“Even a poet can become a terrorist.”
Interview director Narges Abyar, director of When the Moon was Full that won the Audience Award at #PÖFF23.
A young couple in love. From across the market stalls in the streets of Tehran, they steal glances at each other. The man recites poetry to the woman, they laugh and play in the beautiful, sunlit courtyard of her mother’s city house and decide to get married. If you would stop looking at Iranian director Narges Abyar’s new film When the Moon was Full after about twenty minutes, you would leave thinking you had just seen the first part of a romantic comedy.
But slowly, the seemingly light-hearted love story of Abdul Hamid and Faezeh, courageously portrayed by Iranian actors Houtan Shakiba and Elnaz Shakerdoost, starts to have a disturbing undercurrent. And soon you will find yourself unable to stop watching this haunting film, that’s part of our Official Selection.
‘I didn’t want to make a film about a terrorist. This is the story of ordinary people falling victim to an ideology.’
Based on true facts, the story of Abdul Hamid and Faezeh, is the story of people falling victim to a terrorist ideology. Abdul Hamid’s brother, Abdol-Majid, turns out to be the leader of the Jundallah terrorist group, whose members are trained by Al Qaida, on the border of Iran and Pakistan. Against his brother’s actions and afraid for his newly pregnant wife’s and his own fate, Abdul Hamid takes Faezeh to Pakistan to apply for asylum in Europe. But the process is slow. And being so close to his brother’s sphere of influence, Abdul Hamid slowly gets drawn into the group’s actions. Making his beloved Faezeh and her brother, who has joined them, into victims of their fanaticism.
The contrast between the light romance and likable characters at the beginning of the film and the harsh realities of terrorism towards the end is big. But the painful, and most important message of her film is just that, says Abyar: ‘These are ordinary people who fall victim to a radicalism. It can happen to any of us. Whether we are vulnerable and searching for purpose, or we are a happy-go-lucky person in love.’ She adds: ‘I didn’t want to make a film about a terrorist. That would have been the easy choice. This film is a personal story, through the eyes of ordinary (female) characters and how they unwillingly become victim to an ideology.’
‘When the Moon was Full looks like a big fiction film production. But it was made as a documentary, with a very limited set-up.’
Narges and her team, of whom actor Houtan Shakiba and producer Mohammad Hossein Ghasemi have joined us for the interview, shot almost all the scenes in the actual region where the Jundallah terrorist group was active from around 2003-2012. Partly in Pakistan and partly in Iran, where foreign people were known to be taken hostage. How were they, then, able to film in ‘enemy territory’? Abyar comments that she did a lot of research beforehand. ‘I watched YouTube videos of the terrorist group members, to see how they acted and lived. I wanted to get very close to their real activities in my portrayal. Although it is a fiction film, we had to have more of a documentary approach. We had to infiltrate and get the right locals to trust us.’
Abyar hired both a DOP and editor who were specialized in documentary films and producer Mohammad Hossein Ghasemi, also, admits that he approached the project as such. ‘Fiction filmmakers would feel too limited in the conditions we had to shoot in,’ says Abyar. ‘For example, we shot a lot of market and street scenes with a hidden camera, covered by a cloth.’
How did this work out? ‘In my experience, people usually noticed something was going on after the third take,’ says actor Houtan Shakiba. ‘Still, it was very important that I would look as if I was a regular guy from the area, visiting the market.’ Shakiba says that next to wandering around, he, as well, looked through hours of YouTube footage to get a grasp on the daily life and manners of people in the Balochistan area of Pakistan. ‘The most difficult for me though, was forging the Balochistan dialect in Farsi,’ says the Kurdish-Iranian actor. ‘I don’t even speak Farsi itself!’
Feeding hungry crocodiles in a priceless hairpiece
The actor was also set up with a light-brown hairpiece, of which he remembers an amusing story. Shakiba: ‘In one scene, I am feeding wild crocodiles chicken. We actually had to retake this scene, because the crocodiles weren’t hungry enough the first time around. When we returned twenty days later, they were, of course, starving. As I was feeding them three big bags of entire chickens, and terrified, the make-up artist shouted from behind the fence: ‘If they attack you, just try to throw me the hairpiece first!’’ He laughs. ‘She had worked very long on it.’
Whether he found it shameful or scary to portray a radicalizing terrorist? ‘I guess not really,’ says Shakiba. ‘Our perception of terrorists is the same as yours, here in Europe. But I couldn’t be in this role with my own preconceptions. I had to try and understand what moves this person to become involved in such radical actions.’ The ambivalence in the character was what inspired Shakiba the most. ‘He really is a good, fun guy as well. He is a poet and a lover. Finding this grey area in my performance was the most challenging and rewarding part of my job. The ending was the hardest on me.’
‘Our safety on set was not guaranteed. We got a threat that we would be taken hostage.’
The crew on the set was deliberately kept as small as possible. All members were stripped of their wireless devices. At times, producers negotiated with local rulers and tried to befriend people in the community. In spite of all this, their safety was not guaranteed. ‘Upon arriving in a certain area, we were warned that there were plans of taking us hostage to bribe us for money,’ recounts Abyar. ‘We did continue filming and, luckily, nothing happened.’
Ghasemi remembers being scared for his colleagues. ‘We had only a maximum of 9 people on the streets at a time. And as the producer, I was not on set. Because they didn’t have any cell phones on them, I could only speculate whether they were doing O.K. or not.’ Fortunately, the crew also got a lot of help from locals, who were mostly enthusiastic to collaborate.
Important to tell the story through the eyes of women
Although some Baloch people were offended by the film, thinking it was a criticism of their ancient and respected tribe, the film was received well in Iran. At the 37th Fajr International Film Festival, it won in the categories of best film, best director, best actor, best actress, best supporting actress, best makeup direction, and best costume design. ‘People were surprised, as well as shocked. Mainly because the story hit so close to home,’ says Abyar. ‘And that’s what I wanted. For people to realize that this is not a story of another place or another time. Falling prey to an ideology can happen to anyone at any time.’
Furthermore, Abyar adds, she is happy to have been able to portray this story through her own eyes and those of three strong female characters. Faezeh, her mother and the mother of Abdul Hamid, who in spite of knowing the wrongdoing of her own children cannot do anything about it – living under a suppressing regime. But there is hope. ‘In the Baloch area, more positions of authority are given to women in the past years. Since then, violence rates have dropped,’ says Abyar. ‘This is proof of my belief: giving power to women can make the world come to peace.’
Read more about When the Moon was Full and see when it plays HERE