Arash T. Riahi in a conversation with Ulduz Ahmadzadeh and Johanna Figl on Force Majeure

Arash T. Riahi in a conversation with Ulduz Ahmadzadeh and Johanna Figl on Force Majeure

Ulduz Ahmadzadeh and Johanna Figl are currently working on their piece Force Majeure, which among other things deals with motherhood, activism, and imprisonment. The premiere is now planned for March 2021.

Arash T. Riahi: How did you get the idea for your co-operation?

Johanna Figl: We first met at Impulstanz and immediately got along on the same level. Ulduz once said to me that she would like to work together with a dramatic adviser sometime. We wanted to create something that isn’t just about “beaux-arts” or ourselves, but which has a bigger dimension, is political and changes something.

Our first collaboration was the project Under Cover on the issue of the hijab, which wanted to show another picture of Muslim women in Austria.

Even then I frequently stumbled on letters by female activists, which they write from prison to their children, and which Amnesty International publishes regularly. The dilemma of being torn with regard to the question “what is the right thing to do?” caught my attention. I found this so intriguing that one creates a better life for one’s children by standing up for the whole thing. And it was very beautiful how they tried to explain exactly that to their children. I thought: “I think I would understand if I was in their place.” And so Ulduz and I kept thinking about the themes of our new piece together. Of course, being a mother herself, Ulduz brings in her own experience, and we also talk a lot about all these things with women who are involved. For instance, some of them consciously decided against getting children because they believe that they’re able to act differently that way. There’s a whole caleidoscope of issues we want to address.

With Under Cover we started a trilogy, each part of which should concentrate on Muslim socialised women – in order to raise awareness. I was always very impressed by the fighting spirit of the Iranian women I know. That was another reason for picking up the theme and to find out how deeply society is in disorder so that these women stand up and are ready to risk so much. After all, we Europeans don’t even have to make such decisions – at least for the time being.

A. T. R.: Ulduz, what is your perspective on the project? How did you get this idea? Is there a personal connection apart from your Iranian nationality?

Ulduz Ahmadzadeh: Well, it gets hard to say “independent of my nationality”, because all this is of course connected with me biographically as well. But a central question, leaving nationality aside, is one I often asked myself at the time when I was pregnant with my second child and we were just writing the concept: “How can a mother have a priority other than her children?” 

That was when for professional reasons I first left my first child alone for two days. It was an incredible feeling, having a bawling child crying for you, because you’re everything to it, and then you’re suddenly gone. I imagined how it would feel not to be self-determined in such a situation, and not even having the choice of going back and holding your child again. And I asked myself how you would feel as a mother who is politically active and knows that this scenario may happen at any time. So my interest was to get to know these women and to understand what is going on with them. How can such a decision be made by a mother?

A. T. R.: The decision is the political decision to become activist and accepting the danger involved. Probably no woman will decide voluntarily to leave her child behind.

U. A.: Right, that’s the political decision I mean. But of course I can very well understand the urgency and necessity of risking one’s private life for freedom and human rights.

J. F.: I believe that one has to discern between very loud activism and people who simply want to do the right thing for themselves. For instance, we had conversations with one interview partner who is already under fire because she belongs to a minority, and in addition she takes care of sexually abused children. She is not loud, she doesn’t run through the streets waving flags, but she is in danger merely because of what she does. On the other hand, there are of course people who consciously decide for loud activism.

U. A.: I do believe that it is possible to decide. One could stop in that moment when one has a baby. But that is exactly what the adversaries want. If one would just stop, everything would be “okay” again. But if you continue with your activism then you’re certainly playing with that danger, and the people who still continue on this path know about this danger.

It’s the same in the case of clearly visible female activists. They know exactly what could happen to them, and somehow they also provoke it. They consciously confront the regime with their behaviour, and they provoke it. It was very interesting for me simply to understand this. How can they do this? 

Still, it is not always a conscious decision to go to prison for a cause. We want to observe this issue from the view of the parents as well as that of the children.

A. T. R.: Perhaps one could say that preliminary to the piece is the fundamental and universal question whether one should have children or not, and into which world one would want these children to be born? There’s those who say: “I don’t want to have a child because the world is so bad. Why should I do this to a child?” Others say: “I want to have a child, and I would raise it so that it can make the world a better place.” And moreover, there’s also the question of where one lives. Whether you live in a dictatorship or in a democracy defines which means are at your disposal in order to change the world around you. If you do not want this at all or give up, you withdraw into privacy, as it often happens in Iran and in other countries, too. If you decide to become politically active it means that you risk going to prison, getting killed or having to take flight. The other option is to become completely apolitical, or supposedly apolitical in order to survive.

