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Director/Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi
By Roderick Heath
Asghar Farhadi, since his critical breakthrough with About Elly (2009) and the international success of A Separation (2011), seems to embody several arresting contradictions. He’s an Iranian filmmaker, and like many of the captivating talents that country has produced in the past few decades, the restrictions placed on what artists can depict only seem to have liberated a deeper fount of creativity. He’s a more convincingly sophisticated artist of the interpersonal drama than just about any western filmmaker to emerge in recent years, acute to the rhythms and quirks of contemporary life and morals. But his methods avoid the deadweight reflexes of too much modern pseud drama and cinema. His work has some similarities to that now-common brand of realist filmmaking best exemplified by the likes of the Dardennes brothers, but really seems to harken back more to the theatrical traditions of major 19th century playwrights like Strindberg, Ibsen, and Chekhov and the dense, morally and psychologically interrogative efforts of European film greats like Ingmar Bergman’s early, more domestically focused works and aspects of Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson’s oeuvres. Whilst not as cinematically vivid as Bergman or as stringent as Bresson, Farhadi creates, like them, vivid, exactingly wrought tales of interpersonal crisis and conflict with a discreet sense of social context. Farhadi’s filmmaking is sleek and functional, but not in an impersonal fashion: there’s a tautness and concision to his framings and camerawork, a sense of space and the largesse of the screen, which feels organic, even epic.
The Past, his latest film, shifts ground insofar as it’s a French film, set in Paris, though it does deal with Iranian émigrés, with a subtle undertow in the dramatic flow stemming from the dissonance of displacement and estrangement. The search for exact truth in A Separation and The Past is both the aim of the characters and an impossibility because the viewpoints keep shifting. Motivations that make perfect sense to one might be incomprehensible to another. Experience and truth spread out in interlapping but distinct ripples from the actions of each character.
Farhadi kicks off with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arriving at a Paris airport where he’s met by his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo): she spies him through a pane of glass separating the incoming passengers and they communicate amusedly via signs and mouthed words. This proves to be the easiest, most relaxed act of communication in the film, because once the glass is gone, discomforting familiarity begins to creep in. The two make a mad dash through the rain in almost romantic fashion, but then they’re locked in a small, breathless, steamy car together. It becomes clear that Ahmad has returned to Paris from Iran to give Marie a divorce after several years of separation. Marie stops by a high school en route to pick up eldest daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), but she’s already fled, as has been her recent habit. Entering the yard of Marie’s sizeable old townhouse, Ahmad is recognised by one of the children playing in the yard, Léa (Jeanne Jestin), but not the other, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), the son of Marie’s current beau, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Ahmad arrives apparently oblivious to Marie’s current situation and is bewildered because she’s neglected to book him a hotel room. She says she held off with the booking because the last time he planned to come, he failed to show.
Marie tries to billet him in a bunk bed with Fouad, but Fouad throws a tantrum and tries to flee the house for his and his father’s apartment. An infuriated Marie drags him back and locks him in a parlour. The camera takes Ahmad’s place as accidental eavesdropper as Marie’s struggle with Fouad, staged and shot from a high window as a half-comic, half-alarming Coyote and Road Runner chase about the back yard. Soon, the tension underlying the strained attempts at civility and modern cool about the odd family situation proves to have deeper sources, and the sense that some explosion is inevitable builds as Ahmad comes to realise what’s going on. One of Farhadi’s most fundamental observational and dramatic elements here is also one of the more problematic aspects of his film: the family under study here is complicated, with about one layer too many for use. Neither Lucie nor Léa are Ahmad’s children, but the product of yet another of Marie’s ill-fated unions: their father lives in Brussels. But this difficulty is part of Farhadi’s point, that today, many families are indeed such fluid, ad hoc, but perversely binding creations, easy to leave but impossible to escape.
Farhadi’s observational streak is in marvellous form in these scenes: Ahmad and Marie trying to dry themselves with tissues in the car; the blob of spilt paint that drives Marie into a rage with Fouad, and Fouad’s hostile, but curious first handshake with Ahmad; Ahmad dutifully taking a blow dryer to Marie’s hair after they arrive home; Ahmad’s quizzicality and Fouad’s fury as they try to make up the bunk-bed they share, each aware to a degree that they’re extraneous males in the house and somehow, intentionally or not, they’ve been put together for that reason; Fouad viciously stabbing at corncobs in reactive irritation when helping Ahmad prepare dinner until he cuts himself; the few seconds it takes Léa to recognise her stepfather, whom she then calls by his first name but with genuine affection, revealing much about his parental status. Lucie, when she does finally show up, takes refuge in her bedroom, but Ahmad is able to communicate with her, especially when he takes her to visit his friend, Shahryar (Babak Karimi), another expat who runs a café, providing memories of happier times. Meanwhile, Samir sits in the paternal position at the table, but with distinct unease: Lucie won’t speak to him, and he distractedly tries to observe how Marie acts with Ahmad, peering out at them as he tries to paint a room.
Samir runs an inner-city dry cleaners, and, it emerges, he still has a wife, albeit one who’s in a coma she will probably never come out of. Her state is the result of depression-fueled suicide attempt in front of Samir’s assistant, Naïma (Sabrina Ouazani), an illegal immigrant. That malady and suicidal thoughts have also dogged Ahmad, as his inability to adjust to life in France destroyed his marriage to Marie, but he generally seems pleasant and intelligent. Soon, however, he is placed under strange pressures that rub his patience raw, as Marie asks him to speak to Lucie and find out why she’s been difficult recently. Ahmad solicitously interviews Lucie and is satisfied at first with Lucie’s explanation that she doesn’t want her mother to get married again, especially to a man Lucie dislikes.
A delicate equilibrium forms in Marie’s house as Ahmad plays house-husband, cooking meals and trying to fix a faulty sink, a task which Samir takes over after Ahmad seems to have effortlessly stitched himself into the fabric of the place, even proving skilled at drawing Fouad out of his funk. Samir’s stern approach to fathering contrasts Ahmad’s ability to create a rapport with the kids: after Fouad and Léa pinch one of Ahmad’s gifts for the family from his suitcase, Samir puts Fouad through an interrogation where he forces the lad to meet his eyes and doesn’t want to let the kids get away with apologising because that would teach them all they have to do is say they’re sorry to be absolved. This seemingly throwaway moment proves to be the film’s main thesis, as Farhadi examines the way people try to mollify others with civilities, but nonetheless take actions that incur genuine consequences.
The younger characters contrast the older ones. Marie, in particular, tries to discard the past before it strangles her chances for happiness, whereas the children try to cling to their pasts, the things they know. Fouad deals with alienation and changes with bratty aggression, whilst Lucie plays adult games and is shocked at the real, awful consequences that occur. Farhadi’s fascination for watching ambiguities in a situation proliferate until all viewpoints seem to cancel each other out recalls Otto Preminger’s, and, indeed, aspects of the story resemble Bonjour Tristesse (1958), particularly in the theme of a teen girl trying to thwart a parent’s love affair, and standing back in shock at the results. Lucie’s angst, it emerges, stems from her distaste for Marie and Samir’s relationship, a distaste that proves much deeper and more significant than mere adolescent resentment. Lucie almost desperately explains to Ahmad that Marie’s remarriage would mean she would lose her old home, the one they shared with Ahmad, forever, and later furiously informs Ahmad, “You know why she went to that filthy man? Because he reminded her of you.” Lucie’s observation here seems coldly accurate on at least one level, as Samir certainly suggests Ahmad Mark II, less interesting and talented as a family man, but more reassuringly mundane and workaday.
Marie works as a chemist around the corner from Samir’s laundry, and they seem nicely in synch as sleek, fit, moderately successful worker bees. One of Farhadi’s most succinct shots offers a trio of fancy lampshades for redecorating the house, signifying their hope for the future and also their status as bourgeois clichés in their fetishism of faux-antique security. They move like people who know the score and carry a faint aura of both longing and old hurt in their manners. Marie and Samir’s desire to get on with life together and cast off old baggage has a wilful quality with a vaguely psychopathic note, which they themselves have noticed and which haunts their every motion. This note turns out to have predated the tragedy of Samir’s wife: they started an affair before the suicide attempt, when Marie was lonely and Samir stopped by the chemist’s for his wife’s antidepressants. Ahmad and Samir’s wife (like Marie, she’s “French”) share maladies, as both are depressives who are written off as deadweight by their functional spouses, wrong choices who don’t fit with the program.
Farhadi’s major conceit in telling this story lies in how he moves distinctly between four characters as focal point, from Ahmad to Lucie to Marie to Samir, with Samir scarcely making an impression in the first half-hour as the perspective belongs to Ahmad; by the end, Ahmad has more or less vanished, written out of the drama as he becomes irrelevant to the new marital quandary. The kitchen of Marie’s house becomes shifting territory in domestic war. The film’s middle act is, in its dramatic structure, a little like one of those slapstick comedy gags where characters dart in and out of a long corridor, disappearing and reappearing in increasingly tangled and improbable places and patterns, as Lucie vanishes, forcing the others to hunt for her. Tempers boil, old wounds open, resentments arise, tiny physical and emotional cues spark heated reactions, and in trying to deal with the problem they chase their own tails.
Eventually, the real root of the drama is revealed as Lucie confesses that she believes Marie and Samir’s affair caused the attempted suicide of Samir’s wife. Ahmad tries to assuage her fears by having her talk to Naïma, whose account of the day puts the tragic turn down to altercations with a client. But, both Lucie and Naïma have secrets involving that day. Lucie confesses hers first: she logged on to Marie’s computer and forwarded to Samir’s wife the emails Marie and Samir had been writing to each other. The notion of verboten love letters resting at the heart of a familial melodrama is given a cunning modern makeover by this device, as the email medium’s rapidity has removed the safeguards of time from the heat of immediate strong feeling, which I’m sure we’re familiar with now—the “I shouldn’t have done that” moment where technology has allowed emotion to outpace good sense. Indeed, the ambiguity of such communication has already been touched on, as Marie and Ahmad bicker about whether she really sent him messages that would have forestalled the accommodation problems he’s faced with on his arrival. Ahmad’s attempt to mediate Marie’s discovery of Lucie’s awful, guilty act and make sure the rupture is stemmed results only in an ugly explosion of rage and grief, as Marie assaults her daughter in the kitchen, screaming with telling outrage, “How could you do this to me?” The film has obviously been building up to such an eruption, though Farhadi delays it cleverly. The hot flare of Marie’s anger doesn’t last long, and she calls her forlorn daughter back from the railway station as she prepares to take her leave, perhaps the film’s finest recognition of the way powerful emotions alternate and feed each other in family conflicts, the rapid successions of egocentric rage and abject forgiveness.
