Some Iranian films I've watched recently

25 February 2011

The Sheila Variations has this week been hosting a blogathon on Iranian Film, in support of jailed filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof. Ahead of Srini's review of Rasoulof's 2009 film The White Meadows, I thought I'd share some brief thoughts on some very strong Iranian films I've watched recently.

A detailed analysis of the political situation in Iran this isn't, and of course something much deeper than a blogathon is in order for a change not only in these two artists' current situation, but in the plight of many others around them. (Shane Danielsen at indieWIRE wrote some interesting thoughts in the meantime.) But while some of these films, which all aired in 2005 as part of a Cinema Iran season on Channel 4 in the UK, are well-known, it seems others are not; whatever, they all come recommended.

The film that first drew cineastes' attention to Iranian film is perhaps Dariush Mehrjui's 1968 film The Cow (Gaav, above).

When villageman Hassan returns from work to find his cow has disappeared, he descends into madness, deciding to 'replace' the animal with himself... What was already, from the outset, a village life tale carrying some atmosphere and menace (in the form of the three silhouetted figures of thieves from a neighbouring village) becomes a genuinely unsettling film when we begin to view events not through the protagonist but through those around him.

This shift in point-of-view is done so matter-of-factly so as to invoke a vague anticipation of something more supernatural that is constantly at odds with the film's overall realism: suddenly denied internal access, we're never quite sure whether or not Hassan genuinely believes he is a cow, for instance, or whether the cow is even dead, even though we've seen the narrative events leading to this... At one point, there's a genuinely disturbing visual suggestion that Hassan has indeed begun to transmogrify into cattle, when the three neighbouring thieves come to steal the cow in the night, only to find it is its owner, lying in weird lighting. The plot's simplicity is embedded in a vivid sense of community and what this livestock means to daily life in rural Iran.

Sohrab Sahid Saless's 1974 Still Life (Tabiate bijan, above) is a masterpiece.

Concerning itself with the life of an illiterate railway guard living at a remote outpost, the film is a stark and absorbing minimalist examination of alienation and the daily ritual of working life. It works on both a literal and symbolic level: its unfurnished aesthetic grounds its subject matter in a sparse, gruelling existence wherein the railway track brings both daily sustenance and contact from the wider region; but there is a point at which the narrative casually, unexpectedly folds back on itself, makes us aware of a continuity error, of a flashback after the fact, so that time itself becomes the subject of the camera's observant gaze (another moment sees a conversation repeated from earlier drowned out by the sound of a ticking clock).

Quiet and demanding, the film is devastating by its end. You can find the idFilm forum thread here. You can also view a stream of the film in nine parts on YouTube.

I've only just got around to watching Abolfazl Jalili's 1998 film Don (Daan, above) last week; again, for my money, it's a masterpiece. Born of heroin addicts, a young Iranian boy called Daan seeks work without his birth certificate. The film is an engrossing, unsentimental drama, the primary focus of which is a young boy whose quest for work takes on a heightened, existentialist weight, not only due to the absurdity of his economic plight (he's 9 years of age) but because of the lengths he has to go in order to convince those around him to employ him in the absence of a birth certificate and thus, essentially, an identity.

Played by a non-actor, the character is based on his performer's actual life, and Jalili carries through his story with incredible sensitivity and honesty. There's a fine achievement in all of this: a perfect blend between presenting a harrowing situation matter-of-factly, and observing it also through the eyes of a child too young to know or expect anything different of the world.

Another film that aired during the same film season stands out for its sensitivity and honesty: Jafar Panahi's own 2000 film The Circle (Dayereh, above), which follows during the course of a day four Iranian women released (or escaped from?) prison, and observes their course in a vignette fashion as each suffers state oppression. This powerful drama opens in a hospital maternity ward and ends in a prison cell, with the two shot similarly enough to draw a comparison: in the first scene, a woman avoids the burden of telling her son-in-law's family that her and their new grandchild is not a boy but a girl, one born into a dark, dreary life that concludes here in a dark, dreary jail... what's the difference?

Driven by an absorbing naturalism and a roaming, curious camera, Panahi and script-writer Kambuzia Partovi are careful not to make their point hysterically: there are several male characters here who are very helpful to the female protagonists; the real villain is the state itself and the system that governs it, so that any social inequality is endemic, and any cry for change becomes a cry for systemic change.

Mania Akbari's 2004 film 20 Fingers (above) takes for its title an old legend that a whore becomes a whore when she has slept with as many people as one has fingers on one's hands. This is only a small part of the fluid conversation that takes place between a married couple, who discuss both the personal and impersonal of everyday life in contemporary Iran.

The film is a conversational piece that unfolds in a series of long-takes, some very simple in their set-up, some very complex; for a film of its kind - two characters, one-shot per scene, etc. - it could quite easily have been draining and even self-defeating, but there's an intense investment in movement here, not only in the way gestures and slips of tongue prove significant in tonal shifts during conversation, but in the way the characters are filmed against ever-busy, natural backdrops. Domestic politics are foregrounded and honestly enough depicted, with a view to a particularly Iranian social life seeping through.

Two shorts

Two short films included in Channel 4's Cinema Iran season - long overdue a similar outing - were music documentaries made before Bahman Ghobadi's acclaimed 2009 film No One Knows About Persian Cats. Reza Haeri's 2000 short 127, an Iranian Rock Band follows underground rock group 127 in their quest to express themselves artistically despite rock and jazz being forbidden in the country. More of a promo than a documentary, the film sustains our interest, but at three minutes, it falls way short of examining any social conditions further.

Reza Bahrami's 2005 documentary Flying Misters, meanwhile, goes somewhat further than 127. Made by members of the titular three-piece rock group, the film presents their own determination to put on a local gig. If the earlier, shorter film was unable in its running time to provide any insight into artistic life in Iran, this film exposits the social and political climate in which its subject matter unfolded and in which it was itself made, that seemingly attempts humility by outright claiming to be about something smaller and quite removed from such contextual conditions, but then finds itself unavoidably faced with these issues anyway, since Iran's cultural oppression figures centrally to everyday life. It gains much from its likeable trio – who all had a direct say in how they are presented – but the focus and subject matter surely demand lengthier and more thorough attention.

The above films screened alongside Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple (1998), Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Golden Moment (1995) and Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is My Friend's House (1987) and Through the Olive Trees (1994), as well as other shorts. All of these films constitute a remarkable body of work, but the television season only touched a small surface of significant films.

Now, more than ever, we need to look at these works and see in them not only great artistry, but a genuine, honest response to a politically complex situation and a society suffering from state oppression.