Well aware that his book “The Patience Stone” would never be read in the country where he was born for various reasons, Atiq Rahimi, who long fled Afghanistan for France has been quite pleased to learn that his film adaptation of the novel about a woman who comforts and confronts her dying husband on his deathbed has become an underground hit in the Middle East, even if he won’t ever see a dime from it.
“So many people said, when are you going to translate it in Persian?” Rahimi says of “The Patience Stone,” noting that Afghanistan has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world. “[But] the movie gave me this chance to translate it in Persian and this film is, for me, more for Afghan people than for the West, because in [the West], we know everything about sexuality and everything [else], but in our country, no one ever breaks taboos. So when we can, why [not]?”
Still, Rahimi offers a rare perspective into the private thoughts of a long-suffering wife in Afghanistan, shattering the conventional view of gender dynamics in the region by subverting it not with the heated arguments of someone finally free to speak her mind, but instead the gentle yet insistent voice of an unnamed woman played by the soulful Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. Tending to a man she married while he was off fighting for the Mujahideen and was made to recite her vows to a dagger in his stead, the woman once more is allowed to say what’s in her heart after years wasted in loveless matrimony where she’s sacrificed herself time and again to defend the family including their two young children from the literal war going on outside and the festering conflict within.
While in Los Angeles recently, Rahimi spoke to me about what led him to adapt his novel for the screen, the real-life incident that inspired the work and the secret of being a writer.
Why did you want to translate this to the screen from your novel?
It was not the first time. I did it with my first novel “Earth and Ashes” in 2004 but [“The Patience Stone”] I was not very sure to adapt it in cinema. Jean-Claude Carriere, the co-writer of the script, called me after the publication to say how he really liked the book and he was very convinced this story is good for cinema. I was not sure, but after we talked, I was confident we could change the point of view to become cinema. Without that, it would be very difficult because in the book, the narrator — he’s in the room with the man, but in the movie, the camera is with the woman. So it was not easy to translate because I didn’t want to repeat again some things that I wrote before in the book, so I wanted to say something else and to find the cinematic language of this story.
You’ve said this was inspired by a real event in your life and that this is what you’d want to do in the situation, to sit bedside and hash things out, even if it was deeply uncomfortable. Why do you think that is?
Originally, it is not a true story because in 2005, I was invited to a literature conference in Afghanistan, but one week before I go to Kabul, this conference was cancelled because of an assassination of Nadia Anjuman [a 25-year-old Afghan poet]. She was scared by her husband and I wanted to write something about that, but when I was in Afghanistan for an investigation about this story, the family of this poetess didn’t want to meet me and the husband was in the jail and he was in coma. So the situation gave me the idea of this story where the husband is in a coma and a woman is able to talk to him [uninterrupted].
But why was the idea of saying things you wouldn’t be allowed to say so compelling?
Of course, when I found this situation with the man paralyzed and a woman who talks, this is a psychoanalyst’s situation. [laughs] Also in [Afghan] culture, this patience stone is a very magic stone – when you find it, you put it in front of you and you talk to it, [telling it] all your sufferings, your secrets and the stone absorbs everything and one day it explodes. Then you are free from your sufferings, from your secrets, etc., so that was a key that I could open this story [with] and start this talking. Why? Because in our culture, this is the problem. In Europe or in the West, our problem is “To be or not to be, that is the question.” But in [Middle Eastern] culture, it is to say or not to say, that’s the question. We’ve had so many [obstacles] — religious, political, dictators — that you couldn’t talk about everything, so you have so many secrets. That’s why it is very important for me to make a film, to write about the importance of words I wanted to say.
Was it interesting to have your novel reinterpreted by a screenwriter and then interpreting those words yourself visually?
This process is very complicated from how it goes from book to cinema, from words to picture. As my scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carriere said to me, your movie is an action movie. [mimes double take] How?!?! He said something that’s very true and important – he said, “Look in the action film, there are so many actions, but dramatically, there’s nothing. For the 20 minutes, you see the cars [crashing], but in the end, you can’t put it in two or three words [where] the car is going. Dramatically, it’s not very rich.” But in this story, each word becomes an action. That’s why in my movie the camera moves not with action, but with each word of the woman’s. In the film, she talks, she talks, but you feel there’s a great action because the action it is in the words.
Once you decided to tell this film from the perspective of the woman, was it easy to get into that mindset?
Everybody asks me about how could I talk from the point of view from a woman and really, I don’t know. Now, I doubt about my sexuality. Am I a man or a woman? [laughs] But for me, this is the art. This is the writing. You can go inside of your character or your character can go inside of you. I’m open to any characters who come and meet me. I don’t know why, for example, a writer can speak about a criminal. It’s not easy to. But this is the secret of writing.
“The Patience Stone” is now open in New York at Film Forum and opens on August 16th at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles.