Mohammad Reza Aslani on the miraculous resurrection of his long-lost masterpiece, The Chess of the Wind


The backstory of a movie can’t be less compelling than what’s in the movie itself. Wind chess has the kind of story they’d make movies about. Screened publicly only once, in 1976 at the Tehran International Film Festival, Mohammad Reza Aslani’s film was banned during the Iranian revolution for being a “dissident cultural product”. Though considered lost for four decades, in 2015 the original negatives were miraculously discovered by the filmmaker’s son, Amin, in an antique store in Tehran.

With the combined help of Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata and the World Cinema Project of the Film Foundation, Wind chess has received a gorgeous new 4K restoration and is ready to share with the world. After touring at festivals around the world through 2020 and 2021, the film is slated for theatrical release, starting with a two-week engagement at the Film Forum on October 29.

Located during the reign of the Qajar dynasty, Wind chess recounts the fallout from the death of the matriarch of a noble family. The remaining family members begin a war for power and wealth, all contained within the oppressive walls of their domain. It’s easy to see why the Powers That Be did not want this movie to be released to the world when it premiered. His pinning-in of the elite isn’t striking, as he pushes the boundaries when it comes to sexual repression, on-screen homosexuality, and the ever-present nature of humans eating each other to get ahead.

Sitting with the scene from the film, Mohammad Reza Aslani discusses the many intricate layers of his restored masterpiece and the experience of rediscovering this gem after so many years that it has been considered lost. It was a multicontinental Zoom: I took the line from my home in Delaware, while Aslani called from Tehran alongside her son, Amin, and daughter, Gita Aslani Shahrestani, joining us from Paris. We thank Amin and Gita, both film academics with PhDs, for their translation work which made this excellent conversation a reality.

The scene of the film: I wanted to start by saying that I saw Wind chess for the first time at the New York Film Festival last year, and it absolutely blew me away, so it’s such a privilege.

Mohammed Reza Aslani: Thank you. I am very happy to see how we connect between two, and now three different continents in the world. There are a lot of conflicts and issues in this world, but now we can get out of it and come together around a movie to discuss it.

Your film has a fascinating backstory, having been briefly shown in Tehran before being banned a few years later during the Revolution. What made the ruling class so afraid of the movie coming out?

In this time before the Revolution, the atmosphere was very politicized. The dominant genre in the arts was a more general style of social realism. The directors of public and private institutions have been difficult to convince because of these conflicts between the artistic and commercial worlds. In this political system, it was not easy for me to make films with my cinema style.

I also lost five other movies, not just this one. I’m looking for these films, and I’m not the only one who lost their job. But it wasn’t just my films that they wanted me to lose. They want me to be lost too. They wanted me to be eliminated, so I had this cultural resistance against this movement. I continued to work giving lectures and teaching to stay in the scene.

For four decades after that, your film was considered lost until your son found the original negative in an antique store in Tehran. What was your reaction when you heard that the film was being rediscovered?

Realizing that the film had been found, this miraculous event reminded me of the story of Joseph and his father, Jacob. For us, in Iranian literature and in the Old Testament, Joseph is the symbol of beauty. He was lost for forty years, and his father lost his sight and went blind. We have this beautiful metaphor for this movie with the smell of Joseph’s clothes – we have a lot of poems about that smell – and how with the smell, Jacob got his sight back. This is how I felt when I saw the film again.

How was the experience of going through the restoration process and rediscovering the film with these new eyes? How do your thoughts on the film compare now to what you thought in 1976?

It’s like a son to me when he was born. He continues his life on his own, he goes to the outside world and he has his own dialogue with others. I’m just looking at it in third person now. During these years, I developed my theories on cinema. My last feature film, Green light, was shot 12 or 15 years ago, and is completely different from Wind chess and you can see my theories fully developed, but kind of related to them as well. The world should say something by now about this film and these two films together.

You described the shooting script for Wind chess like a game of chess in itself, something very different from how shooting scripts are typically done. How did the uniqueness of this script contribute to the film’s success?