Lucie’s confession seems to offer a cut-and-dried confirmation of the anxiety behind Marie and Samir’s relationship, the one that constantly threatens to cleave them apart in guilt and shame, already apparent in the simple act of trying to hold hands, but it soon proves even more complex. Naïma proves to have played a part, too, as she provided another link in the chain that might have brought the adulterous messages to the wife’s attention as a petty revenge for suspicions that she and Samir were having the affair. When the investigations to nail down the truth lead Samir to his employee, he angrily ejects her from his life and her job. But the onus of causative guilt can’t be shifted so easily onto Naïma’s act of hapless spite, for, as she retorts to Samir, she still can’t understand why Samir’s wife staged her act in front of her instead of him or Marie. Naïma, like Sareh Bayat’s Razieh in A Separation, becomes a figure the other characters try to turn into a villain for her genuine act of wrongdoing, but with obnoxious readiness on their part to offload their own guilt whilst disregarding the anxiety and difficult position that caused the wrong in the first place. The point is plain, but thankfully not forced down our throats: as much as the characters want one, there is no easy moral out for anyone. Farhadi is obviously staging a merciless gag at the expense of the modern faith in “closure,” the idea that a ritualised conclusion for something will sever past from future and remake you. “I didn’t want you to be in torment for the rest of your life!” Ahmad explains to Lucie, a sobbing, fleeing mess after being ejected by Marie. “I’m not now?” a beggared Marie retorts.
The Past, from its title inward, notes that human character is the sum of its accumulated experiences rather than a free-floating entity, and by definition, therefore, the past cannot be left behind. On the most literal and humdrum level here, this is apparent in the complex mesh of affection and enmity, hope and disappointment that exists between Ahmad and Marie and the children, with Samir as ambiguous new spoke on the wheel and the body of Samir’s wife, paralysed, probably brain-dead, voiceless and powerless, but doggedly clinging to life with tormenting ambiguity. Farhadi, who’s already taken aim at the byzantine, unforgiving qualities of his homeland’s mix of theocracy and bureaucracy in civil life, explores this new realm on the microcosmic level, wringing out each character’s attitude to their own lives past and future, but with overtones that could also be cultural and political. Just as western bourgeois family life is predicated today around an unstable binary ideal of personal liberty that can, on the basic levels of society, both bind and damage individuals and those close to them, so, too, are western bourgeois politics based on a sharklike need for forward movement, a carefully fostered rejection of the past.
Indeed, the family under study here quickly comes to resemble modern geopolitics. There are proliferating ghosts of past wrongs with accompanying guilt complexes, accumulating dependents, self-righteous busy bodies, emotional and physical emigrants, and bewildered holders of dual citizenship: Ahmad’s status as a man not at home in France, but solitary in Iran correlates to Lucie’s feelings of uncertainty about three different, equal variations of her “family.” There are makeshift states, acts of terrorism, invasions, and even moments of peace and amity. Farhadi is not a political filmmaker, at least not in the didactic sense, or even a maker of parables, but his observations of human behaviour on a small scale are relevant to the larger. The theatrical sensibility Farhadi brings to his material is more noticeable here than with A Separation. If it seems to be a slightly lesser achievement, it might well stem from the lack of the overarching tension the earlier film sustained about the contentious relationship of the individual to the state. Farhadi was able to string out elaborate narrative pressures and concurrent emotional volatility in his characters from very simple acts because of that contention, whereas in transferring his methodology to a French setting, he needs to up the stakes to shake up his characters to the same degree: instead of an irritable shove now, the story linchpin is an attempted suicide. The more melodramatic quality is apparent.
Yet Farhadi’s fondness for devices that put his characters under pressures greater than usual is one of his strongest traits as an artist and puts him most directly in contact with the great realists and naturalists of European literature: Dostoevsky, of course, meditated on psychological and metaphysical matters, but usually got to them through the stuff of pulp, like money and murder. There’s a sharpness and urgency to the drama, a sense of danger to the characters beyond a haze of mere middle-class moping, a precise sense of the forces that push ordinary people into zones of behaviour and consequence beyond what they can handle, but without needing to introduce spies or serial killers. But Farhadi’s method actually feels to close to Alfred Hitchcock’s, as odd as that sounds, particularly works like Rebecca (1940) and Under Capricorn (1949), which have strikingly similar story elements and emotional resonances, only contextualised differently. And whilst The Past has some elements in common with the mainstream Hollywood drama The Descendants (2011), what distinguishes Farhadi’s work is the rigour of his writing in achieving an attitude that too many would-be serious filmmakers fail to achieve, which is to be both dramatically involving and successfully ambivalent at the same time. Farhadi’s casting and handling of the actors is superlative. Bejo couldn’t have asked for a more vivid contrast to her role in The Artist (2011) as a follow-up. But Farhadi also gets great performances out of young Aguis, as well as Burlet, who embodies Lucie with a refreshing lack of the kind of pouty insouciance with which such teenage girls are usually portrayed.
Finally, Farhadi suggests, life probably demands a capacity to simply push forward regardless, a capacity that is usually regarded as a heroic trait, and yet here is interrogated ruthlessly. Marie certainly believes so, for as Ahmad makes a last attempt to explain his leaving, she cuts him off: “It’s not important…I don’t want to go back into the past.” This moment bespeaks a certain amount of exhaustion after too many confessions and dredged-up pains have tortured Marie, who, carrying Samir’s child, is feeling the baby quite literally feeding off her body—she aches in her bones from leached calcium—and must, at some point, focus entirely on this next act of her life. But it also suggests nobody’s really learnt anything, except that perhaps moving on is an act of will. The final sequence show the inevitable limitations, as Samir visits the hospital where doctors have been trying the last of many tests—response to familiar perfumes—to determine if his wife is brain dead. This leaves us with the simultaneously poignant and pathetic last images of Samir bend over her prone form, using the scents of the past to try to prompt some sign of life in a moment of manifold needs, not least of which is the need to relieve the burden of uncertainty that hangs over him, but also to heal, to gain forgiveness, to restore, ironically, to bring back the past in order to remake the future, clasping a motionless hand in hope of a sign.
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Directors: Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“He’s still a cheeky boy from South Tehran,” said Narimon Safavi, an Iranian entrepreneur and philanthropist living in Chicago who participated in a panel discussion after a showing of This Is Not a Film. That statement may explain why of all the film artists in Iran who have been under official sanction by the government, Jafar Panahi is both heavily persecuted and the most visible face and voice of the opposition. The scrappy director has defied Iranian censors for years, and when he tried to shoot an unapproved script with fellow director-in-trouble Mohammad Rasoulof, both men were arrested; Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, and is awaiting the call to report to prison. This Is Not a Film, a sarcastically titled movie if ever there was one, continues Panahi’s long-standing practice of doing exactly the opposite of what the Iranian government tells him to do.
This Is Not a Film, famously smuggled to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake, chronicles one day in the life of Panahi as he tries to make the best of his house arrest. A stationary camera sits opposite Panahi as he has breakfast and talks on the phone to family members who are going out to deliver a New Year’s gift to his mother. He also speaks with fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb in vagaries about coming by and to the attorney who is appealing his conviction. After Mirtahmasb’s arrival and off-camera positioning behind the camera, Panahi talks mournfully about the next film he was going to make. He decides to tell the story by showing how he would have cast it, blocked it, and shot it, and starts laying masking tape on his Persian rug to show where the walls, stairs, and hallways would be. He continues the living storyboard approach until gloom descends: “If we could just tell stories, we wouldn’t need to make films.” It’s clear that Panahi is a filmmaker through and through; when he tells Mirtahmasb to cut, the documentary director tells him he’s not supposed to be directing. This sardonic joke both undermines the title of the film, shows concern for what might happen to Panahi for violating the ban, and emphasizes that the loss of his vocation may be the worse of the two parts of his sentence.
This Is Not a Film carries on in the tradition of many Iranian films in exploring the blurred line between fiction and reality. Although it is primarily a documentary, edits have been made, the first sign that there is some shaping going on. The day chosen to do the filming, New Year, introduces the sound of fireworks that could be gunfire, adding some “narrative” intrigue to the proceedings. Comic moments punctuate the day as we hear Panahi talking to Igi and discover a pet iguana in the home. When it later climbs a set of bookshelves, an entranced Mirtahmasb follows it with the camera.
By the last act, the sun has set, and New Year’s fireworks light up the sky as a television news reader announces an imminent ban on New Year celebrations as not being supported by scripture. Mirtahmasb gets up to leave, and Panahi opens the door, only to find a young man just outside it who is there to collect Panahi’s garbage. Both he and we are startled. Mirtahmasb gets on the elevator and leaves, and the scene changes in a way that could have been scripted. Was this encounter prearranged or spontaneous? We can’t be sure, but certainly Panahi knows that the garbage is collected at a certain time each day, supposedly by the young man’s sister, so there was bound to be some interaction at just the moment Mirtahmasb chooses to leave. In fact, Panahi actually spends some time forestalling his colleague’s departure; I took this delaying to be a desire not to be alone at night, but it might simply have been a ploy to ensure the transition to the next phase of the film.
