Iran Filmmaker Focuses on Love Not War

The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 9, 2006; 2:48 PM

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- As Western leaders fret over Iran's nuclear ambitions and support of the Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, filmmaker Mani Haghighi offers a different take on his country with the story of four ordinary guys and one big rock.

"Men at Work" is a humorous tale of middle-aged buddies from Tehran who, during a skiing trip, discover an oddly shaped boulder atop a roadside cliff and struggle mightily to shove it over the edge.

Released this year, the movie was a hit during the just-concluded Traverse City Film Festival, where a third screening was arranged after two others sold out. During a panel discussion, Haghighi said his next picture will depict a melodramatic love affair.

Affairs? Male bonding ski vacations? That kind of stuff goes on in staunchly conservative, theocratic Iran _ and they make movies about it?

Haghighi smiled resignedly, saying he was accustomed to such questions from American moviegoers who don't realize his country has its cosmopolitan side and there's more to Iran than religion and politics.

"It shocks them. They just can't imagine that kind of lifestyle taking place in Iran," he said in an interview. "The image of Iranians that exists in their imagination is so fundamentally mistaken."

Guilty as charged, confessed Michael Moore, the gadfly documentary filmmaker and founder of the Traverse City festival. When screening "Men at Work" in New York, Moore said, he was jolted by the idea of Iranians going skiing and wondered, "What are you, like us?"

The picture _ and two other Iranian productions shown during the festival _ should remind U.S. audiences that despite political and cultural differences, "we're more alike than not," Moore said.

"Some of the best movies that have been made during the last decade or so have been these Iranian films," he added. "They tell beautiful stories, they're beautifully shot, they're adventuresome, they take these incredible risks."

"Men at Work" is the second feature film by Haghighi, 37, a Tehran native who earned philosophy and cultural-studies degrees in Canada. The first, "Abadan," was rejected by the Iranian Ministry of Culture _ apparently because of salty language.

But the ministry gave a thumbs-up to "Men at Work," which Haghighi hopes will appear in Iranian theaters later this year. Its U.S. distributor is Film Movement, which sells DVDs of award-winning independent and foreign pictures.

The differing treatment of his two works illustrates the dicey path Iranian filmmakers must tread to get past the censors. But Haghighi insisted it's not as hard to make good movies in his country as outsiders may think.

He noted that his U.S. colleagues have their own problems getting financing and distribution _ especially for controversial works. In contrast, it took him 12 minutes to secure the modest funding needed for "Men at Work" from his producer.

"I'm amazed at the sums you spend on your films," he told Moore and other U.S. directors during the panel discussion.

Haghighi acknowledged he couldn't get away with making an Iranian film like "Fahrenheit 9/11," Moore's scorching polemic about the war in Iraq. But even if he could, he said, that's not his style.

"Iranians are by nature and by culture not as in-your-face and ... straightforward as Americans are," he said. "We prefer oblique approaches _ not simply because that's what we're forced to do, but because that's how we are."

Perhaps that's why some reviewers of "Men at Work" have read between the lines, describing the men's struggle with the intractable boulder as a political allegory. Fair enough, Haghighi said _ but they're taking creative license.

"I never made it as an allegory," he said. "I was actually trying to do the opposite, trying to ... make a straight story about four guys and a rock. I was sure that this way, it would inspire more interest and a more diverse set of interpretations. Which it did, by the way."

The film also deals _ obliquely _ with the characters' love lives. Haghighi said middle-class relationship struggles are a comfortable subject for him because he comes from that segment of Iranian society.

"I'm sort of bored and tired with the stories that have been told about poverty in the Third World. I think it ends up presenting an image that isn't very useful any more. It's crucial to show intelligence, affluence ... complex human dramas, not the simple stories about how we get the money for the well."

Haghighi does have strong political views and is no fan of U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Discussing preparations to shoot his next film in Iran, he dryly told his Traverse City audience, "I hope you delay the invasion until I'm finished."

Instead of making ideological war films, he said he preferred to focus on ordinary people and keep the geopolitical conflicts in the background _ not to be escapist, but to appeal to viewers' common humanity.

"I hope I don't sound like a hopeless romantic but I think it's important to remind ourselves of beauty and love," Haghighi said. "We're not supposed to be thinking about killing and war all the time."

© 2006 The Associated Press