LONDON — Kaweh Modiri’s Raindance Film Festival entry “Bodkin Ras,” his feature debut, follows confidently in the footsteps of his first short film, 2010’s somewhat self-explanatory “My Burglar and I.” “It was a film about how I found the burglar who had stolen my laptop and all my work,” the Amsterdam-based director recalls. “He got caught, and when I got my laptop back, I found hours and hours of him, introducing himself, kissing the camera, saying he wanted to be a rapper…” The tables were turned, and suddenly Modiri had “this intimate relationship with him — it was like I was in his bedroom, seeing him very vulnerable.”
Modiri invited the felon to work with him, but his offer was rejected (“He didn’t trust me,” the director laughs). As a result, the film became a mixture of fact and fiction, a concept he has expanded for “Bodkin Ras,” in which an Iranian-born fugitive from Holland (echoing the director’s own biography) finds himself in the remote Scottish town of Forres. Moving through the town’s community, the title character begins to reveal himself as he soaks up the stories of characterful locals such as local fencer Eddie Paton and street poet “Red” Eddie James.
Variety spoke to Modiri about the film in London.
What was the starting point for “Bodkin Ras”?
It started when I was travelled to the remote town of Forres, which is hidden between the [Scottish] Highlands and the North Sea. I was visiting a friend, and one day I found myself in a place called the Eagle bar, trying to figure out what kind of place this was. I went outside and someone said “Salaam alaykum” to me. This turned out to be “Red” James [Macmillan], who’s the narrator of the film – a very rough Scottish poet-type person who’s travelled round Europe, working on a manuscript. And it was just very funny to me that a guy with his rough appearance, somewhere in the north of Scotland, would say “Salaam alaykum.”
What does that mean?
It means basically “hello” in Arabic. I don’t even speak Arabic but I recognized it. We got chatting, and he made a very big impression on me. I came back to Holland and I wrote a short story called “Bodkin Ras,” based on my own experience there, of being someone who is clearly not someone from [Forres] — the experience of being an outsider in such a remote and close-knit community. Later on when I went back to make the film, I went looking for “Red” James, and through him I met some of the other characters who are in the film.
How did the people of Forres react to you making a film there?
People reacted very differently. The people who appear as characters in the film, they are the ‘rough’ people [of the town] who spend their days in the Eagle bar, from morning until afternoon. Not everyone in the town appreciated or understood that. They said, “Why did you come from Holland to this remote town and film our alcoholics?” They weren’t sure what we were going to do. And because we were from Amsterdam they thought we were shooting a porn film! But the people who are in the film took to it really well and gave it their all.
Did you have a script?
The only professional actor in the film is Sohrab Bayat, whom I’ve known since the age of five. We came on the same airplane to Holland as political refugees from Iran via Turkey – we were childhood friends. I had a [written] script dealing with his character’s story, and then I had treatments for all the documentary characters, with just an idea about how they would blend together. So there was a script, but in the end we improvised a lot. The idea was always that we would leave space to allow something to happen on the spot.
What was in the treatments?
The treatments were actually quite accurate, because I knew the routines of each character. For example, I knew that Eddie [Paton] wakes up every morning at 4 a.m., shouting and screaming, and then he starts tidying up his house. At 10 a.m. he goes to the bar, until 5 p.m. Then at 5 p.m. he comes home drunk and eats something – or doesn’t. But there were also lots of things that just happened. There was a man who kept trying to sing us an old traditional Scottish song, but he kept on forgetting the lyrics! There were lots of things like that. The point was to find a balance between the two.
Is the hybrid documentary genre something that interests you?
Yeah, definitely. One of the great influences on me, one of the first filmmakers that really inspired me, was Abbas Kiarostami and films like “Close-Up” . And Iranian cinema in general. But mainly Kiarostami and the way he uses these two formats as a way to tell a story and not necessarily making a distinction.
Have you shown the film in Forres?
Yes. It was very important that it would be screened in Forres, so that people could see it. In the local paper there had been all these articles saying, “Film Divides Town in Two…” Some people hated our guts, and mainly they were doubtful about what we had made. When we showed it at the town hall for the townspeople it was a very beautiful day and they were very happy with the result. They finally got to know people like Eddie and “Red” James, who they would normally tend to avoid — they got to know their stories and they were able to give them the respect and appreciation they deserve.
Did they understand the mixing of fact and fiction?
Definitely — surprisingly enough! Because it is quite a complicated film to explain, but I found that people tend to connect with it on a very emotional level. It’s not a very hard film to follow, in that sense. It’s kind of organic. So even in audiences that are not necessarily die-hard arthouse, people find ways to connect 00 despite the rarefied form.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a few films now. One is a Dutch TV drama. And then my next big feature film is called “Mitra,” which is also going to be my next novel. Mistra was the name of my half-sister who was executed in Iran in 1981. The first part is based on real events and the second half is set in Europe nowadays, where the mother of Mistra finds the girl who betrayed her. It’s fictional, but at the same time my inspiration is reality, so the source is similar to “Bodkin Ras” — in that sense they are related. But it’s not going to be a mixture of doc and fiction. This will be fiction shot like fiction.