As a poet, I used to write a lot of things, and I also wrote a lot of screenplays for other filmmakers. I have plenty of scripts in my closet. As a writer, I see the script as a kind of cutting out of a scene. It’s not just there to reveal the story. It’s not about the subject, but how I see the film itself, how it should be cut scene by scene by scene. For each scene, I write the space. Instead of writing the dialogue or writing the story, I write the space and the atmosphere. For me, the script is a syllogism. It’s more mathematical than a kind of linear storytelling.

This approach is a testament to the attention to detail you can feel in every moment of the film, how everything is planned out so methodically. One of those striking details is the use of candle light in the film. I know it was pretty hard to find, but you were adamant about making the movie that way. Why was this candle so crucial to you?

As the story unfolds, there was no power. So realistically it should be shot by candlelight for all the obvious reasons, but the main point for me is about the shadows and what they hide. This light is a kind of cinematic expression, it reinforces the darkness of everything. Whatever these lights reveal at any time, they are hiding something at the same time. It allows these themes of obscurity and constant conspiracy to resonate with audiences.

Sexuality is underlying throughout the film, whether it is desire, homosexuality, or sexual repression. How did you want to use sexuality in exploring these characters and their dynamics?

Sexuality was under there in a way, but what I wanted to illustrate was the libido of power, instead of the libido of sexuality. Each character in this film is a symbol of this libidinal aspect of the whole story. They are the symbols of this libidinal power, and of the conflicts that we see between these powers. Sexuality is the instrument they use to gain power. Through this sexuality – whether homosexual or heterosexual – these poles of power, they want to replace themselves, or sit on the throne of ultimate power.

Even though the film is a prediction of the overthrow of the Shah, and a prediction of the Revolution, it can easily become a metaphor for what happened later in Iran. There are different political parties in Iran that are fighting against each other, and these characters become, once again, the symbols of those parties that just want to eliminate each other and become the only party ruling the country. . This house becomes a metaphor for the country as a whole.

It is certainly a universal idea that translates into any country. Even for those who don’t understand the film’s specific cultural or political history, there is a visceral quality that will resonate with anyone. Climbing is a word that keeps coming to my mind with the film, in the way you create this frantic pace that slowly grips the audience more and more tight until this last section where all this tension of construction explodes into what is, essentially, a horror movie.

In the flow of events, we have a lot of characters, but none of them are secondary. Even the objects, the music, the real figures of the characters themselves, nothing is secondary. It’s like a poly image, where everything has its own importance. Each element of the film comes together like a chorus, creating this polyphonic image. Like music, we have these separate elements that start out as monophonic, and then that polyphony gets richer and richer, and more intense.

At the end, we see the conflict of different elements clashing. The sound of a gun, the movement of the camera, the lights, the dialogue, everything intensifies and everything collides. Even looking at the top and the bottom meet, it’s like a big bang at the end.

While so many Chess takes place inside the estate, I am always fascinated by the few outdoor scenes, where we see this group of women all washing the clothes and the dishes, having lively conversations between them. It’s such a clean aesthetic juxtaposition with the interior scenes, something reinforced by the breathtaking final shot. What did you want to communicate through this comparison between indoor and outdoor stages?

The film has three parts. The main story takes place around 1915, after the Constitutional Revolution. We understand that it is this period thanks to the decor of the house and through the characters. The second part, Out with These Women, is in 1925, when the King of Iran makes military service compulsory. We understand that it is this moment because one of these women explains that she had to send her son to do his service.

Then that final scene is in 1976, when we shot the movie. In each part, we are made to think that it is the past, when in reality it is not the past, it is the future. All of these times are mixed up – the past, the future and the present are in the same timeline. We lose this difference between times because everyone, even when they are in the past, are playing in the present. They always show the present tense.

4K restoration of Wind chess will be released by Janus Films in theaters starting at the Film Forum on October 29. Learn more here.

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