Rouzbeh Rashidi is an exemplary figure in contemporary alternative filmmaking. His restless and massively prolific body of experimental film work created over a twenty-year period is by now more than sufficient to single him out as an exceptional artist. Yet the production of his militantly personal cinema has always gone hand-in-hand with an equally energetic dedication to the fostering of a particular underground film culture, both in his native Iran and subsequently in Ireland, where he has lived since 2004. Through Experimental Film Society (EFS), an organization he initiated as a collective in 2000 and transformed into a production company in 2017, he has produced, screened, promoted, archived and in many cases mentored the work of numerous filmmakers and artists. The sometimes aggressively inward nature of his films and the prickly independence of the spirit behind them may seem at odds with his generosity and concern for likeminded filmmakers. But his unifying motivation is a relentless questioning of what cinema is and could be, an investigation that he has pursued with mad courage and energy not only within his films but through the cultural contexts he has activated around them. His obsessive preoccupation with film history only fuels his determination to explore new ways of working, using the freedom of recent technologies to engage in unconventional systems of production and collaboration often under the most limiting of financial conditions. The extent of Rashidi’s accomplishments can ultimately be seen as a gauge of what is possible in 21st century underground film, and the results are daunting and heartening in almost equal measure.
In the interests of full disclosure, it is perhaps worth pointing out that I have been a close collaborator of Rouzbeh’s for nearly a decade. In addition to working on and appearing in several of each other’s movies, we have co-directed a number of films and programmed numerous screenings together. We have also worked closely with each other in teasing out the theoretical underpinnings of EFS filmmaking, a process that began organically through discussing and pooling our remarkably similar ideas on cinema, and which culminated in the 2017 book Luminous Void: Experimental Film Society Documents. If this personal connection in any way compromises the objectivity of my perspective on his films, I can only hope the deep knowledge of his work and working methods that I’ve gained through it will provide adequate compensation.
One of Rouzbeh’s personal traits that I’ve grown to know well is a love of precision and simplicity in his dealings with people and his conception of projects. He likes to clearly quantify and enumerate whenever possible, so it is fitting to first approach his enormous filmography with a few hard facts and figures. In eighteen years, he has completed thirty-five features (of which seven are collaborative works and twenty-eight solo projects); forty short films; and 199 installments of a series called Homo Sapiens Project that began in 2011, a sort of ongoing film laboratory that has hatched everything from brief sketches and technical tests to one fully-funded feature film. The total of number of his films now stands at 272. Of these, five features and one collaborative project were funded. Everything else was made under no-budget conditions, most often in circumstances of personal financial hardship. His basic pragmatism and a firm work ethic are what have allowed this huge productivity to blossom. Over years, he has developed and refined a system of working with what he has to hand, creating with the people, places and equipment that he could access in daily life. Until recently, when funding has started to make more logistically ambitious productions possible, his filmmaking had less in common with the slow, project-based model of industrial cinema than the daily practice and constant work of a dedicated musician. But even if his film practice is rooted in daily living and drawn from the world around him, it couldn’t be further from a naturalistic record of ordinary events. The sphere of everyday social interaction is actually what Rashidi is careful to exclude from his films. They instead focus on capturing the ineffable currents of inner life, foregrounding mood, atmosphere, visual rhythms, and the sensory interplay of sound and image to pursue an intensely private experience of perception that perhaps cinema alone has the tools to communicate adequately. In subjecting everything around him to a sustained process of transmutation through an almost unbroken series of films, he has succeeded in giving an account of what he describes as “not a life filmed, but filmmaking as parallel to life, and a parallel life; a ‘thinking through’ of cinema that will test the limits of the medium to the furthest degree.”
The crux of Rashidi’s cinema is a blurred zone between personal feeling and perception on the one hand, and the perceptual possibilities of the moving image apparatus in all it forms on the other. Rather than using cinema to imitate cozily familiar forms of perceptual experience, he strives to make both cinema and existence as unsettlingly alien as possible. As he put it:
“I have always been committed to making deeply personal, formally experimental work that collapses the boundaries between alienated subjective perception and the inexhaustible mysteriousness of the moving image. I view cinema (in the broadest sense of the word) as a laboratory, and my audio-visual works as experiments in which my own perception and inner life is employed as a ‘reagent’. My work begins with sound and image, and works intuitively ‘outwards’ towards ideas. I generally eschew scriptwriting, seeing the process of making moving images as exploration rather than illustration.”
