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Shannon Kelley, the independent movie consultant: Mass media draw an altered view of Iran

Interview by: Ahmadreza Tavassoli, Kourosh Ziabari


Cinema Verite International Film Festival which was held in Iran on the third week of October 2008 was undoubtedly an occasional and magnificent opportunity for documentary filmmakers from 75 countries worldwide to congregate for a landmark event and share their precious artistic experiences with together along with being acquainted with the obscured and folded culture of Iran i.e. one of the most disputatious and controversial countries of the world these days.


The festival which was inaugurated by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance of Islamic Republic of Iran has hosted a stack of artists, journalists, filmmakers and analysts from US; which is not in a friendly and impartial stance toward Iran these days, though is considered as a close cultural and scientific ally of Iran on behalf of its independent and non-governmental organizations and communities.


Shannon Kelley who is the Director of Programming of the Morelia International Film Festival in Morelia (Mexico) was among the guests who attended the festival from US.


Shannon Kelley


Kelley is an independent movie consultant and has worked for the Sundance Film Festival as Associate Short Film Programmer since 1997; furthermore presently he is serving there as the Festival Senior Consultant to the Documentary Program.


Following is the text of our interview with Shannon Kelley in which we talked with Shannon Kelley about a variety of art-related topics and his perceptions of being in Iran for the 2008 Cinema Verite Film Festival, as well.  


Explaining the legends of interview, K&A refers to Kourosh and Ahmadreza as the interviewers and SH refers to Shannon as our honorable guest who patiently answered everything of our concern and interest.


K&A: You are promoting yourself as an "independent" movie consultant; however nowadays, being independent is made difficult and the political lobbies do not tolerate your being non-aligned to them, even if you are not political at all. In the other words, the state-affiliated powers are trying their best to abuse all of the artistic, cultural, religious, social means to fulfill their desires and plans. What to do if somebody wants to resist against them and not to be stymied by them, too?


SH: There are different ways to understand 'independence.' None of us enters the world entirely free, and it's because of this that the stories we tell can be potentially interesting. My use of 'independence' in this case refers to film artists who work without the financial or logistical support, nor any commitment, from a distributor, and thus, without any guarantee of their film ever being widely seen. Such artists assume tremendous risk and act on personal commitment, as opposed to artists whose risk is ameliorated by someone else, and who may - if they choose- depend on the commitments of the sponsor or the job, without having to generate a commitment of their own.

I'm not sure every state entity is out to get artists or co-opt their work. In some cases they have so much contempt for the arts they ignore them entirely. This can create an interesting space, or vacuum, in which to speak. One has to be resourceful and artful to do so, but then, that's a recipe for good filmmaking anyway.


K&A: So it seems that you don't provide technical and special consultations, but help the directors to develop strategies and programs for a successful production and output. Would you please explain the details of such strategies? Are they somehow related to the content of movies, or "how-to"s for attracting more audience?


SH: This can be very simple. Deciding which festivals are priorities, and which distributors may be especially important to a project, and when the approach to a particular festival, company or person should take place, in what order, and at what pace.

Should you show your rough cut? Should you give away your premiere to this or that festival?  Such decisions have real consequences that impact the life of a film. Should you adapt your filmmaking to these parameters?  There may be compromises you don't mind making; you simply should be conscious of every compromise. Also, you may choose to concentrate on one project as opposed to another, based on the availability of resources or apparent prospects.

One should always make a movie one believes in, but it is well also to look out for yourself and your career.  Taking care of yourself is a good way to take care of your film. If you cannot survive, your film probably cannot be realized.


K&A: Having all you said in mind, which is the paramount, in your view; the public approach and prosperity of a movie or the loyalty of producer and director to principles and essentials? Do you call a movie with the less tickets sold and more professional virtues as successful? Can we estimate the values of a movie by considering its attractiveness on the booth?


SH: These are entirely relative values, because it depends whom you ask. "Popular" movies have their place; something is happening between members of a public at a movie that they "like." but I concentrate on supporting the vision of artists who have something new and risky to offer. Such a person, and such a project, simply offers the promise of a previously unknown breakthrough in conversation or even consciousness. It's just the most interesting area of film culture, to my way of thinking. And it can, occasionally, lead to "box office success," so one need not necessarily choose between the distinctions you mention.


