One of the buzziest queer films at this year’s Berlinale, writer-director Milad Alami’s tense and timely thriller Opponent stars Payman Maadi (A Separation) as Iman, a married Iranian refugee in Sweden with a dark secret from his days as a professional wrestler that comes back to haunt his new life. Touching on themes of masculinity, repressed desire, and the high cost of freedom, it’s a complex and moving film sure to wow audiences as it spreads out to other festivals. We caught up with Alami at the Berlinale premiere for a chat.
Your film opens with an Audre Lorde quote about silence not protecting us. Can you tell me a little bit about what her work or this quote means to you and your film?
I knew of her beforehand and had kind of stumbled upon her writing throughout my life. I really liked that quote because it had something political about it. It was just like…if you keep silent, it will destroy you in the end. You need to know that silence will not protect you in a way. So it came from this urge to start the film with the quote. And I think that having that quote in the beginning also gives the first scene of the film a kind of different atmosphere. You get a sense that there’s something untold or something that we don’t know.
On top of themes of masculinity, male sexuality, and family matters, Opponent deals with the feeling of displacement that comes with being a refugee. Is a lot of this about deciding which parts of your past to hold onto or leave behind while you’re embracing a new life?
Yeah, and I think that on a deeper level the film is about freedom and the lack of freedom and what happens when you are kind brought up in a society where you’re not entirely free to do whatever you want or be with whoever you want. And then getting that possibility in the new country, how actually difficult that that displacement of the main character was and where it came from. I also came from Iran when I was six years old and I was placed in a refugee center in the north of Sweden. So that whole kind of misplacement of your identity – you are kind of waiting this new life to begin and being placed in a refugee center in the north of Sweden, surrounded by darkness. You’re waiting for your life to begin, but at the same time, your old life is still kinda there. I like that kinda symbolism because that was exactly what I experienced when I came to Sweden.
This limbo state where you’re close to freedom but stuck in a strict bureaucratic process…
Yeah. It’s, it’s a kinda strange thing because you are – I just remember this weird feeling of life opening up in a weird way. Like you get this sense that a lot of stuff is different, but a lot of new stuff is possible. But at the same time, your body and, and your brain can’t really adjust to it, so it, you, you end up in this weird limbo. This whole idea of like moving around and going from one place to another and stuff like that. I had this very strong memory of this kind of northern Swedish atmosphere, being extremely isolated. So, this limbo was quite interesting to the main character and his journey – it was interesting that he was in a place where he could actually do whatever he wanted, you know?
Tell me about working with Payman Maadi and exploring his character’s difficult internal struggle.
It was in the script, like the way he reacted all the time. So, it was there already. Then we were like, “Who is this guy?” and talked about his character being a person who has no control of his life…being stuck in a refugee center, just waiting for his life to begin. Then he starts wrestling to be able to give his family some kind of chance, but at the same time, this takes him back to the reason why they left Iran.
That’s the irony, no? He’s running from his past and this integration process is what’s bringing back the demons from his old life. Another thing that makes your film complex is that we’re empathizing with a guy who’s lying to himself and his family about who he really is. Talk to me about finding empathy in a character whose actions will probably end up hurting a lot of people.
I’m kinda drawn to this type of characters, to be honest. I’ve done like two films with characters you can judge or feel that they do more morally wrong things or whatever. But I feel I try to look at everyone with some kind of empathy and kind of trying to understand like, “What is the kind of engine behind this?” Like for example, this idea in the beginning that he beats this guy up, and then they meet in the middle of the film – they haven’t like spoken two words to each other, but you can directly sense there is something that is unspoken. I think that I really like this thing with the film that it kind of, it, it was kind of a, this kinda existential, uh, journey with, with him. Um, but…I forget your question.
You were answering it. It was about empathizing with Iman.
