Iranian Director Vahid Jalilvand Says Protests Have Led to a Change in Spirit That Is ‘Irreversible’: ‘People Are Fighting for Their Inalienable Rights’

Iranian director Vahid Jalilvand’s psychological thriller “Beyond the Wall,” which premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival, was described in the Variety review as a “morbidly violent allegory for the effects of state-sponsored trauma on the individual that places contemporary Iranian society somewhere on the map between the sixth and seventh circles of hell.”

Since the film’s premiere, protests in Iran have raged following the killing of Mahsa Amini, and have been met with savage violence from the state. Jalilvand tells Variety via a videolink from Tehran it is difficult to say what the outcome of the tumult will be, but, he adds: “The thing I am sure of is Iran will not return to how it was three months ago, before these protests started. It won’t go back. People have gained a spirit of fighting for their inalienable rights, and this won’t go back – it is irreversible now. But at the end of the day, whether there is a huge transformation or positive outcome, it is hard to say.”

When asked if a direct line can be drawn between the film’s storyline and the situation in Iran, he responds: “As [French philosopher] Lucien Goldmann says, ‘No text that a writer writes can be considered without considering the context in which the writer is living, and the surroundings of the writer, so naturally this film as well was influenced by my surroundings. But what I was striving to do was to send this message to everyone. I was looking more for a universal message through which anyone anywhere on Earth who is experiencing that type of despair could be encouraged to save themselves through their dreams, and the hope they might have.

“But naturally in a country like Iran, where we have a totalitarian regime, it is more tangible for someone living in such a society, and one can’t overlook the realities of living in such a society. So, I was naturally influenced by that in writing this, but what I hoped to do was that this could be universal, and not just related to Iranian society.”

The film begins with Ali (played by Navid Mohammadzadeh), having given up on life, attempting to commit suicide. His method seems reminiscent of a torture chamber – he wraps a soaking T-shirt around his head, ties a plastic bag over that, and shoves his hands down behind the shower pipe. But he is brought back from the brink by hammering on the door of his apartment.

When Ali tears off the bag and staggers to the door, the concierge informs him that a woman is on the run from the police, and may have hidden in the apartment block. When the man leaves it becomes evident to the viewer that the fugitive, Leila (played by Diana Habibi), has managed to enter the apartment. Ali, however, does not see her as he is almost totally blind. Eventually, he discovers Leila, but decides to help her.

Leila has been traumatized after she attended a gathering of workers who were demanding their unpaid wages. The protest had turned into a riot, which was brutally suppressed by the police. In the chaos, Leila, who is prone to epileptic seizures when stressed, became separated from her little son Taha, and was subsequently arrested. Hysterical with worry for her abandoned child, Leila causes an accident and runs from the police, who are now determined to reclaim her.

When Jalilvand was writing the screenplay for the film, he wrote on a board: “The only thing that can help us to tolerate this prison is love.” Ali and Leila are imprisoned by circumstances. However, through their relationship, they are able to achieve some form of redemption.

Jalilvand sees this as a story that audiences everywhere can identify with. “Modern humans are confined to a cell of their own world, and at any moment, with the different types of pressure that we have, we might think to ourselves what an unfortunate situation, an unfortunate life we have, and we might think: why are we living this life, why are we in this situation? But it’s only love that can rekindle that hope and recreate a sense of hopefulness to continue.”

Jalilvand says he has heard almost unanimously from viewers that they were able to identify with Leila, and this is what he intended. He wanted members of the audience “to feel her suffering so they could suffer alongside her,” he says.

The audience’s identification with the character may have been achieved through the form of acting that was adopted. Jalilvand didn’t want Habibi to act in the film, but instead to “become” Leila. “Sometimes it is not really possible to become the character because of mental or physical limitations, but here what I saw was that Diana was both intelligent enough and instinctive enough to truly become that character, Leila,” he says.

Over a year and a half, the director instructed Habibi to complete a series of exercises through which she adopted the persona of Leila. “Through that time, she had the capacity to fully become that character; she became another human being in fact,” he says.

“It was a risk, and it caused a lot of suffering to her and to the team in general. It was a bizarre experience and throughout this whole time from when it started until a month after filming ended there was constantly a therapist on set with the team to make sure that Leila stayed in character – to make her stay as Leila throughout the span of the story.

“And luckily there was no harm done to Diana herself. And on screen we see the result – it’s really like it is another person. It is not Diana we are seeing.”

Jalilvand’s method stems from his experience as a documentary filmmaker. “I realized that no matter how good the acting is a lot of the time the audience knows that it is an actor that is acting, and the character does not interact with people as a different human being, as a real human being,” he says. “But, on the other hand, in documentaries, I always felt it was so easy for a real person to interact with the audience. The connection was very real and for me that past in documentary filmmaking made it interesting to see if I could truly create such a real person in a story who could connect and interact with the audience.”

The film cannot be shown in Iran, although it isn’t officially banned. “Unfortunately the current cultural officials in Iran are not even brave enough to ban the film,” he says. “They are not even brave enough to sit and watch the film, and find the points with which they disagree, or critiques they might have of the film.

“At the moment, everything is going forward in silence. They are not giving permits for films to be shown, nor are they banning the films. This shows their cowardice somehow. They are not brave enough to say anything officially, so officially nothing is said about the movie, but they send messages by indirect channels that this movie cannot be shown right now.”

He doesn’t have a new movie planned at present. “I have a few synopses from the past that I might want to work on, but I don’t want to write something as a reaction to the current situation in Iran. I want things to settle in my mind, and then to start working on something new.”

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