2018, Single channel colour video, 1.33.1, 15 minutes, Dolby Digital
City of Tales would have been a portrayal of present-day Tehran if its urban modernisation hadn’t been frozen in the 1970s. Bathed in the fluorescence of Arabic signs scattered through the city and resonating of Persian voices, an altered Los Angeles landscape questions its own world-making status within dominant Western cultures.
Cédric Fauq: Approximately 12,190km separate Tehran from Los Angeles and their time difference is 11h30. Tehran is meant to be “ahead” of Los Angeles. As a point of departure to think about your film, City of Tales (2018), I find these numbers, which suggest an extreme case of long-distance relationship, quite telling: what triggered the desire to literally translate Tehran into LA and vice-versa?
Arash Nassiri: I went to high school in the Queens for a year, in a Muslim school with foreign students from around the world, and a few Iranians. I remember asking one of them about Los Angeles and he said “You mean Tehran-geles, right?” This joke stayed in my mind. Also, going back and forth to Tehran, I remember the drives we used to take at night crossing the city highways to kill time, which always felt very familiar to me. When I started to research the urban-planning history of Tehran, I found out sociologists qualifying the transformation of Tehran from the 1960’s onwards Tehran-Los-Angelesification (They even hired the inventor of the mall, Californian Victor Gruen, to work on a masterplan for the city). LA was the model for the city’s plan. All these things piled up in my head and so the idea came to use LA’s landscape like a giant readymade for what Tehran could have become.
CF: You shot most of the scenes in LA, right? Some of them during the Nowruz (the Persian New Year)?
AN: Yes, all of the outdoor ones where shot in the streets and public spaces, taking generic locations: gas station, grocery store, beach... The guiding principle to construct the video was to select one location per night and use the space of each location to stage the souvenirs. For example, at the grocery store the phone cabin is one story, then the street another one and the corner shop of the store with the bag of crisps a third. The different places were used like a physical timeline to play the souvenirs. The same way you have a timeline on editing software, I used the distances and shapes of locations to script which way the actors would walk. I then used these paths to select the souvenirs I had recorded previously and that were going to be played by the actors.I wanted to plan the filming during the New Year to break the nostalgic taint of the memories with celebrations, like the feeling you could have being sad at your own birthday for instance... I thought the celebrations would bring a different feel to the memories. Then, when the filming actually happened there weren’t many visual cues... you can see people dancing around fire pits at some point in the background but that’s it. I then had the desire to light up fireworks in the city but that was impossible. So I ended up filming the 4th of July later in the year and we mixed those images with the footage we did during the new year.
CF: That anecdote puts forward the displacement gestures operated for the making of the film; to trigger the collision of the two cities’ city landscapes, which also happens with the signage and billboards: you shot these lighting signs in Tehran, right? What kind of information do they contain?
AN: Yes, the signage are all from Tehran. The same way LA can be a readymade for Tehran, these readymade signs suffice to represent this fictive city. Early on in 2014 I had a friend in Tehran filming them and sending us new footage via dropbox and by now most of them have disappeared from Tehran as well. I kept a lot of signs with phone number animations or just a phone ringing to go along all the phone headsets we used. I also put some travel agencies signs with different metropole names.
CF: This leads me to ask about the night; and the very slow-paced and dream-like feel of the film, although it must have been quite an intense process, right?
AN: We filmed everything at night, when the streets were empty and lightened by electric light only, all the cities in the world use the same tech so it brings a uniformed colour and texture that is interestingly confusing. The nights were short and exhausting, and I discovered the particularities of working with a cinema crew. You work to the minute. The first night we argued for half an hour to get one more shot (The woman in the cab with the fireworks reflecting). It also made the whole team have sleep deprivation, which was quite special since we wanted to depict this alternative city...
CF: This also helps to question the way a city is experienced at night, the freedom it can bring or, on the contrary, the restrictions. (I remember No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009) by Bahman Ghobadi. Thanks to it, I learnt about the fight for nightlife in Tehran [specifically for dissident music], the curfews… )
AN: Yes night-time is also when as a teenager you start experiencing the city in a subjective way or under the influence. I also liked the idea that we were doing this while most people were sleeping.
CF: You’ve also treated the Persian language and the dialogues (or should I say tales?) in a particular way, very linked to technologies of communication. I was struck by the use of the payphone in contrast to all of the smartphones and earphones. Could you develop on that?
AN: I had a database of audio interviews from people who told me souvenirs from Tehran in the 1970’s which I recorded through skype. These audio tapes where then edited and played through earphones to the actors during the filming. They would hear it and then repeat what they heard in the earphones, using their own memory. In the process, they also changed the pronunciation of words which I wanted to leave untouched. I remember describing this to one Iranian who I interviewed and he said “it’s stupid because you lose everything that makes the language beautiful: the rhythm and the melody”. It’s true. But I wanted to have two things at play simultaneously when you watch the images, the landscape and the actors, the real LA and all the memories played on top, like a double vision. There were also a lot of failed takes with mispronunciations, stuttering or just the wording completely distorted. I would love to make a video installation that could deploy all these moments as well.
CF: What would it look like?
AN: With the editing you constantly zig-zag from one place to the next and I built the video by location, one for each night. I think in the work you see ten percent of the material we shot. I envision a pathway delineated in the abstract space of a gallery turned into a black box, to relocate the different places and draw parallels and ruptures between them. I also have lot of takes when the actors misspell or stutter their lines, I find them beautiful and they show the apparatus we used to tell the tales, this would bring the performative component, the acting, to the foreground. Like on a theatre stage. The earphones are also very visible in the shots, I liked how they became the thread connecting all the different locations. It becomes like a huge chatroom. Something I would definitely like to use as a device for a potential installation.
CF: A chatroom for tales?
AN: I hope so... I like to think of the video as a Christmas story. I played with this idea in different ways: the anthropomorphic speaking bag of crisps, the talking car, the stories going through the gas station speakers or the song playing with the house lights, the title itself…
Courtesy the artist
Produced by Jonas Films – Elsa KlughertzWith the kind support of the Han Nefkens Foundation, CNAP, FNAGP
Special thanks Matt Williams