Interviews News

‘Home: A Meditation on Belonging’ director Arman S. Haghi on identity, emotion and art

As a filmmaker, musician and poet, multitalented artist Arman S. Haghi has been able to develop a unique and moving approach to storytelling, forging a distinctive style of impressionistic documentary-making which runs throughout his filmography. The director of Home: A Meditation on Belonging spoke to Indy Film Library on navigating conflicting identities, addressing trauma through cinema, and the role different art forms can play in communicating complex emotional ideas.

First things first, one of the few things our review of Home: A Meditation on Belonging suggested was that addressing Indigenous Australian social issues would add a whole new dimension to it. It turns out your team actually has made a couple of separate short films which do just that. Would you care to elaborate on what you did with A Nation, Found, The Ballad of Brenden Moore, and Mermaid Sunrise?

For sure, and I totally understand and appreciate the suggestion … made me so glad that you, like so many others across the world, care about these issues! I can definitely see how Home might have also engaged with themes around First Nations peoples’ relationship with their ancestral homes, including land rights and Treaty.

On the making of A Nation, Found, the short version is: I wrote a poem on Treaty with about 10 days left until the Tropfest deadline, and sent out some messages across networking sites, sharing the vision of what I wanted to collaboratively create. Within a few days, we’d assembled a crew of talented, passionate people, each contributing their own interpretation of the theme, and in the edit, it all somehow came together. We weren’t one of the 16 finalists, but we were shortlisted, so I like to think we were 17th!

The two related pieces were quick, straight-from-the-heart experiments that grew out of friendships formed during the making of the ‘main film’ with Brenden Moore (a didgeridoo player and Aboriginal Education Officer) and Eve E White (a proud Wiradjuri woman and indigenous educator, who is also a talented dancer) respectively. The latter piece was created specifically for an exhibition at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence, and all three pieces were run on loop in the breakout space of a TEDx event.

At the TEDx event, it was amazing watching attendees as they watched and discussed the films … I didn’t eavesdrop but there was a certain stillness that struck people at certain points in each film, and that made me hope they were moments where people were touched by the meaning and ‘heart’ of the films.

Those three films feel like they would work particularly well as complimentary elements in a feature film – or at least a longer short. Is there any potential for a bigger project like that to take shape, or do you prefer working in the 10 minute bracket?

You’re absolutely right. The three pieces, as well as Home, could be ‘deconstructed’ to create ample material for a longer piece. Part of me wants to do that, and part of me doesn’t… I wouldn’t want to force it. All the pieces have grown organically into being what they are, through exploratory processes, informed by a combination of who I am, what I care about, and the people I meet and collaborate with: who they are and what they care about. I know I’m a ‘new filmmaker’ but I already feel a strength of my practice lies in being able to walk the tight-rope of inviting collaboration while also ensuring that pieces do actually come together to form a cohesive, watchable whole.

Also: I have no preference for the 10 minute form. I’m currently focusing on writing a narrative short (which will run about 30 minutes) as well as a feature (about 100 minutes I think), with the aim of bringing along some of the ‘experimental’ process and aesthetics along as I engage with more rigorous, structured narrative forms. Watch this space!

There is a common thread running through your filmography, regarding ideas of identity, what it means to call somewhere home, and how the interplay between the two can give someone a foundation to build their life around. How have your own experiences as an Iranian-born Australian informed your artistic choices?

An awesome question! I’ve never thought about “the interplay … foundation” in such crystal terms. Nice.

So yes – my filmmaking is definitely ‘somewhat’ informed by being an Iranian immigrant who left his ‘home’ (which I now realise isn’t just the place, but more so, is the people and relationships you leave behind) because of the war. It was in fact a conversation about this with our Polish violinist Robert Sek that kicked off Home in the first place.

And yes – as an Australian since the age of 7, I’ve often had the experience of trying to understand my identity, culturally, as well as ‘personally’ (which I guess is a universal ‘who am I’ kind of question), and have no doubt that this has been an influence in my gravitating towards themes of identity. Am I an Iranian? An Aussie? Am I Both, or neither? Maybe I am some other new blend of these things, or maybe they are all just labels, generalisations that average out millions of people which tell me some things about who I am, and why I feel/think/value as I do, but not everything – or even most things! I think the nuances of who we are form one-life-at-a-time, one day at a time. Everything else being labels, categories if you will.

