Screenshot, a new Prague art-house cinema and exhibition gallery, is the beloved brainchild of Iranian-born filmmaker and FAMU International grad Payam Razi, who stepped down as Radio Free Europe music editor to devote his energy to the “hybrid space”. All screenings, he says, are English-friendly “events” for film lovers eager for a festival-like, shared viewing experience. Screenshot is working with venerable Czech institutions such as the National Film Archive and Institute of Documentary film (KineDok) and the ongoing popular Írán:ci Film Festival. I began by asking Payam Razi, the son of a cinematographer, about his personal journey to Prague.
“The first time I was on a film set, I think I was about 5 years old. My father, as a DoP cinematographer, was working on a feature film and because no one was at home to take care of me, he had to take me with him to the set. As usual, the shooting went long, past midnight. That was the moment I became fascinated with film. I was not really aware what the outcome would be until a month later, when we went to see the first rushes, the first footage. And then I understood the magic. That was in 1986 or 87.
“From then on, I began watching a lot of films. My dad was very eager to educate us about international cinema. At the time, there was ban in Iran on VHS players and tapes, but my dad had connections. So we watched a lot of good films, from Andrei Tarkovsky to Emir Kusturica, Alain Resnais, French cinema… And slowly, we had a culture about films at home – we would argue about films. When I was 13, I was sure I wanted to be a filmmaker.”
Did you also have the feeling that you wanted to leave Iran, or that you couldn’t realise your dreams in that country?
“I have to say I never thought I had to leave. The film industry in Iran is very alive, about 10 years ago, Iran had the seventh most active film industry in the world. Until today, I believe if I’d stayed, I’d have made my second feature film by now. I would get three or four offers a year to be an Assistant Director on a feature film.
“But a strange incident happened… I had a very good friend, she’s a very well-known Iranian actress now, and we were in a village shooting a film. It had beautiful walnut orchards, and after the shooting we’d take a bit of slivovice (fruit brandy), sit there and read poetry – it was a very pure and innocent connection that we had. But the moment we returned to Tehran, some stories came about us. That turned the whole experience of being in the film industry quite bitter for me.
“Like many other Iranians, because of oppression of the society, I was dealing with a lot of depression, and at that moment India seemed like a fine choice for me to go calm down, meditate, reconnect – and return back home. Until that point, I’d never have imagined I’d live my life fully abroad.”
Did you have some experience with Bollywood when you moved to India?
“Not at all. Bollywood was not considered intellectual enough back home for us. I got in touch with some film schools, but then realised because of my experience, those schools wouldn’t offer me much. So I started travelling and did three documentaries, in different parts of India and one in Nepal, in Kathmandu. It had an enormous effect on how I looked at the world. I became calmer, braver, happier.
“Three years after moving to India, I applied to seven universities around the world. FAMU (the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague) was one of the choices. Because I was familiar with central and eastern European cinema, I was interested in applying there too.”
Tell me a bit about your FAMU experience. I imagine you got there with a lot more practical and theoretical experience than the average student, by a long shot.
“Frankly, it was very disappointing in the first two weeks. Three months prior to arrival, I was preparing a kind of thesis on the future approach to filmmaking. And when I got to FAMU, I saw 19-year-old classmates seeing cameras maybe for the first time, or getting to know the basic editing techniques.
“But very quickly I managed to meet a lot of Czech professionals, older generation. Very quickly, I felt these are the guys I can work with. I worked with a very good Czech cinematographer who is a good friend still today, Dalibor Fencl. At the end of the year, I applied with (my student film Parallel Circles) to Berlin Film Festival talent campus. That year I think it was me and a Bolivian friend, Gustavo, who represented the Czech Republic there.”
What was the theme of your film? Were you looking back at life in Iran, from a considerable physical and perhaps emotional distance, or was it a Czech theme?
“It was part documentary. In May 2006, a demonstration got quite out of hand [clashes between far-right and leftist groups] and a journalist was attacked – it made news around the world. On that day, me and an American cinematographer were shooting super 8mm film, black-and-white. And I knew I wanted to do something with these images.
“My approach had something to do with Iranian filmmaking. I remember the department head, Ivo Trajkov, was excited about the script. He was getting very excited about the first 10 minutes of the film, but at some moments he would scream at me, ‘If you want to do this in the film, go back to Iran.’”
And what was it that you were trying to do in the Iranian style that he so objected to?
“The symbolism I had in the film was too strong. You know, in the East generally we use symbols and symbolism a lot. It was a bit exaggerated in my film. It’s the story of an old man and young girl, parallel stories. The old man dreams of the past, keeps watching the same rolls of film again and again at home. And the girl is alone, reaching puberty and has her first menstruation.
“These two stories, parallel to each other, happen when there is a demonstration – people are chanting Černý a bílý – black and white – get together. There were some shots with light coming into their rooms, like in Sean Penn’s short film about 9/11 when the building fall and the actual light of truth comes through the windows. It was very influenced by that, but I think it was quite exaggerated.
