Granaz Moussavi on “When Pomegranates Howl”
Granaz Moussavi made a guerrilla film in Afghanistan called When Pomegranates Howl. Not a job for the faint-hearted, it was a challenge from the start: from sourcing funding in Australia, getting to Afghanistan, putting a crew together, to the actual shooting of the movie. Not to mention the fact of her being a woman in a conservative, war-torn country, where women and men don’t share the same privileges.
The project began when the Iranian-Australian director saw on Australian news that two 11- and 12-year-old Afghan boys – brothers Toor Jan and Andul Wodood – had been casualties of an attack gone wrong by Australian forces. This inspired her to write a script about the incident, and she created the story of a young 10-year-old boy, Hewad, who hustles in the streets of Kabul to make a living for his struggling family, peddling amulets and pomegranates, while dreaming of becoming a movie star outside of Afghanistan.
Granaz Moussavi spoke to the HFPA from her current home base, Melbourne.
When Pomegranates Howl was filmed in Kabul in 2017. Why did you go to a traumatized city like Kabul and make a film in a war zone about a country that is not yours?
I am Iranian-Australian and spent the most important time of my life in Australia. I arrived when I was 21 and all my clan from my mother’s side is in Australia and my father’s side is in Toronto. So even though I had my first poetry published in Iran, I established myself in Australia and learned to be a filmmaker here. I grew up not being entangled with nationality as such. I am as passionate about Australia as I am about Iran and Afghanistan and the region that I am coming from.
My identification comes from a passion for where I can make a difference, where I am relevant, and where I am slightly needed. And the trigger for me to go to Afghanistan was my divided heart, which is now split in three. Now, Afghanistan is also part of this broken heart. As an Iranian and a neighbor to Afghanistan, we share the same language and history, and I see us as one nation even if we are separated. I still believe that our destiny and happiness is correlated. No country in that region can get rid of the brutality and cruelty without the other part of the region enjoying peace and stability.
The Australian war photographer Andrew Quilty is one of the important characters in your movie, and at the end of the film, the defense minister speaks about the real event that the film was inspired by.
It was me as an Australian involved in Australian matters and enjoying life here and obviously paying attention to any direction that Australia takes politically in terms of international politics towards other countries. So as an Australian with an Iranian background, I was watching the news and I saw the defense minister talking about compensating the victims – the children who were victims of a mistaken shooting done by Australian forces in Afghanistan, assuring taxpayers that it would be in hundreds of Australian dollars and not even in the thousands. I have used this interview in my film and this particular piece of news shook me up and I felt I needed to do something about it. I felt so desperate that I was facing something like this and, as a citizen, I needed to respond in some way. Later on, it came to me that I needed to make a film and it turned out to be my response to the political climate in Australia. This interview was just the trigger for it.
You mentioned that it was hard for you to get funding in Australia. Why was that?
I got frowned upon in Australia and it was as difficult to make this film. Why? That is because it is not the narrative that the powers that be want people to see. They don’t want filmmakers to make this. I had my share of barriers. It is not okay in Australia, where we claim to have freedom of speech, and the expectations should be higher. There should be more openness to have alternative ideas and be critical.
Was it hard for you as a female filmmaker to shoot in Afghanistan?
It is difficult to be a female director no matter what. Even in more advantaged countries, it is harder for female directors to make films than for male directors. And when it comes to disadvantaged countries, it is even harder. It is ten times more difficult. The only two women on my set were my consultant and me. It was not easy to recruit female filmmakers in Afghanistan or Iran. So, unfortunately, I could not hire more. In a war-torn country, it is hard to train women and recruit women. Ethnicity was a big factor for me, and it was crucial for my narrative that my crew members were from various ethnicities. There are many ethnicities in Afghanistan and there is a history of suffering from divisions of ethnicities, so I wanted to offer positions and work and make it a multi-ethnical Afghan project.
What were the specific challenges for you?
I had a Christmas tree of challenges. I was a foreigner. I was an Australian who could speak the language and knew the culture, but I was a foreigner. So, I had to start from scratch, and I did not have a lot of money to spend. So, I had to rely on myself solely as a single woman there. As a poet, I had poetry readings and started networking, finding actors and audition street kids, and meet with people who knew officials and had to get permits for filming. So, all that background work took me one and a half years. Being a female was just one thing. Of course, it was difficult traveling in a burka. I could not even sit in the front seat with my assistant when we went outside Kabul. When we went outside in Kabul, I was wearing the burka and I had a hard time walking in it. At that time the Afghan constitution did not require that women wear the burka, but there was not one woman not wearing it. But I don’t want to reduce the problem of being a female filmmaker to this because that is not right. It is not just that, but that is a very familiar picture.