The empathy. Yeah, I think that cinema can really do that. I think cinema can take you on a journey with a person that, especially like this character – it doesn’t even exist in Iran. Like, this is a country with a regime that’s like kept people hostage for like three generations. So I just wanted to create a character that also with who is a certain age that a lot of people from Iran can kind of connect this individual, especially the idea of freedom and how difficult it is to achieve it for yourself…for who you are…who you wanna be with…all of these things. So, I think that’s looking with those lens, you have to have some kind of empathy for the character, even if he does things that’s kinda fucked up.
I can imagine the current situation with filmmakers in Iran makes your film feel all the more urgent, no?
Yeah, definitely. I hope so. You know, because I think it’s kind of – it wasn’t the purpose to begin with. I just made the film to be honest and I wanted to do something more kind of direct about masculinity and intimacy and violence and sexuality and all these themes that I found found interesting.
Also, these different expectations or ideas of what it means “to be a man” in two distinct cultures, no?
Exactly. That’s why wrestling was interesting because it’s the national sport of Iran. It’s the kind of the symbol Iranian sportsmanship, and it’s an extremely cliche image of men. A man always wins in the circle and is very masculine…all these things. I found that it was interesting to take that image and completely like break it apart, you know?
I liked that your main female character Maryam [Iman’s wife] has an important voice in such a male-dominated film. Tell me about this and all the unique things Marall Nasiri brings to the role.
I saw Marall in like theater piece and immediately was like,”Oh my God, she’s so good!” You know, she has this crazy intensity. I think what was most interesting with that character, and Marall said it herself – It’s these women we have seen our entire lives – women who’ve kind of given up their own dreams to be taking care of the children – this kind of traditional Iranian woman. And what was interesting is to take that kinda character and start to give that character a kind of independence, you know? It goes from her taking care of the kids, and she gave up her dream of making music for it. Throughout the story, we sense that the more the main character becomes confused of what this new country and this new identity can actually bring her, the more free she actually becomes. That’s why in the end, she feels like a different person for me, at least.
Yeah, it was great seeing her find her own voice as an individual, and also as a partner in this marriage and saying like, “I am a part of this conversation, too.”
I really like that. I think Marall was really good at that scene in the car when she says like, “When I look at myself, I can’t recognize myself anymore. It just feels like the person that’s there, it’s not me.” There you can sense the character is changing, that she will become something else. I think for the main character it’s almost scary. Iran is such a traditional country with like traditional male and female kind of family structures, you know? I found it interesting to have these individuals and doing some small things that completely shattered that structure.
The Berlinale is known for supporting and standing in solidarity with Iranian filmmakers. Is it important for you to show your film at festivals that take a firm political stance and make it a part of the conversation every year?
I think so. There are different types of festivals of course, but I think that Berlin has always been more political, one who strongly takes a stand, you know? I think for this film, it’s like super important because – before making it and while making it, I didn’t think of it that much. I felt, okay, this is another film, hopefully it’ll be sold and come to festivals and blah, blah, blah. After everything that happened in Iran, I just felt like, okay, I have to use this opportunity to say something and now the film is different and it has grown into something else. So for me, it’s very important. And I think that Berlin has always had kinda an interesting political power – not just the festival, but also the city.
Are people in Iran able to see your films? I imagine they’re banned?
Surely there’s a nice system of bootlegging and illegal downloading?
Like the second it gets out. Before everything happened in Iran, I was in Iran a lot, so I knew people were watching my first film. Even the films of Mohammad Rasoulof, the Iranian filmmaker that was in jail – people find a way through the cracks, you know?
That’s the nature of prohibition.
Exactly, exactly. That’s also what’s beautiful about what’s happening in Iran – they come to a point where you can’t basically keep suffocating people’s voices like they have been for so many years…like people are actually like standing up and saying like, “What the fuck is happening?”
And it’s hard to ignore millions of voices screaming in solidarity.
Exactly. And big part of the movement and protests is the LGBTQ community. I get this feeling that this will change things for the first time ever. I feel that it might take some time, but it will change because there is no going back now.
Opponent premiered Saturday, February 18 at the Berlinale