A film’s backstory can be no less fascinating than what’s in the film itself. Chess of the Wind has the kind of history they would make movies about. Screened publicly just once, in 1976 at the Tehran International Film Festival, Mohammad Reza Aslani’s film was banned during the Iranian Revolution for being a “dissident cultural product.” Though considered lost for four decades, in 2015 the original negatives were miraculously discovered by the filmmaker’s son, Amin, in an antique shop in Tehran.
With the combined help of the Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata and the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, Chess of the Wind has been given a gorgeous new 4K restoration and is ready to be shared with the world. After touring festivals across the globe through 2020 and 2021, the film is set for a theatrical rollout, starting with a two-week engagement at Film Forum on October 29.
Set during the rule of the Qajar dynasty, Chess of the Wind chronicles the fallout when a noble family’s matriarch passes away. The remaining family members begin a war for power and wealth, all contained within the oppressive walls of their estate. It’s easy to see why the powers-that-be didn’t want this film out in the world at the time of its creation. Its skewering of the elite pulls no punches, as it pushes boundaries when it comes to sexual repression, queerness on screen, and the ever-present nature of humans eating one another to get ahead.
Sitting down with the Film Stage, Mohammad Reza Aslani discusses the many complex layers of his restored masterpiece and the experience of rediscovering this gem after so many years of it being thought lost. It was a multi-continental Zoom: I got on the line from my home in Delaware, while Aslani was calling in from Tehran alongside his son, Amin, and his daughter, Gita Aslani Shahrestani, joining us from Paris. We thank Amin and Gita, both film scholars with PhDs, for their translation work to help make this excellent conversation happen.
The Film Stage: I wanted to start by saying that I saw Chess of the Wind for the first time at the New York Film Festival last year, and it absolutely blew me away, so this is such a privilege.
Mohammad Reza Aslani: Thank you. I’m very delighted to see how we are connecting between two, and now three different continents in the world. There is a lot of conflict and problems in this world, but now we can come out of that, and come together around a film to discuss it.
Your film has such a fascinating backstory, having screened briefly in Tehran before being banned a few years later during the Revolution. What made the ruling class so afraid of the film being out there?
In that time before the Revolution, the atmosphere was very politicized. The dominant genre in the arts was a more general style of social realism. The directors of the public and private institutions were hard to convince because of these conflicts between the artistic and commercial worlds. Within this political system, it wasn’t easy for me to make films with my style of cinema.
There were five other films I lost as well, not just this one. I’m looking for those films, and I’m not the only one who lost their work. But it’s not just my films that they wanted me to lose. They want me to be lost as well. They wanted me to be eliminated, and so I had this cultural resistance against that movement. I continued working by lecturing and teaching to stay in the scene.
For four decades after that, your film was considered lost until your son found the original negative in an antique shop in Tehran. What was your reaction when you found out that the film was rediscovered?
Upon realizing that the film was found, this miraculous event reminded me of the story of Joseph and his father, Jacob. For us, in Iranian literature and in the Old Testament, Joseph is the symbol of beauty. He was lost for forty years, and his father lost his eyesight and became blind. We have this beautiful metaphor for this film with the scent of Joseph’s clothes—we have many poems about this scent—and how with the scent, Jacob regained his sight. That was how I felt when I saw the film again.
How was the experience of going through the restoration process and rediscovering the film with these new eyes? How do your thoughts on the film now compare to how you felt about it back in 1976?
It’s like a son for me, when he is born. It continues its life by itself, it goes to the world outside, and it has its own dialogue with others. I just watch it as a third person now. In those years, I have developed my theories on cinema. My last feature film, Green Fire, was shot 12 or 15 years ago, and is completely different from Chess of the Wind and you can see my theories completely developed, but somehow connected to it as well. The world should say something now about this film, and these two films together.
You’ve described the shooting script for Chess of the Wind as a chess game in itself, something quite different from how shooting scripts are generally made. How did the uniqueness of this script help create the success of the film?
