In Documentary, Director Ivory Portrays Beauty of Afghanistan

Paris — The oldest person ever to win an Oscar, renowned director James Ivory, is still making films at 95, with a documentary about his formative trip to Afghanistan in 1960.

Though American, Ivory is best-known for a string of costume dramas about the repressed emotions of Brits, including Remains of the Day and Howard’s End, both starring Anthony Hopkins, and Room with a View with Daniel Day-Lewis.

In 2017, he reached a new generation with his screenplay for Call Me By Your Name starring Timothee Chalamet as a teenager discovering his sexuality, which won Ivory an Oscar at the age of 89.

But his career began as a student making films about art in Venice and South Asia.

“I was making a film in India, and it was getting hotter and hotter,” he told AFP.

“I couldn’t take it another minute. The backers told me to go to a cooler climate, so I went to Afghanistan. I knew nothing about it, but I went.”

Decades later, his footage from Kabul has been worked into a documentary that shows a peaceful Afghanistan, before the wars and extremism that would drag it into decades of violence.

“(The footage) was amazing from the first reel, very poetic and mysterious,” said Giles Gardner, a long-time collaborator who helped pull the film together after digging the footage out of Ivory’s archives.

“With all we know about Afghanistan, the violence we see on the news, this idea of it as a place of beauty has been erased,” he said.

The resulting film, A Cooler Climate, serves as a sort of origin story for Ivory’s career, since it was immediately after returning from Afghanistan that he met producer Ismael Merchant. They became personally and professionally involved and went on to make more than 40 films together until Merchant’s death in 2005.

By then their names — Merchant Ivory — had become a byword for high-quality period dramas.

Their romantic relationship was never revealed during Merchant’s lifetime as he came from a conservative Indian family.

But Ivory said his own life was largely a breeze. Growing up gay in an Oregon town was fine, even idyllic, he insisted.

“I don’t know why people think I had to escape anything, I was a happy young man,” he said.

Still in good shape for 95, traveling between Europe and the U.S. for screenings of the documentary, he comes across as a man of few regrets, apart from the sadness at losing friends, particularly Merchant and their writing partner, novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

“I wish they were here every day,” he said. “I love them. I’m a very old man now and have close friends, but I miss them very much.”  

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