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Milad Alami / PHOTO: Jason Alami

Milad Alami on Opponent, masculinity, sex, freedom and Iran

The director opens up about his sophomore feature, set to world premiere on Saturday at the Berlinale Panorama section.

The former graduate from the National Film School of Denmark who won a Nordic Talent Special Mention in 2011, had his breakthrough with the multi-awarded film The Charmer (2017), and then successfully turned to long-form fiction as concept director of DR’s When the Dust Settles.

His second feature Opponent (Motståndaren) shares several themes explored in The Charmer such as masculinity, belonging and feeling displaced as an Iranian trying to adapt to Scandinavian lifestyle.

In Opponent, the main character Iman (played by established Iranian actor Payman Maadi) is forced to flee Iran with his wife and two daughters, in the aftermath of a devastating rumour. As refugees, they end up in a run-down hotel/refugee centre in northern Sweden.

Despite feeling powerless, Iman tries to maintain his role as the family patriarch. To increase their chances of asylum, he breaks a promise to his wife and joins the local wrestling club where he feels free and fulfilled. As rumours start to resurface, Iman increasingly struggles with his inner demons.

Besides Payman Maadi, known for Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation and About Elly, co-stars include Marell Nasiri, Björn Elgerd, Ardalan Esmaili and Arvin Kananian.

The film was produced by Annika Rogel for Tangy, in co-production with Filmpool Nord, Film i Väst , SVT, Norway’s Ape & Bjørn, with support from the Swedish Film Institute and Nordisk Film & TV Fond.

TriArt Film will handle the Swedish theatrical release set for March 31. IndieSales is handling world sales. .


Milad Alami on Opponent, masculinity, sex, freedom and Iran

Opponent / PHOTO: Indie Sales

Firstly, where did you get the idea for the film, set in two environments: the wrestling and refugee community in Northern Sweden?
Milad Alami: The idea started to emerge while I was finishing The Charmer. There are themes present in both films. I was interested in exploring again masculinity, sexuality and violence, in a more direct and immediate way.

I was familiar with the world of refugees in Northern Sweden as this is where I arrived as a child, aged 6, in 1988. I wanted to capture the same environment that I remembered -a small town, literally out of nowhere, surrounded by mountains-beautiful but also icy and dark.

Then the wrestling part also came naturally to me when I started to think of a macho environment that can be quite stereotypical. It felt the perfect setting to create tension for the character who is complex and struggling with his own masculinity.

Is wrestling a very popular sport in Iran?
MA: Absolutely! Freestyle wrestling is a national sport there and Iranians have won numerous gold medals at the Olympics with this sport.

What is interesting with wrestling is that is altogether violent and full of codes…
Yes and again, this is what fascinates me. There is beauty in wrestling.

The wrestling scenes are filmed like a dance - with the camera swinging around the bodies of the athletes. Can you expand on your visual style for those scenes?
MA: I wanted to capture the tension of the bodies, fighting in the wrestling arena but with grace. Iman lives quite a harsh life in the refugee centre, but wrestling is an escape for him. He thrives in that space and has hope. I was interested in showing a place where he could blossom as a person, therefore I filmed those scenes in a more subtle and poetic way, not in a harsh and aggressive way.

How much research did you do to enter this particular world and portray it as truly as possible?
MA: Yes I did a lot research, went to wrestling clubs, competitions, spoke to a lot of people about what you’re allowed to do or not. It’s a very disciplined sport.

Also, on another level, wrestling in Iran is a working-class sport. I liked that this is where the character comes from. He is closed, shy, but wrestling is a liberation for him.

His wife on the other hand is from middle-upper class as she used to teach piano and is well educated.

When you wrote the script, did you have Peyman Maadi in mind? How did he train for the wrestling scenes?
No. But of course, I knew of Peyman. We liked the idea of having him in the role as he has a strong screen presence and is rooted in Iranian cinema. One of our casting directors was Zar Amir Ebrahimi [Cannes best actress winner for Holy Spider]. She knew him and contacted him. He immediately liked the script.

We had a long pre-production where Peyman had to learn how to wrestle, alongside Björm Elgerd who plays Thomas.

I was often afraid of them hurting themselves. But they were both amazing. Even true wrestlers said what they were doing was difficult. Peyman got completely into character.

There is obviously a double meaning with the title Opponent, with Iman fighting his inner self and real opponents on the wrestling ring… Can you expand on this?
On a deeper level, the film is about freedom, and the lack of freedom. If you‘ve grown up in a repressive and controlled society like Iran, where your freedom is restricted, and you arrive in a free world like Sweden-how do you actually use that freedom? The title for me was interesting because Iman is fighting against himself, there is a strong duality within him. He is free but can’t fully access his true self.

I grew up with these types of men around me. Guys who couldn’t express themselves, their feelings, and still felt a mental imprisonment although free to express themselves. So this is really where the title comes from.

How was filming in Northern Sweden and during Covid?
MA: It was extremely difficult. We did location scouting for almost a year to find that place. We shot most of the film in Björkliden, in a tiny town north of the Arctic Circle. We had to shoot there, the wrestling scenes, when Covid was at its worse! You can image how difficult this was. Once half the crew got Covid and we had to stop for 2 weeks. Every day I was super stressed.

We actually shot the film in a refugee centre not far from the place where I arrived as a child refugee in Sweden. One of the crazy things that happened is that one day, one of the crew members said a woman in her 70s approached them and she claimed to be my teacher when I came to Sweden. She showed me a drawing that I did and that she had kept. It was so weird. So I gave her a small part in the movie. It was super meta filmmaking!!

But of course, it was essential to film with real refugees. They knew exactly how it felt. And I had a strong feeling of déjà vu.

How was it to work on your first Swedish film?
MA: It was natural as I speak both Danish and Swedish. Most films and series are co-productions here and my team is super mixed. The refugee centre that I had in mind doesn’t exist in Denmark so I had to do it in Sweden. I go where the story takes me and I love being inspired by the environment.

What are your views on the current situation in Iran?
MA: Before, people were afraid to speak. But the protests have liberated the power of speech. People simply won’t be silent any more. I have friends and relatives in Iran. It is horrible what is happening, but it is inevitable that the regime will change. The world is watching. When it will change, the whole Middle East will change. It will be for the better for everyone.

How important is it for you to be selected at the Panorama in Berlin with Opponent?
MA: I’m so happy that the film is finally coming out. And the Panorama is the daring section, with films that push the boundaries. So this is the best place for the film. I’m super happy to attend and we will use the platform to say something about Iran and the need for freedom.

What are you doing next?
MA: I am preparing two features. I will work again with my producer of The Charmer - Stinna Lassen and writer Ingeborg Topsoe on the Danish film No Child Left Behind. It’s about gang violence and crime. I have met women who have lost their kids to gang crime. I will discuss this from a human point of view.

I’m also preparing a film about a young girl who grew up in Tehran’s notorious Evin jail. When she comes out, she arrives in Sweden. She remains silent the first part of the film. Then she is forced to speak and gets absolute obedience. It’s a heightened concept.