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LAFF ’10 | Director Hossein Keshavarz Aims to Show the Real Iran in “Dog Sweat”

LAFF '10 | Director Hossein Keshavarz Aims to Show the Real Iran in "Dog Sweat"

Invoking the subversive urgency of cinema vérité, filmmaker Hossein Keshavarz interweaves the lives of seven young people in contemporary Iran. Misunderstood by their families and oppressed by conservative Islamic society, they act out their personal desires behind closed doors. A feminist finds herself in an affair with a married man; new lovers search for a place to be physically intimate; a gay man is pressured to leave his partner for an arranged marriage; a female pop singer risks exposure; and a grief-stricken son lashes out at fundamentalists.

Keshavarz’s film debut is certain to trigger conversation about the contradictions brewing within contemporary Iran, where two-thirds of the population is under thirty. This covert society, forced to operate without government sanctions, is bravely brought into the sunlight by “Dog Sweat,” which displays a side of Iranian life virtually unseen by the outside world. Shot clandestinely in Tehran—a risky endeavor for the cast and crew—this provocative film provides the new generation of Iranians a fervent voice of rebellion. [Synopsis provided by LAFF]

Dog Sweat
Narrative Competition
(Iran, USA, 2010, 90 mins, HDCam Frame Rate 23.98)
Directed By: Hossein Keshavarz
Producers: Maryam Azadi, Hossein Keshavarz, Alan Oxman
Screenwriters: Hossein Keshavarz, Maryam Azadi
Cinematographer: Ehsan Karimi
Editors: Hossein Keshavarz, Mollie Goldstein
Cast: Ahmad Akbarzadeh, Tahereh Esfahani, Bagher Forohar, Shahrokh Taslimi, Rahim Zamani

[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE is profiling the Narrative and Documentary Competition filmmakers who are screening their films at the Los Angeles Film Festival as world premieres.]

Hossein Keshavarz on what lead him to become a filmmaker, and on why he chose to make “Dog Sweat”…

I am the last of eight kids. Being surrounded by all these strong personalities growing up and trying put my two cents in at the dinner table conversation probably led me working in a field that is very collaborative. It definitely made me a very fast talker! I went to film school at Columbia University, which was a great experience – many of my classmates are my best friends. It’s always a blast whenever we get to work together.

I worked in business for a while, and would find myself sneaking away to the bathroom to write screenplays. So, I figured it would be healthier to pursue a career in filmmaking. Also, I had written a sci-fi novella that I thought was great, but only a handful of people read it. I realized that I’d have to find a bigger audience.

I wanted to make a film that was true to the way that Iranians actually live. It is almost shocking to think that Iranian teenagers are preoccupied by sex, parties and social status. The Iranian media, which is controlled by a religious fundamentalist government, only allows images of a nation of pious believers. The Western media, which is pre-occupied with the threat that Iran poses for the West, compounds this by never showing what lies beneath the veil. I made “Dog Sweat” to show Iran the way it truly is.

I had planned to actually make a different film, “This Modern Love,” about Iranians who travel to the Philippines for vacation. The film would have explored how Iranians act on their holidays in foreign countries that have much fewer social limitations. When I was selecting cast and crew I became friends with a lot of recent graduates of film and theater programs. I watched their projects – short, underground films about their lives and their relationships. They weren’t bothering to censor their scripts to get approval from the film board. They weren’t even bothering having women wear veils indoors.

As we were in pre-production for “This Modern Love,” (which would have been filmed with the proper permissions and permits and featured well-known Iranian actors) my mother was in a nearly fatal car accident. I dropped everything I was doing and focused on nursing her back to health, first in Iran, then in the United States when she was strong enough to travel,

Once I got back to Iran almost a year later, things had changed – both in the country and in terms of my own feelings. My previous script was written at the tail end of reformist president’s Khatami term. Now it was well into Ahmadinejad’s time in office, and he had already started a crackdown on artists and dissidents. I felt like the times had become drastically different, and I needed to make something that spoke to this new reality.

At the same time I was inspired by this unseen generation of Iranian filmmakers that I had met. Thus I decided to write a new script (“Dog Sweat”) that encompassed all the things that my friends and I had seen and felt, even if it would have to be shot underground, with the fear of being harassed or arrested.

Keshavarz on the guerrilla approach he took to making the film…

Making “Dog Sweat,” I learned how to form a team where we depended on each other. We shot the whole film underground in often very risky situations. So we had to trust each other in the face of a lot of crazy and dangerous circumstances. Things would change constantly and a lot of times we could only shoot what we could get. This taught me to truly collaborate with the actors and our DP, to incorporate all of their ideas. Often, our plans would fall apart because of something out of our control and I would ask the actors – what do you think? And then we would have to change and re-adjust. Those type of situations made us bond even more.

Further, this filmmaking experience taught me to trust myself. When you are shooting something illegally and dealing with things falling through and changing constantly, you have to learn to adapt to the circumstances quickly. Amidst all the chaos you have to remember to stay focused on the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.

We shot the whole film underground in Iran. So we always had to be careful that we wouldn’t get into trouble. And we had to decide who to trust and who not to. Because of the nature of the film, we had very little control over the production that a normal film would typically have. A small example of this is the last scene of the movie. Originally it was supposed to be something totally different, which we were going to film over several days by the Caspian Sea. One of our actresses came to set one day and said that her father found out that she was doing the film and that he had forbid her to continue. She told us that in the morning and had to be back home by noon. So we had a couple of hours to do something. I sat down with the DP and the actors and discussed what the characters themselves might do. Then I sat down for a half hour and wrote the scene and we shot it before she had to head back. And I think that’s one of the best scenes in the film!

Keshavarz on what he hopes a LAFF audience will take away from “Dog Sweat”…

I hope to shed light on a more realistic portrayal of life in Iran. Iran has been in the news a lot – I think “Dog Sweat” is a film that Iranians can say, “Hey ‘Dog Sweat’ is the first film that actually feels like what it feels like to live in Iran.” And Westerners can watch and say, “You know, I actually understand what they are going through.”

Besides that I set out to make an enjoyable film – to mix drama and humor in a way that is true to real life.

Keshavarz on films that continue to inspire him and on his future plans…

“Short Cuts” by Robert Altman and “Sunshine States” by John Sayles, for the way they employ multiple protagonists to show a wide variety of experiences existing side-by-side. I wanted to uses this structure to give voice to a generation of young people, many who have been ignored or marginalized. My goal was to do something that hadn’t been done before – to create a multi-faceted and authentic view of life in Iran. Also Lukas Moodysson’s “Together,” for the warm, humanist way he approaches his characters.

I’m working on a drama about the financial crisis that unlike the few other movies that deal with this topic, will be an irreverent and at times funny look at an era that we all lived through, but few understand. I’m also working on a TV pilot about a matriarchal, near utopian space colony where all decisions are made by a commune of Sisters and men are not allowed to vote, but are kept content with a culture of free sex.

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