‘When The Sun Sets, My Tehran Blooms’ – ‘Umbra’ Director Saeed Jafarian On Finding Freedom In Tehran At Night

Iranian director Saeed Jafarian joins us on Close-up Culture to tell us about his acclaimed short film Umbra (Tariki) following its screening at the UK Film Festival in London.

Q: ‘Umbra’ has been described as a short film about breaking boundaries and untangling yourself from fears of being free. Can you tell us more about the film and what inspired it?

A: Well, I think Umbra (Tariki) is a short film about limitations and the charm of freeness. The idea of an unknown world of absolute freeness and the darkness that lives within luring you towards it.

In my opinion, the woman who is in my film knows that this world may not even be pleasant, but it’s new, and that makes it exciting for her. What triggers the woman to give in to temptation is (apparently) her sexual desires. Therefore, yes, Umbra (Tariki) is about breaking boundaries and untangling yourself from the fear of being free, especially for women in Iran.

Q: The film takes place on the streets of Tehran at midnight. Why did you choose this setting?

A: The film takes place at midnight on the streets of Tehran, which in reality is a place of complete freeness compared to the day. Tehran at night is like a new world full of possibilities, especially when contrasted to the heavy crowds and pollution of the city during daytime.

And for me, that is inspirational and mesmerizing – the neon lights, dim street lights and closed stores. I love Tehran at night. I love this hidden dark side of Tehran and the melancholy that this city has. When the sun sets, my Tehran blooms.

I would like to tell a lot of stories in this atmosphere. Umbra (Tariki) is one of them. The story of a girl who is looking for her partner at midnight on the empty streets of Tehran.

Q: Mahsa Alafar plays the lead role. What interested you about Mahsa and what did you feel she brought to the role?

A: With a fifteen-minute runtime, I did not have much time to make the girl’s final decision believable. So, from the beginning, I knew that in addition to a credible screenplay, I had to look for an actress who could convey this feeling to the audience. I was looking for an actress who has a kind of rebellion and power, plus a wild beauty on her face and in her voice.

Originally I had another actress in mind for the role, but she wasn’t available at the time and so she introduced us to Mahsa. As soon as I met Mahsa I knew she was perfect for the part. Mahsa inherently has a kind of rebellion and courage in her face and voice. But, these traits are sometimes so high that we had to tone them down during rehearsals.

Fortunately, Mahsa understood the role very well, which made her very believable.

Q: What has been the reaction to your film so far, particularly from Iranian women?

A: I think the issue posed by this film is not just about women who live in Iran. This is a global issue. It is a bitter fact that we are still living in a patriarchal world. A world with many men, even in the most civilized societies, who regard women as their property. I think this is why I have seen very good reactions from women all around the world when the film has screen at film festivals.

However, there are some women who do not like the film. I do not intend to prejudge, but I think maybe the reason for their opposition is the dominating influence of traditional culture on them. I realised this while in direct dialogue with them. Many of these women said the girl in the film is too licentious and is never a “good girl”.

Honestly, when I saw these reactions I was still very happy because I felt it showed the film had worked very well!


Q: I believe your passion for cinema led you to write for film magazines before transitioning into filmmaking. What can you tell us about your journey and your love for cinema?

A: My passion for cinema and for filmmaking has been with me since childhood. I studied Electronics at university, but I was so passionate about cinema that I wrote film critiques for magazines at the same time. Although I never liked to critique films, the writing forced me to watch a lot of films in a short period of time. And of course, that was a sweet force!

Gradually I realised that not only did I hate electronic engineering, but also writing critiques did not satisfy me at all. So, I left my education halfway through and went into filmmaking. Although this decision was initially accompanied by a strong opposition from my parents, this passion was so intense inside me that nobody and nothing could stop me. From the very first day I left the university, I have never regretted this decision. Filmmaking is vital to me.

I spend most of my time talking about cinema and filmmaking. I even talk to Fatemeh Abdoli, my wife (and also one of the Umbra’s screenwriter), about art and cinema every day. Yes, cinema is our life!

Q: I hadn’t realised Fatemeh worked on the film. Tell us more about her involvement.

A: After I deciding on the concept of the film, I knew the script would be about the girl and not about the relationship – it would be a completely feminine script. So I went to Fatemeh to write the script with her help. Fatemeh is an excellent novelist who deals with women’s issues and, in general, femininity as one of her main concerns. These things made me very proud. Writing the first version of the script took about three months, but we were still not satisfied.

A week before filming, I decided to change the script. So, in a crazy decision, and in just two days, we rewrote the entire screenplay. The second script was completely different from the first version. For us, the second version was deeper and its metaphorical and symbolic approach brought us a lot of excitement. Until the moment I started filming, I was very doubtful about using the second version because everyone who read the first version did not like the second version.

I finally made my decision and, unlike many others, I chose the second version. Now that I look back at it, I see the decision was the correct one. The first version was not my movie, but the second version is completely mine.


Q: What type of films do you hope to make in the future?

A: I would like to make films in different genres. From war movies to romances – and even vampire movies. But what important for me is that I’m not interested in following the rules of the genres. I’m looking for space to create my favourite moods in these genres. Perhaps the most important part of the creation of these moods is suspense and a special kind of desire to explore inner darkness.

My future films will try to create moods more than they tell a story.

Q: Do you have any upcoming projects or ambitions to tell us about?

A: I am currently working on two different projects. The first one is a semi-long film that I will try to make it in this winter. A rough, suspended and magical movie that you do not see any female characters in!

And the second one is a feature film that I would love to film in 2019. I wrote the script a few years ago and I have been rewriting it ever since. Both of these projects are very important and dear to me. I have taken a lot of time to write both of them and hope to make them without any problems.