Hossein Keshavarz, director of Dog Sweat: “Teheran is fun…New York is quiet compared to it.”
by Richard von Busack
Filmed on the streets of Teheran, in defiance of “The Committee,” Iran’s morals police, Hossein Keshavarz’ unauthorized film Dog Sweat has been playing the world film festival circuit playing this Thursday in downtown San Jose at Camera 3, Feb 23 at 7 pm. “It’s been quite a great ride,” says the New York based director. “We’ve been in more than 30 festivals. It’s interesting to see the film in places where you wouldn’t think there were Iranians, places like Sweden, Bulgaria or Japan.”
METRO: Can you describe Dog Sweat’s structure?
KESHAVARZ: It’s Altman-like. There are a number of different characters, but all the stories on the same theme: it’s about people want to be free. The title means “moonshine” in Persian, and some of the characters are looking for bootleg liquor. But all of them are searching for versions of their own freedom: the young couple is trying to find a place to make out; the gay man is being urged by his family to get married.
METRO: What made you decide to do this film?
KESHAVARZ: I feel the images of Iran are skewed and unrealistic. When I go to Teheran, I have fun—I always feel New York is quiet compared to it. It’s a city of 20 million and it’s got a lot of chaotic energy. I’ve always wanted to make a film that would be an alternative to the way the western media shows Iran as a threat. I also wanted to make it as an alternative to Iranian films: because of censorship they don’t really show the way people live. They make idealized films about the family, traditional lives in villages, a lot of films about children.
METRO: At the same time, most Iranian films—such as A Separation—demonstrate tremendous sophistication and subtlety. One of the master directors of Iran, I forget which, explained “We have 5000 years of storytelling behind us.”
KESHAVARZ: All I can add to that is that Iran us very focused on poetry, our national heroes are poets, and one of them, Rumi, is known around the world. There’s a similarity between poetry and film: a poem doesn’t try to tell everything in a story, but it does try to create understanding.
It’s funny—Asghar Faradi was surprised. He thought A Separation was going to appeal to Iranians only. It’s an engaging film it pulls you in like Kramer vs Kramer, it speaks to divorce, but it’s also speaking to something that’s really happening. The guy doesn’t know if he should stay or leave. His wife can’t take all the crazy political stuff—he wants to stay and he has obligation to his family and his culture.
That kind of issue comes up for a lot of people world wide, the question of whether to stay or flee. Also, the film talks about a little lie spirals out of control. All the people in the film are trying to be good people, the servant particularly—she’s a hard worker and honest. All the people are trying to do the right thing, but society is trying to make them immoral.
METRO: I take it Dog Sweat wasn’t made during your first trip to Iran.
KESHAVARZ: I grew up here in New York—then I went to back and forth—I spent 3 1/2 years there in the mid 2000s. Most of my friends there are actors and filmmakers. They make interesting shorts, but they didn’t bother with authorities or trying to release them, which they couldn’t do anyway because the actresses aren’t wearing veils.
They do this because they wanted to make honest films. I knew a lot of them, and I wanted to work in a longer form, My producer and co-writer Maryam Azadi had the idea that we could write this film together and make something that was very close to their lives.
METRO: It must have been a frightening experience to make this.
KESHAVARZ: Yeah, very stressful. We had to be very precise about what we wanted to get, and about who to trust and how to work with limitations, and to know in advance what we wanted to shoot. We were using wireless mikes and a boom mike, and that may have been how we were ignored. We tried to go light. We weren’t like these really massive productions with films and big crews that let you know something is shooting on the street.
METRO: How did you get the footage through customs?
KESHAVARZ: The most frightening part was just shooting it, with the worries about who was going to stop us or what’s going to happen. Thinking back on it, though, I was a little nervous going through customs. I put the film on a hard drive, and took the hard drive on backpack. I kept a copy in Iran also.
METRO: You know how it is with people who go to Cuba; they’re exasperated at the shortages, but they’re also worried about what’s going to happen when McDonalds and Starbucks start to take over. Do the people you talk to in Iran worry about an onslaught of western excess, if the Islamic Republic really liberalizes?
KESHAVARZ: I think that pretty possible there’ll be some nostalgia eventually. But Iranians are very educated and they know a lot about the world, and they’re angry they’re removed from thge world. The change could come. Think about how much progress there’s been in Dubai now from 30-40 years ago. From where my family lives in Shiraz, Dubai is only a half-hour away.
METRO: In your opinion what should the west do if Iran is indeed developing a nuclear arsenal?
KESHAVARZ: I don’t think there’ll be military action, but you never know. If there is action, it’ll make the situation worse. These things always sound better when they’re being planned then when they actually happen, and if you think of the Iranians as people it’s much harder to have a cavalier attitude.
Right now the people want change. Demonstrations in Iran broke out in advance of the Arabic Spring. It was the first country in the region where people were demanding their rights. And right now they’re not happy with the government. One thing that could kind of unite them behind the government is an attack.