Films, Iran, Architecture

“Interiors” Open Call Winner: The Sparrow is Free

A story of hope, told through objects and interiors

Still from Niki Kohandel's The Sparrow is Free (2021)

With more than 90 films sent in from all corners of the world, the (EE) inaugural open call for young filmmakers brought us a stunning variety of stories—ones which unfolded in literal ruins or digital utopias, some shot through AI-controlled devices or analogue film cameras, all narrated through a multiplicity of “interiors”—physical and imaginary, private and public.

The Sparrow is Free, directed by Niki Kohandel, won the hearts of the (EE) editorial team with its uncompromisingly personal approach. Niki arranges the intimate puzzle of her familial history by telling the life story of her grandmother through intricately woven collage of archival telephone recordings and handicam shots. A short film-interview, authored by a young filmmaker of Iranian origin who now lives and works in London, uses interiors and objects found in them to “create visual echoes” of her grandmother’s voice. (EE) Films screened the winning film from January 11th to 25th. It is accompanied by a short interview with the filmmaker. 

EastEast: Why did you choose to narrate this story visually through interiors and material objects? What is behind your choice of these particular objects? How do you understand “interiority” in the context of this work?

Niki Kohandel: My practice of story-telling began as a child with a digital pocket camera: I would use it to photograph the interiors of our relatives’ and family friends’ flats. I always came back from my summers in Iran with hundreds of photos of furniture, paintings, frames, carpet, ceramic, clocks—no object was too big, small, or mundane to be the subject. It was really an obsessive endeavor. In the case of places where I often returned to, such as my aunt’s house, I felt that the objects were almost as alive as myself and other people. They too had stories about themselves and the house’s inhabitants that they were sharing or withholding from me. Communication didn’t happen with words, but through the way they made their existence felt in the space. As an only child, that was how I entertained myself when everyone was napping during the day.

When making The Sparrow is Free, I was going through a similar experience—trying to entertain myself while in almost complete isolation because of the pandemic. But also attempting this time in reverse, communication with interiority, which I mean both literally and metaphorically here. How could simple objects possibly narrate my grandmother’s life stories while going beyond mere illustrations? How could they communicate the depth of the lessons she wanted to transmit? No object I filmed, regardless of its sentimental value, comes close to being as precious as her voice, which I am so thankful to have had in my life. None of them have any importance beyond their roles as vessels. I used them to create visual echoes of her voice. They help carry parts of a message to the viewer’s own interiority.

EE: The video contains visual distortions, as you are using an old handy cam, and the image quality is intentionally left low. The same goes for the sound: gusts of wind and sounds of the city are mixed with the narrator's voice. Why was it important for you to manifest this materiality of the medium itself: the video images and the recorded sound?

NK: Elements of visual and sonic distortion speak to the stories themselves, to how they are preserved in the film, in all their fragility, and also to how they are subjected to distortion and erasure. But to be very honest, I did not think so consciously about these choices at the time of making. This was in part due to the practical and technical restrictions of creating during a lockdown and also because, in a way, I was not thinking about it as a film. 

Retrospectively, I could call it a gesture, an attempt to translate the stories for myself and others in my family. I had just found the old handycam, which was used before me by my mother to document my childhood on Hi-8 tapes. The recordings of my grandmother’s voice on my phone were from the previous year, 2019, when the idea for this work and my sound recording skills were non-existent. The materiality is manifested in the medium precisely because it is first a material, before it becomes a film that is screened in cinemas. It’s a bunch of tape recordings, transferred to digital with the family’s old Windows PC, that show some objects from our flat as well as myself, reenacting my paternal grandmother’s anecdotes in front of my mother. 

I use filmmaking as a way of looking at my family puzzle, to understand how our lives can be intertwined in spite of distance in time and geographies, in spite of death

EE: Through your film we got to know the story of your grandmother, but your own personal story was left out. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, about the role of filmmaking in your life? How do you relate to and communicate with your Iranian roots while living and working in Europe?

NK: I grew up between France and Belgium and I have been living in the UK for 5 years now. Making films wasn’t on my mind at all until I moved to London. I was always concerned with story-telling, but I never considered filmmaking to be something I could do. I was acquainted with some arthouse cinema, but definitely not with experimental work. I began making films at art school because painting and drawing proved to be a frustrating experience. Looking at photos and footage from my family’s archive, objects from home, and eventually producing my own lens-based work with them, I was able to talk about the narratives I was most interested in. 

Throughout my formal education, I was often (expectedly) pushed into defining these as “political explorations,” or as works that were inspired by my Iranian culture and background. But I’m not interested in the idea of representation in that sense. I use filmmaking as a way of looking at my family puzzle, to understand how our lives can be intertwined in spite of distance in time and geographies, in spite of death—and that image itself always sits in a bigger puzzle. I picture these lives as characters that inhabit a large house, full of stories. I’ve been drawing the image of the house and its many characters in order to clear my head. As I hear new anecdotes during a phone call or a family visit, new characters enter the house, which means my mind is never at rest, thinking about all the stories I would like to film. What keeps me going is the freedom I find in rearranging the puzzle’s pieces, like the verses of a poem, to form new images. 

EE: Lastly, what stories do you want to tell as a filmmaker? What do you focus on in developing your artistic practice?

NK: In my last short, Minevissam (I am writing), I used different techniques to intervene directly on 16mm film. It is a tale written and made in collaboration with my parents that attempts to document the way that the three of us use words; expressing ourselves, but also failing to find a language, to speak with one another and to speak at large, in the face of a world so heavily wounded by the empire’s violence. It’s about being hamdel (which in Farsi means “to share the same heart”), yet not always “hamzaban” (to share the same language). The poems written by my mother and I reference lives that were uprooted, but also the resistance that is found in creating.

The work of Alia Syed has had a huge influence on how I have been developing my own language in film. When I began, I was very focused on stories coming from my family. And I am still planning for my next works to be centered around the voices of my relatives: my other grandmother, who was a singer, my three uncles, including Hamid (whose photograph as a baby is shown in The Sparrow is Free), my aunts . . . there are many stories I’m longing to bring to the screen. 

But living in London has made me incredibly grateful for having found an expanding, chosen family too. For the past two years, I have been working as part of different collectives. With one of them, Shahre Farang, we are organizing a series of creative workshops that will also act as a support space for members of communities affected by the asylum system. I’ve been learning that the mediums we use are always tools in our hands to shift cultures, and I’m lucky to be practicing together with many friends who make work in applied theater, writing, music, film, and facilitation in a radical way. So we are all focused on how our skills can best serve the liberation movements that need us and that we all need. 


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Niki Kohandel
An artist, filmmaker and facilitator based in London. Working at the interplay between the analogue and the digital, she uses obsolete recording devices and her imperfect knowledge of languages to document stories and re-narrate her family's tales.