bahar Samadi, Pouya Ahmadi, Kamyar Kordestani, Hamid Shams Javi and Rashidi himself. Many films by these filmmakers and others can be viewed at the extensive EFS online archive. More information on current and past members is posted at the EFS website. Other current members include Jann Clavadetscher (Switzerland), Michael Higgins (Ireland), Esperanza Collado (Spain), Dean Kavanagh (Ireland) and myself.
Rouzbeh Rashidi outlined the history and objectives of the Experimental Film Society for Experimental Conversations in the following interview...
-Maximilian Le Cain
When I started to make films back in January 2000 in Tehran, I felt that there were three main categories of filmmaking to choose from and be in. One was the mainstream cinema, with a strong emphasis on storytelling, either fiction or documentary. This was government permit issued and meant for cinema release. Although as a film buff I sometimes like story-driven cinema, I've never been attracted to making it.
The second category was the underground/guerilla type cinema, which was bolder in its subject matter and embraced micro-budget techniques, but was essentially not that different from films in the first category except for its lack of money. I liked their DIY techniques, but that was about all.
The third category was video art, which often had an explicit ideological agenda, be it social, political or religious. Some works were more personal and poetic, which I preferred. But this work came out of a visual arts context, whereas I was attracted to cinema itself. I felt that I didn't belong to any of these groups. I wanted to do something very experimental within cinema, influenced as I was by Deren, Mekas, Brakhage, Godard, Tarkovsky, Ozu, Kamran Shirdel, Parviz Kimiavi, Sohrab Shahid Saless and Kiarostami.
Indwell Extinction of Hawks in Remoteness (Rouzbeh Rashidi, 2012)
I basically needed to establish a system of making and screening such films. So in 2000 I founded Experimental Film Society with my fellow cinematographer Mohammad Nick Dell. I made films in Iran until 2004 and then I moved to Ireland. I run EFS. I invite the filmmakers to join, collect their films, constantly study them, upload some of them to the online video archive I made and, most importantly, curate programmes of their work in festivals, cinemas and galleries whenever possible.
Showing unseen and neglected experimental films and getting them audience exposure are the main goals of EFS.
There are no strictly defined rules governing ESF films, but most works share some general principles or characteristics. One is the avoidance of a script or any form of written plan. Films that grow from images rather than words have their own particular qualities. By extension, EFS filmmakers share an exploratory, improvisational approach to filmmaking. They don't know exactly what the film they're making is until the last day of editing. They control the film less than it controls them.
EFS films are made in complete creative freedom and the vast majority of them are self-funded. The equipment used tends to be basic and inexpensive: web-cameras, mobile phone cameras, MiniDV, Super8mm and, more recently, DSLR. Most of the films are shot using available light. Film lighting is rare. Most of the cast and crew are non-professionals. Depending on the situation and circumstances, anyone can participate in a film.
The plots are usually very abstract with little or no dialogue. Of course, there are exceptions, especially some of my own features like Bipedality (2010) and Closure of Catharsis (2011), which contain long monologues and dialogues.
EFS films are all massively personal and, in a sense, not complete. They don't present the viewer with a neatly defined narrative universe or dictate exactly what he or she should feel at each moment. Their relationship with the audience is perhaps similar to a song that provides only the bass and drum line, leaving the listener to add his or her melodies. They remain open enough for the public to remain themselves while watching, instead of being ‘taken out of themselves'.
These films are about images and the progression of images. When there's sound or music, they're about the interaction of sound and image. Cinema itself is always the subject, experimenting with its forms. Not necessarily pushing its limits, because I believe the limits of cinema have already been reached by Structuralist filmmakers like Sharits, or by Garrel's early films, for instance. You can't go beyond that. But if a filmmaker's experiments are true to his or her perception and personality, the medium's possibilities are constantly renewed.
ESF also embraces the possibilities of the digital and actively explores the impact of the computer, the internet, and digital video equipment on cinema. Even when films originate on celluloid today, they almost invariably end up telecined and therefore become digital. We make the most of the creative potential in experimenting with these processes.
Having said all this, it must be emphasized that the films made by EFS filmmakers are extremely varied. There are currently EFS members based in Iran, Ireland, Switzerland, USA, Australia, Spain, France and the UK, filmmakers with widely differing backgrounds and cultural make-ups. But their working methods have enough in common to create a sort of subconscious harmony when their films are programmed together. A sometimes hidden consistency.
On the subject of programming, it should be said that a basic frustration that helped galvanise the formation of EFS was the way short films are generally programmed in festivals. Short films are usually packed into long, poorly scheduled programmes with little or no curatorial thought going into the selection. They tend to clash rather than complement or resonate with each other. Also, there are rarely opportunities for short filmmakers to present their work or engage with audiences about it. The purpose of entering a festival often seems more to be able to say that you've been accepted by it than the actual experience of the screening for the audience or filmmaker.
EFS is responsible for curating and organizing its own screenings, which usually happen in galleries and small cinemas, and avoid the drawbacks of typical festival programming. The atmosphere at these sessions tends to be very intimate, and filmmakers, if present, can discuss their work with the audience at length. Audience feedback can be surprising. Many people have never encountered experimental film before. It's not always love at first sight, but sometimes these screenings plant a seed in viewers' minds, which can grow into true appreciation of this type of work.
The future of EFS is unknown but I would love to expand it into a film company, producing films for the members. And distributing them. I'm a big fan of such distribution organizations as Anthology Film Archives, Light Cone, Canyon Cinema and LUX. A system like that would be ideal. But, at this point, EFS is really working to support filmmakers who don't have a proper context for the screening of their films, and to present their work properly.