The tip of the iceberg

Milad Alami on character creation, films that linger, and Opponent

by Paul Risker


Iranian-born writer/director Milad Alami’s sophomore feature, Opponent, centres on Iman (Payman Maadi), an Iranian refugee who has arrived in Northern Sweden with his family and hopes to be granted asylum. As a former Olympic wrestler, it’s suggested that he competes for Sweden to support his asylum request. The decision not only brings him into conflict with his family, but creates internal and external conflicts.

In conversation with Eye For Film, Alami discussed cinema’s lack of an inner life, how he used the stories of immigrants to grow the story, and his desire to create an elusive protagonist.

Paul Risker: Do you consider storytellers to be naturally curious about human nature and what makes people tick?


Milad Alami: Definitely! With filmmaking you have to be a sponge and the fun part is trying to understand those difficult things. I think it was [Andrei] Tarkovsky who said if you want to be a good writer or director, you have to look at other stuff than just films. You have to read and look to philosophy and try to twist and turn stuff.

I get that now because filmmaking is an extremely complex art form, with music, sound and writing, but it doesn't have an inner life as books do, and it doesn't have the power of some music. So, if you try and understand the psychology [of a character] through books or an emotion through music, then you can actually make a better film.

That becomes key when I do research, and I talk to people because sometimes you’ll understand things that you wouldn't by sitting in front of a computer trying to create a fictional character. This is very important, otherwise you make the same film over again. That's why filmmaking is difficult because every time you try to do something, you want to do something new, and it's scary. But that’s a good thing.

I was talking to a friend about the time we are living in and how there’s a lot of TV series work. You can just direct stuff, but at some point, you have to be careful because if it feels too easy, or it feels like it’s just another day at the office, then something is wrong. I have to be surprised by something I hadn’t thought about, then I know it's fun and I can do something with it.

PR: Could you elaborate on your observation that film doesn’t have an inner life?

MA: What we're trying to do with films is to create the tip of the iceberg. As an artist, that's what I'm trying to do. You have a character that’s this tip and then you imagine all of these things underneath about why they made certain choices. Most films are either plot driven or try to be character driven but they never completely succeed or go deep enough so we are surprised.

Cinema is between the industry and an artistic means of expression. This conflict makes the film language easy to see through and so you know what's going to happen. Creating an inner life is what books do because you don't see anything, you have to use your imagination, and so you’ll sometimes create a psychology for a character.

When I’m reading a book, I’ll sometimes think, ‘Fuck, this is amazing,’ but it can never be a film because then it becomes too simplistic. It’s difficult to translate some complex psychology to film because film is a means of saying something complex, but in a way people can easily understand. It’s very difficult but that's the fun part of filmmaking. I love films where you sit in the cinema and when the film ends it's like a book. It leaves you with something, and you continue thinking about it, and it grows. That’s what the best books do.


It's important as a filmmaker to be curious. You have to force yourself to talk to people. You can't hide behind a monitor or a fictional world and think just because you're talking to an actor, they can bring some psychology that you see in the real world. You have to interact with the real world and that's important to me.

PR: What was the genesis of the idea for the film and considering the protagonist’s psychological and emotional depth, how does this relate to your thoughts about film lacking an inner life?

MA: This film grew out of my own memories of being a refugee in the north of Sweden when I was young. I had a lot of memories of this icy landscape in the north. There were a lot of good memories and also a deep feeling of anxiety about what was going to happen, and whether we going to be able to stay.

I wanted to do something with it, and I’d always imagined doing a story in a refugee setting. Also, I'm from Iran and we had to flee the country. I wanted to say something about masculinity and classical gender roles in Iran – the violence and the love. I came upon this idea about a person who is struggling with himself, his sexuality, who he is as a father and who he wants to be. I found all of these questions interesting. We created story in which we have a person that's in a refugee centre, who is never fully free inside of himself. It grew out of that, and I love this idea that you don't really get to know who this person is.

When I started to write the film, I spoke to a lot of refugees that were living in Sweden. I talked to a guy from Iran who is gay and had to hide it. All the extras in the film were real refugees and their stories began to affect the film.

I had this idea in the beginning that I wanted the film to be like you're standing close to a picture or painting. You keep taking one step back and, in the end, you might see the whole picture but it's not completely clear.

PR: How does the exploration of your creative voice in your sophomore feature, compare to your feature debut?

MA: I wrote this film [Opponent] at the same time as I wrote The Charmer. They have some similarities because both are about identity. The Charmer takes place in a refugee setting but not completely. It's more of a big city, like a vibrant Copenhagen, but they still definitely have similarities. Both are about sexuality in different ways and about the quest for happiness, or trying to find what you want and how difficult it can be. And they’re also mysteries.


PR: There’s a conflict between the character’s internal and an external self. You try to draw the audience in, but unlike the literary that allows the reader to effortlessly enter the mind of the character, the camera complicates this process.

MA: I wanted the wrestling, the external and physical part of the story to be almost what he can't put into words. I wanted him to be a tool of what he can't imagine himself doing or being in the sport where he's close to these men. It’s intimate and fragile, and I wanted that to come through.

It's interesting with conflicted characters, who are one person on the outside and another on the inside – most people are like that. I think cinema can draw an audience in and put them inside a person's head. This is what I tried to do, and the visual language was part of his inner psyche.

When cinema works it surprises you, but you have to be alert. If it takes you by the hand too much, then you lose interest. If there's something there that you can't put into words, but you're interested, then you can go deep into a character. That's when it becomes magical.

PR: We perceive a story to be culturally specific, but often it reveals a universality, that challenges political and economic borders.

MA: It's important and especially in the times we're living in now. So much effort goes into showing we're so different, but everything goes into the same human [experience] and that's provoking. I love The Zone of Interest because I've never seen a film where I’m watching these Nazis and I suddenly see situations that I’ve been in. That's the genius of it and it’s provoking, but it's very important.

We have to do this otherwise everything will be distant, and films will generalise saying all refugees are the same, or all people from the UK are a certain way. It's not like that and film is the universal language. You can watch a Japanese film that says something about your own father, and that’s amazing.

Opponent is released in UK & Irish cinemas 12th April 2024.

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