There are films destined to become classics, here to stay, to be watched again and again and reveal ever new facets – films to inspire. Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and jotted in my notebook: ‘collective memory through archives.’ I felt I must remember it, that and: ‘documentation of memories,’ a phrase Firouzeh Khosrovani used over the phone earlier, she in Tehran, I in Athens.
An effective title ushers you right into the film: Radiograph of a Family. Factually as well as symbolically, the story of the director’s family and the history of her country unfold before your eyes, and you want to see and hear it all, touch it even; smell the scent of rosewater; yet at certain moments it feels like having sand in my mouth.
The film’s opening phrase – the phrase that inspired her to make this film – immediately grasps the viewer’s attention: ‘My mother married my father’s photograph.’ Weird though it sounds, it’s true.
There are architectural elements in this film; not only because it is set in an empty house – their home in Teheran – but also because it is richly stratified, with materials that highlight textures, interactions, and trajectories in space. ‘The film builds a puzzle with precious family archives that blend with powerful images of collective moments of great significance.’*
It all began, the director Firouzeh Khosrovani notes, with the photo archive and her memories, out of which she started to weave the story she was most familiar with, as well as to fill the gaps:
‘Looking at our family albums as a child made me develop imaginary stories about my parents’ relationship. The pictures in our family albums became the primary archives in the film. Other formal and informal archival footage provided opportunities to expand the story of our family photos. At times, the archive more accurately conveyed what I had originally imagined or remembered about a story. So, sometimes the images created the story, and sometimes we looked for images to advance our story.
I also used out-of-focus Super 8, their elusive texture resembling the hazy texture of our deep-rooted memories.’
One can only admire the way this film speaks about the history of Iran, posing questions, avoiding bitterness and dogma, casting a critical yet lucid glance into a fascinating world, telling a riveting story before our eyes.
The revolution occurs at the exact middle of the film.
‘I had appealing ideas but no real plot. I knew that a well-constructed plot often moves along a cause-and-effect chain. The film structure is created through my lived experience and vivid childhood memories.’
Unless you know precisely what you want to say right from the start, you run the risk of becoming lost in the different strands of the material. I witnessed the making of this film like someone weaving a carpet, an arabesque of yarn and dye.
‘I had too many interwoven themes. It was easy to get lost in the multiple threads of ideas and forget to think of a compact narrative structure. The fusion of my own fantasies and reality made me excited to share it with others through this film. I sought to lay out in a structured order a chain of connected ideas; tore up photos; produced X-rays of distorted backbones – scans of our home – a narrative space divided into two poles and telling the story of how Islamic laws penetrated our life and our memories of it. Many other peripheral ideas gradually came to my mind.’
‘I did everything I planned to do. Step by step. Working with a great art director, Morteza Ahmadvand, who contributed significantly to its development during the long production journey.’
An act of re-examination and reconciliation, this is a therapeutic film to watch over and over again to discover new aspects of world history and its impact on the stories of three individuals, of a family. Firouzeh doesn’t like the word ‘identity. I respectfully didn’t ask her why; I guess the term may seem to her one-sided, not enough to qualify as self-determination – an identity is never one identity.
This applies to the film, too. In addition to the archives, it is the sound, music, voices, whispers that evoke an environment. Firouzeh Khosrovani explains ‘We considered many different options for speech. Because of the tendency towards realism, it was not possible for the narrator (me) to tell the story before I was born. I tried to find a distinctive conversational tone. Sometimes with whispers. Sometimes loudly.’
I loved the conversational tone of the film. The dialogues truly bring the couple’s conversations to life.
The music also serves a narrative function in Radiograph of a Family, evoking, for instance, her father’s presence even in a scene with her mother alone.
The soundtrack consists of ‘recreation of sounds heard at home. Classical pieces recorded in my childhood memories have been selected and replayed by the composer. Also, a creative re-playing of the melodies of Revolutionary and war anthems that exist in the collective memory of Iranians took their place in the film.’
It took Firouzeh Khosrovani almost five years to finish her film. And it is really beautiful the way she treated her parents, how she values their places in her life and within society; how she respects her mother's political and life choices, despite all the differences that she might have with her.
‘[My mother] was touched profoundly [when she watched the film]. She entirely acknowledged the imaginary dialogues with my father before I was born. She appreciated the conversational tone of the film, the narrative arc, the visual aspect, music – everything. She congratulated me and hugged me.’
This sounds like closure, but it’s not – we all have our own paths to travel.
‘I experienced the greatest invincibility, patience, and failure in the years of making this film. But it was not without pleasure. This film made me. And it continues to do so.’
Firouzeh Khosrovani's Radiograph of a Family has been named the best feature-length documentary at the 2020 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) the film won also the IDFA Competition for Creative Use of Archive 2020
- The excerpts are from the interview Firouzeh Khosrovani gave me on November 2020.