K&A: But we see that most of the modern generation filmmakers, under the flag of giant media companies, assume it is necessary to add violence and immorality to movies for gaining the public fortune and obtaining more spectators, purchasing more tickets and reaching more profits.

What is your estimation about that? Should we bargain the human values in lieu of the financial benefits? Is it acceptable that we offer atrocity, aggression and unhealthy relations in our movies to absorb the more viewers?


SH: I deplore mindless, meaningless, gratuitous violence, as I deplore mindless, gratuitous righteous indignation. I would hope that a film which frames violence or other controversial matter would do so in a way that is curious and reflective, as I always hope that audiences willingly bring their own curiosity and reflection to each work of art. 

Too many movies employ violence for convenience; it's easier than writing! As for immorality there are so many kinds! My answer is the same. It all depends upon what is being suggested or explored in the depiction. If it is mindless, I feel that my time is being wasted, and that I'm being talked down to. I tend not to categorize what is technically permissible to show. I just want to know that it is being shown thoughtfully and with sensitivity and originality.


K&A: Ok. Let's switch to Cinema Verite festival in Iran. You were in Iran to attend the second edition of Cinema Verite festival. What do you think about the quality of screened films and the professional dexterity of attending filmmakers? Which film most attracted you?


SH: I appreciated the extraordinary range of interests and stylistic approaches, especially in a film culture I only know through the works of a few producers. It would be impossible to select a favorite, given so much variety! I recognized a strong vein of artistic passion running throughout the work. This made me want to see more!


K&A: explain a bit about your default perceptions before traveling to the misunderstood country, Iran. How was your imagination about Iran and its people? How much you think the media propaganda was effective to shape these perceptions?


SH: I expected that some conversations might be impossible, or that I might be viewed with hostility. I attribute this to the excesses of the international press; but in the contrary, I found a community of like-minded, hospitable, curious people, including complete strangers who approached me with great energy and kindness. I spent a woefully short amount of time in Iran, but my point of view on what is possible between us has dramatically shifted, for the better!

As with any country, one can only know very little before experiencing a place firsthand. Iran seems to me beautiful, complicated and fascinating, like my own home.  It seems to me our governments have had serious differences, and I'm hopeful of a betterment of international relationships, of course.


K&A: The main goal of documentary filmmaking, of course, is to unveil the concealed facts, expose the hidden face of society to a wide range of addressees and unfolding the stories that are not being offered to the public. Are you willing to produce (or participate in the production process) of a documentary film about the people and culture of Iran? What will you do if you want to produce a film about Iran? Which references and resources do you refer to in order to gather information about the country and its people's lifestyle? Which facts and truths about Iran are being withheld from the public opinions, you think?


SH: I'm not a producer, but Iran seems an endlessly fruitful subject. Any depiction should simply be dimensional, open, curious, exploratory, and intellectually "independent" of outside intervention, as much as possible. I'm nervous to speculate about what truths are being withheld. But certainly some visions are rarer than the others, and I support a multiplicity of visions, so that these can be sorted, compared, and weighed by a discerning public.


K&A: What are the most crucial challenges, in your view, to the cinema of 21st century? Is the global cinema moving toward an absolute satisfactory future?


SH: Corporate control of media production and distribution, I am afraid, is having a slow suffocating effect on media culture. This is a very big topic, I don't know if a small fix will be sufficient, or if a big fix is possible. This is why the "independent" artist is such a heroic type to me. Occasionally, someone intelligent, brave and committed is able to realize and offer a vision I've never seen before; through enormous work, risk and sacrifice. How can anyone who cares about the cinema be but grateful for this?


K&A: We are living in a turbulent and chaotic world. Violence and aggression is reaching to its utmost. The industrialized countries are seeking the ways to invade and dominate the developing, impoverished nations. Every day, we hear something new about a US attack on another country. Do you believe there is any duty or assignment for the artistic community to prevent the world's path toward insurgence and insecurity?


SH: Films that can save the world are few, if there has ever been a film. But why should films be expected to do everything? What they can do, which is not sufficient to save the world, but I do think is totally necessary, is to offer new possibilities for consciousness itself; ways of seeing, thinking and feeling that modern life tries to shut down. This is a big enough responsibility to become a filmmaker's life work.

... Payvand News - 12/29/08 ... --

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