The Mysterious Mohassess
by Helen Whittle
Aug 29, 2013 | 3171 views | 0 0 comments | 384 384 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Born in Tehran in 1975, Mitra Farahani trained as a painter at Azad University Tehran before embarking upon a career in documentary film. Just a Woman (2002) was a prizewinner at Berlin, and subsequent films have screened in international venues. Fifi Howls From Happiness investigates the last two months in the life of mysterious and legendary Iranian artist Bahman Mohassess, who twice fled Iran and yet remained a central cultural figure. Farahani talked to Helen Whittle about the film, the man and his legacy.

HELEN WHITTLE: Why did Bahman Mohassess leave Iran?

MITRA FARAHANI: The very first time that he left Iran was during his artistic formation in his youth during the 1950s, when the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, who was famous for wanting to nationalize oil, was overthrown in a coup d’état orchestrated by the U.S. and Britain. At this time, like many other artists, he had the opportunity to benefit from scholarships and funding for young artists to go and be trained in Europe.

He came back to Iran in the 1960s and 70s and was really productive during this time and acquired some famous commissions from the wife of the Shah. This was the period when he translated and staged important works of theater in Iran by Jean Genet, Luigi Pirandello, Eugene Ionesco. He really flourished during this time. After the Iranian Revolution, he continued to travel in secret between Iran and Europe, especially Italy. Then 2006 was a kind of symbolic moment when Mohassess decided he could no longer stand the state of culture and the social environment in Iran. He left the country for the last time and remained in Italy.

In the film, you describe an “incompetent art history” that is unable to deal with the figure of Bahman Mohassess. Can you explain what you mean by that?

It’s problematic that the important historical figures, whether artists or others, have not been given the place in history that they deserve. Bahman Mohassess was of such huge importance for modern art, yet it was like only the tips of his fingers were emerging from the wave of history. In Iran, history is more or less written by the figures in power. There was no such thing as a history that could be a testimony to the figures outside of the state’s power and of the monarchy. The history that has been written in Iran is the history of power and politics and never the history of thought, philosophy or art.

You live in Paris and Iran. How difficult is freedom of expression for you as a female filmmaker and artist in Iran?

If there are problems or difficulties, then it is for both men and women at the same level.

And what are the difficulties?

Look at all the male Iranian journalists who are in prison now. Maybe we don’t always think about them as much as artists or filmmakers…to me, it’s down to the individual. It’s about how you react to it and how much you are prepared to take and how far you are prepared to go as an individual.

With the film, it seems, you have rescued Bahman Mohassess from being swallowed by history. Given his disappearance and his tendency to destroy his own works, do you think that he actually wanted to be saved?

It’s a very good question, because I could say that’s the whole point of the film. Maybe this contradiction and this kind of vicious play between the need and the desire for being a part of history and this obsessive destructive character, who doesn’t want to be saved or who doesn’t want to be recorded or heard, maybe this contradiction will never be resolved.

Helen Whittle is culture editor at Deutsche Welle. Reprinted with permission of Deutsche Welle.

FIFI HOWLS FROM HAPPINESS | Iran, 2013, 97m | Director/writer: Mitra Farahani

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