Granaz Moussavi is an Iranian-Australian filmmaker and poet. Her debut feature film, My Tehran for Sale, won multiple awards and is an internationally acclaimed Australian-Iranian co-production.
When Pomegranates Howl is the second feature by Moussavi – a cinéma vérité work in response to the true story of Australian armed forces carrying out an attack in Afghanistan, in which two young boys were killed.
The film goes as follows: Nine-year-old Hewad is the breadwinner of his family, energetically hustling everything from pomegranate juice to amulets that ward off the evil eye. Determined to become a movie star, things look hopeful when Hewad meets an Australian photographer. But in a city where it is easy to be ‘martyred,’ the streets are as perilous as they are vibrant.
ScreenHub spoke to Moussavi about the trying task of getting a film like this – that is, one that was shot in a city under real turmoil, and is rather critical of the Australian government – made and distributed.
How do you respond when people ask you what When Pomegranates Howl is about?
It’s an anti-war film about children and it’s based on true events. It was shot on location in Afghanistan, and it’s the last feature film shot in that country for … well, we don’t know how long it’s going to be.
The film was basically running on no budget, so it took a long time and filming was done in phases. It was entirely run on individual input and contribution. The film wasn’t supported (financially) so it took a long time – over three years, in fact.
You’re a well known poet – how does writing poetry translate to writing for film?
I don’t really intend for them to mix, so when the two do blend in my work it’s done subconsciously. I did my doctoral thesis on the aesthetics of poetic cinema, so I guess my mind is almost always geared towards that direction. My mind travels naturally between film and poetry.
The child actors are amazing. Can you tell us more about how you cast the leads and what working with them was like?
It took me a long time to find the right sort of children. I found Arafat Faiz, the actor who played Hewad, in a remote city not far from Kabul. He came to the city to audition, and after speaking with myself and my assistant producer we knew we would cast him. The other kids were non-actors found on the streets or in the local Kabul Circus, which is really an NGO. The children there were really energetic and constantly engaged.
Because there is no ‘film industry’ as such in Kabul, we did everything on a really grassroots level and thus had to get under the skin of the city to find talent. I always knew this was going to be a no-budget, guerilla sort of film. Non-actors were essential for that reason and also to get as close to the desired cinéma vérité (truthful cinema) style as possible.
The ethical lines crossed by media are a big theme in the film – is this something you have witnessed yourself? If not, what drew you to that theme?
That’s a very good question. The film is of course based on true events, and something that the Australian troops were involved in in real life. I even used the footage from that news story at the end of the film. It’s a sensitive topic, and I didn’t really want that to be the only representation of Australia, because it’s not like that’s the whole of Australia. That’s just one aspect. The other aspect, that is very valuable to me, is the Australia that is sensitive towards the rest of the world.
That side of Australia needed a representation in this film, and I decided that should be the journalist. The actor we used, Andrew Quilty, is actually an Australian journalist and war correspondent. So it was crucial for me from the beginning to have a script that was fair and balanced and didn’t demonise Australians.
How did that Australian Defence Force story affect you when it first came out?
I think my reaction was similar to the reaction audiences have when they watch my film, which is something like shock and disbelief. ‘Is this really happening? Is this real?’ And unfortunately it is real, like many other things we see in the media today.
It’s easy to dismiss stories like these because they are quickly overshadowed by similarly shocking events. I don’t think the media gave enough weight to it at the time. This is why independent films and in fact any art forms are a necessity, not just as entertainment, because it’s dealing with the void that the news doesn’t touch.
I want people to be reminded that there is no holiness about war; people get killed. We have to think about that deeply as a nation.
What comes next for the film – are there other festivals planned? A wider release?
Honestly, this this film was such a challenge. People didn’t want me to do this film, for obvious reasons.
I lost everything over this film, including my apartment. I don’t have anything left. Now I’m emotionally exhausted and in pain because of everything that I went through to make it happen. But I’m really happy and thankful to the universe that I could finally finish it.
Are you planning to work on more films in the future?
I don’t think so, at least not anytime soon. Films like this still need to be made of course, so if I have a script and can get producers attached then we’ll see.
When Pomegranates Howl screens on 22 April. Tickets can be purchased from the Screenwave website.