Masih Sharif: "Not everyone can travel physically, so movies and videos can help them travel through images.”

12/23/2021

This month we interview Masih Sharif, filmmaker, and film tourism expert. He was born in Iran, and now he lives in Barcelona. The first time he came to Spain was in 2007. He has lived in Mallorca, where he had studied tourism and environmental economics. He is one of the producers of Javier Tolentino’s Tehran Blues and has recently won the prize in the SpotSport 2022 competition of the BCN Sports Film Festival.

When did your interest begin in cinema?

I was thirteen years old. Like most kids, I was interested in acting, but it was not that serious. I enjoyed it, but that was it. I have a brother that is about six years older than me. As a gift, because he got accepted in the university, my father bought him a VHS camera, which was not very common at that time. I don’t know why my father bought him that camera. It was very professional.

My brother was not as interested as I was in that camera. He was studying in another city and he had left it at home. I had a good level of English then, and I could go through the manual of the camera. I started to play with it. Testing and trying. I carried this camera everywhere: when we had guests or went out to a picnic… I took it even to the school or when there was a party. Unconsciously, I was attracted to the audiovisual.

 

You studied filmmaking in the Iranian Youth Cinema Society (IYCS). Why did you begin to interest yourself in filmmaking?

We lived in Shiraz. And when we moved to the capital, Tehran, I took it more seriously and went to a videography class. There, I started to learn what shots are, a closeup, a medium shot, a long shot, and how you can use the camera to shoot the scene differently and more aesthetically appealing. This camera never left me. Later, I attended the Iranian Youth Cinema Society filmmaking courses. I think that was the most serious point where I could say that I entered the filmmaking world.

 

What was your first experience as a filmmaker?

As I had the knowledge and experience working with the camera, I was sort of pushed into becoming the videographer for my other classmates. Some of them knew more about writing or directing, but working with the camera was a bit technical, and not many people were familiar with that. My classmates asked me to help them film shorts or documentaries for their final projects. I knew cinematographers more than directors. And I saw myself in their shoes. I identified myself with them. People like Néstor Almendros.

I used it as an opportunity to make money too. I did publicity videos for companies and organizations when they attended a fair or exhibition. But my first encounter as a filmmaker was as a cinematographer in video format. One of my classmates wanted to make a short film in a remote village during the Iranian New Year. I was about nineteen years old. So, we went five of us, and I was the videographer. That short film attended festivals and won some prizes in Iran and abroad. A year later, I directed a 30-minute short film in Tehran and a village in the north. When I look back, I see that traveling has always been kind of a crucial part of my audiovisual work.

 

You also have a master on tourism and environmental economics with research on film tourism from the University of the Balearic Islands (UIB). How did you end studying tourism?

I wanted to study cinema at the university, but considering the situation of filmmakers in Iran at that time, which is still the case, many people told me: “Don’t ruin your life. Study something that could help you find a proper job and earn money and, next to it, take courses outside the university. You can practice on your own”. That was why I went to the Iranian Youth Cinema Society. It is not a university. The Iranian Ministry of Culture organizes it. Whoever is interested can attend.

Instead, I studied insurance management. I liked the courses in marketing and advertisement because I saw I could use my audiovisual skills in them. When I was close to graduating with a bachelor’s degree, I didn’t feel like working in an office from morning to afternoon as an administrative. So, I consulted the Dean of the University Dr. Zargham. He was so kind and helpful. I told him: “I love marketing and advertising; I’ve already made films and also like management and above all, I want to do something for my country”. I didn’t even want to become a filmmaker of commercials that sell products like chips or cheese. But I didn’t have any idea what I could do. And he told me: “Try tourism. If you manage to make films about Iran, then you have used your filmmaking, marketing, and advertising skills and have done something for your country”. I thought that it would be a good idea.

