Press Conference with Oliver Stone, Tehran, Iran. At the Fajr International Film Festival, 19-27 April, 2018

Press Conference 25th April 2018 at the Fajr International Film Festival, (FIFF),Tehran, Iran.
(Festival Director, respected Iranian film maker Reza Mirkarimi.)
Report by Cynthia Webb (Tehran, Iran)

Media from Iran, from nearby countries, and even from Agence France Presse,and even Hollywood, attended this very interesting Press Conference, with a man who is certainly not a typical American film-maker, however he is a very famous one. His films have won several Oscars, and he has always had an interest in “the other side of the story” which is demonstrated by his documentaries as well as the feature films. His documentaries include interviews with Arafat,Castro, Chavez, Netanyahu, and Putin, and the ten episode series: The Untold History of the United States of America, made with a prominent American historian, which is riveting viewing.
Mr Stone came to Iran a few days early, and visited, Kashan and Esfahan before coming to the FIFF for workshops with Iranian film students and the press conference. Apparently he is the first big name American film-maker to ever attend this festival. As for the Fajr International Film Festival, he mentioned that it was a great opportunity for inter-dialogue between film-makers and other people.

He said it is his first time to come to Iran, and that he has met the warmest of hosts, and smiles. He added that movies speak any language.
Mr Stone explained that he had seen between 12-24 Iranian films, amongst thousands from many other countries. At this Film Festival he has watched about ten films, and was particularly impressed by those from Central Asia, Russia and even Germany too. He said it was a more relaxed festival for him, because he was not presenting a film of his own.

When asked why he accepted the invitation to come to Iran, Oliver Stone replied ,“ The history and culture. Persia has been on the map for two and a half thousand years. I was always interested in Iran but I have been very busy. However, this Festival is at the right time for me, and my son and my South Korean wife have urged me to come here. I am having a wonderful time.”

As for Iranian films, Mr Stone said that when he was on the Jury of a Film Festival in Bhutan, he saw many interesting Asian films, and “Blockage” from Iran was one of the co-winners . He commented that it was a very honest film, about corruption, even in everyday problems. He said, “The main character was a policeman, and there seemed to be no shame about the corruption. The film was absorbing to watch and the Jury all loved that film. It happens everywhere to some extent.”

In recent years, Mr Stone has made a lot of documentaries: “The Untold History of the USA”, The Putin Interviews, and also films about Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Arafat, Benjamin Netanyahu. He said he has been finding it refreshing to get back to reality, and talk to real leaders. When asked if he had any plan to make a film about an Iranian leader, he answered that he did not.
Another question came about if he had considered making a film about the activities of ISIS, which are seriously affecting some countries in the region. He said “That’s a very good idea! Write a treatment and we’ll pitch it!” He was smiling, and then added that actually the world is very political, including the world of cinema and thatthere’d be little chance of him getting the money for such a project.
“You can do it honestly, here in Iran,” he added.

Deborah Young from “The Hollywood Report” asked his opinion of the situation regarding famous Iranian director, Jafar Panahi. Mr Panahi has a film in the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, (“3 Faces”) as does another Iranian, Asghar Farhadi. Mr Panahi cannot attend, as his passport is still revoked by the Iranian government.
Mr Stone did not know the full details and said that if Mr Panahi had made quite a few films, then that is an achievement in itself, and that he is personally against all ‘detention’.

(Note from the writer:) Mr Panahi was arrested, forbidden from making films for 25 years, passport revoked, and he was under house arrest for a long time. This was because of his outspoken comments in the street demonstrations after an election in Iran, in 2009. He also had a history of making films critical of the Iranian regime, particularly with regard to women’s rights, and even his newest film “3 Face” has that same theme. It later won a shared Best Screenplay prize at Cannes Film Festival, 2018.)

Asked what he thought of Iranian films, Mr Stone said that a few were very good, and continued, ,“I often wonder how can some films are so monotonous and don’t have enough tension. He made this comment in general , about films from many lands that he sees in Festivals across the world. He then advised – “Make your film exciting.” He mentioned that the issue of pace is subjective, according to your cultural background and told an anecdote about the legendary Billy Wilder (Hollywood director) who said “Make your point and get off. Cut the film in three weeks and have a preview.”

The subject of international prejudice against Iran was raised, when another reporter mentioned that lately a lot of films had made Iranians the villains. (e.g. Hollywood’s “ARGO”).