About the interplay – I think all the above combines into me trying to transcend ‘categorical’ thinking in a work like Home. By investigating the deeply personal, in a raw, unplanned way, we can tap into more universal themes – themes, feelings and ideas that we can all relate to, that bind us as humans. This in fact made the editing of Home a considerable challenge … how to respect the very touching personal history that our interviewee Kate Bond shared with us (and the desire and need to share it, to speak), while also ensuring that the work ‘touches’ wider audiences by distilling the essences of what is being shared, rather than the specifics; a choice that was made, but not taken lightly.

Unfortunately, like most nations with a colonial history, Australia has a long history of hostility toward its Indigenous population, as well as the migrants and refugees who have arrived since. Have you encountered much backlash aimed at your work, since it quite openly champions those people?

Nope! Thinking about A Nation, Found first – I’m glad to say that I’ve had positive feedback from all quarters with respect to the themes, but then again, it could be a case of the form reaching those who are engaged with it. Echo chambers are a thing, and I’m not sure that everyone who’s seen the work would constitute a broad spectrum of thinking on First Nations history and contemporary issues. What I would love, is to be able to show the work to an audience of people opposed to the idea of Treaty, land rights and/or constitutional recognition for example … just to know what they think about the film, and why, and to have conversations around the themes with them. It’s important to talk to people who don’t share your views, and I’m not sure how much that has happened.

Home hasn’t been released yet, currently waiting on a few festival judging dates, but I think it covers, in text and on screen, more ‘universal’ themes, and doesn’t really address ‘immigration’ that literally, so perhaps that aspect of the filmmaking process (which I’m closest to) may not even cut through… not sure yet!

With regards to your interviewing style in Home, the film picked up particular praise in our review when you decided to ‘cross the line’, and directly tell tearful subject Kate Bond “thank you for being here.” Not every filmmaker feels comfortable taking a role in their documentary, what was your thinking in the moment itself and in the editorial process, where the decision was made to keep it in the finished film?

In the moment itself: Kate and I are friends; it was natural just to say some things here and there as your friend is opening up her heart to you. I had no script going into the interview, it was more a conversation, and there was no agenda, no ‘angle’ or idea I was trying to tease out. I was just there to listen. I’d mentioned the project to Kate a week earlier, and she said she had stuff she wanted to share, so I welcomed her into the project, and then just sat there agape as she shared so many personal, raw, meaningful feelings and ideas… I was stunned, and in reflection, have since learned so many things about my own personal relationships with others that I’d never explored, done much needed healing, and this filmmaking process has a lot to do with that.

In the edit: from memory, the interview was about an hour long, and the film ended up being about 8 minutes, so you can imagine how much was cut out, BUT there was just something natural, and true to the making/final form of the film, about her and I as two friends, exchanging a little smile at the end there, so I left it in – after much, much deliberation, it should be added!

Side note: there was another interview recorded on the same day with another friend of mine that wasn’t included in Home but that is just as precious to me. It’s been made into a sister-film called A Brazilian Woman in Sydney, via some really simple, neat, chronological cutting.

The blackened all-seeing-eye of a camera can be deeply unnerving at the best of times – so addressing it regarding topics including someone’s childhood home-life must be incredibly difficult. What techniques do you put in place to get someone comfortable to discuss past trauma on film?

You’re right; cameras can be unnerving, and it wasn’t lost on us that making sure that everyone was comfortable and feeling safe was paramount. And I mean everyone: we were all collaborating on a piece dealing with emotional topics, and in our own way, exploring them.

I don’t know about ‘techniques’ per se, the physical camera/light setup was in the hands of our skilled, experienced crew, but for me, in my roles, it was just being real with everyone about what the project is, as an un-predetermined artwork, and communicating that if anyone isn’t feeling OK at any moment, that it’s a safe space to say so, ask to stop, take a break, not go ahead, the lot. And everyone on set operated in the same spirit – we were first and foremost friends, a film-family, and if looking out for each other meant that the overall concept wouldn’t have proceeded as imagined, or at all, that was OK.

I think putting friendship and love for each other first was only half the ‘making-of story.’ The fact is, the film wouldn’t have been what it is without the incredible strength and courage of our interviewees to speak so openly, taking the leap of faith and trusting us with their raw, personal experiences, and for that I’m forever grateful. Did I mention I sat there agape? And in both interviews, I may or may not have also teared up (I definitely did).

All the films we’ve mentioned incorporate a performance element too – despite having more direct methods of discussing a topic, via conventional interviews, poetry etc. – do you feel that there are some things which can only be said through movement or music?

Hmmmm… perhaps… there’s certainly a lot to be said for the ability of non-literal modalities such as movement and the visual arts (and the beautiful images our crew created are nothing short of paintings) to help us explore the fleeting, ephemeral intersection of the concrete, material experience of ‘being’, and the abstract ‘spiritual’ inner-world of each person. This is what I love in the work of Kieslowski, thus why I’ve paid homage to him in the opening credits.

