Category: Iranian Cinema

Under the Shadow (UK-Jordan-Qatar-Iran 2016)

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In the dark

This was the UK’s foreign language entry to the Oscars but, like the recently posted Tehran Taboo, is essentially an Iranian film made by ex-pats; it couldn’t have been done in Iran. It was writer-director Babak Anvari’s debut and it hits the sweet spot of a horror film that scares whilst emotionally engaging the audience. Narges Rashidi plays Shideh whose medical studies were curtailed by the Islamic Revolution in 1979 because she was left wing; it should be noted that the western-backed Shah who was toppled would also not have been sympathetic toward her. She’s forced to be a housewife rather than emulating her mother, who has recently died. She has a daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), who’s already apparently seeing things when the film starts; her husband is conscripted to a frontline hospital early in the film and Iraq starts sending missiles to bomb Tehran. It’s a fraught situation and Anvari skilfully cranks up the fear subtly treading the tightrope as to whether the djinn is real or a figment of stressed imaginations.

It’s well into the film when the shocks start arriving and reminded me of Dark Water (Honogurai mizu no soko kara, Japan 2002) in the slow build up and where the building itself apparently becomes a threat. Understandably Shideh’s neighbours start leaving after an unexploded missile embeds itself in the roof leaving mother and daughter to fight amongst themselves; as in The Babadook (Australia-Canada, 2014) Shideh’s daughter is unhappy with the parenting she’s receiving. According to Kermode’s review, Anvari cites Polanski’s The Tenant (France-US, 1976) as an influence and the war setting with children reminds me of The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, Mexico-Spain) by Guillermo del Toro. However, there’s little sense that Under the Shadow is derivative because of its social context: the repressive version of Islam in wartime. In one scene, when mother and daughter flee into the night, they are arrested because Shideh isn’t wearing a chador. The chador, incidentally, is also also representative of the djinn emphasising how the evil spirit is repression of women.

There are, by necessity, other horror tropes but Anvari and editor Chris Barwell hit their marks brilliantly and I was leaping and yelping around the sofa a few times. The director went on to make Wounds which I’ll have to catch up on.

Tehran Taboo (Germany-Austria 2017)

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Women in the back seat

Directed and co-written (with Grit Kienzlen) by Ali Soozandeh, this is a startling representation of Tehran from the perspective of a prostitute. Startling because it is impossible for films made in Iran to show such things; Soozandeh emigrated to Germany over 20 years ago. By the 1990s the ‘new wave’ of Iranian films from directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, the Makhmalbaf family and Jafar Panahi was beginning to be ‘validated’ by western criticism. Even in these films censorship meant that it was impossible to represent the earthier side of human life, if the directors had wished to do so directly. So the films are a bit like mid-20th century British cinema, exemplified by Brief Encounter(1945), where the only stiff things in the narrative are lips. Hence seeing Tehran Taboo is something of a shock especially as the first scene shows a prostitute attempting to give a blow-job in the front seat of a car whilst her five-year-old son is sitting in the back.

The woman, Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), is the character around which three narratives are woven: her attempts to look after her boy; a neighbour’s wife stifled by Islamic orthodoxy; a young would-be musician being conned into providing proof of virginity after a one-night stand. If the narrative around Pari seems to contradict her actions described in the first paragraph it is a tribute to the film that we understand that she has no choice but to do what she does. The hypocrisy of the ruling clerics is laid bare as is the stifling patriarchy that many women suffocate under.

As can be seen from the image, the film is rotoscoped: live action film is rendered as animation. Soozandeh explained he chose this method as he couldn’t film in Tehran and didn’t want to fake the city by shooting in Jordan. Hence, the animation’s lack of photo realism ensures that the representation of the setting is not compromised as it’s clearly not realist. The impact on the spectator is not unlike that of Waltz with Bashir, another serious rotoscoped film. However, unlike in the earlier film where the visuals conveyed the dreamlike memories of the protagonist, here it is obviously reality that is being rendered. The impact of this is to emphasise we are seeing what ‘shouldn’t’ (at least as defined by the censors in Iran) be seen: it’s both unreal and real. ‘Unreal’ because it is animated; ‘real’ because no doubt that such events depicted in the film happen.

