Category: Iranian Cinema

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.

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: