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.
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