This last phase is important because Panahi, who had been bending the rule about making a film by shooting video with his iPhone, goes into the kitchen and picks up the camera Mirtahmasb returned to its spot, a clear violation of the ban. He takes it into the elevator with the young man and questions him about what he does to make money and his schooling as they descent one floor at a time to pick up garbage on each floor. When they reach the bottom, Panahi follows the young man outside the building until he is told to stay back lest he be seen by the police patrolling the streets. The final image is of a fire outside the apartment block gates, an ominous image that paradoxically coordinates with earlier shots of fireworks demonstrating happiness for the New Year. Given the limits placed upon these directors, This Is Not a Film is a remarkable achievement and a tribute to the spirit of creativity that can free the imprisoned, making people like Panahi especially dangerous to the control of the Iranian regime.
After the film, Prof. Hamid Naficy of Northwestern University, author of the four-volume A Social History of Iranian Cinema, and Milos Stehlik, founder/director of Facets Multimedia, joined Safavi in a discussion of the “nonfilm” and the state of Iranian cinema. With the success of A Separation (2011), director Asghar Farhadi is being offered opportunities to make films abroad, and the closure of the House of Cinema makes it likely that he and other directors being wooed away from Iran will leave. The panelists agree that expatriate Iranian films are likely to be different from those dissident films directors like Panahi have been obstinate in continuing to make. Stehlik expressed the belief that just as a blossoming Chinese cinema was stopped in its tracks by government crackdowns, Iranian cinema was “finished.” Naficy disagreed because he believes the incredible vitality and recognition of Iranian cinema as among the best in the world will be hard to destroy, and points to Rafi Pitts’ The Hunter (2010) as a superior effort that shows directors have not been universally cowed by the government.
A discussion about Abbas Kiarostami’s “retreat” into personal films prompted me to ask about his Shirin (2008), which seems to continue the ongoing dialogue about women’s rights in Iran. Safavi and Naficy gave an enlightening perspective on the film. For Safavi, the film was nostalgic in that it employs so many actresses he grew up watching who have been banned from working in Iran, and celebrates them as highly capable actresses. Naficy added that to show women in full-face close-up was also an act of defiance against the Islamic state’s enforced modesty that has made such shots rare in Iranian films.
A representative from Amnesty International USA had the last word. Apparently, the Iranian government is quite concerned about international opinion and actually monitors how many people show up to screenings of and write about This Is Not a Film—it is thought that international interest and pressure has, in fact, been responsible in part for Panahi remaining out of prison. She suggested that people who want to do more to help Panahi and other persecuted Iranians go to Amnesty’s website or the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran to get educated and take action.
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Director: Abbas Kiarostami
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Several years ago, my blog partner Rod made a comment on one of my posts: “Stephanie Zacharek recently, and correctly, said that audiences go to the movies to see beautiful, exotic, or at the very least, vividly interesting people on screen, and that it’s one of the great pleasures of going to the cinema.” If nothing else, Abbas Kiarostami’s experimental film Shirin confirms this observation. He chose more than 100 of Iran’s leading actresses to play audience members watching what I took to be a film adaptation of the “Khosrow and Shirin/Fahrad and Shirin” section of Persia’s well-known medieval epic poem the Shâhnâma, and all of them are beautiful, exotic, or vividly interesting to look at. Are they interesting enough to look at for nearly 90 minutes? You’d better think about that before you decide to watch this film, for the entirety of what we see on screen is these women watching a story we only hear, and read, if Persian is not a language we understand.
Shirin is not the most compelling of films to watch, but I found it a fertile experience for monitoring my own reactions to what I was witnessing and bringing to the surface actions that human beings perform unconsciously when we take in a person’s face and figure. I also found it an interesting experience in multitasking, dividing as I had to the images Kiarostami shot while keeping track of the sad story of Shirin, an Armenian queen who left her kingdom for the love of Khosrow, a dethroned Persian king, and ended up alone and unhappy. Finally, I found distinct pleasure in moments of recognition. Not only did I enjoy thinking, oh look, it’s the actress I just saw in A Separation (Leila Hatami—I’m not that good at remembering Iranian names), but I also liked seeing people fidget with their clothes, hands, and faces as they settled into the picture, whisper to the person next to them, doze off for a few seconds—in other words, do the same things I do when I watch a movie.
An Iranian would have a much better time ticking off the names of all the famous women on screen, but since I do not have this familiarity, I found myself really looking at the faces, many of which looked familiar, and remarking to myself how beautiful many of them were. A natural extension of this realization, and something women almost always do with other women, was to analyze the various attributes that lent them distinction. I noticed how many of them had carefully shaped eyebrows, often with the thick inner brow squared off with the upper bridge of the nose. I examined their lips to see who was wearing lipstick and who was not; that appraisal led to an overall inquiry into how much make-up each woman wore. I also checked for jewelry, feeling a bit surprised to see earrings on a few of the women who didn’t appear to be wearing make-up. I also checked to see if all the women were veiled, and I think I spotted only one woman without a hijab, though it was hard to be sure. Even Juliette Binoche, the only Western actress in the film, wore a hijab, letting me know we were definitely in Iran, which subjects all women to this form of attire, regardless of religious affiliation.
Binoche also added artifice to the film, reminding me, as is Kiarostami’s habit, that I was watching actresses playing roles, not genuine reactions caught documentary-like on camera. For example, at one point, the actresses, including Binoche, shed tears. I know she speaks a number of languages, but as far as I know, Persian isn’t one of them. Since it’s unlikely the film would have been subtitled for showing in Iran, how could she have known what the characters were saying? Having witnessed Binoche’s ability to cry on cue in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), I assumed her reactions must have come some other way. It was not surprising to me to learn during my research that Kiarostami filmed the actresses in small groups, instructing them how to behave or what to think about as they stared at a dot-filled card near the camera lens.
Through careful editing to match the narrative of the unseen film, Shirin appears to take place in only one setting. To add more veracity to the illusion that marks the film as fiction, men were also in the audience, including one man who seemed to be accompanying his wife. The men, always at the periphery of the frame, served something like extras. They sometimes grabbed my notice, particularly the bottom half of one face that appeared to belong to Jafar Panahi, the beleaguered director who is awaiting “execution of the verdict” to begin a six-year prison term for sedition, as well as a woman with two black eyes and a bandage over her nose, which, given the composition of the “audience,” I thought was probably the aftermath of a nose job. Like many glancing encounters we have every day, the reason for her appearance can be guessed at, but never known. We thus create a narrative for the things we see that are as individual as our experience of life and the way we process data.
By bringing new faces into the frame throughout the film, Kiarostami seeks to engage the processes described above for the entire running time. I, however, got tired of the game. I might have turned the film off entirely except that the story of Shirin was really quite involving. In relatively short order, I mainly “tuned out” the faces and approached the film as a radio play, barely noticing that I was reading the dialogue. I have listened to radio dramas all my life, so this shift was not only natural, but also quite pleasurable, and allowed me to create pictures in my mind in the same way Kiarostami invited us to create narratives for the pictures of the peripheral members of his fictional audience.
Shirin is quite in keeping with Kiarostami’s usual approach to cinema, even if it seems more unorthodox than most of his films. His reflexive examination of illusion and reality is very much in play here, and is approached more subtly than in his controversial conclusion to Taste of Cherry (1997), though Certified Copy truly is the apex of his examination of this subject. Kiarostami also does one completely unique thing with Shirin that I don’t remember experiencing with any other film: he restores the oral tradition that was always associated with the Shâhnâma, in particular, and with epic poetry, in general. We actually get the chance to imagine the story of Shirin through audio cues and the faces of those who are listening as stand-ins for the storyteller who would emote during the recitation. Thus, not only do we get to learn an ancient tale from the classical Persian canon, we also get to time travel to experience it as it might have been experienced in medieval Persia. I, for one, enjoyed the ride.
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Director/Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Today is International Women’s Day, and to “celebrate” the single day the estimated 3.2 billion women of the world accept to highlight whatever this vaguely defined day means to them, I’m going to focus on a country where women must navigate the capricious whims of men whose permission they need for everything from getting a job to getting a divorce—Iran.
A Separation, lauded with nearly 50 awards the world over, comes from the gifted director/screenwriter Asghar Farhadi. I was an enormous fan of his 2009 film About Elly, which similarly focuses on how misfortune brings out the worst in people, and indirectly, how the restricted status of women encourages them to lie to get what they want. While About Elly looked at well-off Tehraners on vacation, this time, Farhadi goes full force into their complicated lives at home and reveals the universal oppression of economic insecurity and laws that turn all—men, women, and children—into liars. While A Separation discusses many particularly Iranian problems, the universality of the predicaments it poses must certainly factor into its worldwide acclaim.
The film opens in a courtroom where Simin (Leila Hatami) is petitioning to divorce Nader (Peyman Moadi, also seen in About Elly). When the unseen judge, by camera placement sitting in the same place as the audience, asks if Nader is cruel to Simin, she replies “no, he’s a good man.” Her reason for seeking a divorce is that their visas to emigrate will expire in 40 days, and he has changed his mind. Nader insists he can’t leave his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who has Alzheimer’s, while Simin says the old man doesn’t even know who Nader is. Simin is adamant about leaving because she wants a better future for their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter). When the judge asks what’s wrong with the future Termeh will have in Iran, Simin looks away and says nothing.
Viewers who know about the restrictions on women in Iran will see Simin’s point. However, Nader’s wish to look after his impaired father also has our sympathy. On a symbolic level, one could see this situation as the sacrifice of young women to oppressive old men who don’t even recognize what they have done to their nearest and dearest. But we don’t have to get too symbolic to see the Nader and Simin have been at odds for some time, with Nader’s rigid pride and selfishness an impediment to understanding and sympathizing with the pain of his wife and daughter.
This seeing but not seeing becomes crucial to the story when Nader is accused of murder by causing Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the woman he hires to look after his father when Simin moves out, to miscarry her 19-week-old fetus, a full human in the eyes of the law. Nader, upset when he found his father alone and on the floor twisted in some ties Razieh used to tie him to the bed when she had to leave, accused Razieh of stealing some money and pushed her out of his apartment, causing her to fall. His defense hinges on whether he knew she was pregnant. It’s ironically amusing that Razieh’s hot-headed husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini, also from About Elly) questions how Nader could fail to notice his wife’s pregnancy when the entire purpose of the concealing clothing Iranian women must wear is to make their bodies invisible to men.
