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“We Wanted to Film These Beige Structures the Way Terrence Malick Films a Sunset”: Director Matthew Rankin on the Canadian/Iranian Interzone of his Cannes-Premiering Universal Language


There are plenty of North American filmmakers influenced by the giants of international cinema. These filmmakers import stylistic references, different tones and rhythms, perhaps key collaborators, such as a cinematographer, to films that nonetheless are born of their own local filmmaking cultures. For his second feature, following the anarchic political satire of his The Twentieth Century, Canadian director Matthew Rankin has imagined a different approach. His formally precise and very funny Universal Language, a Cannes’s Directors Fortnight discovery this year, is not only influenced by the Iranian cinema of Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, among others, but considers a Winnipeg — home to filmmakers such as the iconic Guy Maddin — that is, as he says, a kind of fantastical “interzone” between that small city and Tehran. Farsi is the spoken language, buildings, street signs and consumer products are labeled in Arabic, and random occurrences — such as the discovery by two children, Negin and Nazgol, of a 500 Rial bill frozen in a block of ice, a find that sends them on a pint-size adventure to secure an axe in order to retrieve it — are of the sort that would have constituted subversive political parables in some lost Iranian classic.

The children’s adventure is just one of the intersecting storylines in Universal Language. Another stars Rankin himself — a reluctant actor, as he describes himself in our interview below — as an alienated bureaucrat who abruptly quits his Quebec government job and sets out to locate his long-estranged mother. Along the film’s various expeditions, cultural as well as personal histories are remapped and reimagined, with its final moments triggering a mysterious denouement that, like everything in this picture, can be viewed just as productively from one viewpoint, the other, or some more satisfying spot in between.

I spoke to Rankin before Cannes about the origins of his interest in Iranian filmmaking culture, the intent behind the film’s explicit hybrid, and being inspired by dreams.

Filmmaker: You’ve discussed in interviews and in the press notes your youthful trip to Iran to study film and how that influenced your decision to set Universal Language in a kind of fictional Tehran/Winnipeg hybrid. Can you tell me more about that trip? How old were you, and how long did you stay?

Rankin: When I was 21, I went to Iran. I was inspired by the great Iranian masters, and I had this very naive idea that I could go there and study cinema. I stayed for three months, and it didn’t work out at all. There were a few film schools I tried to connect with. In some cases, I didn’t connect at all, and in some cases, it was just not possible [for me to study there].

Filmmaker: When was this?

Rankin: I was there from the end of 2001 until the first few months of 2002. I was, in fact, there when the president [George W. Bush] defined the nature of evil and its precise geographic location. It was an interesting time to be in Iran, I met a lot of great people, and that [experience] has sort of followed my life since. But because I didn’t end up studying in Iran, I ended up going back to Winnipeg and studying there. And that’s, of course, a very different filmmaking tradition. There I learned from the great Winnipeg masters — Guy Maddin, John Paizs, Solomon Nagler. The Iranian cinema, of course, is extremely vast and multifaceted, but the cinema that was particularly interesting to me is what I like to describe as meta-realism. It’s this filmmaking that emerged out of Kanoon, The Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young People. These “meta-realists” sort of play with cinematic realism, but there’s always an element of artificiality. They are very skeptical about the possibility of authenticity in cinema and play between these modes of artifice. And in a bizarre way, the Winnipeg filmmakers are doing that as well, I feel. Guy Maddin, John Paisz, Solomon Nagler, and more recently, I would say, Rhayne Vermette are all kind of working with outmoded vocabularies from experimental filmmaking or ancient Hollywood cinema or instructional films and creating these very personal narrative expressions through that language. What both [filmmaking cultures] share, I feel, is a kind of mischief with cinematic artifice. And both of my features are kind of preoccupied with that too and play with that in very different ways.

Filmmaker: In an interview about your previous film, The Twentieth Century, you called it a film about “the empty triumph of nation building.” Both films, although very different, have as well this kind of reflexive relationship to Canadian identity. What is it about Canada and the relationship of filmmakers to their national identity that prompts these kinds of meditations, do you think?

Rankin: That’s a great question. There’s not a lot of mythmaking in Canada, so, by design, I think there’s the sense that it is artificial. Also, the kind of structural element that I think is maybe pertinent to [Universal Language] is solitude. The relationship between Quebec and the rest of the Canada has typically been described as one of two solitudes, which comes from this Rilke poem. There’s the idea that they don’t really speak to each other, they don’t really know each other, they’re not even very curious about each other, but they coexist in this weird way. Bizarrely, they’re kind of intertwined in this complicated way. So that’s something I think about.

