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'World War III' Director Houman Seyyedi on Balancing Absurdity and Tragedy: 'Hope Keeps People Alive'

Anyone whose experience of Iranian cinema is limited to social realism and the lyrical allegories of Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi may be dismissed Homen Sayedi’s Shocked by World War III , Iran is officially shortlisted for this year’s Best International Feature Film Oscar. The film, which premiered in Venice and won the Horizon Sidebar’s Best Picture award, is a hybrid of genres: part social drama, part thriller, and part absurd film industry satire. Mohsen Tanabandeh was named Best Actor in Horizon Venice for his portrayal of Shakib, who lost his wife and son in a horrific earthquake years ago and is still deeply saddened. Traumatized, and found a part-time pick-up job in World War I II Movie. When the film’s star suffers a heart attack, the director asks Shakib to step in and play Adolf Hitler. Things appear to be improving for Shakib, but another tragedy will soon find him in trouble. Director Seyyedi speaks to THR about his feelings for the protagonist and the challenge of balancing comedy and tragedy. Houman Seyyedi

Howman Sayedi Kate Green/Getty Images

The comic absurdity at the center of the film – the worker is Chosen as the idea of ​​playing Adolf Hitler in a Persian version of the Holocaust movie – setting 2022 World War III Apart from most Iranian movie moments, this tends to be strictly realistic drama.

You are right. In recent years, most of the movies from Iran The movies are all social commentary and the way the story is told is very realistic. But here, as anywhere else in the world, filmmakers are trying to explore other avenues to see if we are capable of telling other kinds of stories. I think cinema is very much alive in Iran, as it is in the rest of the world. We try to be influenced by the events around us and make our film a reaction to those events.

Is this movie a reaction to any specific event in Iran?

I really worked hard to make this movie come from the bottom of my heart, From the heart, but naturally when you come from a country like Iran, you always try to choose to be on the side of the people. Many filmmakers in Iran are on the side of the people. I am no exception. I try to be inspired by events happening around us, like the state of the economy, the way my father and mother dealt with the difficulty of making ends meet. This inspiration leads me to tell the stories I want to make.

I know it is difficult for directors in Iran to speak openly about the conditions there. But has the filmmaking process in Iran changed under the new government?

Well, this is nothing new. In the previous administration, I was banned from working. But I think the idea that there is some sort of war between [the directors and] the government is pointless and unnecessary. Cinema is powerful, and it has shown it has the ability to thrive. I’ve seen things like this in the past, banning filmmakers and such. I think it will sort itself out eventually. But I can only really speak for myself. This [ban] could happen to me and I would find myself one of those people struggling to pay the bills. We were lucky to be able to make this film without any government support – the money came from private investors and a private streaming platform in Iran.

What do you think of your main character, Shakib, played by Mohsen Tanabandeh? He looks ridiculous and miserable at times, and then, later, almost a monster.

I don’t think he’s a monster. I think he’s someone who, when we first meet him, has come to terms with what life has done to him. He lost his home and family in the earthquake, and he really didn’t think about anything. But later, because of filming, he got a chance to live in a good house and got this girlfriend who was like a surrogate wife. There was talk of maybe having a baby with her. Suddenly he realized he could have those things again. When that was taken away from him, [that] was him becoming like a madman doing horrible things.

You could almost say hope was what killed him.

No, I wouldn’t say that. That’s not the message of the movie. Instead, I believe hope keeps you alive. But what kills hope is the environment. His situation took away that hope. But it’s still the hope that keeps people alive. This is something that I believe in deep down.

The film-in-a-film, this World War II story, Shakib plays an almost Chaplin-like Hitler, adding to the absurdity of what is a really, really tragic story. Is it difficult to maintain this balance?

I set myself some red lines while making it. I don’t want my film to be a film about the style of behind-the-scenes production of this ridiculous film. But when we show the cinematic elements in this movie, I want the artificiality to really stand out. I tried to show how ridiculous the movies in this movie are. The director who made it was an old man who thought he was doing a real, sombre portrayal of World War II and the Holocaust. He didn’t realize that he was actually making an incredible picture. His first assistant director’s woman knew, she saw what was happening. She kept pointing out how fake and stupid everything was. Even one of the extras pointed out how clumsy and funny the movie was. It’s going to be a really bad movie – definitely not what the director envisioned.

It’s a very thin line for me, and it’s kind of scary, because there are events in the movie, like the gas chamber scene, that are scary. That’s not something you can laugh about. But making it scary also serves the story of our movie better.

What do you hope international audiences get from this film?

Honestly, I don’t know how the international audience will react. I just wish I could be a good representative of Iranian cinema and hats off to the team that put so much effort into making this movie. We shot for about three months in very difficult conditions in northern Iran, building everything from scratch. It was incredibly exciting to see this film actually finished and out into the world.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive this magazine, click here to subscribe .

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