Then Mr Stone brought up his film “Alexander” 2004, (Iskandar) which was discussed in some journals as “anti-Iranian”. He clearly had a lot of historical knowledge about Alexander The Great’s exploits in Iran, and the historical battles with the army of Emperor Darius. He told the audience that there have been several versions of this film released on DVD, and that he had a lot of trouble with Warner Bros Studio’s very strong management. He said they had wanted a lot of things censored, such as sex between males, and the violence cut down. “It was very limiting” said Mr Stone. “The only version to watch, the one that I supervised and love is available widely around the world, entitled “Alexander: The Ultimate Cut” which came out in 2014 as a fourth version.. It runs for 3 hours 26 minutes.” This DVD has sold over a million copies and came out ten years after the original studio version.

The next matter raised, was that the Israeli press had published negative stories about Mr Stone coming to Iran and had printed some incorrect facts in the past, saying he had requested to interview Amedinejad. He assured the audience that the latter was totally false information. Israeli press also criticized him for visiting Iran for the Film Festival, criticism that he just ignored.
Someone asked which world crisis he felt would be interesting to make into a film.
“That’s a giant subject,” he answered. Then continued to say that it would be better to work on the subject of ISIS’ effect on the Middle East countries in documentary form, rather than feature film.

On making political films he mentioned that his film “W” ended in 2004 when President George W Bush ( the subject of “W”) invaded Iraq, and therefore the movie suffered at the box office. Stone said that he loved the film for its satire. He explained a particular scene, showing President Bush and Dick Cheney, studying a map of the region. The Cheney dialog – “Our goal”, (pointing to the oil rich Middle East nations and Iran). “The prize is oil money. We’re going to Baghdad!”
When the President asks, what is our exit strategy? Mr Cheney replies, “There IS NO exit!”

Mr Stone admitted that it hurt him when the American Press criticized and slammed the film, but he acknowledged that it was predictable, as American soldiers were at war with Iraq at the time.
“My timing sucked!” said the director.

He went on to say that ever since then (2004) the USA policy was Regime Change. It has been a pattern since 2001 – 2018 for the Neo-Cons, a policy that works for them. He said, “It is referred to as “creative destruction”. It’s a disgusting policy, ruining millions of lives, and continual tragedy is unfolding. It has been the same under both Presidents Bush, Obama and now Trump. America will break any treaty. We are continuing to do this. The USA tore up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. For us, treaties are breakable! We lay waste to a region and we call it “peace””.
Stone is openly appalled at the foreign policy of his own country. (note from writer: only a few weeks after this Press Conference, President Trump tore up his agreement with the Iranian Government about their nuclear power stations, so after that the Iranian parliament followed suit, tearing it up too, now that it was one-sided. It was a huge media story in Iran, and greeted with much dismay.)

Speaking about his impression of Iranians, Mr Stone praised the ‘charm, warmth and softness’ of Iranians he has met. He then added that one Iranian man told him – “We can be hard when we want to!”

A reporter from France asked about censorship in Iran, and requested comments, to which Mr Stone said that censorship restricts artistic freedom.’ Then he expanded by saying that there was almost no interest in his film “W” or “Snowden” in the USA, and that this too was a sort of censorship. However in France and Germany where 60% of people approved of what the real Edward Snowden had done (he was a whistleblower about USA government activities in spying on citizens) it did well.
“In some countries censorship can sometimes be excessive, to protect national security. For film-makers dealing with a subject that is about such matters, film-makers must be very subtle – it’s the only way to get around the problem. In the USA when I cannot get the money to make a politically controversial film, they call it “Economic Constraints”, but actually it’s a kind of censorship working in advance. No studios wanted to go near “Snowden”. “They just don’t give you the damn money!” Mr Stone exclaimed.

There was some plain speaking from Oliver Stone. He made a special point of again addressing specifically, the representative from the Agence France, to say that he had been very depressed by seeing on TV the previous evening, the young French President Macron, in cahoots with Trump on certain issues, and thought that it represented a return to the thinking of the French colonial era Imperialist attitudes. He said that Macron didn’t seem to have much sense of history. Mr Stone noted that his own mother was French. It was clear that Mr Stone definitely wanted his comments known in France, by taking this action.