As a poet, I used to write many things, and I’ve written a lot of scripts for other filmmakers as well. I have loads of scripts in my closet. As a writer, I see the script as a kind of decoupage for a scene. It’s not just there to reveal the narrative. It’s not about the subject matter, it’s about the way I see the film itself—how it should be cut scene by scene by scene. For every scene, I am writing the space. Instead of writing the dialogue or writing the narrative, I’m writing the space and the atmosphere. For me, the script is a syllogism. It’s more mathematical than it is a kind of linear storytelling.
That approach speaks to the attention to detail you can feel in every moment of the film, how it’s all planned out so methodically. One of those striking details is the use of candlelight in the film. I know it was quite hard to come by, yet you were adamant about shooting the film this way. Why was that candlelight so crucial for you?
At the time the story takes place, there was no power. So, realistically, it should be shot with candlelight for all of the obvious reasons, but the main point for me is about the shadows and what they hide. This light is a kind of cinematic expression, it enhances the obscurity of everything. Whatever these lights are revealing at any moment, they are hiding something at the same time. It allows these themes of obscurity, and of constant conspiracy, to resonate within the audience.
Sexuality is underlaid throughout the film—whether it’s desire, homosexuality, or sexual repression. How did you want to utilize sexuality within exploring these characters and their dynamics?
The sexuality was there underneath somehow, but what I wanted to illustrate was the libido of power, instead of the libido of sexuality. Every character in this film is a symbol for this libidinal aspect of the whole story. They are the symbols of this libidinal power, and the conflicts we see between these powers. The sexuality is the instrument they use for gaining the power. Through this sexuality—whether it’s homosexual or heterosexual—these poles of power, they want to replace each other, or to sit on the throne of ultimate power.
Even if the film is a prediction of the toppling of the Shah, and a prediction of the Revolution, this can easily become a metaphor for what happened later in Iran. There are different political parties in Iran fighting with each other, and these characters become, again, the symbols of these parties that just want to eliminate each other, and become the one single party that rules over the country. This house becomes a metaphor for the country at large.
It’s certainly a universal idea that translates to any country. Even for those who don’t understand the specific cultural or political history of the film, there’s a visceral quality to it that will resonate with anyone. Escalation is a word that keeps coming to mind for me with the film, in the way that you create this razor-sharp pacing that slowly grips the audience tighter and tighter until that final section where all of this building tension explodes into what is, essentially, a horror film.
In the flow of events, we have lots of characters, but none of them are secondary. Even the objects, the music, the actual figures of the characters themselves—nothing is secondary. It’s like a poly image, where everything has its own importance. Every element of the film all comes together like a chorus, creating this polyphonic image. Like the music, we have these separated elements that start as monophonic, then this polyphony gets richer and richer, and more intense.
At the end, we see the conflict of different elements all clashing together. The sound of a pistol, the movement of the camera, the lights, the dialogue—everything gets intensified and all collides with one another. Even looking at the upstairs and the downstairs meeting each other, it’s all like a big bang at the end.
While so much of Chess takes place inside the estate, I’m always fascinated by the few exterior scenes, where we see this group of women all washing laundry and dishes, having lively conversations with one another. It’s such a sharp aesthetic juxtaposition to the interior scenes, something reinforced with the breathtaking final shot. What did you want to communicate through that comparison between the interior and exterior scenes?
The film has three parts. The main story is around 1915, after the Constitutional Revolution. We understand that it’s this time period thanks to the decor in the house and through the characters. The second part, outside with these women, is in 1925, when the King of Iran made military service obligatory. We understand that it’s this moment because one of these women explains that she had to send her son off to do his service.
Then that final scene is in 1976, which was when we shot the film. In each part, we are made to think it’s the past, when in actuality it’s not the past—it’s the future. All of these times are mixed together—past, future, and present are in the same timeline. We lose this difference between the times because each one, even when they are in the past, they are playing in the present. They are always showing the present time.
The 4K restoration of Chess of the Wind will be released by Janus Films in theaters beginning with Film Forum on October 29th. Learn more here.