This was Soozandeh’s debut feature; I look forward to the next one.

GFF20 #6: Son-Mother (Iran-Czech Republic 2019)

Leila with her infant daughter and Amir

Most of my film choices at GFF20 attracted virtually full houses and I wondered whether I had made a mistake with this film when I had two rows at the front of the cinema to myself. The first few scenes suggested a familiar, almost neo-realist style, small scale Iranian drama. These are usually well worthwhile to watch, but it was the end of a long tiring day and I wondered if I would have the energy necessary to see it through. In the event, I found the narrative gripping with a real cutting edge. At the end I noted that it was scripted by Mohammad Rasoulof who won the Berlin Golden Bear a week ago for his feature There is No Evil. Son-Mother was in fact one of the best films I saw during my festival visit. The film was directed by Mahnaz Mohammadi, like Rasoulof a human rights activist as well as a filmmaker subject to arrest and harassment by Iranian authorities. I’ve been unable to marry up the contrasting accounts of Mohammadi’s career offered by IMdB, Wikipedia and other websites. What seems clear is that she has made several short and feature-length documentaries and that she has been arrested and gaoled at least once for her stance on rights, especially for women in Iran. This appears to be her first fiction feature and it is a terrific film.

Amir, alone and trying to be brave

As the title implies, the film is in two parts which if I remember correctly are oddly titled in the negative, so the first part ‘Son’ is actually the mother’s story and the second, ‘Mother’ is the son’s. I think this is because the central character in each is driven by thoughts about the other. In the first part we meet Leila (Raha Khodayari) a widow with two children who works in a factory. She is struggling to pay for her youngest child at a daily play group, pay rent, feed her 12 year-old son Amir and pay for his education expenses. She has been late for work several times and risks losing her job. The reasons for her lateness are soon revealed. Instead of catching the factory-provided workers’ bus she has tried to get to work by herself. Why doesn’t she take the bus? The bus driver is a widower who has proposed marriage to her, but in marrying him she would have to abandon her son for at least three years as tradition demands that a stepson can’t be in the same house as his new sister (who is roughly Amir’s age). Leila knows that the other workers are starting to talk about her and the bus driver. When economic recession hits the factory and workers strike, Leila finds herself in a perilous position, almost certain to lose her job. She is encouraged to go ahead with the marriage to Kazem (who is a self-employed contractor, not a factory employee) by Bibi, an older woman and neighbour who says that she can help by finding a way to look after Amir. Leila is in an impossible position and finally agrees to go ahead with Bibi’s scheme.

In the hope that you might eventually be able to see this film, I won’t outline what happens in Amir’s story. Suffice to say that Bibi is not quite what she seems and Amir finds himself in an unusual and at times quite frightening situation. He is not only an intelligent and resourceful lad but he loves his mother and he eventually understands what has happened. Nevertheless, his story is, in many ways, heartbreaking, but, we learn, not unusual in Iran. Amir is played by Mahan Nasiri with great skill. One of the important points about the film is its deep humanism. None of the three adults is a ‘bad person’. All have to survive and all are trapped by the social conservatism and traditional orthodoxies of Iranian society and especially its working class. Son-Mother is a social realist melodrama. In some ways the film resembles earlier Ken Loach films from the UK which might have got a screening at Cannes and international distribution. Son-Mother is being sold internationally by Beta Cinema, the German film company with a strong track record so there is some hope it will get released in several territories after its festival tour. I do hope we get to see it in the UK.