While A Separation makes subtle political points with such details, the larger issues of lying and personal responsibility are the main event here. Termeh, an innocent as yet to the uses of deception, repeatedly questions her father about what she knows to be lies. He must spell it out in large letters that he has to lie to stay out of prison, and he is clear that his concern is more for her and his father than for himself. He has already written Simin out of their lives, so this concern seems genuine to me, yet in this sense, he continues to fail to see Simin. He also fails to see the pain Termeh is in over their separation, and becomes more concerned about proving his innocence than recognizing the potential danger Termeh is in from an unstable, self-righteous Hojjat.
Hojjat is another individual who has taken his eye off the ball. Prolonged unemployment and the failure of the government to legitimize his grievance with his former employer have made him clinically depressed, and so his distractedness is more understandable. Razieh takes a job without his permission out of necessity, compromising her religious beliefs but preserving his dignity with her deception. When he asks her to lie again in a more important way, however, she refuses. Both Razieh and Simin draw lines that are very hurtful to them and those they love. More cynically, Nader and Hojjat consider that desperate times call for desperate measures. Their losses (a potential son, a marriage) seem more like opportunities for outrage and redress than emotional trials. I hasten to add that no one in the film is unsympathetic, and only Simin seems relatively blameless, at least during the events of the film. By setting up the film visually to make the audience both judges and witnesses, we are implicitly asked to put this social order on trial.
A Separation is a good film. Like most Iranian films, this one makes exceptional use of its locations, and the handheld camera work by Mamoud Kalari provides a compelling immediacy and framing that teems with the chaotic life of the principal characters. Applause go to Hayedeh Safiyari as well for film editing that builds tension with judicious edits or the wise use of long takes, such as the one that ends the film.
However, A Separation is not the first-rate film I was hoping for. The plot is unwieldy, and too full of melodramatic reveals that undermine a more complex assessment of the dilemmas these two families face. The character of Razieh is particularly problematic. She’s basically a simple-minded disaster, avoiding her charge to watch Nader’s father and spending her time leaving the apartment to empty the trash and run other errands. Her failure to tell the truth makes sense in some situations and no sense in others. A lot of the plot of the film revolves around her, so her character needed to be more strongly drawn than it was. Termeh has enough maturity and intelligence to go to bat for her father, but her unrehearsed lie to the judge is so smooth that it comes off as scripted. Simin, well realized by the fine performance of Hatami, is pushed mainly to the periphery of the film, letting some of the air out of the interesting dynamic the film sets up initially. Hatami is the anchor of this film, keeping some of the more melodramatic moments grounded. When she is not in similar scenes, the film becomes overwought.
In the end, Termeh is our proxy, choosing offscreen which parent she will live with. Without more emphasis on both of the parents throughout the film, however, I’m afraid that this audience-judge couldn’t make up my mind.
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Director: Mohammad Rasoulof
2011 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Looking at the phonetic Persian title of Mohammad Rasoulof’s latest film, Bé omid é didar, I guessed that Good Bye was losing something in translation. Thanks to an Iranian friend of mine, I learned that the Persian title literally translates as “hope to see you again.” Since Rasoulof has been sentenced to serve a one-year prison term and a 20-year ban on filmmaking for “assembly, collusion, and propagandizing against the regime,” the more literal translation offers a hopeful note about his release. However, given the trajectory of the film itself, I really don’t blame the translators for the more hopelessly final message they decided upon for the English version.
It would be a mistake not to see Rasoulof’s situation in the plight of his protagonist Noora (Leyla Zareh), a lawyer banned from practicing because of her civil rights activities and drawing increasingly sinister attention from the police. But Noora’s problems are compounded by her gender: women are not allowed to drive, cannot get medical procedures or check into a hotel without a male family member’s consent, and cannot take charge of simple transactions, like getting a security deposit back, without being harassed or cheated. Noora needs to carry out all these activities because she cannot take life in Iran anymore and is trying to find a means of escape.
Noora has found a fixer who advises his clients the best way to accomplish their goal, and withholds their visa if they don’t pay up everything they owe him. Noora has been advised to get pregnant, which she has achieved before the start of the film, and to be sure the baby is born out of the country. The fixer has arranged for her to give a paper at an international conference, going so far as to have the paper written for her.
The first sign of trouble is a premonition Noora has that there is something wrong with her pregnancy. After telling the fixer’s imperious secretary that she wants an abortion, the secretary scolds her that her boss has chosen the right way for her to escape and that she must go through with it. After a while, her fears are overcome by her growing attachment to her unborn daughter, nourished by ultrasound images and conversations with her husband, who has been stripped of his livelihood as a journalist and sent to do construction work in a southern desert.
Rasoulof’s tense film slowly narrows the ground on which Noora stands. One day, two policemen show up at her apartment and ask if she has a satellite receiver on her television. She answers yes, but that it doesn’t work. In one of the many small but telling touches Rasoulof supplies, one officer enters her home after putting plastic bags over his shoes to keep from tracking in dirt, while the other stands in the hall and writes her a ticket. How did they know she had the device? Soon thereafter, she gets into the narrow elevator of her building, and is crowded by two policemen who take her for a ride up and down the elevator shaft. They tell her they need to search her home, and once inside it, never let her out of their sight, even when her visiting mother returns to the apartment and makes them tea.
More bad news awaits Noora, including that her husband is having doubts about leaving Iran. So determined is Noora to escape her oppression that she tells him she will go anyway and let her daughter give her a new life. Shortly before her departure, she meets a friend of her husband who tries to dissuade her from leaving on his behalf. She tells him, “If one feels like a foreigner in one’s one country, it is better to leave and be a foreigner in a foreign country.” All he says before he walks off is “See you later.” What are the odds that he will?
There are many obstacles to Noora’s plan, but by far the worst is not knowing whom to trust. She has to work with a number of people—including her husband’s former mistress—to tend to her pregnancy and her plan of escape. Some of them are kind, some are hostile, others are all business, but any of them could betray her. When her husband has a change of heart, we know he could rat her out to keep her with him. Evidence of husbands and wives informing on each other in other repressive societies, such as East Germany, is rampant. But Noora’s behavior is more like an animal trying to gnaw its own leg off to be free of a trap; she has no choice.
Word is that the production of Good Bye was very fraught, and that much of the shooting and assembly was done clandestinely. Given the scrutiny Rasoulof must have been under, as evidenced by the meticulousness of the outrages he shows Noora enduring, this must be true. Yet the film is beautifully composed, with an emphasis on right angles that showcase how boxed in Noora is and subtly noirish lighting that suggests a person trapped by fate.
One interesting detail is a pet turtle Noora keeps in a small aquarium. When the aquarium starts to leak, she puts it on a tray. Tiring of emptying the water from the tray, she fills it with more water and puts the turtle on it. We watch the turtle struggle to get over the side as we hear Noora doing something in the background. Ah, she has been fashioning a barrier of newspaper to tape around the tray to keep her pet from escaping. Yet one day, it isn’t there, and a search of the living room yields nothing. On a realistic level, the turtle could have gotten down a hole, or it could have been taken, perhaps by the someone who informed the police about Noora’s satellite receiver. On a metaphorical level, the turtle’s existence in its faulty home is a mirror of Noora’s existence in her toxic country. Its puzzling disappearance is a foreboding of what might happen to Noora, perhaps even suggesting that she will be one of the dissidents who, we learn during the film, is hanged in secret.
These are extremely desperate times for filmmakers in Iran. Good Bye is an incredible act of courage and an artistic triumph by one of Iran’s most gifted and persecuted directors. Show your support for his art and voice by seeing Good Bye and bearing witness to the suffering underway today.
Good Bye will screen Tuesday, October 11, 3:15 p.m., Thursday, October 13, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, October 15, 2:10 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Le Havre: A gentle comedy in which an aged shoeshine hides a young illegal immigrant and works along with some generous neighbors to reunite the boy with his mother in London. (Finland)
King of Devil’s Island: Naturalistic and suspenseful look at life in an island detention center for boys and their rebellion against their harsh treatment. (Norway/France)
Cinema Komunisto: This entertaining and eye-opening documentary provides a loving look at the little-known national cinema of Yugoslavia and the film fanatic who made it happen: Marshall Josif Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s president for life. (Serbia)
Inshallah, Football: One young man’s struggle to get a passport to play soccer in Brazil is the lens through which this documentary examines the Indian oppression of Muslims in the occupied region of Kashmir. (India)
George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)
The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)
Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)
Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)
Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)
On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)
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Director/Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami
2010 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Ever pushing his own boundaries, renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, making his first film outside of his own country, has taken on what would be a controversial topic in Iran—a love story. Saddled with restrictions on the depiction of women, largely barred from shooting in homes, and forced to suggest desire through the use of classic Persian poetry, Kiarostami has approached this common Western preoccupation almost as if he were still worried about the censors. His love story is elliptical to the point of frustration for many viewers, but in my humble opinion, his strategy is much more straightforward than some people are giving it credit for. Pity the poor Western moviegoer who is so used to paint-by-numbers plotting that a little imagination in the art of seduction can throw us into a tailspin.
Let me say from the get-go that the “theoretical” set-up for the film is better dispensed with as an elaborate McGuffin Kiarostami sets in motion to have a little fun with the intellectuals in the crowd. To wit: Certified Copy, the book that brings English author James Miller (William Shimell) together with an unnamed antiquities dealer played by Juliette Binoche, posits that a copy of a work of art can be just as valuable as the original. Offering this theory to audiences amounts to giving them a security blanket of rational thought to cling to as their confusion grows in the second half of the film.