“Meanwhile, studying here, I met a lot of Iranians working for Radio Free Europe (RFE). And I got a call from Barandov Studio with an offer to work on an American independent film. I started working as a sound designer for the film. It was a low-budget film and we were shooting on Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square). I don’t recall the name of the director – a very strange man with a lot of passports; he was in Iran during the revolution, he was in Russia, in Cuba. The name of the film was Victory Day, and he was the main character, too.”
So, you could tell me more, but you’d have to kill me.
“Yes. (laughs). We were shooting in the centre, I had a boom and headphones on, and I got a call from RFE – the head of the Persian service was going home and saw me on set, and thought I was good with sound. They asked me to work not behind the mic but in the studio. … I started working as the editor-in-chief of music and had long and busy career at RFE, which lasted 12 years.”
And still continues, though?
“I got to a point where I thought if I want to make (another) movie it was now or never. So, by the end of 2018, I officially resigned. Luckily, I still work as a contractor with the radio and still go there twice a week. But I had to go through that to be able to dedicate my time and energy to this new project that we’re here to talk about.”
Yes. Let’s talk about Screenshot. Maybe listeners can hear that there is a special acoustics to this room – we’re in the cellar, which is about 500 years old?
“According to the plans, it’s about 670 years old. It has a lot of stories and means something really special to me. My good friend (Screenshot partner) Jiří Polák and I have spent so much time here and thought a lot about how to approach the space.
“Screenshot – for every filmmaker or enthusiast – we all dream of having a space to show great films. I don’t think the idea is new, but you have to be a bit bold today, in the time of Netflix, HBO Go and Amazon Prime, to still believe that people would like to share the experience of going to movies together, and to watch films less likely to be commercially successful.
“A part of the idea was shaped according to how this building is designed – drinking and watching a film I think is always a good idea; they go well together – and we had extra space for exhibitions, which will come to life very soon. Some are scheduled. We’d like to develop this plan to have specific music or musicians related to the screenings.
“Given the films that we love to show here, I think the size of our screening room is suitable – 41 seats. It’s maybe sad to say, but it’s not easy to imagine that more people would show up for some specific independent films, documentaries. So many of the organisations or institutes dealing with such films are somehow in trouble. Many have approached me since the space opened because they think they have a new home to screen valuable images – and we share that opinion of this cinema.”
The soft opening was in September, and you’ve already had a few dozen screenings. Could you tell us about the first programme that you put together (Czechs through the Lens)?
“Something I thought was missing in Prague was a sort of cinémathèque. There were a lot of fantastic small cinémathèques back in the ‘70s and ‘80s – there were fewer copyright issues, there were more small films coming here and there, and people were more open to experimental cinema. I didn’t find such a space in Prague dedicated to films in English or with English subtitles.
“When planning this space a year ago and outfitting it, I spoke to another good friend, Milan Dostál (now doing Screenshot film programming), about how if we want to introduce this space to the Czech society, to Praguers, it would be nice to pay our respect firstly to Czech independent and New Wave and other interesting films – unfortunately, many have been seen on TV in poor quality or never with English subtitles.
“At the same time, we were very lucky that the National Film Archive a few years ago started to restore many of these titles and add English subtitles to them, but no cinemas in Prague scheduled them for screening. So the idea of introducing Czech cinema to the expat community here was very exciting. So we created a programme called Czechs through the Lens.”
“I believe it’s all about presentation. If you go to a film at 8pm, the lights turn out and when people leave, the conversation might just be about where to eat or drink. If you create an atmosphere to engage people, the whole experience changes. Milan has arranged an introduction to every screening, and we try to have a Q&A afterwards. I’m very hopeful in future we’ll have people involved in making the films.
“If every screening can be an event and offers more than just 90 minutes of a motion picture and engages you, we think this will attract more people to come to Screenshot. And that’s why we don’t have screenings every day. In February, we’ll start to work with the Institute of Documentary Film in Prague and have scheduled a joint festival with KineDok. We’re hoping to create more events than screenings.
Speaking of events and screenings, we’re speaking just ahead of the ÍRÁN:CI Film Festival (for which Screenshot is a new venue).
“Yes, it’s the ninth edition of ÍRÁN:CI, and we’re very happy to be one of their screening rooms. We’re very excited. I’ve seen how difficult, careful and precise the selection has been – the director of the festival Kaveh Daneshmand is a good friend. He’s a very experienced filmmaker, and after eight editions you can imagine he knows the Czech society, what people want to see. At the same time, he’s remained faithful to what’s important to show from Iranian cinema.
“At Screenshot, we’ll have six screenings, starting on January 16. We’ll have all nine shorts, two documentaries and two feature films. This is so far the most important festival we’re hosting – I think film-lovers in Prague know the festival very well and tickets are running out!”