EMMA BAUS met the director Sepideh Farsi the day after she had received her award at Cinéma du Réel in March 2001.
EB: How did you meet the filmmaker Homi D Sethna? Since you come from Iran and live in France, and he lives in India, how did it come about?
SF: I have always known that there were Zoroastrians in Iran, since I had Zoroastrian friends at school when I was very young. Then I found out that there is a Zoroastrian community in India by the name of Parsi. Since my surname is Farsi, I was intrigued to find out what kind of cultural baggage they were carrying around with them after twelve or thirteen years in exile. That is why I wanted to make a film on the subject, and I went to India for the first time with the idea of painting a portrait of the community. That was when I met Homi D Sethna. I then found that this community, like all others which are gradually dying out, is a very closed one, one which tries to influence the image that it presents to others. Homi D Sethna, on the other hand, was very friendly to me.
What is his place in the Zoroastrian community?
His position as regards the community is somewhat marginal: he is very Parsi, but he is also very critical. There is a passage in the film in which he describes Parsis as bigots and some of their rites as ridiculous. But this man had the greatest effect on me, as did his relationship with his wife. I came to know him less than one year after the death of his wife. Her bedroom was practically intact, he talked about her a great deal, but always very joyfully; in fact, that is what struck me right from the start.
Is that why you began to form a special bond with him?
Yes, he wrote me long letters after that; he reads an extract from them at the beginning of the film. The letters are very long, very amusing, very touching and also very complete. The letters told me more about his life than I learnt from meeting him, and we started corresponding.
There are times in the film where you get the feeling that Homi D Sethna wants to take part in the direction.
Yes, he let me direct it my way, show whatever I wanted to show, but all the while he played his cards close to his chest, wanting to direct it his way after all. He emphasised some things more than others, certain aspects of his life, for example, his relationship with his servants, the way in which he saw his wife. Whenever I felt that there were things that he said off camera that he was hiding, I tried to push him a bit. But he does have a film background after all, he has even played dramatic roles and he’s an excellent actor. So in the end, the film became a compromise between his direction and mine.
Can you give us an example of this?
His relationship with his servants is illustrated by a succession of shot against shot, since that was the only way for me, being on both sides, to really demonstrate what he was doing, his little whims.
Your portrait of him slides from Zoroastrian filmmaker to man and finally to something much more metaphysical than film. One of his phrases is “man should progress, but to what end?”.
I believe that the Zoroastrian maxim is made up of three simple phrases that may help us to unravel some of what he says in the film: “good thoughts, good words and good deeds”. That is what he says all the time. And what Homi D Sethna says in the film stems from his personal vision of humanity and also from his vision, which is at times Zoroastrian. He is profoundly humanistic and makes do with very little in fact. Even at his age he is still very inquisitive, very open and very critical of world politics, of technical progress, but not of human progress.
Even though the portrait of the man as filmmaker forms part of the film, it is not constituent of it, is it?
No, that’s correct. The title of the film comes from the fact that his letterhead includes his title, “Homi D Sethna, filmmaker”. I got to know the man first and discovered the films later, and they had far less impact on me. I have seen his documentaries, two of which do indeed discuss the Parsi community but use an extremely classic technique; they are very well-documented with archives, etc.
That is surprising because I recall that one of his phrases in the film was “reality must be interpreted, but using imagination”. He gives that as his definition of a documentary in the film, but do you not think that this corresponds with what he has produced?
No, but rather with what I myself have produced! He sticks very closely to an academic interpretation of things. I did not want to emphasise that in my film, however, although I did discuss his life as a filmmaker, since that forms part of his life in general. On the other hand, he has never asked me what I think of his films. But he was very flattered that I wanted to make a film about him. He asked me dozens of times, “But how? What a risk! Won’t people be bored by it? I hope that it will turn out all right!”.
What were the conditions for producing the film like?
It is a “home-made” production. I made it on DV with a colleague who is helping me with my projects at the moment and another very dear friend of mine who was willing to do the sound. The three of us went to India. I did the editing later on my own at home. The working conditions were unrestricted, with the financial constraints common to films that have neither producer nor distributor, but I had a great deal of freedom as far as writing the film was concerned. I hope that breathed life into the film!
I would like to go back to the idea of documentaries and their relationship with fiction. I get the impression that this is an issue which is at the heart of your filmmaking, spanning from your last film “The World is My Home” to this film and perhaps to the next one also?
In my opinion the boundary between documentary and fiction does not exist because fiction has to be directed, but so do documentaries! They are, therefore, different languages in film which can be harmonized, and I don’t see any contradiction in passing from transparent moments to more structured moments.
Do you feel cramped in the French documentary milieu, which is, perhaps, slightly dogmatic?
Yes, I do from time to time. I have been very moved by some documentaries, such as *The Death of a Prophet, by Raoul Peck about the life of Lumumba, and films by Chris Marker. In my opinion, form is also very important, and I find that in general we neglect the formal aspect too often under the pretext that documentaries have to be something “true”, without makeup, without this, without that. And if you do not subscribe to this vision of a documentary, you are more or less excluded because it does not fit into such and such a pigeonhole or such and such an editorial line.
Are you working on any new film projects at present?
At the moment I am editing a film which deals with a girl who leaves Iran and travels to France to look for her father, whom she has not seen since her childhood. It is a mixture of fiction and documentary. And I am also making a documentary about firemen in Teheran that I am filming during different seasons.
Don’t you think that it is very brave to shoot a film without a distributor or producer?
In fact, I very sensibly queued up for transfers, commissions, producers, waiting to be read, called, interviewed, etc. It went well the first few times, for some short fictional films and then for my first documentary. But at one point, I was holding two or three documentary projects simultaneously, which had been completely documented and written and two projects for feature-length fictional films, and there was no possibility of being financed, just rejections, rejections, rejections. I found it so unjust having to subject myself to that subjectivity that I decided to carry on regardless, to cross the line and to make them. I am much more fulfilled now making risky films, which may never even be distributed, but at least the films will exist and that is very important!
Homi D. Sethna, Filmmaker by Sepideh Farsi won the Bourse Pierre et Yolande Perrault Prize at the Cinéma du Réel Festival 2001.
Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion following the Iranian prophet Zoroaster. A group of Persian Zoroastrians emigrated to India to avoid persecution by the Muslims. The Parsis are descendants of those Zoroastrian emigrants.