TED Fellows

Fellows Friday with Minou Norouzi

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Minou Norouzi is breaking the rules when it comes to documentary filmmaking. Read on to learn how this Austrian-Iranian found the courage to step outside the lines.

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature:

Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Minou asks:

How can uncertainty be perceived as a strength?

Starting Saturday, click here to respond!

You describe yourself as a “moving image artist.” Why not a “documentary filmmaker”?

Moving image artist comes with a less troubled definition. When I’ve referred to myself as a documentary filmmaker, people have questioned whether or not what I do is in fact documentary films. And I’m interested in that debate. Referring to myself as an artist can lead to a whole lot more questions. So I feel Moving Image Artist is more precise, in a general kind of way, and it’s a quick way of saying I make films within a fine art context.

How did your professional artistic career begin?

At the time, I was living in Los Angeles and made a piece called Imago. It’s a portrait of actors in their day jobs, delivering their favorite lines from a movie. Imago marked the beginning of me feeling comfortable as an artist. I think when you feel very at home with a piece of work, it resonates.

Imago (Still), 2006

What do you hope people take away from your films?

I like to think I am creating a flat canvas in which people can project themselves. I want the work to be about submitting to a lack of understanding, and feeling slightly comfortable with being confused — or just accepting that not everything is solvable. I like incompletion.

All Shades of Grey (Still), 2009

I battled for a while in my practice between my film school training, and what I learnt working in television. Both experiences were outcome driven but I prefer process-led.

What does it mean to you to be “process-led”?

In a documentary about mountaineering, a climber talked about his survival strategy. He said what separates him from death is that he thinks of five or six different routes before he begins the climb. He does this knowing that when he actually does the climb, he will probably discover a seventh route that he hasn’t thought of.

I thought it was very poignant because it expresses a degree of flexibility. On the one hand, it’s being a bit of a control freak, where you have to design a process or path, and you’re very well prepared. On the other hand, you have the flexibility and good spirit to be able to throw everything overboard. I try to be attentive to the moment when making work.

In addition to your own filmmaking, you’ve recently taken on a more curatorial role. Tell us about that.

I co-founded a showcase called Sheffield Fringe. We placed it intentionally to coincide with Sheffield Doc/Fest, a very tough market driven environment.

We’re doing this with an intention to incite debate around “What constitutes a documentary form?” and “How can we reinstate a culture of documentary films being made with the process in mind, rather than the outcome?”

The challenge this year was to see whether we could put a program together that would be interesting, challenging and successful in terms of an audience response. We were lucky to be able to show works by some very well known artists like Luke Fowler, Maria Marshall and Margaret Salmon. But some of the lesser known artists like Erica Scourti or Fred Lindberg got the liveliest reactions from the audience, which made us very happy and proud. We were also lucky to have had some support from LUX and Sheffield Doc/Fest.

What first got you interested in filmmaking?

My dad is a bit of a film buff and we were permitted to watch films from a very young age that were entirely unsuitable for us. [Laughs] We’re talking Pasolini and Fassbinder and people like that. I’m still allergic to those two filmmakers as a result of early exposure.

But I started off with more of a campaigning interest, because I developed a degree of political-mindedness — typical for a teenager, I guess. I saw documentaries on television that swayed me one way or another on environmentalism or politics. I thought, “That’s the thing to do to change the world. You must make documentaries!”

This youthful idealism got replaced by a more individualistic need and a kind of defiance that I really wasn’t going to be able to change the world. [Laughs]

You were working in broadcast TV in the UK, then took the leap to filmmaking on your own. What was the catalyst for the change?

I was freelancing in different crew positions, from being a researcher to doing camera work, and eventually got a couple of mini commissions to do two short documentaries for television. I enjoyed the opportunity, and I still like those films. It solidified my interest in portraiture. But I made those films with a television context in mind. In the process I became very clear-headed about my future in broadcast TV, in terms of being able to produce work that falls outside the realm of what is considered documentary form. Although I like working with limitations in the short-term, it didn’t fit in well with my long-term creative aspirations.

At the time, I was also working for a major UK broadcast institution with a senior producer-director whose project — a two-part series — was failing miserably. I figured if an institution that has a great deal of resources, man power, knowledge and expertise can throw all this at a project that fails, then I can go with my lack of expertise, with my lack of money, and my lack of knowledge, and I can do the same thing and fail just as well, and just as profoundly! It was a challenge I set myself, and that’s how I began my full-length documentary, Anatomy of Failure.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation’s Social Citizens blog.

I’m not a social entrepreneur. But I like uncertainty, being a novice. Usually there is a great deal of fear attached. I try to listen to this fear and do it nonetheless.

For me fear of success is as big of an issue as fear of failure, perhaps even bigger. With success comes a different set of demands, different relationship to how you work, who you work with, and what the expectations are. With success comes responsibility. Those are scary things. [Laughs]

The TED Fellowship is a sign of success. Has that success been scary?

The TED Fellowship has put me into turbo mode, and the experience stirred up a lot of questions about the way I operate. When you have that kind of endorsement, it becomes necessary to question yourself, because you have these very dedicated people who are supporting you and believing in you. I feel I’m on some kind of stage for this year, and want to perform well, whether it is developmental growth or professional.

In addition to being an artist, I work as a lecturer and I freelance in production. My artwork and what I put out has no economic tie to these other activities. I make work regardless of any financial returns.

The TED Fellowship, in a way –- rightly or wrongly, I’m not sure — somehow instilled in me that there has to be economic return in my activities. Maybe that’s an assumption of mine. Maybe any professional practice needs to consider a business strategy. I’ve never had to or wanted to consider thinking of my art practice in those terms.

In particular at TED in Long Beach, we had a really useful workshop with Colleen Keegan from Creative Capital, where we heard a very eloquent presentation about artists’ lack of focused attempts at professional development. This was not a conversation about money. It was about logistics, organization, and efficiency. And about knowing when to take breaks!

I Remember (Still), 2010

You said you feel a bit like you’re on stage this year. What are some of your plans for it?

I am in Austria right now filming my grandmother and parents. I have a very loose plan for what will probably be a long-term project, which is based on a road trip from Austria to Iran my parents took me on as a two-year-old.

I want to take this road trip again, exploring with my parents two things: one, personal history. My Iranian father and Austrian mother are in their seventies now, and have a changing perspective on how their cross-cultural relationship impacted their children. Two: maybe this is too ambitious, but putting the personal history in context with the changing political landscape of Europe as we cross it.

I wonder what it would have been like in the late 1960s for a young Austrian woman to say, “I’m going to go off to live in Iran with my Iranian husband.” According to my mother, people thought she was slightly insane. Given public perception about Iranian society on the whole — people tend to consider it savage, even to this day — I can’t imagine what it would have been like in the late 1960s.

There is a series of pictures from this trip. One is an image of me and my sister, tiny toddlers in the 1970s, holding up two number plates, an Austrian and an Iranian one. At the top of the photo it says “Iran.” We are at the border crossing. The film will stop there.

Headshot: Markus Rapp