UW’s Hamidreza Nassiri talks politics and art before premiering “Daylight News” in Madison

A masked intruder slips into the apartment of a man too focused on a news broadcast to notice his own home invasion. Is he distracted? Does he even care?

Out of all the pieces screening at LakeFront Cinema this month, Hamidreza Nassiri’s “Daylight News” stands out in the way it pairs dark comedy with political incisiveness. Currently pursuing a master’s in Film Studies at UW-Madison, Nassiri uses a lean mise-en-scene and stark black and white photography to tease out poignant and haunting observations on culture, violence and truth.

In advance of this Thursday, where he will publicly screen “Daylight News” for the first time in the United States, Nassiri talked with me about Iran’s relationships with politics and art and how those relationships have informed his own approach as an artist:

Given the current political climate, Iran can have a complicated relationship with the arts, so I’m interested to know how your passion for filmmaking came to be.

Hamidreza: We have some hardships because of all the limitations and censorship made by the Islamic government, but still we have a very rich art thanks to the great artists we have. In middle school and high school in Iran, the focus was mostly on science. I was interested in watching film and seeing plays, but because of the very bad economic situation of Iranian cinema at the time, everyone discouraged me from pursuing filmmaking. I was interested in science as well and I actually pursued electrical engineering for my bachelor’s degree, but when I went to the University of Tehran, I directed and acted in different theaters. I also founded the “Performing Arts Club” in the Engineering Faculty at the University.

During my second year, I went to a filmmaking workshop and made my first short film, “White-black,” which was about two minutes. Before beginning master’s in cinema in Iran, I had made my second film. By then, I knew my passion was for filmmaking. In total, I’ve made seven or eight short films most of which I consider “experiments” but I can say I learned filmmaking on my own by watching films and then making them. I was learning on my own.

Where do your interests most strongly lie?

H: I like to experiment by making different types of films, however I have made some “experimental” films in the true meaning of the word. I made a very political film [“The 48th Floor”] influenced by the 2009 protests in Iran as well as the war between Iraq and Iran. The story is about a woman that first loses her husband in our war with Iraq and then loses her son in the protests in 2009. All we see of the characters is their legs. It all happens in a staircase, and as the woman goes up the stairs, she gets older. The sound and costumes played important roles in that film. I wanted to show that sometimes an outside enemy and sometimes an inside enemy make the situation in Iran unstable so that people can’t live peacefully.

I do like to experiment with cinema and make different films with different styles and themes. I don’t want to stay in one channel of filmmaking.

It’s interesting that you mention politics because it’s very hard for me to dissociate contemporary Iranian cinema from the political sphere, especially considering the situation of someone like Jafar Panahi. Is it difficult to avoid the way politics and culture overlap in Iran, especially in a way that they don’t in the U.S.?

H: In Iran, you’re always involved in politics. Politics and soccer. And really, even our soccer is political. When you’re in a taxi, in a bus, walking down the street, in a shop, everybody’s talking about different current events and what the President, the Supreme Leader, or any other person in the regime might have said. Politics shapes everything, and it’s not a very stable situation, so anything anyone says or does can change the prices of goods or even various policies. You’re always worried about what’s being said. But also from birth, your parents and the Iranian media encourage politics in the domestic sphere, and it’s difficult to be far from that.

The first frame in “Daylight News” makes it apparent that you have politics in mind. Your main character is watching the news broadcast with bated breath but there’s also this spatial relationship that literally places him next to current events.

H: Television is very important in following politics. There are two kinds of media in Iran. One side is owned by government and the other is outside it. It gives you two kinds of news. The 2009 protestors were portrayed as both misguided and as people with a legitimate concern, so it’s important but also impossible to find the truth through channels of information.

I think it’s a global issue, and I’m very happy that everyone here is getting that in my film. Since I came here, I found the same issue of kind of metamorphosized by the media among different people regardless of their culture and nationality. That is why I didn’t make subtitles for the news [broadcast]. I didn’t want to make it specific for the international viewers. Moreover, I thought having too many subtitles would distract the audience from the image and what is going on. Like any film made around the world, it is true that what inspired me in the beginning was what was going on around me in Iran and with my people, and I do worry about that.

Your character seems to be engaging in a dialogue with the television news as he talks to himself. Did I hear [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s name once or twice?

H: Yes. Actually, some of the things Ahmadinejad did after the 2009 protests distracted people from the issues they were maybe more concerned with. The television had a big role in influencing and distracting people. I was actually concerned that people weren’t paying attention to certain issues because of that.

There is a dark humor to what’s going on with your main character, too. His focus on the television is undone by a compliance to this home invasion that’s happening around him. Or maybe it’s an obliviousness. Do you see the masked intruder as representative of anything in particular?

H: I think whatever the viewer thinks is okay as long as they’re getting something out of it. [The intruder] can represent one person, a group of people, an organization, or something non-human or abstract.

You end on an image of your character sitting naked in the remains of his apartment. At first, I thought Oh, he’s going to lose his glasses next, but there’s obviously a more haunting possibility than that.

H: A haunting image is exactly the effect I wanted there. When he starts to lose his clothes, we fade out, but the film ends with a sudden cut to black. There’s no image or sound. The sound cuts suddenly with the image. We feel as though something bad is going to happen. If you’re familiar with what happened in Iran some years ago, you can read a bit more into that. It’s almost scarier than the idea of killing.

I’m always interested when someone chooses to shoot in black and white, and it certainly adds to the film’s stark contrasts and dichotomies, political and otherwise. How have others reacted to such a specific aesthetic choice?

H: I haven’t shown it to anyone in the States outside of a few people, but others have told me the black and white adds to the darkness of the situation the character is in. Actually, the world of the film is so dark that I couldn’t imagine any color in it.

Also, I wanted to work in a relatively low-key [lighting] with contrasting images, and black and white was a tool for me to achieve that effect in a better way. Despite “Daylight News” taking place during the day, we shot nearly all of it at night. We simulated the apartment windows and sunlight with projectors. We kind of painted the image, treating it like a painting with our lighting and shadows rather than leaving the frame as is. Black and white helped us do that in a more efficient way.

And you shot entirely in Tehran?

H: Yes. We worked 24 hours in a row and just had breaks for lunch and dinner. I was very low in budget and had rented most of the equipment. I’m very energetic on set so I was worried I would make the crew tired, but my cinematographer and actors weren’t tired. The first shot, the long take that lasts about three and a half minutes, took 15 takes. It was really hard to do that shot. The final take, the one in the film, was shot at night. My lead actor not sleeping for 24 hours and looking tired by the end of the film actually helped me in that last shot. That image is exactly what I wanted.

He had to eat about 20 apples that day, but he didn’t complain. The day after, he got sick. Obviously because he ate 20 apples. But after seeing the finished film, he said it was worth it.

Hamidreza Nassiri will present his work in person alongside several other student filmmakers this Thursday at 6:30p in Rm 302 at the Central Library. FREE.