The film begins in a lecture hall in the Tuscan town of Arezzo where Miller will discuss his book. He thanks the Italians for giving his book a warm reception that he regrets it did not receive in England, and feels that if the country that gave birth to Michelangelo and Da Vinci can embrace his ideas, he must have done his job well. Coming late, the woman sits down next to her friend (Angelo Barbagallo), who translated the book into Italian, and chats with him quietly while her son Julien (Adrian Moore) stands against a wall and texts. His hunger forces them to leave almost as soon as they arrive, but before she goes, she gives her phone number to her friend to give to Miller. We watch as she and Julien walk in fits and starts down the street, she far ahead of the lumbering boy who forces her to stop periodically, look back, and then continue walking once he has caught up. The two stop for a hamburger, and Julien taunts her for buying six copies of a book she says annoyed her, accurately assessing that his mother has romance on her mind. She becomes furious with him and leaves the table when he asks her why she won’t let his surname be used; this exchange and her reaction cannot be understood by the audience and is one of several moments in the film Kiarostami leaves unexplained or out of our reach.
That Sunday, Miller arrives at the woman’s shop for their date. The shop is below street level and very dark. He hears her speaking on the phone in French in her home above the shop, calls out a weak “hello,” and waits for her to find him. Rather startlingly, she descends the stairs wearing a spaghetti-strap, silk top with her bra straps and the top of her bra visible, but Miller seems to take no notice. He suggests they abandon the dungeon-like shop to enjoy the beautiful day. The woman asks him why he doesn’t like her shop. This is the beginning of a lengthy sparring match they will have as they drive to the town of Lucignano, whose famous L’albero della vita attracts couples on their wedding day who believe it bestows blessings for a happy married life.
From the moment the woman and Miller find themselves surrounded by couples in tuxedos and wedding gowns, things start to get strange. Initially, she takes him to a museum to show him a famous painting that was thought to be an original for centuries, but was found to be a reproduction. Although now labeled as a copy, the painting is still protected by an alarm-rigged glass box of the type in which such famous works as the Mona Lisa are now encased. Miller shows no interest, having finished his book and feeling unwilling to argue his points yet again. After being dragged around Lucignano, he begs for a cup of coffee. Just as they are served, he gets a call on his cellphone, which he takes outside. The cafe owner (Gianna Giachetti) mistakes the woman and Miller for a married couple and talks to her about marriage. The woman tells her they have been married for 15 years and complains that he works all the time, but the cafe owner thinks this is good. When Miller and the woman leave the cafe, she tells him they were mistaken for a married couple, an error she did not correct. “We must make a good couple,” he replies, with intrigued bemusement in his voice. For the rest of the film, the pair will pretend to be that married couple.
Play-acting is a common enough aspect of romance. If we are not actively living out the illusions that come with the first blush of love, then we may try to spice up a longer-term relationship with a bit of fantasy—a wife will dress up like a parlor maid, for example, or a couple will pretend to be strangers who meet in a public place and go home for a one-night stand. The odd aspect of the play-acting the pair in Certified Copy engages in is that their “marriage” is in crisis. The sparring that began as their real selves in the drive to Lucignano—master of the filmed car ride, a great touch Kiarostami includes is photographing them so that the reflection in the windshield of the buildings that line the narrow streets of Arezzo appear to be crashing down on them in some seismic disaster—only escalates when they get to Lucignano. For example, they sit down to a late lunch, and the woman goes to the restroom to apply a screaming-red lipstick and attach one of two pairs of large, gaudy earrings she brought with her to pretty herself up. Coming back looking like a child who has played dress-up, she finds Miller enraged by a corked bottle of wine and a waiter who is ignoring his request for a fresh bottle. She says it tastes good to her. “Of course, I forgot, the French know everything about wine!” he bellows before leaving the restaurant.
This film is troubling not merely because it goes in a direction that is played so sincerely that we become confused about whether the pair is actually married or not. The woman seems if not outright unbalanced, then certainly emotionally distressed. Miller first becomes aware of her vulnerability in the cafe when he relates a story of seeing a mother and son walking through a square in Florence that is identical to the way she and Julien walked together at the beginning of the film. A tear streams down her cheek, and she says by way of explanation that it seems very familiar. Could she and Julien have been that mother and son? Was this a time in her life when her loneliness in her marriage led to divorce? The speculation will remain just that, but the possibility of reliving a hurt to arrive at a different outcome may have occurred to them both on some level at that moment. When they end up sitting on the steps of a pensione, an invitation for a “do-over” of their wedding night is sure to follow. How far Miller is willing to go—it’s clear from the start that the seduction has been part of the woman’s plan all along—is the greatest mystery, one Kiarostami leaves hanging for us to meditate on.
It is hugely satisfying to see how Kiarostami weaves his career-long obsessions and filming techniques into an entirely new type of film for him. While he films indoors, quite effectively, he never actually shoots inside a person’s home. He is able to shoot a married couple in the privacy of their honeymoon suite, but only because they are not really married. It’s ingenious, really. And, of course, his concerns with identity, most movingly rendered in Close-up, and reality versus fantasy, seen in such films as Taste of Cherry, are at the core of this film.
By having Shimell and Binoche move into such a realistic portrayal of a married couple, Kiarostami confuses the audience about what the story “really” is, though, of course, both parts of the film are entirely fictional. He continues his habit of mixing verité location shooting with storytelling and calling attention to the artificial barrier we put up when we suspend our disbelief to enter the narrative. For example, he shoots inside the museum that houses the talismanic golden tree of life, offering a scene in which a marrying couple wishes to have their photo taken with the woman and Miller. We see in the background a bride putting eye drops in her eyes. Moments later, the woman and Miller move into the room that holds the artifact, and a weeping bride sits on the bench Miller vacated. The camera lingers on her, and we are made to wonder what her story is, but Kiarostami has already clued us that whether or not she is a real bride, her tears are fake.
I’ve heard this film described as a screwball comedy, but it could be considered as such only if you thought Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a screwball comedy as well. The marital quarrels, much more intense than those over Miller’s theories at the beginning of the film, are painful to watch and not my idea of an aphrodisiac. Why Miller agreed to play along is still a mystery to me. Some have suggested that the game was related to his theory about copies being as valuable as originals. There is something to this thinking, since we go to the movies in part to watch stories that can tell us about our real lives, but I don’t think it holds water as a motivation for the actions of these characters. Binoche is superb in the subtlety of her seduction, playing the game expertly while giving us a window into the woman’s feelings at critical moments. Shimell plays an annoyed husband quite well, but is less able to convey Miller’s feelings; I wasn’t really sure he was attracted to the woman and therefore wondered why he wanted to play the game. This reservation aside, Certified Copy is one of the most ingenious and thought-provoking romances you’re ever likely to see.
Certified Copy screenings are completely sold out. Check the CIFF website for added screenings or inclusion of the film in the Best of the Fest showings. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Previous CIFF coverage
The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)
Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
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Director: Jafar Panahi
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As many people in cinematic and Iranian circles know, noted Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been incarcerated by the Iranian government for nearly three months, where he has been tortured and, until a couple of days ago, denied an appearance before a judge and visits from his lawyer and family. The jury of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, on which he was to sit, left a chair empty in symbolic protest and was one of the first bodies in the film community to protest his imprisonment. There can be no doubt that he was jailed to prevent a repeat of his highly visible protest of the repressions of the Iranian government at the 2009 Montreal Film Festival. The government started to bow to pressure when the world reacted to Panahi beginning a hunger strike to the death last week; he said in his letter announcing the hunger strike: “I will not tolerate turning into a lab rat, where every minute I am accused of the most insane crimes and where I am under constant mental and physical torture.” Another Iranian filmmaker, Mohammad Nourizad, has undergone similar treatment for an even longer period, and his sight has been damaged from the severe beatings he has endured.
These two men and every other Iranian filmmaker who wishes to make films in their own country must endure censorship and restrictions. None of Panahi’s films can be shown in Iran because he has filmed around the restrictions, and his defiance of government repression is what has placed him in his current predicament. Besides joining groups calling for his release, I decided to write about Panahi’s work that by posing questions by example, illuminates what sorts of “insane crimes” ordinary Iranians are being accused of these days and allows us to reflect on the customs and religious dogma that harm and oppress women not only in Iran, but also throughout the world.
The plan to make Offside came to Panahi when his daughter was refused admission to a soccer match. With Iran in contention to make the finals of the 2006 World Cup, Panahi took his chance and filmed clandestinely at Tehran’s Azadi stadium during the match between Bahrain and Iran to determine which national team would go to Germany to play for the championship. He chose nonprofessionals to portray the soccer-crazy girls who try to sneak into the stadium, the soldiers providing security, and the male fans.
We find ourselves inside a car in which an older man (Mohammed Moktar Azad) tells an unseen driver to catch up with a bus and block it from continuing. He gets out of the car, saying he won’t be long, and looks up and down the bus for his daughter, who has taken off to see the big game. The car he started out in takes off, and the bus driver lets him ride to the stadium so he can search for his daughter. “You know what they’ll do to her if they catch her.” That sounds ominous and makes us worry about a girl (Sima Mobarak-Shahi) on another bus whose disguise fools no one. A young man on the bus is sympathetic, as is the vendor who takes the risk of selling her a ticket, but overcharges her for it and forces her to buy one of his posters as well as a cover for their conversation. She watches another girl get in using her elderly father as a cover, and attempts to attach herself to some others going through the gate, but balks when a soldier goes to frisk her. She runs, but is apprehended and taken to a holding area, already occupied by several other girls and guarded by one soldier from a rural area near Tabriz (Mohammad Kheir-Habadi) who barks orders at them and another, a city boy from Tehran (Masoud Kheymeh-kabood), who can see the game and narrates it for them.
