Category: Iranian Cinema

There is No Evil (Sheytan vojud nadarad, Iran-Germany-Czech Republic 2020)

The soldiers in the prison dormitory. The character in uniform in the centre has been ordered to be an executioner. This composition is almost like a fine art painting

There is No Evil won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2020. This long film (150 minutes) was written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, one of the film directors banned from filmmaking in Iran who has found ways to complete a film and show it to the world. As with several other leading Iranian directors (e.g. Jafar Panahi), it is difficult to keep track of how they manage to maintain some freedom in the face of a government determined to stop them. Rasoulef’s strategy with this film was to make four short films on the same theme (shorts attract less attention) and to organise a second unit to film outdoor scenes. Other parts of the films were shot in remote parts of Iran where the activity is less visible. (The ‘ban’ in practice means that the government makes it very difficult to be a filmmaker by preventing travel abroad, threatening imprisonment and more or less forcing filmmakers to operate secretly.)

Rasoulef’s subject is public execution by hanging (Iran has one of the highest rates of executions globally). Instead of focusing directly on the issue of capital punishment or whether individuals are innocent or guilty, Rasoulef focuses on the invidious ways in which the Iranian system forces moral responsibility onto anyone who ‘resists’. ‘Ordinary’ men are forced to become executioners through the convoluted process of national military service and women find themselves implicated in the the trauma experienced by their partners. Refusal to act as an executioner has all kinds of possible consequences.

The man prepares for his early work shift in the first story

Each short film is notionally separate in this compendium. The screen fades to black at the end of each story and the blank screen is held for several seconds before a new story begins. The actors in each story are different but apart from the first film, the principal characters are placed in similar roles and might be imagined as the same characters at different stages of their lives. ‘There is No Evil’ is actually the title of the first film which is set in a major city, presumably Tehran. It is presented as a social realist drama but the plotline is almost like a procedural account of the day in the life of a family. I don’t want to spoil what some reviewers see as the strongest story. I’ll just say it doesn’t turn out as you might expect although there are one or two hints in the presentation that might prepare you. The second film is entitled: ‘She Said: “You Can Do It”‘ and it has a much more familiar action/thriller genre structure. A group of soldiers are sleeping in a dormitory room inside a prison. One of them has been designated as the executioner of a prisoner in the early hours of the next morning. He doesn’t want to do it but he knows that if he doesn’t carry out the order he won’t be able to complete his compulsory military training and in turn he won’t be able to get a driving licence or a passport to leave the country. Some of the other soldiers are sympathetic, others are simply angry that he has woken them up with his moaning. Various options are presented and one requires him to ‘break out’ of the prison building. Another is to pay one of the others to take his place, but the fee is impossible.

The soldier and his girl in ‘Birthday’

The third film ‘Birthday’ takes us out of the city as a soldier on leave visits his girlfriend in the country. She lives on a farm with a couple of old houses. He approaches the main house by a roundabout route and hides his uniform in the bushes before reaching the house. He wants to propose to the girl on her birthday but finds himself joining an unexpected family gathering that turns out to be difficult for him. Finally, ‘Kiss Me’ is a story about a young woman (played by the director’s daughter Baran) who makes a return visit to Iran from Germany to stay with her uncle and his partner. They live in a remote mountainous part of the country. It is clear that the girl knows little about her uncle because she left the country when she was small but now he has something to tell her that he struggles to articulate. The film’s title relates, I think, to a song the uncle sings when the trio are preparing a celebration meal. Like all the other three films, this story is presented in CinemaScope and I found the cinematography by Ashkan Ashkani breathtakingly beautiful even as the relationship between the girl and her uncle becomes more strained. This film also seems much more imbued with symbolism than the others. The uncle’s partner shows the girl how to look after the beehives just below the house and I couldn’t help remembering Victor Erice’s fabulous film The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena, Spain 1973). There are bee-keepers in other films but in Erice’s mysterious film the symbolism is all important as the narrative is set in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War when characters like the bee-keeper father were unable to speak out against the fascists in power for fear of arrest and punishment. ‘Kiss Me’ also makes excellent use of long-shot compositions, particularly in relation to the uncle’s battle with a fox. He has been unable to stop the fox eating the couple’s chickens but he finds himself also unable to shoot it.

One of several extreme long shots in ‘Kiss Me’

I’ve read several reviews of the film and I seem to be on my own in valuing the last film as the one I liked most but that’s not a problem – I liked the others too. This film feels like a major achievement by an important filmmaker. It seems fitting that the last film was shot in the same region as several of Abbas Kiarostami’s films and that it also reminds us of some of the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan such as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey 2011). In fact there are a host of films in which characters are exiled to or required to investigate incidents in remote areas across Asia. The massive long shots of a single vehicle snaking across the hills is a striking image. It is sometimes possible, I think, to forget that Iran is a large country with a varied geography and a large diverse population with different local cultures. This film manages to introduce us to characters who face similar moral questions in diverse situations. It’s a great artistic achievement and a challenge to the inhuman behaviour of those in power as well as to those who unthinkingly accept the ideologies of powerful regimes around the world. The director himself explains himself in an interview given to Variety:

The four components of the film do deal with the death penalty, but they go further. They are more generally about disobedience and the fact that when you resist a system – when you resist against a power – what is the responsibility that you take? Do you take responsibility for your own resistance, for saying no? And what’s the price that you have to pay for that? If I take my own example, I can say that by resisting . . . I’ve deprived myself of many aspects of life, but I’m glad that I’m resisting. Although I haven’t been able to make it look as beautiful as I wanted in this film, I still think that the result of this resistance is positive . . . and it makes me want to go on resisting against the absurd and excessive censorship system that we live in. (Interview by Nick Vivarelli, Variety, 20 February 2020)

The film will be released in the UK by New Wave, one of the best independent distributors around. I urge you to get to see it in a cinema.