I took courses on tourism as a tour leader and manager of a travel agency, and then he introduced me to a very well-known Iranian professor of tourism in the United States, professor Jafar Jafari with whom we are very close friends now. I wrote him, and very honestly, I told him: “I'm very much determined to study tourism. I would like to make a big change in Iranian tourism. I want to make big changes, and I believe I can manage to do that if I study tourism”. And I kind of impressed him. Still, sometimes I go back to that letter, and energize myself with that load of dedication and determination for the rest of the road ahead.  I told him: “I would like to go to a university where you teach. It doesn’t matter which country”. He told me that he taught in the U.S a bachelor's degree, which I already had. At a master’s level, he taught at the Balearic Island University. I applied. I got admitted. And that’s how I came to Spain.

 

You are also specialized in place branding through film and tourism. What is the relationship between films and tourism? How do you think a city can leverage film and tourism to promote itself?

When I was in high school, I went to a book fair in Tehran. I bought a book titled Film-Induced Tourism written by doctor Sue Beeton, whom later I got to know in person. That was the first time I had faced the concept of film-induced tourism. When I was doing my research, I thought about what I wanted to choose as a topic for my final dissertation. And film tourism, actually nation branding through film tourism, became the area on which I centered my studies. There I was putting together different elements I was interested in to see how I could help my country. Later, I realized that it was not only my country that needed that. There are many countries, almost every place, destination, city or region, that needs to be well introduced. Sometimes film tourism is mistaken as a promotional tool, which is not the case. The most important thing about film tourism is that it’s not just a commercial. If it’s reduced to a feature commercial, people will not receive it well. You have to be very clever and wise about how you tell your authentic original story. And use the place, a city, a village, a country as the scene where the story takes place.

I did my studies on that, and I helped the Ministry of Tourism in Iran. I made conferences, seminars, lectures. The first conference on film tourism in Iran was in 2017. It was held by the same company that produced the Tehran Blues film in Iran. I established that company, tending to use audiovisual material, particularly film, to introduce and present Iran to the outside world. Because that is what Iran lacked at that time and still lacks. The general conventional media are not necessarily reflecting the reality of the countries. It’s very manipulated by big powers, political and other sorts of incentives.

 

Now that you mentioned it. Apart from filmmaking, you also produce. You are one of the producers of Javier Tolentino’s Tehran Blues (2020). What was your job in the movie and, why did you participate in it?

Javier Tolentino together with one of his producers Alejandra Mora Pérez of Quatre Films in Spain were planning to make his documentary debut in Iran and we were connected through a friend, Erfan Shafei who later played the main character of the movie.. Everything started very naturally and organically. They needed some services in Iran. So, we provided those services. I was the director of production there. Starting from applying for visas, permissions, and logistics to  technical aspects like finding actors, locations, …. All were taken care of by Iran Travel Shots, which was a product of my ambitions to do something for Iran through films.

 

The possibility to show Iran differently was the reason that attracted you to participate in the film?

Yes, indeed. Not necessarily every project may attract you. As an independent professional, I had the option to collaborate in this project or not, but I found it very interesting, authentic, original, and independent. And at the same time poetic. Javier Tolentino loves Iranian cinema. He chose Iran because he has followed Iranian cinema for many years. He had met Abbas Kiarostami, the renowned Iranian filmmaker, several times in Iran and elsewhere. He was influenced by his cinema. His documentary is a tribute and an expression of his passion for Iran but also to Kiarostami’s cinema. You could see that in his documentary. I’ve read very good reviews about the movie. For the Spanish audience, the movie has many things to tell. For the Iranian audience, it’s nice to see how an outsider looks at the Iranian community through his cinematic eyes. It has gone to many different festivals, and it is now nominated to the Goya. I wish it the best.

 

You are the founder of @barcelonashots. Explain to us what it is, and why you created it?