He is fascinated with the idea of cinema as an extraterrestrial intelligence, and has often spoken of his films as attempts to see and experience the world as an alien might. A large part of what makes his films so fresh and haunting is their way of regarding people, spaces, animals and objects on the same level, as if they were all mysterious entities being encountered for the first time without the hierarchies and presuppositions a jaded earth dwelling consciousness (or traditional cinematic narrative) would automatically impose on them. This vision is, to an extent, the product of the pseudo-scientific objectivity of his experimental stance, and he would certainly describe it as assuming a cosmic rather than human perspective. But it is never cold or clinical. There is a distinctive melancholy in Rashidi’s cinematic gaze and a profound sense of unease in the imagery, atmosphere and themes of his work; an ever-present dread that is at times very close to the more oneiric aspects of his beloved horror cinema. And it is not far-fetched to ascribe autobiographical origins to his fixation with film as an alien consciousness. Deeply suspicious of any form of nationalism, Rashidi is a man who identifies ‘the continent of cinema’ as home. He is an outsider twice over, having left the country of his birth due to an intolerably oppressive regime before undergoing the disorienting process of fitting into a new culture in his adopted country. Within this dynamic, cinema becomes a terrain of permanent exile.
In crafting his ‘alien vision’, Rashidi makes use of an extensive array of techniques from long takes to flicker, portraiture to visual abstraction, improvised acted scenes to found footage. To venture a broad generalization, the basic nature of his imagery has evolved with time from fairly naturalistic to highly artificial, with theatrical makeup, costumes and masks becoming a common feature of recent films. He tends to push whatever style he adopts to extremes. For example, his films are almost all wordless but when he incorporates speech, it is in the form of long monologues in Closure of Catharsis (2011), Bard is a Thing of Dread (2011), HE (2012) and Boredom of the disgust & monotony of the tediousness (2012), or rambling, sustained and finally unresolved improvised dialogues in Bipedality (2010). An actor speaking is not treated as a tool to serve the unfolding of a story but as a formal potential to be pushed to the limit and, if possible, exhausted. He has made bold use of a wide range of moving image devices including DSLR, VHS, DV, Super-8, Go-Pro, webcam and mobile phone. In editing, he often combines different sources of imagery and almost always does extensive post-production work on the look of his films. A skilled photographer, Rashidi has regularly experimented with unusual lenses and filters, even making his own. His most recent feature, Phantom Islands (2018), received much praise for its distinctive blurry-edged look that resulted from using specialist 19th century lenses with a Blackmagic URSA 4K camera. Rashidi also generally designs the soundscapes that accompany his films. His decision to avoid dialogue in most films is a conscious link to early cinema, which is a frequent point of reference in his work and a reminder of his belief that cinema is always in the process of being invented and reinvented.
Growing up in Tehran, Rashidi found himself with no choice but to invent a form of cinema and a context for it. He describes being confronted with officially sanctioned commercial film production, low budget DIY versions of same, and video art, and feeling completely apart from each of these forms. Impressed by foreign art film and experimental cinema, he wanted to create something personal and experimental while taking inspiration from the history of cinema rather than any other art form. His official filmography allows for twelve short films completed while he was still living in Iran. In truth, he was shooting constantly from his late teens on. The huge amount of footage he amassed at this time provided material for a rich body of short, medium length and feature films that he completed after moving to Ireland, a veritable memory bank to draw on in later years. His first screenings in Iran consisted of VHS tapes full of ‘sketches’: formal experiments, incomplete fragments of projected films, notes for features that were never made, raw camcorder footage of his neighbourhood. He not only arranged semi-public screenings of this work for friends but tried to persuade cinemas and festivals to show long programmes of these videos. He was already trying to shake up the system, attacking it for being too safe and demanding a place for his eccentric juvenilia as a challenge to the status quo. Recognizing that he couldn’t operate in a vacuum, he formed the first Experimental Film Society in 2000 with a group of likeminded friends and continued making underground films and screenings.
For a westerner familiar with Iran mainly through the movies that have appeared on the international art house circuit in recent decades, the Iranian EFS films are a real eye-opener. The consistency of tone and style across Rashidi’s Iranian films and those of the other first wave of EFS associates is remarkable and points to a shared Iranian cultural experience that has remained behind closed doors. These are underground films in a more literal and urgent sense than might be immediately grasped in the west, where the term seems to have degenerated into cynical hipster branding. The early EFS films are works that do not have permission to exist and are made in secret. Typically shot in black and white, they are often plotless mood pieces steeped in fear, depression and isolation, and featuring solitary or non-communicative characters in stifling domestic settings. Even if little or nothing happens, the atmosphere of oppressiveness and stagnation is palpable.