3 Faces (Iran 2018)

Poster for 3 Faces dir. Jafar Panahi

Not shown on general release, to my knowledge, in Bradford, I was able to catch this courtesy of Bradford’s Literature Festival. It is the fourth of director Jafar Pahani’s films in his eighth year of a filmmaking ban in Iran. The film shares its guerilla-style filmmaking practices with the earlier films but is more adventurous in exploring a form of road movie. It opens with a ‘selfie’ film made on her phone by a young woman. She’s pleading for a rescue from her conservative family in her village home in the far North West of Iran where Azeri (or ‘Turkish’ as the locals call it) is the common language. She threatens suicide and the film is sent to the well-known film and TV actress Behnaz Jafari via the film director Jafar Panahi (both playing themselves). Distraught, Jafari insists Panahi take her to the girl’s village – abandoning her own filming schedule in the process.

The villages used in the film are those of Panahi’s own mother, father and grandparents, so he felt comfortable making a film there. There are several diversions on the way but eventually the cave where the video was shot is found and the young woman’s family in the village is identified. But this isn’t a thriller or a mystery. It’s a road movie with encounters. It’s also a fiction in which the two leads play themselves and their own personal narratives are woven into the story.

The Press Notes for the film reveal that the idea for the story came from one of many social media messages that the director receives. One day he received an Instagram message from a young would-be filmmaker which disturbed him and then he read a newspaper report about a young woman who committed suicide because she wasn’t allowed to make films. It’s difficult to discuss the film without spoilers but I’ll try to limit them. All I will say about the plot is that the title may refer to three women – the young woman in distress, the actor and an older woman in the village who has been ostracised because she was a performer before the revolution in 1979.

A local celebration blocks the mountain road . . .

I’m further indebted to the Press Notes for a commentary on what Panahi hoped to achieve. The film provides him with a way of exploring the history of Iranian Cinema and the obstacles that filmmakers have faced in pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods. He even makes use of a single track mountain road which perhaps acts as a metaphor for the timeline of Iranian Cinema. The road winds around headlands which requires drivers to use their horns and listen for answering horns – and then follow a strict code of signals in sequence to discover whether to drive on or wait for an on-coming vehicle to pass. This is just one of the local traditions that visitors from Tehran must negotiate.

Behnaz Jafar is recognised by the women in the village . . .

However, the remoteness of the region doesn’t mean local people are not aware of what is happening in Tehran. Behnaz Jafari is quickly recognised and the Press Notes suggest that villagers were actually watching her in a TV programme when Panahi arrived to film a scene. As the director and the actor travel around the village and stay overnight, the film offers a range of examples of the opposition between tradition and modernity, much of which is based on the patriarchal attitudes in the villages – though the women show themselves to be resourceful in counteracting the effects of their treatment by men. There is a neat balance between the solidarity of the three female ‘performers’ and the interaction between Panahi and one of the male elders who insists that Panahi must perform a ritual for him and his son and who references the star status of a popular male actor who was forced to flee Iran after the revolution, but still stands as a role model for ‘masculinity’.

One of the director’s stranger encounters is with an old woman who sleeps in the grave she has had dug . . .

Reading through reviews of the film, I note that several writers refer to similar films by Abbas Kiarostami. I did myself think of both Through the Olive Trees (1994) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). The first of these films is part of a trilogy of films in which Kiarostami explores the relationship between a director (based on himself), real events and the actors who play in the director’s films. In the second, journalists from Tehran, one posing as an engineer, travel to a Kurdish village in a remote area to ‘observe’ the mourning rituals for a woman who is supposedly about to die. There is clearly a connection of sorts here, but Kiarostami doesn’t play himself and I think there is a different ‘feel’ in Panahi’s films. Where Kiarostami’s films appear enigmatic and intellectual, Panahi’s films feel more direct. He shows us scenes and leaves us to decide what to make of them via his guidance as a character in the narrative. Early in the narrative there is the suggestion that Behnaz Jafari is a little suspicious of his actions and thinks that this might be a set-up. In fact, the whole film is a set-up, but it seems pretty clear to me what Panahi wants to say.

