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CDM professor Alireza Khatami wins Venice screenwriting award

Matt Koske

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In the Computing and Digital Media program, students and professors seek creative ways to make a name for themselves. There’s no one correct way to break into the industry, but simply producing content sure helps that process.

Alireza Khatami, a Directing and Cinema Production professor at DePaul and an avid independent filmmaker, wrote and directed his debut feature film “Oblivion Verses” which was awarded the Orizzonti Award for Best Screenplay at the 74th Venice Film Festival in September.

The Orizzonti Horizons section at the Venice Film Festival is open to all “custom-format” works that often lean towards new trends in expressive languages in the art of filmmaking. Khatami’s magic realist vision behind the 43 drafts of his “Oblivion Verses” script quite obviously secures its niche in this display of 31 films that Venice had to offer.

Alireza Khatami accepts his Orizzonti award at Venice Film Festival in September.
(Photo courtesy of Vittorio Zunino Celotto)

The award news broke out just days before “Oblivion Verses” was set to screen its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. In Toronto, the film was divided into the Discovery section, which typically exhibits films by first-time directors.

“I’m interested in playing around with genre, with the ways we tell a story, playing with the structure, the edit. That’s the fun part for me, to test an idea. Of course sometimes you fail and sometimes you don’t,” Khatami said.

“Oblivion Verses” centers on an old caretaker who tends to his cemetery, filing archives, watering the plants and conversing with the gravedigger and hearse driver. The unnamed caretaker – like all of the characters in the film – is uprooted from his day-to-day routine when a government group of paramilitary supporters take over the morgue to lay bodies from some violent social disturbance that took place in town.

The desolation of the old man mixed with the visuals of a family of beached whales floating throughout the sky as they fight to stick together is without a doubt an abstract way of thematically expressing the loss of loved ones. The caretaker’s journey will evoke within him the memories and personal loss that he has suffered through as he searches for a proper burial for a young woman.

“I’m a believer that you should not completely shake the format, you should just push it a little bit because if you push it too much then it becomes a product that nobody recognizes,” Khatami said. “You don’t want to make a film that nobody connects to. It’s okay if they’re uncomfortable. It’s okay if they don’t know what to do with the film. Give them something, hold them there, but lead them to uncharted territories.”

Khatami applied for the DePaul teaching job during production of “Oblivion Verses.” He was interested in the M.F.A. at DePaul because there wasn’t any scholarship system for international students and he didn’t have the money. The production schedule ran for 23 days and Khatami was shooting seven days a week. Not to mention the time difference, there was no possible way he could conduct the interview outside of his shooting schedule.

“The interview was arranged for 10 a.m. my time and we were shooting in Chile. I set up the shot and I told my Director of Photography and First Assistant Director, ‘here’s what happens: the actor comes from here, goes there, does this. You guys run the shoot. I have an interview.’  So there is a shot in the movie which I didn’t direct,” Khatami said. “When I came back after the interview was finished, I realized that the crew is clearing the set. ‘What happened? I haven’t seen it!’ ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s good. Let’s move on.’ But the crew, they’re amazing people. Anytime I look at that shot, I know I was interviewing DePaul at that time.”

To secure funding for “Oblivion Verses,” Khatami collaborated with quite the diverse group of production companies. Initially, he teamed up with a French producer, then he welcomed on Dutch and German co-producers. Shooting the film in Chile with Spanish actors, it all came down to necessity. Altogether, the film took five years to finance and complete production.

“As a first time filmmaker, all you have is limitations,” Khatami said. “I had to live within different cultures; I had to tell stories that anybody from any culture could connect with. Basically, the element of geography was eliminated from my work and the element of language was omitted from my work. The kind of story I wrote could be placed anywhere in any language.”

Khatami was born in Iran in 1980. He relocated to Malaysia in 2004 where he worked in creative multimedia with a focus in visual effects. Working with Malaysian filmmakers until 2010, he then received a scholarship to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. There he worked on his undergrad thesis short film “Focal Point,” which gained film festival acclaim and opened some doors.

“Shooting in Chile was cheap enough for us to make an indie film there. They had great technicians, they had wonderful actors, but we had grants mostly from European countries and there was this limitation that we had to spend money in Europe to some degree, so we had to hire European actors,” Khatami said. “All of this came together mostly out of necessity.”

With Khatami’s short film “Focal Point,” he applied for a residency at the Cannes Film Festival CineFondation Residency. After a few tries at applying, he finally got accepted with his debut feature “Oblivion Verses.”

The film is still on its International film festival circuit. Within the next couple of years, it will have releases in Italy, Switzerland, France and Chile with other odd territories under negotiation. There will also be limited releases in other countries around the world, with hopes that U.S. will be one of them.

“Oblivion Verses” can be seen in Chicago this week at the Chicago International Film Festival. The film screens on Friday, Oct. 20 at 6 p.m. and on Saturday, Oct. 21 at 1:45 p.m. Khatami is scheduled to attend both screenings for a Q&A.

“I teach what I know. What I know comes from books I read and experiences I have. I tell them (students) what I’ve done that didn’t work because I think humans learn from mistakes, we don’t learn from achievements. Achievements are misleading,” Khatami said. “I bring my experience to the classroom, I let my students learn my mistakes so hopefully they don’t go out there to make the same mistakes.”

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CDM professor Alireza Khatami wins Venice screenwriting award