Rashidi’s earliest completed films are already recognizably his: elegantly made studies in male solitude and alienation, featuring haunted characters in highly subjectified spaces. A Polanski-like sense of paranoid claustrophobia prevails in several of them, and the sudden appearance of a mysterious, threatening intruder in a personal space is a recurring situation. The editing of these films is distinctive and ambitious, marked by long silences, much dead time, and even sometimes experiments with found footage. Rashidi’s finest Iranian films, however, are those he made in exile, after he moved to Ireland in 2004, and began reshaping his older footage. He finished editing his first Iranian feature, Light & Quiet, in 2008. That year also saw him complete a bizarre and surprising trilogy of medium length films from material shot before his move to Ireland, Theory PAL, Theory NTSC and History of Cinema. These compelling oddities are the most accomplished of the shorter works he made in his first decade of activity, and among the purest and most intense examples of the self-conscious foregrounding of filming techniques to interrogate personal space that cinema has to offer. They cover some of the same ground as the early shorts but do so with a striking new degree of sophistication and mystery.
In 2011, Rashidi embarked on a series of features constructed from his Iranian footage, now rendered into grainy black and white, which emphasized the displacement in time and space this material was now charged with. The title of the first of these films, Reminiscences of Yearning (2011), could stand as an overall title for the whole series. Far from being nostalgic, these troubled, intensely private meditations on loss and memory share a sort of sweaty insomniac bleakness. At least two of them are among Rashidi’s strongest works, as well as boasting two of the most extreme examples of his knack for coming up with startling titles. Indwell Extinction of Hawks in Remoteness (2012) starts as an apparent formal exercise in pulsing visual rhythms and builds into a feverish nightmare retread of home movie footage. Structures, Machines, Apparatus and Manufacturing Processes (2012) makes exceptionally effective use of still images. The culmination of this interrogation of images from exile is Hades of Limbo (2012). Rather than reusing old material, Rashidi created this film through having associates in Tehran shoot it while he directed it remotely via Skype from Ireland. The result of this conceptually charged process is an almost inexplicably powerful masterpiece. The film, wordless as usual, follows a group of young people hanging out as a day drifts by. ‘Nothing’ happens in a series of carefully composed long takes. But the mounting feeling of suffocation and oppressiveness, culminating in a truly terrifying final scene in which the male lead simply takes to his bed, brings the unease and despair that runs through all the first wave Iranian EFS films to its fullest expression.
When Rashidi arrived in Ireland in 2004, penniless and without a word of English, he faced the task of rebuilding his life from scratch. This naturally included starting out to make films again and in this regard he found himself in an even more difficult position than when trying to establish himself in Tehran. In addition to the language and cultural barriers, Ireland had, if anything, far less of an alternative film tradition than even Iran. Once again he not only had to find a way to make films but also to create a context for those films. None of the first wave of EFS filmmakers had continued to make films; EFS needed to be started over. Through sheer persistence, his work again took on momentum. By the end of the decade, he was creating constantly, completing films at a rate that astonished even close friends. 2012, for example, saw him make no fewer than nine feature length works in addition to seventy-five installments of the Homo Sapiens Project. What is even more remarkable than the volume of his output is the level of quality he was able to sustain. This outpouring of creativity largely came from a belief in constant work and research as the best way to develop and move forward as an artist. It was also an attempt to critique what Rashidi perceived as the dated standard filmmaking model of releasing one film every two or three years. It must be said that there was also an edge of desperation to this fury of activity. Screenings and any form of public attention were relatively few and far between. Rejections were numerous. With precious little outside support at the time, several of us at EFS cranked up productivity with a sort of nihilistic bravado. Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that in the first half of the second decade of the 21st century, Rouzbeh Rashidi created a body of work that equals or exceeds what many filmmakers create over a busy lifetime. The only negative side of this extraordinary rate of production is that it makes it difficult for viewers to keep up. Several features, some of them excellent, have yet to receive a single public screening. To date there has been no exhaustive written account of his oeuvre. However, all of his films are now available for viewing through his website which will hopefully lead to new audiences engaging with them.
