“Fifi howls from happiness,” director Mitra Farahani’s elegiac post-scriptum to Persian artist Bahman Mohassess, was rolled out in theaters on Friday. I met with her in Paris to talk about shooting in close quarters with one of Iran’s most venerable modern artists.
About five years ago Farahani decided to go looking for Mohassess. The Loch Ness creature of Iran’s expatriate artists and a prolific painter and sculptor, Mohassess had been missing in action, his whereabouts unknown except to a small circle of people.
There was some signs that he had been living in seclusion in Italy. “When I went to Rome, I didn’t have a specific idea in mind,” Farahani told me over a glass of Port in the second arrondissement of the French capital. “I was going to do a film about his works of art. The project was going to be based on his imagined absence.”
She finally sited the object of her desire in the spring of 2010. Mohassess was living out of a hotel room in Rome. Getting a foot inside the door was nearly impossible. Fortunately, Farahani had an in, “her main weapon,” as she calls it: the name of a friend of the artist’s.
She spent two months and a half together with Mohassess, filming, discussing life and art and absorbing his often-tragic ideas on power and the human condition, at a personal cost. “Men are like slaves and there’s always someone at the top calling the shots,” was one of his decrees. This worldview was on display, his sculptures often showing scenes of dominance and his paintings always denoting a touch of gloom, an incompleteness.
Shooting a film about Bahman Mohassess turned out to be nerve-wracking for Farahani. And yet she took Mohassess’s tendency for excoriation (towards perceived enemies, near and far) and doom-and-gloom diktats calmly and patiently, waiting for that “ah” moment, an on-camera burst of spontaneity which would tie her story together and mark the last living days of Mohassess (that moment did come, in a big way) for posterity.
On camera and off Mohassess sometimes played the victimization and conspiracy-theory cards, both postures that are emblematic of the Iranian character . There’s a perpetual threat looming somewhere for some Iranians, they feel like they’re being persecuted, that what you meant when you said this was in fact actually that, etc. Part of it may have had to do with Iranians’ shiite beliefs, their martyrdom complex. And yet, it would be simplistic to throw them, and Mohassess, in a neat box and affix a single label. Because try as you may to neatly encapsulate Persians, the product of one of the world’s richest human histories, and you’ll likely fail.
Bahman Mohassess is a tiresomely-complicated individual. He’s lived through an Iran that was the product of 2,500 years of monarchic rule to a country governed by turbaned clerics, the kinds of people who until the revolution of 1979 one would let in through the service door to officiate at births at deaths. Alowing those people anywhere near the Executive Room would’ve seemed not just laughable, but quite simply impossible, then. In the process of installing their government of God by God Iranian Islamists made medieval-style decrees and raised concerns about public decency as they went about censoring artworks such as those produced by Mohassess.
Iran’s tumultuous history informed this artist’s work, the battles with “sansoor” (Iran’s censorship office) taking their toll on him. Some of Mohassess’s sculptures, whose artistic significance outweigh that of his paintings in this writer’s opinion, represent naked men, their phalluses an indication of the artist’s preoccupation with power and dominance of one person over another one. In one hilarious interview Farahani conducted, the director of Iran’s modern arts museum claiming some perceived threat upon public morality asks that the privates on a naked man’s sculpture be covered with undies. Once the outdoors installation was so outfitted, the wind blew the undies off the sculpture (signaling a clear decline of civilization, to be sure).
During “Fifi howls from happiness” a rapport develops between interviewer and interviewee, a new mind space. Throughout the film Farahani and Mohassess, both smokers, trade cigarettes back and forth like convicts serving time for some transgression they didn’t commit but would just as quickly confess out of naivete. Later, during a discussion about democracy Mohassess grandly declares, “I am a human rights prisoner,” the irony of living in a democratic European country apparently lost on him. And yet, Iran’s censors were probably never far from his mind.
Mohassess had a self-destructive streak. He’s killed a lot of his own works, although I never got into the reason why during my meeting with Farahani. When asked on camera why he destroyed some earlier paintings, he explains that he wouldn’t want work bequeathed to his nieces to be later sold for profit. I get it. But this doesn’t completely explain the self-destructive streak.
Farahani told me that in spite of living like a recluse, Mohassess stayed on top of the big daily news stories. He was also very generous with others on a personal level, always attentive to friends and the staff around him. Farahani, herself an artist (she has some photographic installations on display at a retrospective on Iranian artists currently at the Musée D’art Moderne in Paris) told me, “his daily life was very important to me, because he is as much a politically-committed man as he is committed to daily human relationships, very attentive to people around him.”
“The most important accomplishment in life is to end on time,” according to Mohassess.
Bahman Mohassess was forever obsessed with death, his artistic output an extended ode to the unknown. And thanks to his extraordinary talent, intelligence and compassion he was able to parlay his melancholy renditions of humans into notoriety and success. He’s now passed on, but his art, as all art, will remain.
“Fifi howls from happiness” is currently showing in New York.