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“What we try to do is to try and create the culture we want that doesn’t exist,” says Rouzbeh Rashidi.
Over an hour-deep cup of coffee in Cafe Moda in Rathmines just before closing time, Rashidi – an Iranian-Irish filmmaker, producer and founder of the Experimental Film Society – is expounding his philosophy of film.
He is soft-spoken with slicked-back black hair, the moustache of a Surrealist, and a herringbone jacket with matching waistcoat. He chooses his words with care.
The Experimental Film Society, which Rashidi founded in Tehran in 2000, was an early attempt to form a collective of like-minded people interested in experimental filmmaking, he says.
Iran was similar to Ireland, he says. As he saw it, both lacked a cultural awareness of experimental filmmaking, experimental cinema and lacked a community of like-minded individuals coming together to make it happen.
This was the purpose of the Experimental Film Society: to bring together people with a love of experimental film.
After the 1979 revolution in Iran, people started to emigrate and society became restrictive in terms of how you could express yourself, says Rashidi. His extended family slowly moved to the UK, to London and Brighton mostly.
His father, however, moved to Ireland in the late ’90s. “He sort of wanted to move somewhere as well. His family told him about this Celtic Tiger economy. You should go there.”
He did and he fell in love with Ireland. Soon, he brought the rest of the family over. In 2004, Rashidi moved here, bringing the Experimental Film Society with him.
Although he was new to Ireland, he felt at home artistically immediately.
“Ireland for me just as a perfect balance,” says Rashidi. “There wasn’t much about experimental cinema but at the same time there was complete creative freedom. Nobody was asking us why are you doing this, you shouldn’t do this.”
Within a few years, he had found his tribe.
“The way you survive in underground and experimental cinema is collectivism. You need a group of people, you need a cast and crew that you constantly work with. Immediately I felt that I could do this here,” says Rashidi.
Since it was born, the society has organised more than 150 screenings around the world, and produced over 150 short films and 50 feature length films – usually with little to no funding.
Over the years, through the Experimental Film Society, Rashidi has amassed a number of different collaborators, some who have stayed in the society for long periods, and others for shorter periods, he says.
Collaborators generally work on one another’s projects, whether acting in each other’s films, or directing, producing or screening each other’s work, or promoting it. It’s this infrastructure that has allowed experimental film to get a foothold in the country, Rashidi says.
Maximilian Le Cain, a filmmaker and critic based in Cork and a collaborator of Rashidi’s, says that the landscape before the Experimental Film Society took hold was isolated.
“There was different people doing things in individual pockets around the country, including myself. But there wasn’t a coherent sense of an Irish experimental film scene,” Le Cain says.
That has changed, says Le Cain, and it’s largely down to the energy of Rashidi. “Rouzbeh has somehow managed to make this impossible thing possible.”
Sights and Sounds
“Experimental film” can mean different things to different people. But for Rashidi, it’s about the process of making films that don’t work off a script but through images and sounds.
“Our films are explorations,” he says. The film-making process reflects this. In fact, for Rashidi, it is the process of making the film – the shooting, the acting, the editing – that reveals it, and not the script.
“Until the last day we’ve no clue, literally no clue about how the final project would be,” says Rashidi. “We just have to go through it, and mould it and juxtapose things around. The film controls us. We don’t control the film.”
He contrasts experimental film with traditional cinema, which he sees as largely based on more real-world “socio-political” themes, something that the Experimental Film Society’s works avoid.
“The key to cinema is repetition,” he says. He gives the example of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and how its popularity fermented through season-long theatrical runs in tiny theatres.
Experimental films need a new register for people to appreciate them, he says. That comes with giving them a space to exist.
Le Cain agrees. “It’s a slow process. In Ireland and even in art-house film in general, the number of venues are quite limited,” he says.
This is one of the reasons why both would love to see, sometime in the future, more of a culture of smaller cinemas showing more experimental works.
In the meantime, the Experimental Film Society has struck some success. Iranian filmmaker Atoosa Pour Hosseini got Arts Council funding for Kinetics in Blue, a feature on now in The Lab on Foley Street. Other features, including Rashidi’s science fiction film Ten Years in the Sun appeared in the 2015 Dublin International Film Festival. Phantom Islands was shown at the more recent one.
The society puts on regular screenings of their work and the work of their collaborators including Michael Higgins, Le Cain, and Vicky Langan.
When they showed his film at Dublin Film Festival in 2015, an audience member stood up to leave, 90 minutes in.
He “left his seat, came in front of the screen and stood up again in front of the audience and started to wave as if to say, ‘Bye, I’m leaving, if you want to stay, stay’,” says Rashidi. “It was funny. Everyone laughed. He was almost like a character in the film.”
Generally the audience either “detests it or loves it”, he says. That’s a point of pride for him. They react.
This Friday and Saturday, the Experimental Film Society are scheduled to showcase a range of new works at A Luminous Void, an experimental film festival at the New Theatre in Temple Bar.
The festival will feature a society collaborators including Vicky Langan, Michael Higgins, Jann Clavadetscher and Ieva Balode, and a talk by Le Cain, to be followed by a Q&A.