Another questioner enquired as to whether Oliver Stone thought that was any chance of Iranian films penetrating the USA, and being widely seen there.
He answered, “No, because no other international cinemas have managed to do it yet either,” and mentioned China, and France as examples. He went on to say,
“Americans won’t watch sub-titles, and most of them do not travel abroad. However things are changing, through television where we have Netflix. Sometimes some hit TV series and films from France and England have been re-made in the USA”
Note from writer: Examples are “House of Cards” (based on a former, British version of the series, which was even more edgy). Also several French comedies by Francis Weber have been treated to the American re-make treatment in the past. The Swedish film, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was re-made with American setting, by David Fincher. This is about the limit of such international film-sharing. So, it is not very promising for Iranian films to hope to get wide viewing in the USA.

There was then a question on whether Mr Stone would like to make a film about the situation in Syria, and he said that he would never be able to get the funding for such a project, as an American. He also mentioned that he “looked to Saudi Arabia as the major destructor in the region.”
Someone said that he had once made statement that George W Bush was like John Wayne. Therefore, who would he compare Donald Trump to?
His answer coming quickly, was one word, “Beelzebub”. There was a bit of explanation for some who didn’t know that this name Beelzebub is associated with the Canaanite God Bal, and was later associated with the Devil.

As is by now very clear, the political nature of Oliver Stone’s previous work and political interests, plus the situation in this region of the world, and the strained relations between the USA and Iran, led to the majority of the questions at this press conference being political ones.

Next, an Iranian journalist wanted to know if he knew about the eight year Iran/Iraq war, and if he’d like to make a film about it. He said, “no, not much at all, but that it was an interesting subject for an Iranian film.” He added, “You have to remember I am limited, and it is not possible at my age, and that it would be impossible to get the money for such a project because the USA was supporting Iraq at that time, when Iraq attacked Iran. (although not necessarily for the actual attack). He said that if there were chemical weapons in Iraq, they got them from the USA. “The USA fights proxy wars” he said, looking very depressed and angry about this fact. As for his future work, he said he’d return to subjects in the USA.

The final question was about whether Oliver Stone thought that at rare times in the West, when Iranian films won prizes, ‘was it a political choice’, rather than based on the merit of the film. (Two Iranian films are in competition at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, from Asghar Farhadi, a 2 time Oscar winner in Best Foreign Language Film category), and Jafar Panahi, a political activist who has been punished by the Iranian regime with strong restrictions on his life and professional activities.
Mr Stone answered, “Probably”.

As the press conference, which had been very long, wrapped up, I looked at my list of questions, and regretted that I had not known about the list to put my name on, to ask a question, and also, perhaps I wasn’t important to be on that list anyway, as I am not from any major newspaper or news service.
……………………………………………………………………………
My final note: For the record, I’d have liked to ask about the fascinating moment during his Putin Interviews, when he enthusiastically showed Mr Putin footage from the Stanley Kubrick film, “Dr Strangelove – or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb!” I had watched Mr Putin’s face carefully, and he did NOT seem to think this image of the end of the world by nuclear war theme was any kind of laughing matter. Perhaps this extremely black satire/comedy just didn’t “travel” or perhaps he needed to watch the entire film or perhaps he did. It wasn’t clear but a scene out of context is certainly not really fair if that’s what happened.
Also, I wondered what Oliver Stone thought about the standard of the films emerging from Hollywood in recent years, where I see a depressing fall in the intelligence and quality. There are very few quality films, or good dramas on serious subjects emerging from the Studios anymore. Another of my questions, he had commented on during the conference, which was about whether he was intending to return to making feature films. He had already said that he would. If he does so, then it will be a big relief to see some good work about serious subjects again, in my humble opinion.

Copyright, Cynthia Webb, Tehran, Iran
Photos by Cynthia Webb
Film Poster: Courtesy of the Producers, via IMDb
26 April, 2018

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About cynephilia

Lifetime student of and devourer of international Cinema. Artist, teacher, traveller - especially to my "other home", Java, Indonesia. Features writer for 14 years, for The Jakarta Post, national English language daily newspaper. I was born in New Zealand, but lived in Queensland, Australia since 1970. My profound link with Indonesia began in 1983, when visiting Bali (then an island of arts and of inspiration for an artist), and then again in 1994 when a visit to Yogyakarta, Java, began a process of that town and it's warm people becoming another home and extended family for me. Yogyakarta is the Artistic capital of Indonesia, and so it was the place for me. In 2000 I became a regular contributor about the arts for The Jakarta Post, and cinema, my lifetime passion, later began to become my focus for writing. The advent of The Asia Pacific Screen Awards, (APSA) in South East Queensland, launched in 2007 gave me opportunities to meet some the great film-makers of Asia, and see their amazing work. APSA is a kind of "Oscars" for the Asia-Pacific Region.
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