Filmmaker Rouzbeh Rashidi on developing a platform for alternative cinema

Rouzbeh Rashidi, the founder of Dublin-based Experimental Film Society (EFS), talks cinema and cinephilia as he traces the journey of the company on its 20th anniversary.

by Utkarsh Published on : May 14, 2020

There are three broad categories in films, that the filmmaker and founder of Experimental Film Society, Rouzbeh Rashidi, describes to me. The first category is that of the mainstream cinema, with its strong emphasis on storytelling. The second is an underground/ guerrilla cinema, which is bolder in its subject matter and embraces micro-budget techniques. The third is the category of video art that arises from a visual arts context and holds an “explicit ideological agenda”. It is important that he presents this description to me, as he then traces how it was an inability to relate to any of these moulds that formed the basis for his own cinematic practice, which lies inextricably linked to what would eventually become the Experimental Film Society (EFS). “I needed to establish a system of making and screening such films,” Rashidi says, as he defines his own practice as one that is preoccupied by cinema itself, influenced by the historicity of the medium. Reflecting on his own experience of developing a platform for alternative cinema, he says, “If you want to survive, then you must create the culture that you want to be part of, and build it yourself from scratch.”

Inside (2017) | Experimental Film Society founded by Rouzbeh Rashidi | STIRworld
Inside (2017) Image Credit: Vicky Langan and Maximilian Le Cain

Founded in the year 2000, in Tehran, (Iran), EFS expanded when Rashidi moved to Dublin in 2004, perceiving a similar absence of an alternative cinematic tradition, there as well. Establishing the two locations as the geographical poles of EFS, Rashidi began to forge a path towards a shared cinematic vision amongst like-minded filmmakers from around the world. Theirs was a practice that barely relied on external sources of funding, working lean budgets to craft and present their cinema to intimate audiences, through their early days. In the 20 years since, EFS has diversified beyond what it set out to do, adopting a multi-faceted approach to its dissemination, that includes screening programmes, performances, publications and even a film festival! But at its very centre lies the question of ‘what is cinema,’ a notion that is deeply rooted in the diverse practices of the EFS filmmakers.  “We tend to treat cinema as a laboratory where our perception and inner life are used as a 'reagent' in an experiment where the films we make reveal the nature of these things to us and the audiences,” says Rashidi, adding, “The experience of engaging with moving images has been and continues to be reconfigured in so many different ways, including being as much an idea as a realised work or experience.”

Whale Skull (2020) | Experimental Film Society founded by Rouzbeh Rashidi | STIRworld
Whale Skull (2020) Image Credit: Maximilian Le Cain

Within his own cinematic practice, Rashidi employs a frenetic pace of filmmaking that is reminiscent of the films of directors such as Jesus Franco and Jean Rollin, resulting in a constant churning that defies the monolithic standards of an industry-based cinema. Filmmaking thus becomes, a tool for self-excavation that defines itself in the relation between the films and their author, rejecting contemporary trends and the resulting homogeneity. Speaking about his practice, Rashidi says, “For me, making these films is a process of freely exploring my often strange and disconcerting perceptual reactions towards my existence in a world that appears increasingly mysterious and unstable, the more I look at it. We primarily perceive this world through sight, sound, and the medium of an individual sensibility. The techniques of cinema, therefore, are ideally suited to investigate personal perception in a way that can reveal the nature of one's inner relationship with the world to a heightened degree. The filmmaker uses cinema, and cinema uses the filmmaker's unique sensibility to probe the nature of the other. Each goads the other on, pushing perceptual boundaries and revealing hidden aspects of each other's nature.”

Autumnal Sleeps (2019) | Experimental Film Society founded by Rouzbeh Rashidi | STIRworld
Autumnal Sleeps (2019) Image Credit: Michael Higgins

This symbiotic relationship is quite pronounced in Rashidi’s ongoing Homo Sapiens Project, a monumental series of over 199 films of varying durations that were produced between 2011-2015. The individual films range from being diaristic enquiries to being semi-documentary portraits of people and places, that assume an overall oneiric quality as they shift in and out of an organic filmic consciousness. The project has been made available on the video-on-demand section of the EFS website, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. The Homo Sapiens Project seeks to produce over a 1,000 short films in its entirety.

Wake Up Screaming (2019) | Experimental Film Society founded by Rouzbeh Rashidi | STIRworld
Wake Up Screaming (2019) Image Credit: Chris O'Neill

In an era saturated by constant imagery, Rashidi is a proponent of a personal cinema that accounts for the author’s personal vision, using emerging technology to present ‘a cinema of the future’. “Only by creating work that is unique and completely personal, deploying horrifically alchemistic imagery within a cinematic context (of which the history is deep, ruthless and oceanic), can we push forward and define ourselves away from any monotonous or repetitious engagement with moving image that seems to stream from all sides,” he says, claiming, “With an intimate and personal cinema, we can trigger in this seemingly all-encompassing medium and destroy any boundaries or safety mechanisms as nobody should feel safe, not when they are watching a film!”

The Golden Mask (2020) | Experimental Film Society founded by Rouzbeh Rashidi | STIRworld
The Golden Mask (2020) Image Credit: Atoosa Pour Hosseini

The 20th anniversary of EFS heralds a new direction in its trajectory, as it transitions from being a non-profit collective to an independent company, bringing forth structural reforms that ensure a productive future. Projects and events have been planned through the length of the year, which will eventually culminate in a retrospective to be held in Dublin. A host of material has now been made available online, which includes feature films and shorts, that are present in the video-on-demand section of the EFS website. Articles and archival documents have also been made available, presenting a closer look at the society’s history and journey, so far. 

Rouzbeh Rashidi | Experimental Film Society founded by Rouzbeh Rashidi | STIRworld
Rouzbeh Rashidi Image Credit: Rouzbeh Rashidi

When asked about what had sustained EFS through all these years, Rashidi responds by underscoring “a ferocious, burning impatience,” without which they wouldn’t have accomplished even a fraction of what they have, today. Over all these years EFS has pieced together space and solidarity, for an alternate vision for cinema that cuts across geographies, to challenge predominant ways of thinking about the moving image. Beyond the politics of form and aesthetics, EFS rejects institutions, to create an inclusive environment and to make their cinema accessible to all.

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