Between the play-by-play coverage, the arrival of another disguised girl, personal histories, and the screams of an angry father, a very interesting conversation takes place between the rural soldier and one of the more defiant and masculine girls (Shayesteh Irani). Clearly intimidated by his city setting and concerned about threats to his father’s farm, we see how the government works in the outreaches of Iran. The Tehrani girl openly smokes and has cut her hair. She learns that foreign women are allowed into the stadium, even though they will also be exposed to the coarse language and naked arms and legs of the men attending the game that are the excuses the soldiers give for the exclusion of Iranian women. They also will be sitting with strange men around them. “But they will be with their brothers and husbands,” the soldier shoots back, not considering that this could also be the case for the detained girls. “So, the only reason I can’t go in is because I’m Iranian,” the girl says, hitting the nail on the head. It’s all about government control, of course. As Panahi has said in an interview, there is no law saying women can’t attend soccer matches. It has become an unwritten law that through intimidation is becoming custom. As long as Iran remains under religious rule, laws will not matter and interpretation of religious law will be at the discretion of the few men who hold power.
Offside explores these deep issues the way reasonable people might, through conversations that could be taking place in coffee houses, dorm rooms, or dinner parties anywhere in the world. The film also takes some very well-aimed pokes at the absurdity of the situation at hand. One of the girls (Ayda Sadequi), a soccer player herself, has to use the rest room. Of course, there are no rest rooms for females, so the Tehrani soldier disguises her by taking the first girl’s poster of a soccer star and turning it into a mask—one the girl can’t see out of because the holes he cuts in it don’t line up with her eyes. The scene in the bathroom is hilarious, as the soldier tells the girl not to read the graffiti-speckled walls, pushes an ever-growing crowd of men wanting to relieve themselves away while she’s in the rest room, and overhears a strange conversation in one of the stalls that sends the soldier from door to door, listening and finally bursting into one stall, only to find an old man having his wheelchair adjusted by his grandson. The girl takes her chance to run away while the soldier is surrounded by men wanting to use the facilities, and as he looks through the stands for her, we get a glimpse of the soccer match. At this moment, it dawned on me that I felt as deprived as the girls at not being able to see the action on the field—an interesting bit of empathy Panahi slyly put in motion from the moment we reached the stadium.
Because the game was real, Panahi and his cast had two possible endings, for victory or defeat. Either, I’m sure, would have been great, but victory allows us to see the street demonstrations of a proud nation and the jubilant yells of the girls—all real soccer fans—as they are being hauled off to the Vice Squad along with a boy who was detained for his repeated use of fireworks at soccer matches. Beautifully, he lights a firecracker in the paddy wagon that the soldier missed during his search, and produces sparklers. When the soldiers are compelled to join the revelers in the street, the prisoners file off the bus holding the lit sparklers. This moving last scene offers Panahi’s hope that the Iranian people will eventually emerge victorious into the light. I’ll be lighting a candle of hope for him as well. l
JAFAR PANAHI is the group on Facebook that is providing information and updates on him and Mohammad Nourizad. BREAKING! Panahi is being released on bail!
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Director/Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi
2009 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Asghar Farhadi, whose film Fireworks Wednesday won the Gold Hugo at the 2006 CIFF, is back again with another strong contender for that top prize. About Elly sets up a predictable, even clichéd conflict and smartly, compellingly shows the many ways people have of reacting and coping with it. Such an examination has a faint, but insistent connection to the broader conflicts that plague Iran, whose national cinema has made a high art of suggestive parallels between the personal and the political.
A group of well-heeled friends leave the bustle of Tehran for a holiday weekend together near the seaside. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) is the center of activity, arranging the accommodations and playing matchmaker for the newly divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) by inviting Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her daughter’s grade-school teacher, along. On the road, the shy Elly interacts briefly with the other holiday makers. Each forms an opinion of her, deciding finally that they like her and approve of the match.
When the band drives up to the main house to pick up the keys to the villa Sepidah always rents for the occasion, they learn that its owner will be using it that weekend. On the road, the parks and campgrounds are filled with people escaping the city. There is no way they will find another place to stay. Sepidah lies to the caretaker about Ahmad and Elly being newlyweds to appeal to her sympathy for their plight. The caretaker suggests a seaside villa, though it is dirty and its windows are broken. Desperate, and in hot water with her husband Amir (Mani Haghighi) for lying to him about the availability of the villa, Sepidah suggests they take a look. Good-naturedly, the friends set about making the villa liveable. In the evening, the caretaker brings extra blankets for the newlyweds, and sings a wedding song. Jokingly, the friends play along, with one of the women ululating in the traditional manner. Elly, embarrassed, goes to the kitchen while the others discuss the match.
It appears that Elly and Ahmad are hitting it off fairly well, but Elly insists to Sepidah that she must leave that night. Sepidah insists she stay and refuses to drive her into town where Elly can catch a bus back. One of the women who has stayed behind to watch the three small children asks Elly to take over. Arash, a four-year-old boy, is playing in the active sea, and the two young girls are trying to fly a kite. Elly goes to help them untangle the string. We see quick shots of her running back and forth joyfully to get the kite airborne. A lingering shot of the kite firmly floating in the breeze is the last peaceful moment this group will have.
It was obvious that Arash was going into the water and would need rescue. The men are called from their volleyball game to save him, which they do in a heart-stopping sequence. It is only after Arash has been revived and taken indoors to safety that the friends realize that Elly is missing. Out they all go into the sea to search for her, including a very distraught Sepidah, but there is no trace of her anywhere. Left to stew in their worry and guilt, the friends start accusing each other and Elly of the fate that befell her, even doubting that she went in to rescue Arash when the women recall her saying she was so insistent about going home that she said she would walk. Slowly, a series of secrets Elly and Sepideh had been keeping are revealed, and lie upon lie is concocted to save face for all concerned.
About Elly is extremely smart about human nature. These people aren’t bad—when we watch them pitch together to make the wreck of a villa habitable and play charades, including the children in the game, it’s hard not to want to join them at what could have been a seaside idyll. But their weaknesses are what Farhadi is interested in, the way guilt can turn normally rational people into blamers and liars—cowards seeking to avoid responsibility by dumping their psychological burden somewhere else. The ease with which the lies come, particularly to Sepideh, who selfishly says what she needs to to get her way and then, ironically, is forced to lie to cover her friends, reveals the rot at the center of privilege. Although this film is very personal, it is also universal.
All of the performances are great. Alidoosti, a real beauty, plays her part like the Mona Lisa, her shy smile concealing her own uncertainty and shame. Hosseini is a very handsome and charismatic actor, and his is perhaps the most decent character in the film, though the hotheaded Amir, brilliantly realized by Haghighi, feels Ahmad is constantly intruding on Sepideh for help. In fact, Amir’s rage at Sepideh’s habitual lying is at the root of this projection, yet another example of how Farhadi maintains the dual levels of this film so masterfully. Particularly for those familiar with the undercurrents in Iranian cinema, it’s not hard to see the critique of the politics of the region in this simple story.
I’m not very good at predicting which films the CIFF jury will choose to honor, but Golshifteh Farahani’s performance as Sepideh is Hugo-worthy, as is the rest of the film. It would be criminal if they passed this film by, and festival goers will be sorry if they miss their chance to see About Elly.
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Director: Abbas Kiarostami
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Close-up, the extraordinary film documenting the trial of a man accused of impersonating noted Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, put Abbas Kiarostami on the map of the world. He and Makhmalbaf, of course, were the leaders of the Iranian New Wave that hit its stride during the 1980s, ironically, in the aftermath of the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution. An early champion of Iranian cinema, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in 2002:
Part of what has made Iran a movie-mad country in recent years, with about a dozen film magazines coming out regularly, is that cinema provides one of the only routes to upward class mobility available in that society. … Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s status as a local culture hero—an impoverished fundamentalist who evolved into a successful reformist filmmaker—is undoubtedly tied to this fact, and the desire of an out-of-work bookbinder to impersonate someone like him, giving him access to upper-class society, which set the real-life plot of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up in motion, clearly has a lot to do with what made that 1990 film the most influential of all Iranian new wave features.
Certainly, Close-up has been influential in Iran and around the world, but the story it tells concerns more than one man striving to reach beyond his impoverished conditions. Hossain Sabzian speaks for all of us when he describes how he wished to be admired in the same way as his hero, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and to create something of beauty and lasting significance for people like himself. It is uniquely appropriate that a philosophical examination of art should be intertwined with a real-life drama in a country with a centuries-long reputation as a cultural and artistic center.
The film opens in a taxi that is carrying magazine journalist Hossain Farazmand and two police officers to the Tehran home of the Ahankhahs. Farazmand tells the cabbie (Hooshang Shamaei) that he has the story of a lifetime, one that will make his career. His excitement is, frankly, a little annoying in its self-congratulatory nature. Nonetheless, it becomes obvious soon enough that Farazmand is rather inept and needs this story to help secure his position in a country raging with unemployment. After the rather lengthy car trip and the exchange of personal information between the driver and passengers, the cops follow Farazmand into the Ahankhah compound and emerge with Sabzian. Farazmand nearly forgets his briefcase, then goes from gate to gate, buzzing intercoms and asking the neighbors if they can loan him a tape recorder. None can oblige.
Kiarostami visits Sabzian in prison where he is awaiting trial. Sabzian tells him that his court date is late in January, and Kiarostami promises to try to get the date moved up. We have an encounter with a court bureaucrat who says he has no power to change the date but will comply with the authorities above him. “What’s the rush?” he wants to know. There are much more serious, interesting cases than this one. Serious? Yes. Interesting. Probably not, especially for a film maker and his audience.
Eventually, we enter the courtroom, a full month earlier than Sabzian’s trial was to be held. So a man like Kiarostami has some pull. With cameras and microphones set up to record the proceedings, the judge asks the Ahankhah patriarch if he would be willing to drop his suit. He answers that he would, but that his sons wish to press forward. He will not oppose their wishes. Mehrdad Ahankhah speaks for the aggrieved family, saying that Sabzian gained their confidence in an effort to burglarize their home; in addition, he accepted a not trifling sum of money from them. With the grounds of a trial still in place, the judge and Kiarostami proceed to question Sabzian and the witnesses against him about the fraud he admits he carried out.