Jafar Panahi is a deeply humanist director and his ability to make four films while banned shows his commitment and determination. It’s amazing that they turn out so well (the three I’ve seen, at least) and I look forward to whatever appears next.

GFF19 #4: Permission (Araghe Sard a.k.a. Cold Sweat, Iran 2018)

Afrooz celebrates after scoring a goal

This Iranian film features a couple of ideas that will be familiar to fans of global cinema. Firstly it constructs a narrative about the attempts of patriarchy to restrain women’s rights to engage with and enjoy football, as in Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006). Secondly, it plays out a court procedure with the camera trained on a warring married couple while keeping the judge offscreen. Although the framings and composition are different this scene resembles the well-known one at the beginning of Asgar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011).

The team, led by Afrooz, arrive at the airport

The sport in the film is actually futsal, an indoor football game played by by both men and women with five players per side. Since 1999 Iran have won all but three Asian Women’s Futsal Championships. They have also reached the last four of the Fifa World Championship. The game is very important for female athletes in Iran and the focus in the film is on the national team’s (fictitious) captain and main goalscorer Afrooz (Baran Kosari). When the team travels to the airport to fly to Malaysia for the Asian Championships, Afrooz is stopped  by passport control and told that she cannot leave the country because her husband has not given his permission (which presumably he has in the past since Afrooz is the team’s top player).

The highly-experienced Baran Kosari gives a strong performance as Afrooz

Afrooz tries to contact her husband Yasser, a daytime TV host. But the couple haven’t lived together for some time and in fact Afrooz is living with another team member Panatea in a flat also owned by her husband. Yasser (Amir Jadidi) does everything he can to prevent Afrooz leaving, including physical harassment. The legal conundrum is that Afrooz must either get his permission to travel or obtain a divorce, which seems very difficult in the couple of days before the games begin.

I won’t spoil the narrative of a film by detailing the plot since the film should appear in the UK at some point. The legal issue is quite complex as is often the case in Iran. I’m not sure how constitutional law works in Iran but in most of the films I’ve seen the judiciary seem thorough and fair. It’s the laws themselves that are restrictive. The husband is an extremely annoying character. He’s egotistical, forever preening himself and simpering on TV. Afrooz herself is strong and decisive but also quick to anger (a team captain in the Roy Keane mould). She has every right to be angry since she also has to contend with the woman she has hired as a lawyer who seems more interested in making the case into a media event and the woman who is in effect the team manager and chaperone and who acts as the link to the National Federation. Apart from Panatea, will the rest of the women on the team support her?

Afrooz tries rational argument with her husband

A short sequence of a game shown in the early part of the film gives a good representation of the passion of both the players and the fans but I wonder if the struggle by Afrooz to assert her rights is equally well-handled? The trick that Panahi and Farhadi employ so well in these kinds of narratives is to find the humanism in the situation as well as the humour, anger, pathos, frustration and commitment. Writer-director Soheil Beiraghi has got the basis of a good story here (based on real events) but perhaps the script could be developed a little more? Having said that, it is only his second feature as a director and he does create emotional scenes fitting for a melodrama, using close-ups and lighting to show the effect on Afrooz. The film has been generally well-received at festivals and some critics have been very impressed. It’s certainly well worth looking for.

The Glasgow programme listed the film with the title Permission, which seems to be how it has been released in France (as La Permission) but in the US it seems to be Cold Sweat. It would be good to get this sorted if it comes out in the UK. The programme lists the print source as Peccadillo Pictures in the UK, but it hasn’t appeared on that company’s website as yet. Here’s the French trailer:

Gholam (UK-Iran 2017)

Surreal lighting is used in this promotional image for Gholam

This unusual film places a major Iranian star actor, known in the West for three leading roles in the films of Asghar Farhadi, into a downbeat slow-paced thriller set in parts of North London. The director is Mitra Tabrizian, Professor of Photography at the University of Westminster whose 2005 exhibition ‘Border’ appears to have been the starting point for a script written with Cyrus Massoudi. The film was a first feature for both Tabrizian and Massoudi. The impressive cinematography is by South African DoP Dewald Aukema (who photographed Skin (UK-RSA 2008), one of the most viewed posts on this blog). Overall, the film is very impressive, although it is oddly let down by barely visible subtitling (a thin white typeface), sometimes lost against white backgrounds. The two main languages are English and Farsi.