J. F.: Yes, it’s out of the frying pan into the fire. If you believe in human rights and in freedom or in life, then you will not really be happy with any of these decisions, and it will always hurt. Sometimes you have no choice if you have certain values and if you have to stand up for them. That’s something we often talk about, that sometimes one has to. You have to say that this is wrong and you cannot just watch. I won’t put up with everything. I will not give in, and I will not let them win. I think that the question whether to have children is also a question of believing in life itself. And of hoping that you’ll have good children who will perhaps change something.

A. T. R.: Often it is like this that a child is seen as a seed of something, in a positive as well as in a negative sense. It was the same with me, when my father was imprisoned for five years under the Shah. He went to prison when I was one and a half years old. Later, when my mother was pregnant with one of my siblings, they found out that the Islamists in the region were just discussing whether my mother should be executed after giving birth, or rather during pregnancy, in order to destroy the anti-Islamic seed in her belly at the same time. Who knows what the genetic effects of my mother’s stressful situation were on her children. Is that kind of genetic transfer of a trauma an issue for you?

J. F.: I find it very intriguing. 

A. T. R.: It also is a big issue with Holocaust survivors.

J. F.: There is proof that such a trauma can be inherited over three generations.

U. A.: The way I see it is that just because of being present on stage, as children of this generation, we also represent the theme. It is an issue in our generation anyway: the depressions, the wartime tragedies we witnessed in our childhood. This doesn’t need any scientific proof, because we can observe it daily on ourselves and have to manage to be above it somehow.

I myself have a strong phobia. One of my biggest recurring nightmares is being locked up in prison. This fear is always there. I would not know how to go on breathing if I had the feeling that I cannot walk out of there and they’ve taken everything from me, especially my freedom. I’m very sensitive in this respect, and I cannot stand it at all when someone brings me into a situation in which I feel confined. So, what I’m also very interested in is the states of the body. How is it to be imprisoned, when one is totally secluded and has no power, no control at all? Everything is taken away from one. How does one survive? What happens in the body then? This condition of the body as a medium. And that’s our medium, too: body and dance. How I manage to present these feelings through dance is exactly what we are currently working on. I’ve already got a few ideas how it might be possible to bring our bodies into this physical condition of confinement which we can work with. Another of our topics is breathing, for instance. There is some inspiration by an archaic men’s dance from Turkmenistan that has a lot to do with breathing technique. This dance is even older than Islam and was a spiritual practice: a ritual before hunting in order to capture and sacrifice the soul of the animal prior to the hunt.

J. F.: These archaic men’s dances are woven into our piece, but danced by women. We appropriate them as a space traditionally allocated to males. 

A. T. R.: When you are a mother in prison, dance is possibly the last thing you’ll be thinking of! That’s exactly what I find so wonderful. To take such a topic, which allegedly has no association with dance at all, and to approach it with the medium of dance. After all, dancing is one of the greatest impressions of freedom. How do you go about it?

U. A.: For me, dance is a condition in the body. With regard to prison one often thinks that it’s something static. It isn’t at all for me, because inside the imprisoned body there is so much movement present. Therefore I picture the piece to be very active.

J. F.: These inner processes can be represented very well. It’s more about them than about the current state. The emotional thoughts of being torn. Dance, the somatic, is very well suited for that; also to investigate the question: “Where is this fear or this resilience established in the body?” … 

U. A.: … or resistance. Offering resistance also has a lot to do with the body and muscles. However, it is a big challenge for me to transform this theme into a language of dance, not only performatively in the sense of what has happened with my body in space or in time.

Of course, other personal experiences also get integrated. When I was in Iran last year, I got into a big demonstration together with my mother, and the moment I saw the armed policemen I was full of trepidation for my children. What would happen to them if was shot dead now? Shortly after that, a Ukrainian aeroplane was shot down in Iran, and at that time, too, I was overwhelmed by this feeling of losing control, because I had to think of what would happen to my children if I had been on this aeroplane.

This condition, this confrontation with death, results in an incredible adrenaline discharge. Apart from the status quo in prison, this is another interesting thing I would like to integrate in the piece.

A. T. R.: You talked about resistance before, and actually one can say that the decision to do a dance piece with women per se already symbolises resistance. Especially if you take into consideration that public dancing ist prohibited in countries such as Iran …

U. A.: But that also was the reason why I dance. I came here in 2008, and I had started dancing in Iran in 1999. It was an act of “Look at me, that’s what I do. Now you cannot stop me”. Also, I had to fight a long time for not being denied to do it although it was prohibited. I found my ways of doing this, and generally dance has always been a lever of resistance and an instrument for me. 

A. T. R.: Can you remember when you danced for the first time?

U. A.: Yes, I already did this as a little child. Of course, at that time I had no idea at all what it was or that I would ever be able to work as a professional dancer. I remember the VHS video tapes from the black market clearly, where they copied forbidden stuff like musicals, music videos or figure skating performances at the end of the tape. I often watched this surreptitiously and with fascination, and then I always danced all by myself, but I did not so much perceive this as dance rather than as an experience that made me feel life.