But as far as nation building is concerned, my own feelings about that are very internationalist. I feel like these structures that we create are very artificial, and cinema is, in fact, one of them. It’s a simulacrum of reality that we sometimes are inclined to mistake for the real world. That’s something that is interesting to me, and I feel like nationalism is like that, too. So too is any other order that we try to give to the chaos of the world — ways of creating an almost architectural vision of self. And that’s something that we experience in Canada, I think, in large part because there are there is no resounding myth. There’s no eagle.

Filmmaker: Within the filmmaking world, Canada is often seen within the logic of co-productions. Yours is a film that deals cross-cultural dialogue, but I’m sensing it wasn’t the kind of multi-country coproduction that Canada has produced so many of.

Rankin: Wouldn’t that be great if there was a governmental program at the root of the whole thing? That would be very Canadian, actually. But if I can just return to the previous question, Canada’s culture is bureaucratic, and that’s something that I’m interested in. But yeah, I made this film very much with my friends. That is the degree of the co-production. There are very few people who worked on the movie that I didn’t know very deeply and personally already, and most of the cast came from that circle of friends. Ila Firouzabadi and Pirouz Nemati [both co-writers and executive producers] were my closest collaborators creatively on the project, and they’re just my very, very close friends. I do really think of the movie as kind of an expression of that [friendship]. The idea was to create a brain, this sort of poetic, Iranian/Winnipeggian brain that can produce its own systems of thinking. Co-productions are often a more bureaucratic arrangement, and this was very much a spiritual one.

Filmmaker: Tell me more about this filmmaking friendship, because you mentioned the two of them in the press notes as well. I think you said at one point they insisted that you make the film despite your own self doubts. What were those doubts?

Rankin: Ila is an artist, a sculptor by vocation. And Pirouz is a filmmaker as well; he works mainly in documentary. We’ve made other films together. It’s hard to explain why you are friends with people. It’s like saying, “Why are you in love with your partner?” But yes, they’re just two of my closest friends. And if I had moments of self doubt about the movie, I mean, there’s certainly a long history of transgressions of people trying to represent in the West stories that are beyond their lived experience. Those are very upsetting for very good reasons, and the criticism of those is very important.

This movie is a little bit strange because, to return to the Canada notion, there is a quality to solitude and the idea of having space — like, “I just need this space to do my own thing, and you can go and do your own thing over there, and that’s how we can cohabitate.” And that’s good. We need that in the world. To use the Quebec example, Quebec needs its own space to just do its own thing.

But what is interesting to me is these spaces of overlap. Where do we intersect? Where is the moment where one person ends and the rest of the world begins? At what point do we become part of each other’s story? This is a notion that we don’t talk about a lot, in part because it’s more difficult to organize the world this way. But it is something that is interesting to me. I understand that’s a little bit of a dangerous territory, but I think that’s a worthy subject for art. I have this dialogue with Iran through my friends, through moments in my life, and they have this dialogue with Winnipeg, and in a bizarre way, in this zone that we share we are part of a strange continuum. And that’s a really interesting, precious, beautiful and unusual space. It’s difficult to represent a space like that, so the film, that’s what it’s seeking.

Filmmaker: I read about the Iranian population of Winnipeg, because I didn’t know much about it. I understand that there’s maybe 3,000 or 4,000 people in Winnipeg’s Iranian community, and that number has been growing steadily. I’m curious about the film’s relationship to the existing Iranian community. Is there a relationship, or is this really a sort of fictional interzone, as you say?

Rankin: It definitely is a fictional interzone, but, yes, of course we did [have a relationship]. The Iranian community of Winnipeg was a very important collaborator for us when we were filming there. My friend Omid Moterassed, who’s a filmmaker in Winnipeg, he was kind of the key creative collaborator on the Winnipeg team. And we cast a number of Iranian Winnipeggers. In a lot of ways, those 4,000 people are the target audience for this movie. I feel like those people actually will understand it better than anyone else. So yeah, it is a sort of a centripetal element, certainly in the production of the film.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk a little bit about production design and cinematography. It’s a beautifully controlled film, and with a sparser mise en scene than your previous film. There was a sense of excess, of chaos, at times, in that film. Here there is a calmness and often much negative space in the wide shots. And a lot of beige, which I thought about while watching the film and which you point out in the press notes as being a callback to Kiarostami. What sort of creative conversations did you have with your collaborators at the start of prep?

Rankin: Well, certainly, beige was a point of departure. Something I really noticed when I went to Tehran the first time was that the buildings there actually reminded me very much of the buildings that surrounded me when I was growing up in Winnipeg. There are a lot of beige structures. In Winnipeg, they’re kind of special because they take the light in a really interesting way in the winter. It’s a very bleak, wintery, snowy city, and the winter light hits these beige structures and they become these beautiful luminescent orbs. And one thing that I really love about a lot of the films that this film is referencing is the seeking of the divine within the banal.So, this was something we were after with the filming of these structures. How could we make these otherwise very bland, very ordinary buildings take on some poetry? We wanted to film these beige structures the way Terrence Malick films a sunset.