Through reconstructions using the actual individuals involved, Kiarostami shows how the fraud began innocently enough and progressed over the week. Sabzian was reading the script for Makhmalbaf’s The Bicyclist on a bus when Mrs. Ahankhah sat down next to him and asked him where he got it. “A bookstore,” he answered. Then he offered it to her and said he wrote it. “You’re Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the famous director,” she asked. “Yes.” “Why are you taking a bus? You must have your own car.” “I like to look for interesting people to cast in my films.” Mrs. Ahankhah says her family loved The Bicyclist and that her sons would love to meet him. Thus, the scene has been set for Sabzian to play the great director for a willing audience of admirers.
As the trial progresses, the judge questions him on why he carried on with the charade. Sabzian adamantly denies that he wanted to rob the Ahankhahs. True, he was unemployed, and he took the money Mehrdad offered him, using it to buy some things for his son. But he became entranced with the idea of playing Makhmalbaf. It opened doors for him and got people to listen to him. Mr. Ahankhah even offered to cut down some trees in his courtyard to make shooting an exterior shot easier.
“Why didn’t you become an actor?” asks the judge. “I would like to be an actor,” says Sabzian, “but the means are not available to me.” “Why Makhmalbaf?” asks Kiarostami. “Because he dignifies people like me in his films. The Bicyclist is a part of me.”
In the final shots of the film, Kiarostami films Mohsen Makhmalbaf meeting Sabzian and giving him a ride on his motorcycle to the Ahankhahs. The microphone being used to record their conversation as they ride through the streets of Tehran is faulty, so we hear very little. We see them stop to buy a plant for the Ahankhahs and watch Sabzian ring the intercom. He announces himself as Sabzian. Silence. He adds, “Makhmalbaf,” then the real Makhmalbaf comes to the door and announces himself. The door opens, and a sobbing Sabzian presents the plant and asks, bowing low, for forgiveness.
This film is incredibly moving. Listening to Sabzian talk about his life, the breakup of his marriage due to his inability to provide for his family, his frequent escapes into movies, and finally, a deception that may have looked sinister to the younger Ahankhahs but really amounted to little more than a vacation from reality for everyone involved, well, it’s a riveting human drama. At the end, when the door doesn’t open immediately for Sabzian, he uses a name that has opened it before. How sad. How true.
The film also creates a strange sort of wish fulfillment for the Ahankhahs and Sabzian. They all wanted to be actors in a movie, and ironically, the fraud has made that possible in Kiarostami’s film. Even though the Ahankhahs live a very comfortable life, their futures aren’t guaranteed; both sons are unable to secure a job in their chosen field of engineering. Sabzian’s offer to them to do something artistic and visible was an irresistible carrot to satisfy their ego needs as well.
I don’t know whether Iranian courts were or are this humane or whether Kiarostami’s camera had an influence. Whatever the reason, it was soul-warming to see this simple man truly get his day in court. By bringing his own plight to light in this very unique film, Sabzian became a voice for all the struggling people of his country. He also is a persuasive advocate for the arts and allows us to examine our own relationship to art in a very meaningful way. In our current times, with economic gloom hitting at all levels and the need for the healing power of art never greater, this film couldn’t be more timely. l
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Director/Screenwriter: Babak Payami
Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon
This post is part of the Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon hosted by Jason Bellamy at The Cooler.
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s Election Day in the United States, a day that has been hyped across the country and around the world as either the beginning of Hope and Change or the continuation of Bad Old Bushism. If Barack Obama is elected president, it will certainly be an historic moment for the African-American community, but will it really make the kind of difference the true believers think it will?
Having your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground is always the prudent thing to do, especially in a representative democracy, and especially in one as large and diverse as the United States. An object lesson in the wisdom of this advice can be found in Secret Ballot, a film that premiered just a year after the Election Dysfunction of 2000 that shows us the beauty and limitations of democracy in a gently satiric way.
The film opens on a visually stunning image of an airplane flying during the rising of the sun. A box emerges from the plane’s open cargo doors, its white parachute flapping and then filling with air, making perhaps a very intentional parallel with the “miracle” from which cargo cults arose. The box floats like an angel down to a barren land on the edge of an ocean, touching exactly where it was intended to land—at an army patrol site. In this remote island location, the site contains little more than the two infantrymen who work in shifts, taking turns sleeping in the bottom half of a bunk bed and sharing one gun to use as they patrol for smugglers working among the islands.
The night-shift soldier pries open the box and reads an enclosed letter. He then wakes his comrade (Cyrus Abidi) and tells him that it is Election Day in Iran and that he will be escorting an agent around the island collecting votes from its inhabitants. Then, the night-shift soldier prepares for a good day’s sleep. The idea that anyone could sleep out in the open in a desert during the day is only the first absurdity of life on the island. We’ll encounter more as the day goes on.
About half an hour later, a boat pulls up to the small dock at the soldiers’ post, and a woman alights. In contrast to the pillowy white parachute that delivered the box, she is a whirlwind wrapped in a black chador that billows in the strong ocean breeze and the wake of her own energetic movement. She is the election agent (Nassim Abdi), and the soldier refuses to escort a woman around. “I’m in charge here,” retorts the agent as she eagerly goes through the contents of the box. She shows the soldier the written orders he has to follow and then spreads out the map of the areas they need to reach. Off they go, the soldier grumbling all the way.
The first person they see is a man who is running along the road. The soldier is sure he’s a smuggler and is quick to put his hand to his rifle. The agent says he’s a voter and must feel free from intimidation. She orders the soldier to catch up with him. When they pull in front of him, the soldier demands to know why he was running. “Is running a crime?” the man asks defensively. Of course not, the agent says and goes into her election day rap; the man wishes to vote, but not with the soldier hanging around. “I want my vote to be secret,” which the agent assures him is his right. The absurdity of chasing a voter has a familiar ring to any voter who has ever been pandered to or identified as part of a crucial voting block.
The rather menacing next scene shows a large truck chasing after the agent and soldier. The truck stops, and a man emerges; he has brought voters from another island to cast their ballots. One by one, women in colorful but very severe chadors, some with masks that hide their faces from prying male eyes, climb out of the back of the truck. The truck driver orders the soldier away, saying their husbands would not like them “consorting” with a strange man. “What about you?” the soldier retorts. “They know me.” The women swarm the agent as she explains the process. When one of the women produces her ID, the agent rejects her for being under the legal voting age of 16. One of the other women says “She can marry at 12. Why can’t she vote?” Stumped, the agent pauses and then just repeats, “I’m sorry. It’s not allowed.”
So far, voting is going smoothly. The soldier still can’t see the importance of voting, thinking that you can get much more done with a gun than a ballot box. Unswayed, the agent confidently answers all of the soldier’s objections, saying that when people vote, it helps their government improve things. She’ll be singing a different tune when she starts running into roadblocks.
The agent’s quest for votes takes her to the beach, where fishermen are mending their nets. Although they come from another country, they tell the soldier that there are Iranians on the boat from which they came. The next hilarious scene shows the soldier rowing the agent out to the boat. From a distance, we see the men on board line up and a power boat buzz by.
Cut to the agent and soldier back on the road. They have a passenger, a young woman who was trying to run off with a foreigner who was arrested as a smuggler. The soldier, his Iranian manhood offended, says, “Maybe they can make a law so our women can’t go off and marry foreigners!” The agent counters, “Maybe they’ll make a law that lets a woman marry whom she likes.” In a small gesture I didn’t see coming, the young woman tries to give the agent her ID while they are driving so she can vote. “Not here,” the agent says. “We’ll do it when we get you home.” “They won’t let me vote there,” the young woman says. Sure enough, the women in the compound will not vote without the consent of their men, who are at a funeral in a cemetery that no women—not even the widow—can enter. These feminist concerns are laced throughout the film, though it isn’t heavy-handed and is usually emphasized unpolemically through actions.
Another stop for the moving polling place is a compound run by Granny Baghoo. The agent’s knocks on doors remain unanswered, perhaps on Granny Baghoo’s orders. A peddler sitting outside the compound agrees to show the agent his ID if she buys something; so dedicated is she that she agrees, essentially, to buy his vote. When she chooses a doll, he produces his ID. “You’re not Iranian. You can’t vote,” she complains. “All I said is that I would show you my ID.” Things continue on this way in the compound until she finally finds a man and starts her rap on the importance of voting. He keeps shaking his head at all her arguments. Finally, he spits out, “I don’t speak Farsi.” The agent returns to the jeep. “They don’t need to vote,” the agent says, much to the soldier’s surprise. “Granny Baghoo has a government all her own.”
The soldier and the agent finally come to a real and metaphorical crossroads when he stops the jeep as her deadline for returning to the post to catch her boat approaches. “Why have you stopped?” the agent asks impatiently. “The light is red,” he says and points to a stoplight in the middle of nowhere. This scene, I learned, is a lampoon on Imam Khomeni’s edict forbidding drivers from blowing through stoplights, an action taken to curb the horrible driving habits of Iranians. Obviously, this order makes no sense in a place with maybe a dozen cars all told, yet the soldier obeys the law the agent has been singing the praises of all during their journey. In her panic to see that the votes she collected are not invalidated because she missed the boat, the agent gets out of the car and screams that the law doesn’t matter in a place like this, in a desert with no real streets or traffic. The absurdity of the light even being there and the contradictory concerns of the agent are comments on how out of touch the central government can be with the needs of all its citizens, a fact that has been voiced over and over again by the voters the agent tries unsuccessfully to persuade to exercise their franchise. In the end, both the agent and the soldier will understand more than they did when the day began.
It would be easy to see the soldier and the agent—both unnamed—as props in a political system the director uses to make his points. But the script is so smart in weaving its messages into believable encounters, conversations, and wry situations that it never feels forced. It is such a pleasure to learn something valuable while being extremely entertained.
It’s rather interesting how many male Iranian filmmakers have made or collaborated on films sympathetic to the plight of women in their country, for example, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Pahani, Kambuzia Partovi, and Babak Payami in this, his directing debut. Even more startling is the fact that Iranian women, such as Samira Makhmalbaf and Rakhshān Bani E’temād, have come to prominence as directors working today. Payami mines the rich vein of contradiction in Iranian society, observing the repressiveness of religious dogma contrasted against the promise of a democratic voting process promoted, not surprisingly, by a female election agent. Nonetheless, the failures of the feminist movement, the most prominent example of a social issue this film addresses, serve to remind the agent and others who believe the government will solve all their problems that they need to take action on diverse fronts.