Many of the films made during these years of peak production emerged from encounters and collaborations. Rashidi’s work with actor James Devereaux resulted in five features and several shorts. A trip to Zurich with fellow EFS filmmaker Jann Clavadetscher inspired Jean Speck (1860-1933) (2011), a sort of séance for the man who opened the first cinema there. A meeting with German actor Mario Mentrup in Berlin led to Investigating the Murder Case of Ms.XY. (2014). Rouzbeh and I have made a number of films that follow the principle of the split album, with each of us making half and then suturing the two sections together. Of these, we feel Self Decapitation (2017) is a particularly important film for both of us. tenebrous city & ill-lighted mortals (2011) is made from outtakes from my And The Poor Bird Died (2009). Zoetrope (2011) harks back to the Iranian films in its darkly meditative study of a family home, while Praxinoscope (2012) and Circumcision of Participant Observation (2013) are perhaps his loosest, quirkiest and most bizarrely humorous films. They also mark a breakthrough in his experimentation with colour photography and a stylized use of lenses that would come to play an important part in more recent works.
Emerging from this vortex of creativity, Rashidi really came into his own with an astonishing trilogy of films that consolidated the uniqueness and power of his cinematic vision, as well as his mastery of the techniques that he had been developing for so long. These three films are HSP: There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind (2013), Ten Years In The Sun (2015) and TRAILERS (2016). In writing about TRAILERS, Italian film site CinePensieri claims Rashidi “reinterprets the cinema as a process of continuous decomposition and aggregation of all its elements and also as a universal cataclysm that with its destructive power does not spare even those few strange characters, who are the symbol of a now drifting humanity.” This is equally true of all three films. Although made for small budgets, they feel huge. Their scope is epic, even cosmic, and their phantasmagorical visual intensity is quite overwhelming. In a post-screening discussion, Rashidi perhaps best described these insane, grotesque, erotic, tragic reflections on cinema and humanity’s fragile place in the universe as being like a ‘black box’ discovered by aliens after the plane crash of our civilization. They mark a truly significant contribution to contemporary cinema, with TRAILERS in particular standing as Rashidi’s masterpiece to date.
This trilogy wasn’t only a step forward for Rashidi artistically; it also brought him a modest but welcome degree of financing and recognition. Both There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind and TRAILERS received Irish Arts Council funding, and Ten Years In The Sun premiered at Dublin Film Festival, bringing him significantly increased exposure. This year, he completed Phantom Islands (featuring the duo filmmakers and founders of The Underground Film Studios, Daniel Fawcett & Clara Pais) which has proven something of a breakout film. Made under an Irish Arts Council funding scheme for a considerably higher budget than he has had to work with before, it also premiered at Dublin Film Festival. Since then, it has been met with ecstatic reviews from specialist critics around the world. This stark portrait of a couple adrift in a primal landscape has all the grandeur and strangeness of the trilogy, while being far simpler and more tightly focused. In concentrating on these more logistically complex projects, the volume of Rashidi’s output has slowed but he still occasionally produces more private work. While Ten Years In The Sun and TRAILERS held the focus of attention, he quietly completed another far more understated trilogy that seems to have vanished without trace. Hypothesis, Poetics and Conditions (all 2014) are tender, unassumingly warm portraits of his friends Jann Clavadetscher and James Devereaux, and of a theatre troupe rehearsing a play. Shot in muted colours that couldn’t be further from the carnivalesque palette of TRAILERS, these quite lovely films are proof that Rashidi will keep surprising us no matter what he does.
In parallel with the ferocious pace of his filmmaking, Rashidi also found the time and energy to develop EFS into a significant and distinctive energy in Irish alternative film, and to build it an international reputation. Over the years, a number of gifted artists and filmmakers have worked under its banner. At the time of writing, it mainly consists of a core group of five Irish-based filmmakers: Atoosa Pour Hosseini, Michael Higgins, Jann Clavadetscher, Vicky Langan and me. EFS has always produced and archived films by its members. In 2011, a stronger emphasis was put on distribution. Since then, there have been dozens of EFS events in cinemas, art venues and festivals across the world. These are not limited to screenings but also include performances, exhibitions and talks. There is an extensive VOD channel where viewers can catch up with EFS features and medium-length films. The EFS sound project Cinema Cyanide has released thirteen albums through Bandcamp. EFS Publications is a website that features EFS-related writings. Rashidi has been the driving force behind all of these activities, as well as the highly active EFS social media presence. He also tasked himself with theorizing EFS cinema. A number of manifestos led to the 2017 book Luminous Void: Experimental Film Society Documents, a history of the first two decades of EFS. All this effort is gradually paying off, with EFS constantly gaining in attention and recognition. Through his filmmaking and his work on behalf of EFS, Rouzbeh Rashidi has almost singlehandedly created a viable cinematic microculture under the most unlikely conditions. Its future is promising.
- By Maximilian Le Cain: maximilianlecain.com