More fundamentally what we talked about was the language, the sort of decoupage, of these [Iranian] meta-realist films. One thing that I really like is how scenes are filmed in this body of work. In Western cinema, we have this tendency to always follow the action. When one person is speaking, the camera is on that person.And then when the next person starts speaking, we cut to that person. And wherever the center of the action is, the camera will follow it, almost like in a hockey game. But in Iran, they do things very differently. There’s a lot of interest in the person listening more than the person speaking, and often we’re very curious about what’s happening beyond the frame. Maybe the center of the action is here and often the camera will go off on its own and sort of explore what’s happening over there. So, we talked a lot about that and tried to explore a kind of peripheral gaze as much as possible. As far as the design is concerned, again, the idea was to make it very hybrid. We’re using many Winnipeg iconographies, many distinctly Winnipeg structures, and trying to give them either a Farsi linguistic face or merge them with different traditions. We worked specifically with a lot of different graphic designers to achieve that. The whole idea was at every moment throughout the making of the film to try to make it as hybrid as possible, to really make it this sort of Venn diagram of Quebeco/Winnipego/Irano totality.

Filmmaker: Referencing the peripheral gaze, one of the tour de force scenes in the movie is the one that takes place at the traffic island. Until then, we’ve been in this most closed, almost hermetic-feeling world. That scene starts off in a different kind of exterior, a median traffic island, but it’s in the same vein — very sparse and precisely composed. And then the camera starts to rove, panning 360, and the traffic begins to go by and get more and more intense until you have eased us into this bustling urban environment that feels a world away from the scenes at the beginning of the film. And there are some exquisite moments where different action beats are perfectly timed. Tell me a little bit about shooting that sequence.

Rankin: It was very difficult. We had a system, but it was an extremely primitive undertaking, to be honest. We didn’t have walkie talkies or anything like that.

Filmmaker: Really?

Rankin: And I didn’t have a [monitor], so I couldn’t look at the image from where I was. We were trying to keep [the shooting] a little bit loose, but at the same time it was a complicated choreographic maneuver which was [accomplished] with the most primitive possible methods. We worked entirely through hand gestures. I think the production manager was on our side of the highway, and she was waiting for a hand gesture from the other and then she gave us a gesture to the car. We did it something like five times. But it was shot very wild. The location wasn’t locked off, and even random people were walking through the frame, and that was kind of great. The world as it is has a place in the movie.

Filmmaker: The rhythm of the traffic is incredible because it does build and build and build in what seems like a very constructive and designed way, but at the same time I guessed you didn’t have that level of control.

Rankin: Hell no!

Filmmaker: I understand one element of source material for this film are dreams that you had after your parents died.

Rankin: Those dreams are really mystifying. All of the dreams that summoned in the movie are very half remembered, and I don’t know that delineating each point and its meaning would be a very minute exercise. But I would say that it’s something about the feeling of [those dreams]. When a loved one dies and you have a dream of them and they’re still alive, there’s this sort of space when you wake up that is very, very complicated. It suddenly dawns on you that, in fact, you know they’re actually gone forever, but in this moment they have visited you. There’s something about that feeling that I really liked. It’s this strange liminal zone between two worlds, and I wanted the film to feel like that. I mean, there are little details from dreams in the script, but I would say, more fundamentally, it’s kind of the feeling that I was after.

Filmmaker: Were you always intending yourself to be in the film?

Rankin: No, I really didn’t want to do that. I’m not an actor. I find acting to be utterly humiliating. But, again, the filmmaker being present in the story is a trope of the Iranian cinema that this film is referencing. I wanted to actually work with an actor playing me. In Through the Olive Trees, Kiarostami does that. But in every other film I can name, it’s always the actual director who appears playing themselves, and I thought, well, I have to put my skin in the game. And then, of course, Ila and Pirouz insisted that I had to do it and that it would be a terrible mistake if I didn’t. I was sort of excited by the idea that I might actually be miscast playing myself — that I didn’t actually have the qualifications to play myself in my own movie, in which I am a character. I thought that was funny, and it made me think of Hossain Sabzian and his imitation of Mohsen Makhmalbaf [in Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up]. I felt like if I could channel that and do this fraudulent impersonation of myself, then that would enliven the meaning of the thing, even if I was bad. So that was my thinking behind it.

Filmmaker: Without going into spoilers, the ending puts a twist on your role in the film. That ending can be read in different ways. How did you land on it and particularly on your character’s role in the ending?

Rankin: That was something Pirouz and I talked about a lot. Early on, Pirouz was going to play my character and I was going to play the Pirouz character. We were juggling that idea for a bit. But that doesn’t really have any relevance to the end of the film. I would say it comes down to this passage in The Color of Pomegranates that Pirouz and I really like. “We were looking for ourselves in each other.”

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