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When Fish & Cat played at the Gene Siskel Film Center earlier this month, I wrote that I wasn't sure whether the movie has anything more serious on its mind than playing an elaborate game. Repeated viewings of the film have convinced me it does. Mokri fills out the head-spinning structure with a number of vivid characters: Kambiz, a hipster college student living under the thumb of his overprotective father; Parviz, a big-man-on-campus type who comes to resent his own shallowness; Nadal, a withdrawn young woman who might have psychic powers; and most memorably, a pair of murderous rural chefs whose grimly comic dialogues recall the work of Samuel Beckett. I learned from Mokri (who graciously set aside an hour to speak with me before one of the Siskel Center screenings) that Fish & Cat is also a veiled commentary on the culture clash between Iranian millennials and their parents' generation. "We're not allowed to talk openly in films about problems in Iran," he said, explaining Iranian filmmakers' tendency toward allegorical storytelling. Mokri had a lot to say about his experience with the state censorship board, as well as his passion for mathematics and M.C. Escher.
Ben Sachs: I didn't feel confident enough to write about Fish & Cat until I watched it twice. On the first viewing, I was so caught up in figuring out the structure that I didn't give proper consideration to the characters. The movie's a real puzzle.
Shahram Mokri: My main inspiration was M.C. Escher's paintings, which are like puzzles. The perspective's always changing, but it still looks continuous. I wanted to do something like that in cinema. I realized I had to make the movie in one shot, because the magic of Escher's paintings is in following the design.
The movie circles back over the same events several times, but things never occur exactly the same way twice. It's never clear whether we're seeing the same story as seen by different characters or different stories entirely.
In a way, the movie is a challenge to [legendary French critic] Andre Bazin's theories about cinematic realism. In his theory, long takes are like reality [since they preserve the temporal unity of real life], but in this film, we move pretty far from reality, closer to surreality. We're always finding new positions for looking at the story. At the beginning, it's very near to the horror genre, specifically slasher movies. The first sequence is very much like something out of a slasher film, but gradually we move away from that.
We also have two different generations in the film, the older generation and the younger people of today. The younger ones are always fighting with each other—though those fights aren't in the movie; they're hidden in the story, and sometimes the conversations hints at them—while the older people seem to get along. It's also a combination of cinema and theater . . . you know, I really can't describe Fish & Cat in one line. Whenever I described it to one of the actors, I'd start with something different—sometimes I'd talk about slasher movies, other times I'd talk about mathematics or theater.
How did mathematics influence the film?
I studied mathematics in high school, and I loved it. In university, I studied cinema, but I was always thinking of a way I could mix cinema with math and science. Fish & Cat plays on a theory in quantum physics that argues that a character in time can be here and also not here. I was also inspired by a theory in mathematics that says you can travel the full rotation of a circle and somehow end up ahead of the point where you started.
Before I started writing the script, I drew a map with two overlapping circles. The bigger circle represented the first half of the film, and the smaller circle was the second half. From there, I started looking for points where I could connect the two. I wrote lots of short stories about the individual characters, which I then inserted into the bigger picture. Now the big and little circles are not exactly the same story, but the actors and actresses are the same [characters] in both. That's the kind of thing that's possible only in quantum theory.
How did you rehearse with the actors? Did you work on one "circle" at a time or did you keep them unaware of which circle they were in?
I first wanted them to understand the tone I was going for. When I met with the actors as a group, I showed them some of Gus Van Sant's movies—so they'd have a sense of what the camera would be doing—as well as some slasher movies. I made sure they knew that Fish & Cat was a puzzle, meaning they couldn't change any of the pieces. After three or four meetings, they were prepared to follow the script.
