Ali Abbasi knows the exact film that forever changed the way he viewed cinema. As a student studying in Tehran, "I wasn't interested in movies," he recalls. "My thing was literature. I always felt like movies were for the masses and filmmaking wasn't something that I wanted to spend my life doing."
That changed, however, when Abbasi stumbled upon Federico Fellini's quintessential classic, La Strada. "It's an experience that could not have existed in the same way as a written story. It has its own independence and authority and integrity," he explains. "It may be a bit offensive to say this, but I didn't think that movies were able to do that."
The Iran-born, Denmark-based writer-director studied at the National Film School of Denmark before making his feature debut with the 2016 horror film, Shelley. He gained international acclaim with his sophomore film, 2018's Border, which won the Un Certain Regard award at the Cannes Film Festival. (It was also nominated for an Oscar in Best Makeup and Hairstyling.) His latest is the Persian film noir, Holy Spider.
MORE: For Iranian Filmmaker Ali Abbasi, Making 'Holy Spider' Was a Political Act (Exclusive)
Fellini changed the trajectory of Abbasi's life, and still inspires his approach to the filmmaking process. "I loved how he would talk about getting an idea," he says of the Italian auteur. "A lot of people ask me as a filmmaker, 'How do you get your ideas?' and you have to sort of come up with a story. But Fellini would say things like, 'I was driving my car. I got out and I looked at the sky and it was very dark, and then, I got the idea for 8 ½.'"
"That in and of itself was interesting," the filmmaker explains. "An artist's thought process is not something concrete that starts at A and ends at Z, you know? You can see that in Fellini's movies."
Below, Abbasi shares with A.frame five other films that have had a major impact on him.
Written and Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
One of my absolute favorite movies is A Clockwork Orange. I watched that movie for the first time on VHS when I was living in northern Sweden. I was living with a few people in an apartment and, on that day, I remember there was a lot of snow around us. It was dark and it was just completely white outside. We put the video on and it opens with that red screen that comes with that ominous music, and I was hypnotized. Everything else was white but this one red rectangle.
I actually tried to do a remake of A Clockwork Orange. [Laughs] I approached Warner Bros. and I said, 'I think it's impossible to do this better than Kubrick. I don't know how to do it better, and that's exactly why I think doing it might be a good idea.' Every project that I do, I have to feel at some point that it's too difficult or sort of pointless in a way. If I know how the process will end, it's not as exciting.
Written and Directed by: Werner Herzog
One movie that I have a very strange relationship with is Fitzcarraldo. I saw it in a cinema in Tehran when I was seven or eight with my dad, who's a doctor who isn't interested in movies. To this day, I don't know why we were there or why my dad chose to see a Werner Herzog movie. I've watched it only once, and I remember I had this feeling in the theater that the screen was huge. Everything was so big. I still remember feeling really small.
It's one of those movies that I still don't watch on purpose now because I don't know how it'll hold up. But the experience of seeing it was almost like seeing a dream be projected. I'm a big Werner Herzog fan, and I've had the pleasure of meeting him. I haven't had the pleasure of meeting Klaus Kinski yet. [Laughs] But it's always an interesting experience when you meet someone who is responsible for a huge experience in your life, and you realize, 'Oh, this person is just a human being.'
Written and Directed by: David Lynch
I think David Lynch is the most important American filmmaker alive. He's very American, in a very, very good way. A lot of American cinema doesn't really feel American in its cultural roots. A lot of American films feel American in the way that Oreos are American. They're a product of corporate America. But David's movies feel culturally American. They don’t feel like an Italian filmmaker could have made them.
I'm a big fan of surrealism, and I have learned a lot from David, who I've had the pleasure of becoming friends with. If there's one filmmaker that I've stolen from, it's him. He has this view of the sensuality of the movie experience that I think is super important. I remember watching some of his films on DVD, and then, watching those same movies on 35mm film, and they were completely different experiences. I don't even think my movies are like that, you know?
Many filmmakers sort of keep doing what they do. They do another Wes Anderson movie, another Coppola movie, or another Lars Von Trier movie, because they have their own brand. But David is, I think, the most innovative filmmaker of his generation. He still takes crazy risks whenever he makes something new. I think that's very remarkable.
Written and Directed by: Sohrab Shahid Saless
One of my favorite Iranian movies is called Still Life. It's a very harsh movie to watch. It's almost like an anti-movie. But the reason that I like it so much is not necessarily because I feel that it represents my taste; instead, I feel an affinity for that movie and Sohrab's life. He made a very slow, observational film about this couple who live in a strange, nowhere kind of place, and it has a Beckettian aspect to it. It's about the simplicity of life and it's not told through a kind lens, either. It's not a film about an old couple who is happy, but more about how harsh and meaningless life can be.
I think Sohrab really struggled to establish himself as a filmmaker in the world because he was educated in Austria. He came back to Iran and tried to work, but his sensibilities weren’t considered Iranian enough. On the other hand, in Europe and in the West, he was seen as an Iranian filmmaker. So, he wouldn't be taken seriously as someone who made abstract stuff or intellectual stuff because that was sort of reserved for white people in a way. But Still Life became the first Iranian movie that ever won an international award. That was the first time that Iranian cinema was really put on the international map.
When I think of that movie, I see it as more of a personal thing for me. I hope that I can find my place in the world without being bound by the fact that I'm Iranian or that I'm Swedish. In that way, I have the same problem or asset as Sohrab, which is that I come from different cultures and different places.
Written and Directed by: Sergei Parajanov
One of my absolute favorite movies, which is probably not as well-known as the other ones, is The Color of Pomegranates. It's one of the only films in which I've seen poetry in cinema in its purest form. Sergei Parajanov is originally from Georgia, which culturally overlaps a bit with Iran. Through his work, I can see how someone can take iconography that I recognize and look at it in a different way. The film is also a perfect example of how non-narrative cinema can still entertain you. The Color of Pomegranates breaks all the rules and theories we have about cinematic structure.