There is a serene, whispered quality to White Winged Horse, with the camera floating between players before smartly revealing a larger, more pronounced context. It shows its characters caught within the sweep of history, mixing fantasy with reality, past with present, capturing these dichotomies with elegant takes and haunting sound design. At its heart is a young man with the face and wings of a horse returning to a town scarred by war, searching endlessly for his long-lost love. Winner of a special mention in the Berlinale 2020 generation section, it shows Iranian editor-turned-director Mahyar Mandegar’s great confidence behind the camera. Currently studying at the American Film Institute, he talks to DN about the white winged horse in popular culture, being inspired by Russian films, bringing together the relatively low-budget for the film and going against the grain of contemporary social-realist Iranian cinema.
Is there a certain cultural significance behind the white winged horse in Iran?
To be honest, the main idea came from a joke that one of my teachers used to tell us. It was an absurd joke about a white winged horse who goes to a city and looks for a job and can’t find it because he has wings. It didn’t have a funny ending but it always stayed with me. The most important thing was the teacher. He was a great influence on my life. He was teaching us literature and poetry, and after that class I came to movies and films. After years of editing lots of films, I wondered if I could make a film about that creature. Then I just combined it with some elements of my time back then, like my friends who were leaving the country. So the result was a combination of that sadness and the feeling of losing people with this absurd creature. It took about six months writing different drafts to get it right.
At the same time, we have this creature in Iran. It’s a folklore story, that there’s a winged horse that a little girl wants to have one day. It’s different from Western culture when it’s a gladiator on a white horse. All of this happened after making the film though. I didn’t think about it. It’s interesting though because in the West the horse will save us, but in Iran, it’s more like “we can’t change it. One day the horse will come and take me with it. I will leave.”
It’s interesting you mention how this inspiration came from school, as this film maintains a childlike perspective throughout, even as the horse returns…
It’s a good point because he’s not a strong person as an adult if you put it that way. You can see the wounds, you can see how vulnerable he is. Everything that happened to him was out of his will. The weakness that he has is making him so fragile and that’s why he’s still in his memories. The flashbacks are still in his real time, every day he is staying in that time. I don’t think anyone else in the city is the same.
And the way it moves between eras is really seamlessly done. Can you tell me about working on the edit yourself? Did you always want to make it feel like these are continuous takes?
I started my career editing films. I’ve been editing for six years. I knew I was going to edit it at first. But the edit was coming in the pre-production, in the shot-list, like in animation when you edit even before you’re making it. I tried to make the mood of every scene more united because sometimes when you cut, you cut the feeling. This just feels more cinematic. I wanted to make the past merge with the present, and it helped to think about it in the shot-list. It got very detailed actually, so the shots would feel like more like one take.
I tried to make the mood of every scene more united because sometimes when you cut, you cut the feeling.
One of our references was Russian films. There’s a kind of slow cinema that feels more emotional in the moment. They were a great reference for us in terms of how to shoot the film and edit it, as well as the slow pace, the feeling and the emotions of the audience while watching it.
Alexei German springs to mind…
Amazing! It was Alexei German Jr., he made a film, Dovlatov, that was one of our main references!
I’ve interviewed him about that film actually. He’s very down to earth, despite the loftiness of his films. His style is quite like his father’s, but he takes it into quite different avenues. Was this in terms of those long, dreamlike takes?
Actually, I didn’t know him that much. Then I went to a movie theatre in Tehran, and I saw this amazing three hour film and was just on this journey with the character. Now I’m in LA and I’m studying other kinds of films and how to keep the audience with drama and stories. But that film is also keeping the audience with something else. Without that fast pace, but somehow you can feel the soul and heart of the art.
One shot from your film that I really appreciated was at the beginning, where after the two kids are talking, the camera pans away and we see the mountain and that we are in a conflict of some kind. It’s the kind of slow cinema technique that feels full of possibilities. Was there any war in particular you’re referencing here? And what was it like working on the production design and finding the right budget?
The war is completely abstract. There is no time and place for it but there was one day where I decided to be open for things to come in. At first, I was trying to make it as abstract as I could and make it a place where no one knows where it is, but then I decided to be more open to it. For example, in the motel, I thought “now there’s an Iranian or Armenian song playing”, or “these soldiers are drinking tea”, or “here’s something eastern or Iranian”. But although I’ve never seen any war, I can still feel the presence of it. You can always feel it even if it’s decades since the war with Iraq. That’s the same in the film, because you don’t see the war, but you can feel the presence of it.
The funding and the production design were interesting because it was a student film. No one got paid as the crew members were all friends. I was lucky to have my teammates. The difference was that the school was not helping us. Funding it was very difficult. I wrote the film then I started searching for a producer to support me with the money. After six months of searching, I found someone who helped with half of the budget and I put in the other half but it’s really nothing. Because of the currency exchange, it was only $2000 to $3000.
Although I’ve never seen any war, I can still feel the presence of it.
Most directors in Iran are pretty neorealist, right? So what was the response to you wanting to make this kind of film?
It was one of the hardest parts of the entire process. These social realist films are doing very well in Iran and they’re great films but with the success of one specific kind of movie, a wave comes after that so the same films kept repeating themselves because of the appreciation from international festivals. As a person who wants to make a different kind of film, it makes it a little harder, especially as it’s really hard to make films in Iran anyway. I remembered when writing the film that a lot of friends told me that festivals wouldn’t take it as they want something else from Iran but I was really lucky and honoured to be accepted in the Berlinale. That really changed my mind.
What are you working on next?
I’m studying at the AFI in LA. It’s a two year program. I will make three films and then the thesis. Meanwhile, I’m working on my first feature script. I’m also starting the festival distribution for a 25 minute documentary I made in Berlin. I’m experiencing lots of things and trying to capture them and put them in my work right now. It’s a new challenge and a new experience. I hope it goes well.