The dismal bedsit where Gholam (Shahab Hosseini) spends his brief leisure time

Shahab Hosseini plays the eponymous central character, a forty-something Iranian living in a dingy bedsit in what I take to be North East London, possibly Hackney/Dalston? Gholam drives a taxi by night and works in a very quiet garage for an older Iranian migrant by day. He has an uncle who runs a Persian cafe locally and he is subject to telephone calls from his mother in Tehran, wanting him to return home. There isn’t a great deal of plot, but a double narrative develops when Gholam is recognised by another Iranian as someone who was something of a hero as a teenage ‘warrior’, presumably in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. Now he refuses to countenance helping in some form of covert activity (the narrative is actually set in 2011 during various forms of unrest in the Middle East). At the same time he has an altercation with three young white thugs who refuse to pay after travelling in his taxi. Throughout the film, Gholam seems disturbed and his mood seems to pervade the whole film. Here is a man who seems mired in his own despondency, unsure of what he wants to do and especially whether to return to Iran (we don’t know if he is a refugee or what his residency status in the UK might be). Despite this there are strangers (other migrants) who offer him kind words in shops or food stalls. He also meets and befriends a much older African-Caribbean woman (played by the veteran of many UK films and TV programmes, Corinne Skinner-Carter) and her chirpy neighbour played by Tracie Bennett a Lancastrian actor I haven’t seen for quite a while. These friendships seem positive but they have links to Gholam’s eventual fate.

I’m not sure what to make of this film. The performances are all strong and I should mention Gholam’s young cousin Arash (played by British-Iranian actor Armin Karima) who has embraced skate-boarding and rap, but still admires his older relative. As might be expected, Tabrizian has a strong feel for her migrant community characters and the London streets. There were moments when I thought about Rachid Bouchareb’s London River (2009) and Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002), both set in similar London migrant communities with that sense of the ‘invisible workers’ driving taxis, cleaning hotels and offices etc. – or running food stalls and social clubs. The Iranian migrant in Europe is also featured in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (2013) set in Paris and The Charmer (Denmark-Sweden 2017) by Milad Alami and set in Copenhagen. Gholam seems the most austere of all these films and it does need Shahab Hosseini’s commanding performance to sustain our interest. However, the thriller aspect takes over in the last section.

The setting of the garage seems to be inspired by this original image taken from the ‘Border’ exhibition by Mitra Tabrizian in 2005.

I’m surprised and also disappointed with my own lack of knowledge about Mitra Tabrizian. When I found her website, which lists the various projects and academic partnerships she has initiated or been part of since the 1980s, I realised that I certainly should have known this history. The film is dedicated to the memory of Stuart Hall and Jules Wright (who was a major figure in theatre and the art world, latterly as director of the Wapping Project). Tabrizian herself is an important link between Iranian and Western art practice in cinema and photography. Her collaborators on Gholam are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and she similarly elicited support from the wider arts community in London. This makes the film distinctive but also means that it feels caught somewhere between a kind of downbeat neo-realist thriller and the kind of essay film that might be produced by someone like John Akomfrah. Tabrizian’s visual eye is complemented by the use of Iranian music on record and by tabla and oud music at various points. Distributed by Miracle Films, Gholam has received some good reviews and I would certainly recommend it. Its actual cinema appearances are likely to be only odd dates in sometimes out of the way places (see the official website for planned screenings) and VOD may be your best bet to catch it. It is currently playing on MUBI in the UK. Here’s the trailer: