Student turns his lens on mysticism
Mansoor Behnam is an experimental filmmaker and writer currently working on his PhD in the Cultural Studies program at Queen’s. As part of the creative component of his thesis, he has created a number of short films that will be screened for the public at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. He sat down with Meredith Dault, Senior Communications Officer, shortly before the screening to talk about art, poetry, and the immigrant identity.
Meredith Dault: How long have you been making films?
Mansoor Behnam: I really became a filmmaker in the year 2000, but I think I started thinking like a filmmaker much earlier than that. When I was a child in Iran I had an active passion for collecting photographs. By the time I was nine or ten years old, I started using them to create collages that would tell stories. At the same time, I was becoming passionate about cinema. At age 12, I began subscribing to an Iranian film magazine and began following news about Iranian and World Cinema. As I grew older, I stayed interested in filmmaking, but didn’t have the equipment or technology to pursue it. But in the late 90s, a consumer-grade video camera came on the market, and I got one. I began to take footage from here and there, and without really understanding what experimental cinema was, I started experimenting. I only showed them to my friends and family.
MD: When did you start showing them more broadly?
MB: In the year 2000, when I was 30, I saw an announcement in an Iranian newspaper advertising a film festival with an open call for submissions. It was a theme-based festival, and all the submissions were supposed to explore the theme “women”. This was right around the time that there was an increasing social awareness about women’s rights in Iran. I collaborated on a film with a poet/painter friend, which was really well received by the festival, as well as by a well-known film critic who wrote a two page review of our film in an acclaimed Iranian film magazine. It gave me a lot of encouragement to continue – and I’ve been making films ever since.
MD: What brought you to Queen’s?
MB: I immigrated to Canada in 2006 in order to do a master’s degree in comparative literature at Western University. When it came to applying to PhD programs, I wasn’t e ntirely sure what area of study I wanted to pursue. I make films, but I am also very interestedin literature, theatre and art (I earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master’s degree in theatre in Iran). The cultural studies program appealed to me because it would allow me to pull all of my interests together. The program’s project option would let me make a film while also doing research and scholarship I wanted to do in order to inform it. I arrived at Queen’s to begin my PhD in the fall of 2010.
MD: What kinds of themes are you exploring in the film and video work you are currently creating?
MB: My films are not narrative – they are experimental in both their style and content. Experimental cinema gives you the ability to do unconventional things with images and especially to work with your thoughts. As far as content goes, I am using the tenets of Persian/Islamic medieval mysticism, or Sufism, in order to conceptualize a theory of experimental film and video. I like mysticism because I like cinema – and in fact, one scholar has described cinema as a “mystical translation machine”. I will admit that “mysticism” is elusive content, but it’s also a way to create proximity with the spiritual or divine. However, my take on mysticism is not a religious one – I see it as a way of creating a relationship or investigating the presence of the Immanence as spiritual, in a creative way. It’s a way of considering this kind of spirituality, spiritual Immanence. Since spirit, desire and Immanence are invisible, invisibility also becomes one of the main concepts in my project..
MD: It sounds like you pack a lot of content and meaning into each one!
MB: I may have these ideas when I am making my films, but my most important intention is to think of mysticism as a way of encouraging the vital practices of the mind: thinking and making concepts – in other words, to get people thinking. I use images in my work, along with lots of text and poetry. If the audience is engaged with what I’m doing – even if they don’t totally understand it, then I feel happy with what I’m doing. For me, the intellectual engagement aspect is very important – to create something in the viewers’ mind that they will think about later on. It’s food for thought.
MD: How will these films integrate with your written thesis?
MB: They are very closely connected. The thesis addresses points in the films, and the films are informed by theory that is in the thesis – and I situate myself in that discussion. The working title of my thesis is “Iranian diasporic subjectivity as a third space for experimentation in film and video.” I am really working with three themes – Middle Eastern and post-colonial cinema, experimental cinema and mysticism – with faculty support from Dr. Dorit Naaman (Film and Media), Gary Kibbins (Film and Media) and Dr. Adnan Husain (History). The cultural studies program not only allowed me to pull my interests together, but the support allowed me to apply for scholarships with confidence, including one that let me do a semester at Northwestern University studying with the internationally acclaimed scholar, Hamid Naficy. This program has really worked perfectly for me.
Art Docs: New Works by Mansoor Behnam takes place at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre on Thursday, February 6, 2014 from 7 to 8:30pm. Mr. Behnam will introduce and screen five recent videos:
• Organon (2012, 5 minutes)
• This is Not That (2013, 12 minutes)
• A Film That Was Its Title (2013, 4:40 minutes)
• Lullaby for a Crying Elephant (2013, 5 minutes)
• Reality Report (2013-14, 25 minutes)
The screening is followed by a Q&A. This event is presented in cooperation with the Cultural Studies Program at Queen’s University. This event is free.