Films are big projects. Not every business, not even every country, can afford to invest in making them to tell the story of their places. As social networks grow very rapidly and broadly, videos have found a very crucial role in connecting nations. Even on a commercial level, connecting businesses to their potential customers. In a way, these days videos are doing what films do in film tourism. You can use them in tourism or any other field. A small or medium-sized business, or a multinational company or entity, or even a country still can use them. Video is very powerful, but you need to know how to use it. Having dedicated a big part of my life to audiovisual, now I see a big opportunity to move at the same pace as the industry and the technology. Especially when with Covid, the travel industry was almost closed because people couldn’t travel, I thought: why not use this expertise and help the new startups. People who may be on the verge of starting a business or changing their career.

Many people have moved from one industry to another, many innovative thoughts have been kept within the brains of many young people for years, and they never dared to concentrate on it and make them blossom. And now, because of the coronavirus, it’s maybe their last chance to give it a try and see if they could save themselves from this situation. Of course, for that, they need to promote and present themselves, and video is one of the most efficient tools to connect to your potential customers. And I am not looking at it from a capitalist point of view.

That is why I dedicated myself to the world of travel because travel is an experience where you see the world. That is why I concentrate on public diplomacy as well. I love connecting people worldwide, and traveling is one of the tools which helps you do so. You visit people in a different place and connect with them directly, listen to them, see them. When you shake hands, you touch them. When you see some people from Afghanistan, you understand how Afghans are. The same holds true about Syria, Morocco and any other country. Not everyone can travel physically, so movies and videos can help them travel through images. That was why in many ways my studies intersected or overlapped with public diplomacy. When I say: I use videos to help entrepreneurs promote their brands, it's not necessarily brands that sell products, but rather valuable experiences. These days we see that many new ideas are emerging, and videos from the technology point of view are helping businesses to increase their SEO, and improve their communications in the new digital era. All these things are one of the best tools to help them.

 

 

You won the SpotSport 2022 prize competition of the BCN Sports Film Festival with the spot “Barcelona”. Congratulations! What audiovisual images come to your mind when we talk about Barcelona?  

When you say Barcelona, some cliché or stereotyped images come to mind. Like the music, the dance, the football team, the food… which is true. These are the positive points and the strength of the city, but for creating a spot for a film festival, I needed to be very precise and see how this spot can help the organizers of the event reach their purpose. You can make a good, beautiful, even sophisticated piece of artwork, but it may not necessarily meet the needs of the festival. I studied the festival, that is what I usually do with any project. When I’m doing an independent film is one thing, but when I am doing something for someone to help him reach his purpose, I need to find out exactly what the purpose is. To find that out about the SpotSport, I went through whatever piece of information I could find about them and their objectives.Particularly I studied their website very well. I prioritized their priorities, and gave points to every different aspect that I needed to cover. For them, cinema was very important because it’s a film festival. So, I needed film and cinema elements in my video. Sports were very important because it’s a sports film festival. I needed to reflect on the sport very dominantly. And it’s Barcelona too. How can I reflect all these aspects in a very short 20’second spot?

I brainstormed with my assistant and reached that final idea. If you want to show Barcelona and you have only 20 seconds, sometimes there is no other way than going through stereotypes of the city, and we chose the highlights. You don’t have that much time to elaborate on the deeper layers of the Catalan or Barcelona culture. We used the monuments and elements of the city to show Barcelona. Then we used an old camera at the begining to highlight the elements of cinema.And we ended in a screening hall where a film is screened. For sports, we used athletes throughout the video. We used some elements of festivals that reflect both sports and film festivals. The cheer, the people, the music, the tempo, and the rhythm, and the way it finishes.

There was one subtle thing I used. I was not sure if the jury would notice that. I tried to show that in this festival, not only men can attend but women too, not only white can attend but black too, not only straight people can attend but alternative tendencies in sexuality too. And I use some symbols and elements to express that. That was a very personal touch. It was interesting to read in the jury's statement that “Barcelona is a lively spot that mixes emblematic monuments of the city with a dose of inclusivity”. For me, the most important comment was that they mentioned inclusivity. I wrote them back, telling them that I was glad they noticed it. And they replied that one of the main reasons why the video was selected was the very same dose of inclusivity.

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