Sepideh Farsi’s animated film The Siren was conceived nine years ago, when the world was noticeably different. The protests over women’s freedoms in Iran, where Farsi lived until she was 18, hadn’t erupted. The military conflicts between Ukraine and Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Israel and Palestine were not yet on the horizon. The Siren itself is set in the past, during the attack on the Iranian city Abadan during the Iran-Iraq War.
A movie that looks backwards has acquired new meaning because of current events. Apart from its thematic concerns, The Siren is a gorgeous piece of animation, combining to dazzling effect the attributes of the filmmaking form with Iranian musical traditions and Farsi’s vision.
The Siren will be shown at the International Film Festival of Kerala (December 8-15) alongside two other animated films: Sultana’s Dream, a loose adaptation of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s feminist novel of the same name, and the period drama The Peasants, the new production from the makers of Loving Vincent.
Fans of animation at IFFK will find much to savour in The Siren. The movie has densely detailed backdrops that reimagine Abadan in 1980, a stirring story of connections forged amidst the carnage of war, and an ode to the power of music.
The story revolves around 14-year-old Omid, who is staying put in Abadan with his grandfather even though the city has been besieged by neighbouring Iraq. Omid’s adventures bring him in contact with characters from different faiths and cultures, including Pari and her mother, the former singing star Elaheh. As Abadan endures repeated bombings that destroy its oil refineries, Omid makes a decision to leave.
The title refers both to the ship that Omid’s father used to operate and Elaheh. Forbidden from singing after the ultra-religious Iranian Revolution of 1979, Elaheh is waging her own version of rebellion by retaining every ounce of her divaness.
It’s hard to tell that Farsi hasn’t made an animated film before The Siren. The 58-year-old Iranian-French director has a string of features and documentaries to her credit. The Siren, written by Javad Djavahery with eye-popping design by Zaven Najjar, uses animation to tell a universal story of resistance, tolerance and flight. In an interview with Scroll, Farsi discussed the ideas that went into The Siren and its relevance at a time of heightened armed aggression.
You have previously directed features and documentaries. What made you pick animation for The Siren?
The choice of animation was there from the beginning. I am self-taught in cinema as well as in photography, so [a new medium] doesn’t really scare me. Of course, there were difficulties and obviously it can be a handicap, but I never really considered it that way.
In cinema, you can always find collaborators. Making cinema is about knowing what you want to express and how to convey to your team as a director.
I was also convinced that animation was the right choice because I could not imagine rebuilding the war, the epoch and the historical background in Iran as a live action film in a studio. It’s not just about the budget – I simply don’t find such films believable.
Animation gives you this distance, this spectrum to tell almost any kind of story. You can recreate an era with the precise historical details without resorting to heavy CGI. You have more freedom to do different kinds of shots.
Ultimately the skills of filmmaking are the same, no matter what the medium. It doesn’t matter if it’s animation or live action. Of course, I had to find the right people to create the design.
How did your previous experiences influence the making of The Siren?
I brought in my experiences not only from fiction, but also from documentaries. It’s a method, an ethic.
This is my fifteenth film. In all my other fiction and documentary films, I have always had the same approach – holding my vision as an artist all the way through the narrative.
What I brought with me was sensitivity and an almost maniacal precision. I did a tremendous amount of research. I wanted everything to be right – the posters, the slogans, the clothing, the car models. That obsession came from documentary filmmaking, where everything to be real.
The other thing is that beyond the so-called veracity, there is the matter of the inner truth. Even in fiction, characters have to be faithful to a certain vision, in terms of the war, the choices people make, whether they want to defend their country or choose not to fight and resist differently, as is the case with Omid.
Many of the ethical concerns between the screenwriter Javad and I were common – to have a teenager as the main character, to have a hopeful ending, to not to judge the Iraqis.
Why did you pick the port city of Abadan as the main setting for the story?
Abadan is a very particular city – it was one of the most important ports of Iran, and had the biggest refinery in the Middle East. That gave the city a special, multi-culti atmosphere since there were many foreigners working there as well as other kinds of communities.
Abadan was the first big city to be attacked by the Iraqis. There was a siege for eight months, during which quite a few Abadani civilians refused to leave. They stayed and fought along with the soldiers, and they did manage to break the siege.
