YIDFF 2023 New Asian Currents

Broken Whispers
Amir Athar Soheili (Director)

Interviewer: Ishikawa Taichi

When music rises

Ishikawa Taichi (IT): Could you tell us how you met the painter Milad, who is the central figure in this film?

Amil Athar Soheili (AAS): Milad was one of the many people we met and befriended when we went into a city in Syria to make a film. As we heard more of his story, of becoming unable to paint, of fixing broken musical instruments, we thought it was so compelling, and decided to make him the central figure in the film. I told him about yesterday and today’s screenings. In turn, whenever there is an incident in Iran, I immediately get messages from him, worrying about the situation. In that way, we’ve developed an especially close friendship.

IT: Milad looks for broken musical instruments in the rubble and repairs them. Is it a common occurrence to find such broken musical instruments among the rubble in Syrian cities?

AAS: When we shot this film, it had already been quite some time since the war, so there weren’t that many, but at some point in the past, musical instruments had piled up like mountains. Pianos, saxophones, guitars, violins, all sorts of musical instruments. There were also photographs left behind. Only two instruments, an oud and a harp, were dug up for this film, but before filming, he had found many musical instruments. Almost all of the musical instruments used in the film’s performance were those that he had found and fixed. Up until that point, he had fixed four ouds. He also gave me a daf, a percussion instrument, as a present, one that he had repaired and painted with the picture of a camel.

IT: In the film, Milad tells the story of the god Baal. Is this story well-known among Syrians?

AAS: There is no one who still worships Baal today. However, while the details are not clear, according to experts, Baal is the first god to be loved by people across the world. There are similar legends in every corner of the world, Egypt, Mexico, ancient Greece, so I think a story about a divine being that commands nature feels like it could speak to many people across the world.

IT: I heard that you told the sound editor to have the sound gradually increase. The decision to gradually add color to a film that began in black-and-white was also striking.

AAS: We paid special attention to the question of what kinds of feelings would ultimately be left in the hearts of people who watched the whole film. We spent long hours with staff from every department, talking things over again and again, and once we thought everyone was on the same page, we began filming. Milad’s painting classroom was very colorful, and when the cameraman first set foot in there, he was struck by its vivid colors, but I said that we should shoot the beginning first in black-and-white. Then, we should add colors to match the viewers’ feelings. We, as the directors, did not make this film by ourselves. The entire staff made it together. When we filmed the scene of the female painter singing, everyone was in the car listening to it. By doing things like that, we got everyone on the same page.

IT: Could you tell us about the process of creating the background music?

AAS: We used three pre-existing pieces, but apart from those, the rest were original pieces composed by our sound designer. There are two scenes where I think his ideas were especially wonderful. The first is the opening. At first, I said that the sounds of the birds and the motorbike would be enough. But he asked me to let him put a piece there. After yesterday’s screening, I watched that scene again, and contacted him to tell him that the music really is wonderful. The other is the scene that uses music to express recollection. It suddenly cuts from footage of Milad, to footage of his flashback, and then goes back to footage of him. By playing the same music through that sequence, it becomes easier to recognize it as a recollection. This was also his idea, and I thought it was really good. He always writes musical notes and shows them to me. It’s a good collaboration.

The power of film and art

IT: In the documentary, there is a man who insists on the importance of recording war on film. But I think a filmic record and a produced film are alike only in appearance and are quite different in nature. What does making a film mean for you as the director?

AAS: These past two days, I watched the film again, and thought, ordinary people say some incredible things. Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, and that we must learn from those repetitions. An ordinary person living in a small town said almost the exact same thing. In the film, the orchestra conductor and former music teacher Milad says, “Those who understand art do not become killers, do not kill children.” I think he was saying the same thing that Aristotle said. I think there are two types of art, that which serves as commercial entertainment and art that shows the truth. In other words, Milad was saying that if there were more people who understood art, then the world would become a more wonderful place. I heard those words from him and thought that was precisely the fundamental spirit that this film should embody.

IT: People who understand art do not kill people. When I am at a film festival like this, I feel like I can believe in such things, even if for just a moment.

AAS: Perhaps the power of art is indeed small. However, when people are torn between good and evil, art could guide them towards good. There is a famous Syrian poet, Nizar Qabbani, and after the tragedy of losing his wife in a war, he began writing poems only about loving people. His poems speak only about his wife, wine, and love. The power of his poems might not have been very big, but he wielded that power and tried to stop the cycle of wrongdoing in the world. Hannah Arendt said that mistakes are like dominoes: when one falls, it creates a chain that stretches out indefinitely—but maybe art has the power to stop those dominoes.

IT: Among the string of people who appear in the film, many of them clearly hold the position of artist, including painters, musicians, poets, and theater directors. However, I thought that the woman who appeared at the end was the only one who didn’t fit in that clear category.