180° Rule (Iran 2020)

The family group at a magical wedding

This debut feature by Farnoosh Samadi is relatively short (around 83 minutes). Ms Samadi has mostly been working on short films, writing several and also co-writing a feature with Ali Asgari. Her own film deals with two familiar social issues that have been dealt with by several Iranian directors and, for international audiences, most notably by Asghar Farhadi. The first is the highly patriarchal nature of Iranian society which allows women to do many things but still requires them to seek permission from a husband or a father. The second issue is the propensity to lie to avoid social conflict or criticism. This latter can be seen as a widespread concern about the corruption of a society – many people in Iran seem to be ‘living a lie’. It forms the basis for Farhadi’s film About Elly (Iran 2009) but is also an important element of other Iranian films. I suspect it is a form of lying most associated with the middle class who have status to lose (as well as the arrogance for some to feel that they are ‘above the law’ or, more radically, that the law is an ass and it should be challenged). This latter is much more dangerous in a state like Iran.

The basic outline of this drama presents Sara as a middle-class woman who works in a girls school where she appears to be a respected and trusted member of staff, to whom the girls might take a problem. She has a young daughter of her own and a husband, Hamed, an executive given several ‘missions’ which require him to fly to various locations on trips lasting a few days. As the narrative begins it is clear that he has not asked for leave to attend Sara’s niece’s wedding some distance away in the North of the country. He is then sent out on another ‘mission’ (the subtitles are rather basic) but he forbids Sara to go to the wedding because he doesn’t think she is competent to drive herself and their daughter. Sara has bought a dress for what is intended to be a magical wedding in a forest and her young daughter (of around five) has learned a song to sing as the bridesmaid. Of course, Sara is going to defy a husband who is being unreasonable. I’m not going to spoil what is not a particularly complex plot but fate is not kind to Sara. Her family rally round to protect her but Sara makes the mistake of constructing a lie to cover what she feels is a failing on her part. She is in a state of shock and understandably not thinking straight. Her family, principally her parents and her brother, collude with her but when Hamed returns he disproves her story quite quickly and becomes violently angry. What follows is a set of legal procedures that again are familiar from Farhadi’s films with a demonstration of the male authority which permeates the whole system. Sara’s response is to remain silent throughout, in some ways an eloquent commentary on the the inequality of the legal system. Sara then finds herself facing further problems related to her position at the school and in particular her interaction with a specific student which points to another, separate but connected social issue for women. The narrative concludes with an ending that may divide audiences.

Sara has a difficult time in her marriage as this shallow focus shot connotes

The strongest aspect of this film is the central performance by Sahar Dolatshahi, an actor who featured in Permission (Iran 2018), another film about a woman denied permission by her husband. She also stars in an earlier, and better, film Inversion (Iran 2016) in which she plays an independent woman pressurised by her family to give up her independence. The actor playing Hamed, Pejman Jamshidi, is given little to do other than to be angry. I’ve read that he is generally known for comedy roles. I think that this film could have been an effective melodrama given the events in the narrative but the overall presentation of the film seems quite ‘functional’, apart from the spectacle of the wedding in the forest. True, it does begin with a close-up of milk boiling over on the stove and later there is a folkoric natural event that is often seen as a warning. But again, I didn’t really notice the score and rather than the ‘excess’ of a traditional melodrama, the mise en scène of the film added little. I have managed to find an interview with the director in which she explains that she has always been interested in the ‘secrets and lies’ that play such a strong role in Iranian social life. She has envisaged a trilogy of films and this is the first (which draws on the experiences of one of her friends). She does at one point admit: “Unfortunately, due to time and financial problems, I did not have the chance to rehearse with the cast and I just used my experiences from making short films. I always tried to choose my cast based on what I feel is the closest image to my film’s characters”. It is difficult to make low budget films and as well as the pressure of time, what tends to happen is that the there is not enough paid development time for the script and planning the shoot.

Sara’s brother attacks Hamed because of his treatment of Sara

The title of the film requires some explanation for those readers not part of the film industry or film academia. I don’t know if the film has a different title in Farsi but I’m assuming that this English title refers to the convention of ‘not crossing the line’ – here is a brief explanation on Wikipedia. The convention is helpful in filmmaking if the intention is always to ensure that the audience knows where the characters are in relation to each other in any setting. What does it mean in the context of this film? It seems to be metaphorical in that Sara has ‘crossed a line’ and finds herself in the ‘wrong place’. But there might be a more specific reason for the title.