I wanted to show the complexity of this situation as well as the complexity of Iranian society, because the picture we usually get of Iran is quite black and white.
What was your journey from Iran to France like?
I grew up in Iran. I was 13 when the Iranian Revolution happened. By the time I was 16, I was an activist. And that year, I was arrested because I had helped a young dissident hide in my home. I spent almost a year in jail, while the young woman who was caught in my house was tortured and killed by the regime.
After I got out of jail, I was denied all civil rights and couldn’t do anything. Therefore, I left in 1984, when I was 18-and-a-half years old. I came to France to actually go to America, but the US Embassy didn’t give me a visa. So I stayed in Paris. It was the best choice I ever made in my life, I think.
I had always wanted to study film, but I couldn’t get into film school. I didn’t have money, I had to work to pay for my studies. I studied mathematics because I was good in maths at school. I was a maths teacher for years, and then I decided to give up everything to make films.
One of the film’s themes is Omid’s decision to flee Abadan on a kind of Noah’s Ark, made up of people of different faiths.
Iran was and still is a multi-faith and multi-cultural country, even though it does not seem like that from the outside. We continue to have Armenian, Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian communities, even though they are not big in number. And Bahais – though the Bahai community is really persecuted by the regime.
Before the 1979 revolution, it wasn’t exactly heaven. There was a dictatorship too under the Shah of Iran, where people were jailed and tortured. Unfortunately, we made the wrong choices and went from bad to worse. One might draw a parallel with the ending of The Siren, in terms of what could happen if everyone could live together peacefully or leave the country.
I recently heard on television that in 2023, Iran has one of the highest rates of immigration per capita in the world. This is for a country that isn’t officially at war. But we are in a war zone. Our regime is at war with its own population. Many countries around the world have democracy issues now. But Iran is one of the most seriously affected in regard to that matter.
It is a sad situation when you have to make the choice between living and dying, or living and not being able to do anything. You lose things when you leave a country. You’re never the same person afterwards.
I too left many things behind that I could never find again. It is always a dilemma, but it was a non-choice for me. I haven’t been able to go back to Iran since 2009 [because of my activism]. In between too, I have had issues. I was stuck in Iran in 1989 during a visit to my parents and had to fight to be able to leave.
Another theme is the spirit of resistance, which is embodied by Elaheh.
Many Iranian women and artists have been resisting in different ways ever since 1979. Some of the singers left, while others chose to stay.
Elaheh is a real singer, although she never lived in Abadan – that was our invention for the story. She left Iran and performed at many concerts abroad, but then she came back to Iran, where she died [in 2007]. One of our most beautiful and important singers, Parisa, still lives in Iran. She leaves only to perform abroad.
Quite a few of the singers left. They had to, in order to practise their art. Resistance is multi-fold and takes many different forms, depending on who you are and how you live through it. The resistance of women, activists and artists has never stopped in Iran. It was just not as visible as it is now.
Tell us about the music, which embraces a variety of styles.
The music was composed by Erik Truffaz, whose music I love. I wanted the music to be a reflection of multi-faceted Iranian society, of the many forms of music that co-exist in Iran. The music is one of the characters in the film.
We have traditional, folk, pop, jazz forms, which are followed and cherished in Iran. Also, there are cult songs, Elaheh’s songs, as well as pre-existing music by Saeid Shanbezadeh, who is from Abadan and now lives in exile in France.
Erik integrated into the music instruments like the Iranian percussion instrument zarb and neyanban, the Iranian version of the bagpipe The soundtrack is a patchwork, which was deliberate. I wanted to incorporate different kinds of music in the film, just like the different characters we have.
The film has been in the making for nine years, but feels especially relevant now.
When we started working on the project, we felt that we were talking about the conflicts that belonged to the past. As the production entered its final phase, things were picking up with Ukraine, then there was the Karabagh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and then the Palestine and Israel situation. Meanwhile, the protests in Iran were ongoing.
It’s a strange feeling indeed – the world is always undergoing war, no matter how distant you think you are from certain things. Democracy and peace are never eternal. We have to really fight for peace and democracy. The moment we think we have them for ever, we risk losing them.
I have been travelling with the film for the past few months. People seem to be acknowledging that a war that was going on 40 years ago, is all of a sudden very actual. It is now unfortunately a contemporary issue.