Vancouver theatre artist and filmmaker Aryo Khakpour enjoys talking about big ideas. In a phone interview with Pancouver, the co-artistic director of The Biting School speaks about his love for physical theatre and international cinema auteurs.
Khakpour, who moved from Tehran to Canada as a teenager, also openly shares what it feels like to create art rooted in his homeland that western audiences can’t fully comprehend. He describes this as “a point of suffering for all artists” who experience this.
“Even inside the theatre community—even inside the Iranian community—I might actually occupy a niche space,” Khakpour acknowledges.
His latest project, a 50-minute art film called Suddenly Slaughter, addresses contradictions that he’s encountered as a diasporic artist who built his career in Canada. He adapted the screenplay from a 2019 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival theatrical show of the same name, which Khakpour created with his brother, Arash.
Suddenly Slaughter (the movie) will premiere at 7 p.m. next Tuesday (October 10) at the Cinematheque in Vancouver.
“The film is about a director making this play here and people not understanding it,” Khakpour reveals. “He’s an immigrant director. I actually play the director—that’s how we resolved that issue.”
Suddenly Slaughter linked to the past
The theatrical performance is set in a communal house in a poor neighbourhood in Tehran. The residents gossip, sometimes fight, and, on occasion, feel desire for one another. Then, a stranger moves in, triggering envy from other tenants because they believe that he’s wealthy.
Within this straightforward narrative, the immigrant director wants to tell a deeper story. However, he knows that the audience is not culturally attuned to enjoy the play in all of its complexity.
“It’s a simple drama but there’s also another layer to it because it’s in dialogue with the Iranian passion plays where the martyr enters a new city. And people don’t understand his message and actually martyr him at the end,” Khakpour explains.
He points out that this tale of martyrdom existed in pre-Islamic Iran in Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, which is one of the world’s longest epic poems. One of its mythical characters, Siyâvash, eventually meets a tragic end after he rejects the advances of his stepmother.
Then there’s the story of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. Imam Husayn was martyred with many relatives and companions in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE.
This event occupies a central place in Shi’a history, tradition, and literature. It’s also commemorated on the Islamic holy Day of Ashura. Yet it’s not widely known among non-Muslims in the West.
Appreciating the ambiguity of theatre
Khakpour admits that it can be painful when he creates art that isn’t fully understood in all of its manifestations. However, he takes refuge in the ambiguity of theatre. According to him, this art form still leaves room for intelligent members of the audience to find their own meaning in what’s unfolding on-stage—even if it’s impossible for them to experience what it was like being a 16-year-old in Tehran.
“I have chosen not to get sentimental about it, but I do get melodramatic about it,” he adds.
At the same time, Khakpour discloses that even people who share his life experience as a teenage immigrant from Iran sometimes don’t understand what he might be going through.
“If I say a few words and you hear it from the other side of the phone—and you understand it on some level—this is already a miracle, let alone going through this machine of language and discussing it,” Khakpour quips.
Khakpour says that the Suddenly Slaughter theatrical production at the PuSh festival was adapted from a 1971 play by Iranian writer Abbas Nalbandian. It carried the lengthy title This God Lover Dies in the Love of God, This God Slain Died by the Sword of God.
“He had a very long title that you couldn’t actually put anywhere!” Khakpour exclaims. “It was too long—almost like a verse from any scripture.”
Three cast members from the 2019 PuSh festival production—Ashley Aron, Elissa Hanson, and Victor Mariano—appear in the film. However, original cast member Billy Marchenski was unavailable due to other commitments. Sadly, another original cast member, Zahra Shahab, passed away last year. As a result, other roles in the film are filled by Khakpour’s brother Arash, Anahita Monfared, and Sadreddin Zahed.
Director credits mentors in Vancouver
Khakpour didn’t want the film version to be simply a collection of talking heads. So, he and his brother, who’s the film’s choreographer, included some “dance parts”.
The director emphasizes that these are not straightforward routines like one might see in a Fred Astaire movie. Rather, he describes them as movements or gestures in which characters physically embody the dialogue.
“I love surrealist theatre; I love physical theatre,” Khakpour declares.
Khakpour also enjoys rattling off some names of people who’ve influenced his practice. They include Jerzy Grotowsky, a Polish-born director who pioneered experimental theatre. Khakpour is also a huge fan of Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky, and directors from other countries, including Iran.
“I can give you maybe 100 names,” Khakpour states. “I’m very interested in the history of cinema.”
“My career was built in Vancouver over the past 18 years,” Khakpour says. “So, whatever you see is the results of roots in Iran, but really, with wings and arms and muscles in Canada.”
The Aryo Khakpour-directed film Suddenly Slaughter will premiere at 7 p.m. next Tuesday (October 10) at the Cinematheque in Vancouver. For more information and tickets, visit The Biting School website.