'Activist popcorn cinema' is the new film genre we didn't know we needed
Keep your eyes peeled for Faraz Shariat’s sensual semi-autobiographical debut, 'No Hard Feelings'.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
“I think this was the first time I ever had sex with someone like you,” a middle-aged white German brazenly tells Parvis, the confident, peroxide-blond-haired protagonist of No Hard Feelings, moments after a vigorous, couch-based shagging scene. Seeing Parvis’s perplexed look, the German man clarifies: “Normally, I’m not that into ethnic guys.” Caught off guard but fully ready to swing back, the Sailor Moon-stanning teen brushes him off with a quote referenced in the film’s English title: “Well, no hard feelings. I’m actually also not that into pretentious German potatoes.”
“That’s one of my favourite scenes, because it has this very sudden, blatant way of inviting the audience to experience something that has happened too often to many of us,” 25-year-old German-Iranian filmmaker Faraz Shariat tells me when we meet at a café in Berlin’s Neukölln on the day of his film’s Berlinale world premiere. “Even when we go on Grindr dates and just want to have fun, we still cannot feel completely safe about the situation. It creates this racially charged power dynamic that’s so telling about the broader culture.”
Shariat’s No Hard Feelings is a thrilling, sensual and whip-smart knockout of a first film -- at once a powerful meditation on the unique minefield diasporic communities must navigate in the West, and a technicolour, radically romantic, Skam-like coming-of-age flick. The film charts a rollercoaster summer of full bloom into adulthood for Parvis (Benjamin Radjaipour). The carefree German teen of Iranian descent rediscovers his roots (and experiences an intense first love) after meeting Iranian refugee Amon (Eidin Jalali) and his sister Banafshe (Banafshe Hourmazdi), while doing community service at a migrant shelter. The end result is what Shariat (himself the son of exiled Iranians) and his unabashedly “feminist, anti-racist and queer” Jünglinge film collective accurately describe as "activist popcorn cinema".
Prior to this, Shariat’s resume included a Selfridges campaign and a memorable trilogy of music videos for Australian electronic producer Charles Murdoch, in which he explored the Berlin queer underground's subversive liking of the skinhead aesthetic. But for No Hard Feelings, the spark would be one of the many fascinating parallels between filmmaker and his onscreen counterpart.
At 19, entering uni with little disposable income, Shariat recounts how he “really indulged in pop culture, lifestyle and fashion.” His glamorous sense of lawlessness is surely one Sofia Coppola would have loved to chronicle: ordering security tag detachers from China and shoplifting from stores such as Givenchy. The inevitable disciplinary denouement came in the form of 120 hours of community service as a Farsi-German translator at a refugee shelter. This was in 2015, as the European migrant crisis was in full swing, with Germany registering over 1 million asylum seekers before the year’s end. Looking back, he acknowledges how self-centred he’d been until that point. And that’s precisely when everything changed.
“Besides the fact that I was translating in hyper-existential, life-or-death situations with my limited Farsi, many of the stories these refugees were telling me were mirroring what I had heard from my parents, but 35 years earlier,“ he recalls. Shariat knew then and there he wanted to share these stories as part of a project -- a multilayered mosaic of migrations -- though he hadn’t exactly worked out how. With friends at the University of Hildesheim, he embarked on two years of analytical research into media (mis)representations of migrant bodies as well as interviews with Germany’s queer communities of colour. The aim was to co-construct a counter-narrative about marginalised groups -- one that would bear witness to how racism isn’t a single, terrifying boogeyman but rather deeply ingrained into our societal structures.
“As the second generation, we grow up as these soldiers of success who have to somehow manifest all the hopes and dreams of our parents. Meanwhile, we also grow up understanding that we’re not part of the national narrative. To communicate that to your parents is often accompanied by a lot of guilt and anger.”
Casting, Shariat concedes, was a challenge, given how many actors of colour in Germany are either not represented by agencies or have demo reels that solely feature stereotyped roles. Thankfully, they eventually found their dream trifecta of talent in Radjaipour, Hourmazdi and Jalali, who have already been honoured with the Götz-George Young Talent Award last fall, where No Hard Feelings also took home the Best Young German Film prize. Shariat was also able to cast some of the youths he had interpreted for four years earlier as extras.
Just like Parvis, Shariat had until that point mostly used fashion as a means of self-expression. Now, he was invested in a cinematic mission to bind together the post-migration stories of three consecutive generations: that of his parents, his own and the next. “As the second generation, we grow up as these soldiers of success who have to somehow manifest all the hopes and dreams of our parents,“ he says. “Meanwhile, we also grow up understanding that we’re not part of the national narrative. To communicate that to your parents is often accompanied by a lot of guilt and anger.”
Throughout production, the collective made sure that everyone involved -- from extras and boom operators to the make-up department -- was as invested in the politics driving the project as they were. “We believe it’s not only important who you cast, but also who you work with,” Shariat points out. “Many scenes were super personal for the actors, and if you experience violence or shame on set, I think that would affect the process immensely.”
Taking the autobiographical strands a step further, Shariat cast his mum Shirin and dad Nasser -- who he considers the “heartbeat of his artistic practice” -- to play Parvis’s onscreen parents. “I had already worked with them several times before,” he mentions with a palpable sense of pride. “I had shot a very queer music video for Australian electronic duo Flight Facilities in a bodybuilding studio that used to be a temple for Arnold Schwarzenegger. I cast my parents to play the owners; they recount Arnold stories and throw a huge party… it’s glorious!”
Coming from the music video world, Shariat and the entire Jünglinge family saw the sensual, pop aesthetic of No Hard Feelings as being crucial to its characters’ self-empowerment. The vibrant score, for one, reflects their transcultural identities, featuring a number of Persian songs but also Ghanaian king of Afrobeats A-Star, timeless German singer Nena, and the haunted future-pop stylings of Grimes. The film’s visual language sits somewhere between the music videos of Solange and Rihanna, the films of Céline Sciamma and Andrea Arnold (they were particularly drawn to the latter’s research-based process when writing and casting American Honey), and the Instagram profiles of queer activists of colour who “create content that confidently expresses who they are,” according to Shariat. “For us, our aim was to devise a utopian filmic language for our characters -- one that’s set in a future world.”
The film’s most nakedly autobiographical element is the inclusion of VHS clips from Shariat’s own childhood. No Hard Feelings opens on an adorable shot of the director’s four-year-old self, decked out in a Sailor Moon outfit and belting out a pop song. “This happened in the 1990s, in Germany, and yet these moments are so not present in the collective memory of German film and culture,” he explains. “Including it was just a way to say: Parvis’s story has true origins. It’s not something we created theoretically. It’s not just checking off these conceptual boxes. It’s real.”
For info about future screenings of Jünglinge's No Hard Feelings, head here.