A. T. R.: Is this a project where one is searching for answers, or one where you follow questions to which there are actually no unambiguous answers?

U. A.: There are definitely no answers. It was the same with our previous project about the hijab, Under Cover. It is a complex theme for me, too. We have no answers there, and I would not like to give an answer, because I believe that there can hardly be an answer.

J. F.: I think that art doesn’t have to give answers at all. I believe that our task is not to give answers but rather to ask questions. In the course of my research it became ever more important for me to pay homage to these women and to make their stories visible.

U. A.: What I’m also very interested in is that the audience should in any case be involved in some kind of interaction, so that they are forced to form their own opinion. This time, I want to make them a bit uncomfortable, too. After all, independent of nationality it is about motherhood and about what is ascribed to women, what they have to do, what their responsibilities are, how they should organise their life, what kind of responsibility they should have regarding their children …

I’m also working with an Austrian dancer who is a mother herself. This was a conscious decision, so that people wouldn’t associate this story only with us Iranians and say: “That’s your story, it’s none of my concern.” I know that, e.g., in the nazi era there were many women who were exposed to lots of similar dangers because they had children. Even now it is difficult, as our Austrian dancer confirms. For instance, she is criticised by society as a mother because as a dancer she lives in precarious working conditions. She is advised to get a move on and find a decent job. I believe that even in Austria women are confronted with the question why they are doing political work although they’ve got children. 

A. T. R.: It’s simply the traditional viewpoint that a mother has to sacrifice herself and hold back.

U. A.: This also involves many philosophical questions, e.g., questions regarding equity. Is there such a thing as justice at all? Am I being fair to my own child? Am I fair to society? 

A. T. R.: Have the women ever confronted their tormentors with why they are acting as they do?

U. A.: I’m just reading a book where the author talks about this. Basically the prison guards are not allowed to have private conversations with the prisoners. Of course it happens anyway now and then, and the guards then ask the women whether their husbands won’t kill them once they’re outside again because they were in jail. All this does not fit into their life’s reality. The question of the other side is always important to me.

A. T. R.: What strategies enabled the women to survive in their cells? What about hope? Is that a topic?

J. F.: I cannot imagine being able to survive such a prison sentence and simply lead a normal life again after that without hope. I think this is worked out nicely in the film “Born in Evin” which deals with similar issues. In the end the mother says: “I’m not looking back because I do not want to lend space to those dark matters.” One concentrates on one’s hope and on what one is able to change oneself, not on the terrible things which have happened to one, and so one keeps going. We are just about to find out which tricks helped the women to do this.

U. A.: It is important to study these strategies as well as the strategies of the opposite side. A woman about whom I am just reading really prepared herself for prison. She knew what to expect from interrogations and thus did not succumb to them so much. She was much less fear-driven than others who were unprepared and therefore panicked during interrogations and could not see through the mechanisms used to break them.

J. F.: Another strategy was that the women would cook together, or had a more regular rhythm due to the presence of their children, and thought about how to entertain the kids. They would tell stories or play theatre for them. But some also say that they were so weak that they didn’t even have the power to think of their children. And then there also was the factor that one acquired a certain fame when one went to prison.

U. A.: I’m also reading a book right now with the last letters from people sentenced to death, and it is remarkable how often these people write about how they have now achieved their goal and that they hope that the party they were fighting for will accept them as martyrs. 

A. T. R.: Isn’t that almost comparable with what one knows about suicide attackers?

J. F.: I read an interesting article by a professor of religious studies who found out that the difference between suicide attackers and people who are imprisoned for reasons of activism is that the activists believe in life while suicide attackers glorify death.

A. T. R.: Of course that’s a dilemma. You’re going to die shortly and want to lend meaning to your life. In fact, that’s a thoroughly human behaviour. And naturally the children come into play again, because one somehow continues to live in them. You style yourself a martyr as an explanation for your child, so that it wasn’t all in vain. 

U. A.: The prisoners often cannot be sure that their relatives will ever get their letters. Perhaps that’s the reason why these letters were written like this. But they knew that their farewell letters would certainly be read by the prison officials. I think that’s why many saw these letters as their last statement, their last act of resistance against the system. They wanted to make it clear to their tormentors for a last time that they were proud of what they had done.

Arash T. Riahi was born in 1972 in Iran and has lived in Austria since 1982. He studied film and the arts, from 1995 until 2002 was a free-lance contributor for the ORF programmes Nitebox, aktuelle Kultur, and Kunst-Stücke. In 1997 he founded the film and media production company Golden Girls Filmproduktion. Several award-winning documentary and feature films, among them Exile Family MovieEin Augenblick Freiheit (official Austrian candidate for the Academy Award for foreign films 2010), KindersEveryday Rebellion. Coproducer of Solo (Cannes 2019) and Born in Evin (Berlinale 2019).