Having said that, for me I think it’s been more about collaborative meaning-making. These experimental works don’t pre-ordain texts or outcomes, they simply ‘prime’ topics or themes, and I bring together creative, intelligent, expressive people who ‘get it’ and run with it. I feel the works are the equal-parts creations of every role on and off the set, and in that way, I really am just one of the many creators. Sometimes, I’m literally just standing back and watching others create material and outcomes I’d never imaged. It’s a real pleasure.

In Home it’s a little easier to interpret where Kate Bond has come from and what she has been through – but did any of the other performers have specific stories which tied into what the film was trying to say, or experiences which informed the way they performed?

I guess the answer is yes – in that we all have our stories, don’t we? That’s what I think makes our film ‘universal’ when it does resonate with someone; it uses cinema to create a place for thinking and exploring.

More specifically, Robert Sek and I had a great conversation about missing ‘home’ in the geographical sense – and in his interpretation of Alex J. Steed’s composition for the film, Robert was drawing on his memories of Poland (e.g. the short little ‘bursts’ of high notes on the violin recalling bird songs). Robert is a personal friend, and a passionate, sensitive artist. His expressions are real, not acted, and he always performs the violin from the heart, drawing on his feelings and life experiences.

With respect to our three dancers, I didn’t ask them for specific, literal stories, but the theme was shared ahead of the shooting days, and in conversations we had during the days leading up to the making, it was clear that everyone could relate in their own way – and was bringing that very real feeling into their individual contributions.

In terms of the broader Australian cinema scene, are projects like yours well supported by the country’s cultural infrastructure?

On this point I’m unable to speak … I’ve very much been ‘doing my own thing’ … working hard, saving up money to cover production costs, and making films for the love of it (side note: I need a holiday!)

I plan to seek funding for both the narrative short and feature that I’m currently writing, which will be bigger, more commercial enterprises, so I guess I’ll be able to answer this in a year or so!

Also, in reflection thanks to this interview, they will also touch on themes of identity and diversity.

What support mechanisms have you benefitted from in order to keep making films (e.g. film networks, festivals, etc.)?

Collaboration with other artists. Thus far, that’s been my modus operandi to bring passionate, creative, like-minded people together, and I’m grateful for the contribution that each person has made to our works, and thus to my filmmaking journey.

Film festivals, and engagement from writers such as yourself, also play a big part in providing a place for our work to be seen and discussed, and we’re always ever so proud when we reach a new audience.

Taking criticism on-board can be difficult – how have you handled the reviews for your work over the years?

My first degree is a Bachelor of Science in Architecture, which in practice, meant creating designs on a weekly basis just to have them critiqued to the hilt. Initially I was defensive, but soon learned the value of letting go of concepts, being OK to rip things up and go back to the drawing board, of accepting different views, and just moving on – as well as knowing when to hold on to something.

I’ve never practiced as an architect, but as an artist, it’s given me the ability to take critique onboard and try and learn from it objectively. It’s also meant that I’m able to express my intentionality/reasoning, not so much to ‘defend’ my choices but to make a case for them, requiring intellectual sparring. Learning is a two-way street, and being able to do so is critical for driving innovation.

Do you have any advice for new filmmakers who are considering approaching documentary from a more abstract angle, as seen with Home?

I see myself as a new filmmaker, with a long journey ahead. With respect to what advice I might have for anyone else wanting to break the boundary between documentary and experimental art, I’d say just be real with everyone about what it is, including how much you don’t yet know about what it will be. Uncertainty is OK – it’s the fuel that drives play. I was never sure what the final film was going to be, and everyone collaborating with me knew that; it’s what drives creative engagement, as long as you’re genuinely inviting people into the creation process, and are thus yourself open to accepting whatever comes out of it.

Also, know that editing is a powerful ‘third phase’ that can bring everything back together. I’m not advocating utter chaos (which would be cool, and could work), but don’t be afraid to let go of pre-production’s ‘preconceptions’ during the production phase … it’ll come together in the edit.

Do you have any upcoming films or other projects which you’d like to talk about? If so, where can people stay updated, and is there any way they can help?

Yup – all going well, we should be shooting a short narrative piece that explores diversity in December 2020 / January 2021, and pitching the feature soon thereafter for 2022 production.

To stay up to date, you can follow my Facebook and Instagram channels. If any one is interested in getting in touch, please do so, I’d love to hear from you via Facebook, Instagram, or www.alliedmedia.com.au

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