AAS: It could be. However, there’s a maternal tenderness in the sight of her gently brushing the wheat in a large sieve, and she looks as if she were playing the daf. That’s why I think we can say that it is also one type of music, and that she is also one type of musician.

IT: Do you think there is a boundary between art and that which is not art?

AAS: I think fundamentally, there is no boundary. Even within the same field of art, people’s ways of looking at the world are often completely different, yet those ways are all wonderful. For example, Kobayashi Masaki and Ozu Yasujiro have completely different ways of looking at the world, but they’re both wonderful. That’s why I cannot say which is art and which is not art. Nietzsche and Schopenhauer’s ideas may have run counter to one another, but each one has their own uniquely wonderful perspective, so both are art. If there is any single boundary, it might be whether something is an industry or not.

IT: The farm work done by the woman who appears at the end of the film, the medical work that her sons were engaged in, even the things that the world generally doesn’t think of as art so to speak—do you mean that you perceive all of these as art?

AAS: That’s exactly it.

Rallying staff work

IT: Could you tell us about your co-director and brother, Amir Masoud Soheili, who could not be in Yamagata this time? Did you, for example, divide up roles between the two of you?

AAS: We did not discuss the division of roles at all. But when it was first decided that I would co-direct with my brother, I was sure there was no way it would work out. That’s because our tastes in film and our ways of looking at them are so different. I like grand films that deal with legends, but my brother likes subtle films with children in them. I’ve said in other previous interviews that our tastes in films are so different, you wouldn’t think we were related. However, once we started making the film, we didn’t have even one difference of opinion. We just said, “I’ll do this, you do this,” naturally and automatically dividing up the work.

That was how things were not just between us brothers, but also with the other staff we worked with. After filming from six in the morning to midnight, we couldn’t go outside because there might be an explosion somewhere, so we all got together indoors and reviewed the footage that we had shot during the day. Even then, there was no one who went to sleep because they were not involved with that specific task, but rather, everyone worked together as a unit. This is not to say that we had a meeting beforehand and unanimously agreed to do things that way. That was just how it naturally was from the beginning.

Also, the people who appeared in the film each had staff that they were compatible with, and staff that they were not. For example, the old woman who appears in the final scenes of the film, and whom we were just talking about, did not really connect with my brother, but she was able to connect really well with me. So, at times like that, my brother would say, “I’ll leave it to you,” and go outside the house. In contrast, Shadi, the man who lost his entire family, connected better with my brother than me. At that time, it was me who went outside the shop. I think we were able to do these things precisely because we, the cameraman and other staff included, had a relationship of trust between us.

I think the most remarkable scene is in the film’s last sequence, the scene where the girls are walking at dusk. The sunlight and light from passing motorbikes were wonderful, but it wasn’t something that we had planned and filmed. It was a complete coincidence. Even if you purposefully try to capture something, you cannot. I think it really must have been divine intervention.

IT: So it was precisely because the entire staff felt the same way about the film and its subjects, because they approached these things with everything they had, that this perfect harmony emerged, and precisely because of that, there were many scenes that you were able to film.

AAS: If things hadn’t been that way, we would not have been able to make this film. It does not belong to the two of us, its directors, alone. Everyone involved loves it, and each of them sees it as their own. Yesterday, after the Q&A ended and I went back to the hotel, I received messages from a lot of people, starting with my brother, wanting to know about the screening. Everyone was waiting eagerly for the response at Yamagata. If they had not given this film everything they had, if they had not loved it as they do, I think this film would not have come this far.

IT: There is a famous Japanese documentary filmmaker who left behind the words, “Film is a record of living beings,” but I felt such strong vitality from all the people who appeared in this film. They are speaking of tragedy, but they are brimming with a strong will to live on. I took it as a message that we, together with the arts that each of them practice, should not exist in a world of death, that art should exist for a world of those who live on. As I listened to your talk, I thought that this film overflowing with that kind of vitality was a result of the staff work that allowed everyone to rally their collective insights.

AAS: I am very happy to hear your thoughts. We talked about boundaries earlier, and I think there are three boundaries in this film. One is the boundary between life and death. One is the boundary between good and evil. Another is the boundary between black and white. I think that, through art, we can eliminate these boundaries. I think we should eliminate boundaries and proceed in a positive direction. I would be happy if we were able to convey those kinds of feelings to everyone through this film.

Compiled by Ishikawa Taichi
Translated by Joelle Nazzicone

Photography: Sugano Kurumi / Video: Sato Hiroaki / Interpreter: Takada Fluke / 2023-10-08

Ishikawa Taichi
Ishikawa began filmmaking while a student at Waseda University. His films include Planet of the Giants (2021) and See You Then (2023), etc. Since 2019 he has been involved in the YIDFF as a staff member of its Tokyo Office. In 2024 he participated in Yamagata Documentary Dojo 6 as a filmmaker.