The film is about a young boy Hewad (Arafat Faiz), who has left school to take care of his family and hustles in the streets trying to make that happen while he dreams of becoming a Hollywood actor. Why did you add this element – of dreams of filmmaking to the film?
It is fiction and I also moved the story to Kabul for cinematic reasons. I really wanted to bring the dream, the power of image, and the fact that these people are voiceless forward. Daydreaming becomes a very instrumental asset in silenced people. What remains is the dream. And the little child is nine years old but needs to feed his family and protect his mother and it is too much for him. The problem is too big for a little kid so all he has is dreaming. He pretends to be too cool for school when the matter of fact is that he cannot go to school. So, what does he do? He dreams of becoming an actor and becoming famous and being like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Women’s situation in Afghanistan is portrayed in subtle ways in your film. For instance, Hewad wants to make sure that his sister gets to go to school and even though he says films are not for girls, he also asks ‘how do I know?’. What did you want to say about women’s lives in Afghanistan?
All this was planted in the film from the start because I could not leave the girls out of the picture. So, I had to think of ways of presenting girls and women throughout the film. There is the little girl who tries to emancipate herself from the hand of her mother. It is a systemic issue, but here it is the mother who is trying to make her little girl obey the rules. This girl wants to break away. I know it is a dark film but there is a little light at the end of the tunnel and that is the girl, who finds a way to get away from the ruling hand. Hewad has learned that many things are not for girls like laughing out loud and running, so he does not think that girls can be in movies. But he also learns that he cannot push the cart without the girl helping him. So, he has to agree that she can also be in the film.
You made the film before the current situation in Afghanistan. What is your reaction to what has happened there?
My immediate reaction is confusion and I need time to reevaluate things. It did not surprise me. Maybe the pace of it was unexpected, but I could not see that it would go on like that. If you stepped out of Kabul, things were very different from Kabul and the fairly stable situation in Kabul was not reflected outside of the city. It is worrisome to me what will happen to the people, who did not get out. What is going to happen to the people and how will the world approach it? Will we see sanctions like we saw with Iran? And will the people suffer? It is always the people who are at stake. I hope it will be different in Afghanistan, but I am not hopeful that the world will care about the people and help them. Afghanistan needs education and to be well-informed, so they can take the destiny into their own hands.
It has been a while since you made My Tehran for Sale (2009). It showed the underground culture in Iran from a young woman’s perspective and you had to film and make it in secret. What made you want to pursue this film?
In the Iran I was born in and the way I grew up in a country at war. I remember clearly the execution of dissidents. Iran was always under sanctions no matter what and that has shaped me as a filmmaker and a poet. It is what I am. When I see things going wrong around me, I am compelled to take a stance. So, I had a response to the way I grew up and the brutality inside and outside the country, on us, on women. That film was my response to contemporary Iran at that time.
It is not easy to be a female filmmaker because the expectation is that your approach is aesthetically different and perhaps contains a more gender-specific and sexuality-specific focus. It is not all that we have to offer. It is part of us, but it is not all we have to offer. It is valuable and to be cherished but it is not all we have. We can be very serious about the situation around us and we have feminine courage too that says no to all these male-made boxes that try to fabricate narratives and even political narratives. But women can take on these complex narratives too.
In My Tehran for Sale, the young woman Marzieh (Marzieh Vafamehr) is an actress in a mime group, but she and her group are not allowed to perform in public – they are silenced. I believe it had repercussions for this actress to be part of your film. What was the reaction to her performance?
Yes, she was in prison for four months, even though her sentence was reduced to three months. It is mad and crazy. The film was considered a “dissident film”. It was a critical film. But it was not only critical of Iran, it was also critical of Australia’s approach to immigration. It mainly took place in Iran, and the measures of control are harsh in that way in Iran but that does not mean that they don’t exist outside of Iran. But it was quite harsh to imprison an actress for a film. When I made the film in Iran, I did not have problems and we filmed quite smoothly but then after the green movement, the situation changed. It affected film productions and the way films were perceived. Iranian films’ diagram is really up and down and there are times when there is more breathing space for artists and then again, we shut down and then people try to find other ways to respond to measures of control. Then the censorship system becomes more sophisticated in terms of limiting that too and then the creators have to find another way. It is a constant struggle and part of the contemporary Iranian art scene.
You are multitalented, multicultural and multinational. How do you identify?
Do I identify with a passport or with an expired passport? No. Today, I am an Afghan, because all I am concerned about is Afghanistan. The rest of my identity is absent from recent days and nights, but then there are days, where I am more Australian or Iranian. I don’t see why I should not. I don’t care about the passport. I don’t identify with what the authorities identify you as. It is really fluid for me.