To keep this moment in American history in perspective, the delightful and wise Secret Ballot is must-viewing after the election.
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Directors: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I admit I have a lot of trouble writing about animated feature films. For me, art is an interior experience, a far more subjective exercise in viewing and absorbing than looking at a movie with real settings and live actors. Animation gives me complete access into the writer/illustrator’s vision—no famous faces and places mitigating that experience—and that fact puts another layer of contemplation into how I see these movies. I welcome the challenge, however, when the film provides me with a rich and honest canvas of images and emotions.
Persepolis, an animated film of the autobiographical graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, is a truly extraordinary anime in the spirit of adult anime we have come to associate with the Japanese. Satrapi is an Iranian who has been living in self-imposed exile in France for some time. Persepolis was the ancient capital of Persia (now Iran) that was sacked by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and now lies in ruins. The film chronicles Marjane’s life in the current capital, Tehran, under the Western-backed Shah, through the Islamic revolution that deposed the Shah and on to the strict Islamist government that replaced it. The journey on which Satrapi takes us is both back in time through her life as told in voiceover flashback, and to the echoes of ancient Persepolis and its sad fate repeated again in the 20th century AD.
The film begins at an airport, where an adult Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) is asked for her passport and ticket. She looks dumbfounded at the ticketing agent, then adjusts her veil on her head and walks away. She sits and the full-color illustration turns black and white as Marjane reminisces about her life.
As a child, Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) is exuberant and outspoken. Her hero is Bruce Lee. So is her grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux). Her parents (voiced by Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian) are against the Shah, who imprisoned Marjane’s Uncle Anouche (voiced by François Jerosme) for being a communist. When the Shah is overthrown in 1979, the Satrapis and most of the rest of the country rejoice, including Anouche, who has been freed from prison.
Unfortunately, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism brings a different kind of repression to the country. Not only are communists persecuted, but also anyone who challenges the authority of the mullahs and the fundamentalist Muslims who take over the instruments of government. When Marjane’s aunt applies for an emergency visa for her husband, who desperately needs open-heart surgery in Europe, she complains that her former window washer turned her away, saying only that if Allah wishes it, she will have her visa. Marjane’s uncle is buried three weeks later. Anouche, as a former communist, returns to prison and eventually is executed.
Marjane, still outspoken, takes risks to preserve her former way of life as best she can. She borrows money from her mother to buy Western music from black marketers who are standing along a street. As she walks among them, she hears whispers of “Michael Jackson,” “The Beatles,” and finally the one she wants, “Iron Maiden.” Marjane takes a jacket, paints “Punk Is Not Ded” on the back, and dons it over her chador. Two teachers accost her and warn her parents that all will not be well if they don’t bring their daughter into line.
Eventually, worried for Marji’s safety, her parents decide to send her to stay with a cousin in Vienna. After their tearful farewell at the airport, Marjane walks away; she turns back in time to see her mother collapse in her father’s arms and be carried away. Once in Vienna, Marjane is quickly sent from her cousin’s home and to a convent school. Her uneasy stay comes to an end when, after the nuns have used a racial slur against her, she says, “Is it true that all nuns are prostitutes first?” Marjane bounces from home to home and finally ends up in with an older woman and her dog Muki, the latter of which humps Marjane’s leg at every opportunity.
Confused and longing to fit in, Marjane takes up with a group of punks. Through them, she meets her first love, but finds him in bed with another woman one day. Depressed, she rejects him in her mind in a series of riotous fantasies of him covered with pimples, picking and eating his snot, and slavishly giving in to his mother. Marjane goes home and throws herself on her bed. When the old lady gives her a hard time, Marjane explodes. She insults the woman and her dog and leaves. She decides to return to Iran, but once there, she feels like an alien in her own land. She remains outspoken as ever at her university. In the end, Marjane leaves Iran for France, probably for good.
I had a leg up in understanding Marjane’s story because I had read the remarkable memoir of these very times, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, an educated woman and university professor who described poignantly the lot of women under the mullahs and the variety of choices they had to make depending on their level of devoutness and Westernization. None of the horrors Nafisi described are missing from Persepolis. Satrapi describes the waste of the 8-year war with Iraq, the bombed houses, the executions. A particularly affecting story has Marjane’s father try to secure a fake passport for Anouche; later, he and Marjane learn that the forger’s residence has been raided, his equipment trashed, and a woman he had been hiding arrested. We see the woman in silouette standing in front of a hangman’s noose, awaiting execution. The forger flees the country.
We also get a bit of a history lesson about the first and second shahs, whose deals with the West to modernize Iran included persecuting dissidents against democracy and Western influence. Although the repressions were often brutal, they also were contained; the imprisonments and executions increased 100-fold under the mullahs.
Perhaps surprisingly, the film is also quite lighthearted. We laugh when Marjane and her friend make fun of an ABBA album in class. When Marjane illustrates her growth spurt, with each part of her body suddenly ballooning and toppling her one way and another, it’s a true revolution in the depiction of puberty. The absurdist-humanist eye that started when Marjane doodled her first caricature is fully developed in the straightforward lines and painful memories she creates for Persepolis.
For Marjane, honesty is the most important value. She betrays that code to save her own skin at one point, bringing down the wrath of her grandmother. “Always be yourself, know yourself,” admonishes her grandmother, who says it’s the only way to endure the lousy facts of life. This sounds like good advice, but to a woman trying to make peace with living in another country that is somewhat hostile to Muslims, clinging steadfastly to her Iranian identity is no small feat. The shock of her ordeal stays with her, a rip in her heart over her lovely, lost land, hidden but never healed. She never wanted to be a citizen of the world and still seems to feels adrift, as this honest interview she gave to Bookslut in 2004 demonstrates. As long as Marjane continues to write and draw her simply wrought, honest graphic novels, we’re sure to learn how her grandmother’s advice plays out in the long run. Personally, I can’t wait to find out.
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Director: Kambuzia Partovi
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Ever since the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, women living in the country’s legally mandated Islamic society have had to walk a tightrope. Forced out of their western attire and under the veil and the thumbs of the men in their lives, Iranian women have labored to find some measure of independence and identity. Their painful struggle has been captured in best-selling books, such as Reading Lolita in Tehran by English literature professor and author Azar Nafisi, and in films such as The Day I Became a Woman (Roozi ke zan shodam, 2000), the debut film of Marzieh Meshkini, wife of renowned Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
One angry, feminist film that affected me deeply was The Circle (Dayereh, 2000) directed by Jafar Panahi and written by Kambuzia Partovi. Now we have Border Café, Partovi’s ninth outing in the director’s chair and his first for adult audiences. It’s an assured, well-observed film that avoids agitprop overtones while nonetheless showing clearly the obstacles Iranian women must navigate just to find some breathing room.
The structure of the story is slightly confusing. It uses reminiscences of people who have beeen touched by Reyhan (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani, Partovi’s wife), the main character, to suggest what a remarkable women she is. It almost sounds as though Reyhan has died. Whatever has happened, these people feel sure they will never see her again. Slowly, her story unfolds.
Reyhan is a recent widow with two children who is urged by her brother-in-law Nasser (Parviz Parastui) to become his second wife. He wants to take care of her and her children in an honorable fashion, and her lengthy mourning is starting to embarrass the family. Reyhan is not interested in Nasser or remarriage. She came to Iran to marry her now-dead husband, and feels no regard for the villagers or their opinions. Instead, she decides to reopen her husband’s roadside café, employing his former staff and doing the cooking herself.
Reyhan cleans up the café and hangs out her shingle for business, hoping that some of her husband’s former clientele will be attracted back. They are. Reyhan is an excellent cook, and news that the café is back and better than ever spreads among the international community of truck drivers who pass through. One trucker, a Greek named Zakariyo (Nikos Papadopoulos), comes into the café for a table and tea, but always brings a can of food with him to eat. Reyhan, who must stay in the kitchen because the law forbids her to mix in public with men who are not of her family, watches him through the kitchen service window. She asks the waiter to bring his plate to her so she can see what he is eating. The next time Zakariyo comes to the café, she sends out a plate with her version of his food on it. It is delicious, and from that moment on Zakariyo becomes a frequent visitor and occasional companion.
Reyhan’s success not only humiliates Nasser because she is having too public a life, but also is hurting the business at his own café. He determines to close her down, and because he owns the building, he has his way. The family Reyhan had built in her café disperses, taking us back to the reminiscences that started the film. But Reyhan hasn’t died. She buys the restaurant across the street from Nasser’s place. The worried look in his eyes tells us the rest of the story. Reyhan will endure.
Reyhan is a kind soul to whom people like Zakariyo respond. Moved by her attempts to make him feel a bit of home while on the road, Zakariyo tries to court Reyhan, in Greek. In another subplot, a Russian girl named Svieta (Svieta Mikalishina) washes up in the rain one night, and Reyhan takes her in on what becomes a permanent basis. A very moving scene has Reyhan and Svieta in the yard one day. Reyhan reveals her pain over the loss of her husband and her own homeland. Svieta does not understand a word. Svieta responses in Russian with her own pain. Although neither woman understands the other, both are in tears, communicating through the heart. These moments confirm what a waste it is to try to lock Reyhan away from the world and reveal what Islamic men fear so much—the allure of the female. Although Orfani plays Reyhan as a modest women who is constantly pulling her chador closer around her face, she won’t be held down.
With Border Café, Partovi gives us a rich look from the ground level at the lives of ordinary people in Iran and the way Islamic law plays out in everyday life. It’s not as ironclad as I had imagined, but nonetheless provides women with little wiggle room. I am grateful to Partovi for opening the doors wider on Iran and breaking new ground as the tradition of great Iranian filmmaking moves forward. l