The social issues in this film are important and Farnoosh Samadi faces many problems as a woman trying to write and direct films in Iran. I want to support her intentions but I feel that the film feels a little undercooked for international distribution. On the other hand I’m pleased that we are still able to see films coming out of Iran and this was my second film at the Borderlines Festival – where it was included as part of the ‘F-rated’ strand. My next screening is another Iranian film but I expect a rather different experience. A contrasting Iranian film directed by a woman is Son-Mother (Iran-Czech Republic 2019).

LFF 2020 #1: Chess of the Wind (Shatranj-e baad, Iran 1976)

A formal audience in the house. The stepdaughter receives the commissar (second right).

My first screening of this year’s festival, which is primarily online, was one of three ‘free’ archive screenings. This restoration of a film deliberately marginalised by critics and industry officials in 1976 and banned after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 came about only when the original reels of film were found by the director’s son in a street market in 2015. Up until then only heavily degraded VHS copies were available after the director Mohammad Reza Aslani was allowed back into the industry limelight in the late 1990s, mainly as a documentary maker.

The presentation was via BFI Player with a short introduction by Robin Baker and the director’s daughter Gita, a film scholar, and then a pre-recorded Q&A from the couple (in a split screen) after the screening. Everything worked smoothly. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the film. The pre-publicity suggested “the Persian lovechild of Tennessee Williams and Ingmar Bergman”. I thought this sounded unlikely and as the film rolled I thought I recognised a number of possible global links. In particular, I was reminded of Indian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese films with narratives featuring a feudal household experiencing a moment of decline and change in a grand house while outside a group of working-class women are constantly washing clothes in the large pond within a courtyard. They seem to play the role of a Greek chorus discussing all the goings-on and the sins of the rich. I was reminded of Almodóvar’s Volver and the women dressing graves among other films where groups of women are washing together. In the Q&A that followed, Gita told us that her father was influenced by two cinéastes, Visconti, especially re The Leopard (1963) and Bresson (mainly for the way he handled actors). The Leopard certainly makes sense as a narrative about aristocratic decline in the face of revolutionary forces. I don’t know Bresson well enough to comment on that reference.

The formal arrangements for dinner

The action in the narrative is all inside the house, apart from the women and the last surprising shot of the film. The woman who owned the house has just died and now her second husband has assumed control. But he has problems. Also in the house is his stepdaughter who is confined to a wheelchair and seems to be not in good health generally. The other two residents are two brothers, his nephews(?) who he has ‘taken in’. One of them wishes to marry the stepdaughter. There are several servants for the house as well – an elderly nanny, a young woman who is the stepdaughter’s maid and some kitchen staff. Finally there are two visitors, an elderly doctor and a ‘commissar’, (a police officer?). The audience is likely to wonder when the story is set. The only clue I could see was the commissar’s uniform which for me suggested the 1920s/30s. In the Q&A Gita told us that in the 1920s there were women who made quite dramatic feminist statements and that the stepdaughter repeats one of these statements in her description of a dream she has. The interior of the house in terms of layout and decoration suggests a period possibly a little earlier. Again, the final sequence in the film will provide some answers.

The cellar represents another world in contrast to the formal rooms above . . .

In genre terms this is a gothic melodrama that moves towards violence and horror. There is an element from Clouzot’s Les diaboliques (France 1955) and the house reminded me of The Handmaiden (South Korea 2016) which also shares other elements with this film. The fact that the film so shocked and confounded Iranian critics in 1976 probably says more about the state of cinema and culture at the end of the Shah’s regime than it does about the film itself. Those critics would at least have had more understanding of the details of the mise en scène of the scenes in the house, including the paintings on the walls and the domestic procedures such as the laying of the dinner on the richly carpeted floor and the bedroom with its raised sleeping platform. The stepdaughter has a very beautiful carved wooden wheelchair and how she gets about the house, even with her maid pushing the chair is something of a mystery since there is a grand staircase and a cellar to navigate. The dialogue too is carefully written to include cultural references that might be inaccessible to non-Iranians but none of this matters so much in a film that is so visually rich and which comments on Iranian history and society so directly via those elements borrowed from global cinema. The final sequence of the film is also perfectly handled so that we go back and re-think some of the earlier scenes. In the Q&A, Robin Baker asked the almost unavoidable question about Shakespeare and received the response that indeed the director was interested in Shakespeare and that perhaps this was a version of hamlet with gender reversals? You can probably guess from that remark that all does not end well.

The maid, a central character in a shot presumably from the original publicity prior to restoration

Music, camerawork,  mise en scène, performance all combine to make this a visual treat. The film is still available free, up until 15.00 BST on Tuesday 13 October, on BFI Player in the UK. It was restored in 4K in 2020 by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna from the original 35mm camera and sound negatives at L’Image Retrouvée laboratory (Paris) in collaboration with Mohammad Reza Aslani and Gita Aslani Shahrestani. Presumably this will later become available for wider distribution and cinema screenings. Do look out for it. On a big cinema screen this should look amazing.

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.