All of the actors come from theater. And most of them are young, you know, so they're full of energy and ready to do hard work. They're ready to perform for two to three hours straight. For three weeks leading up to shooting, we were on location in the north of Iran, running through the whole movie every day. This was after we rehearsed for about a month in Tehran. The first time we tried to shoot, one of the actors forgot a line after one hour, so I had to yell cut. When we tried again the next day, my cameraman made a mistake, and we had to stop again. The day after that, it rained. But finally, on the fourth day, we were able to shoot the whole thing in one take.
You mentioned that Fish & Cat moves from reality to surreality. It also moves between comedy, downbeat drama, and horror. What motivated these changes in tone?
In Iran, we're used to danger being around the corner. When we're in a car, we're ready for a crash. When we're in a bank, we're ready for a robbery. There's always a chance we'll be attacked by Israel or who knows where else. Our lives are very tense, even when everything is good. I wanted to show that in the film. Also I think that young people in Iran have come to expect bad things from the older generation. Veterans of the Iran-Iraq War have an easier time getting jobs—in the cities, in the country, in government—since war experience has practically holy significance in my country. People of that generation who were of fighting age during the war, they think that Iran is their place. The bad guys in Fish & Cat fought in the war, so they think of the woods as their zone. They don't understand why the students want to be there.
Did you notice that the older people in Fish & Cat are the funniest, cheeriest characters in the film? They listen to Beethoven and talk about theater and tell these funny stories about life. The younger characters, who listen to pop music, are not funny—in fact, they're all very sad, even though they're obsessed with "fun" culture. They don't read books or listen to serious music. For me, that's the contrast between the old and the young in Iran.
Given how critical the movie is of Iranian society, did the state censors take issue with it? Were you worried that they'd bar the film from release in Iran? I understand that quite a few Iranian films have been denied domestic release for that reason.
The way censorship works in Iran is that you have to submit your script to the censors before you shoot, and after you make the movie, you need to show it to the censors again. They decide whether it can play in Iran or at festivals in other countries. The frustrating thing is that the censorship code is not defined by law. The code always changes based on who's on the censorship board or who's currently president of the country. Some of the rules make sense to me—you can't show blood or drug use, for instance—but others I don't understand. Like, we're not allowed to talk openly in films about problems in Iran.
Fish & Cat didn't play in Iran until a year after it premiered at the Venice film festival because the censors had some problems with it. They told me I had to cut the references to the Iran-Iraq War, and they had problems with the caption that opens the film, which makes reference to a date in 1998 when a number of Iranian intellectuals were killed by the government. They also wanted me to change a line of voice-over narration about the murder of one of the students, because it invokes an image of a girl who was killed in the protests following Ahmadinejad's reelection.
In the end, we were able to show the movie in Iran with only a few minor changes, and the release was limited to small cinema salons. I was OK with that, because it was important for me that people in Iran could see it at all. The people who saw Fish & Cat liked it—it played for four months at the salons.
Did you find it difficult to make a slasher movie if you couldn't show any blood?
No. Fish & Cat isn't really a movie about violence—it's about what makes the bad guys commit violence. Also I like the contrast between what the movie's about and what it shows. The movie ends with this sort of contrast: we see this happy image [of a string ensemble playing in the woods], though we know that it's fake, because offscreen a girl is being murdered.
I think that Fish & Cat is very much an Iranian movie, because Iranian films are famous for their relationship to reality—for example, Abbas Kiarostami's movies always seem drawn from life. But it's also different from most Iranian movies. We don't have genre movies in Iran, definitely not horror movies. But I like those movies, also European dramas, so I wanted to mix all those things and set it in Iran, with Iranian characters.
That sequence at the beginning of the film—when the bad guys stop that other group of students who are driving through—is my tribute to the openings of many slasher movies, where some young people who are lost find a gas station or something to ask for directions. We know right away that they've made a wrong turn and their trouble is about to begin. At the same time, this scene reflects an everyday experience for us. There are secret police all over Iran, and they can stop your car and ask why you're there. If they ask to see your ID card, you have to show it to them. Again we can talk about two circles, one circle being the slasher movie and the other one being Iran today.