Babak Jalali: Frontier Blues

The up-and-coming director talks about his distinct debut feature film Frontier Blues.

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Babak Jalali was born in Iran and brought up in London, yet his debut feature film Frontier Blues has a distinct Scandinavian aesthetic. Inspired by filmmakers such as Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki it captures the slow-paced world of a remote Iranian border town through static shots and deadpan humour. Jalali is a recent graduate of the London Film School and his short film Heydar, an Afghan in Tehran was nominated for a BAFTA in 2006. Frontier Blues, his first feature film, was developed through Cannes Film Festival’s Cinefoundation residency. Dazed talks to the up-and-coming director about the making of the film.   
 
Dazed Digital: The film is very place specific, where did you shoot it? 
Babak Jalali: It was made in and around my hometown which is a province in the Iranian north which borders Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea. I lived there until I was seven and didn’t go back for the first 14 years, then I started going back once every year to see relatives. The area is strange because it’s very Central Asian in character as opposed to Middle Eastern which is the way the rest of Iran feels and also because of its racial make-up, there are Kazakhs, Turkmen, Armenians and Russians living there as well as Persians like me. You have the sea, you have the mountains, you have the steppes, you have forest so you can drive for half an hour and be in four different countries.
 
DD: The style is similar to Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki – has his work been a big influence on you?
Babak Jalali: Yeah – pound for pound! He’s probably my favourite director. I generally like Northern European cinema far more than I like Iranian cinema, whether it’s Kaurismäki or Roy Andersson. I like the humour in Kaurismäki, I like the sense of melancholy mixed with humour. If people are in a really messed up situation, there’s always this lingering hope that something is going to happen any second now. Maybe it never quite does but the fact that you have that in the back of your head that any second now it’s all going to be alright, I like that. I don’t like it when things work out all the time.
 
DD: The soundtrack is an important part of the film – it really adds to the melancholy tone. How did it come about?
Babak Jalali: The composer of the film is a friend of mine called Noaz Deshe, he lives in Berlin and was a big inspiration to me on many levels. For a brief period of time he was supposed to be editing the film with me and it just did not work out. One day out of the blue he brought his guitar in, he’s never composed for a film before, and just by humming and playing the guitar over some scenes we were editing I got all these ideas about how we could edit the film and he ended up being the composer.
  
DD: In terms of casting, did you use mainly unprofessional actors?
Babak Jalali: Entirely. The guy [in the film] who owns the store is actually my uncle. The rest we found when we went on pre-production [trips] to find the locations. One of the actors illegally fishes sturgeon for caviar, we found him going out to sea to fish when we were location scouting.
 
DD: Was it difficult to film in Iran with their laws on censorship?
Babak Jalali: Every film that is made in Iran the Ministry of Culture has to give you permission to film. My script they okayed but there were three scenes in particular that I added after the script was written. They said they would send people to check on us but no-one came, maybe because we were in a far flung place. Those three scenes were where Hassan fondles the mannequin, where the minstrel is sitting by himself playing the lute and he drinks moonshine and the third scene is where the driver starts singing a song that is an old Marxist protest song which is illegal in Iran to sing. So those scenes the censors didn’t see and I haven’t showed them the final product as we haven’t tried to show it in Iran. But it is difficult because when you write you self-censor yourself, even though my intention was never to make a political film or anything like that.
 
Frontier Blues was released in the UK on 31 July 2010.
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