Notes from the LFF: Orion (Zamani Esmati, Iran, 2010)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema

Orion sees established Iranian filmmaker and one-time Abbas Kiarostami protégé Jafar Panahi work as an editing consultant.

It is not that Panahi’s stamp is all over Zamani Esmati’s second film. But it is that Orion shares with one of Panahi’s best known works, Dayereh/The Circle (Iran/Italy/Switzerland, 2000), the name of one of its lead characters.

In Panahi’s film, Elham (Elham Saboktakin) is a nurse who is now married to a doctor, but who has a prison record that she tries to hide. She refuses to help Pari (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy), a woman who is pregnant with a husband who has since been executed, and who herself has just come out of prison and is in danger of being killed (it seems) by her family.

In Esmati’s film, Elham (Nasim Kiani) is either pregnant out of wedlock and in need of an abortion (the common assumption that one might make) or, as one of my students suggested followed an educational screening of Orion at the London Film Festival, she is a girl who has lost her virginity out of wedlock, and who is seeking surgery to have her hymen replaced.

Elham may be a relatively common name in Iran and the fact that each film features a major character called Elham may simply be a coincidence, but it does point to the similar features of both films, even if in Panahi’s Circle, Elham is the only woman to walk free (by refusing to help her fellow women), while in Esmati’s Orion, Elham ends up incarcerated.

Both films deal with the impossible plight of women in a society dominated by patriarchal Shi’ite values. Both films also deal with the quietly repressive police regime in Iran: although Orion is set in Yazd, as opposed to Tehran, both feature police forces that are in many respects ruthless, but also very human.

In Orion in particular, we see the police arrive at the house/studio of a would-be filmmaker (Hamed Baraghani), walk in, and arrest everyone, including Elham (eventually), her boyfriend Amir (Mehrdad Sheykhi), and his doctor friend who has come to perform the operation (Mohammad Reza Farzad). There is no shouting, no aggressive questioning, no busting down the doors. The police officers enter, talk calmly, and ensnare their suspects through persistent question that is reminiscent in part of Kafka or Arthur Koestler. The police then swap mobile phone gags with their suspects, provide water and pills for their inmates, and generally seem to let people come and go – but very few people do go, perhaps because they know that there is nowhere that they can go.

In other words, it is not that the police here (and in The Circle) is evil in any obvious or ostensible fashion, but it is banal in a way that does recall Hannah Arendt‘s most famous phrase. (If it is not banal to say that evil is banal.)

However, perhaps this banality in part relates to the fact that the men are not really in any danger of being imprisoned. Rather, it is only Elham who runs the risk of prison and shame. For, the supposed sins of the couple – sleeping together outside of wedlock – are transposed uniquely on to the woman, Elham: Amir will and does walk free for deflowering Elham, while Elham goes to prison, presumably having been branded a whore.

Men get away with everything and anything, complains Elham’s mother to Amir in front of the courtroom. And this seems to be the case: twice in the film, we see Elham trying to run away from the police – first when she sneaks out of the back door of the filmmaker’s house, and second when she runs from the courtroom where she will be arrested. Both times, we know that she is being pursued, but we have little or no access to the pursuer, be it from Elham’s or the pursuer’s point of view. That is, these are not depicted as chases. Instead, each is depicted more or less from Elham’s perspective, as we follow behind her. She tries to open doors, she tries to climb over walls, and so on. And each time, she finds only a dead end at which – eventually but with total inevitability – a police officer finally arrives. The second time, she hits the police officer and continues her would-be escape, only for the film to cut to her leaving prison, presumably several days/weeks/months later.

Rather than showing us a chase, then, both scenes are reminiscent of nightmares in which one runs away from an unseen force, only to suffer from one or a combination of the following: one’s legs suddenly becoming frictionless, meaning that one is running, but going nowhere; or one’s legs suddenly being only able to move as if through syrup; or, worse, running into a random house for protection, only to find that it is the house of the person pursuing you. For Elham, her efforts to escape are futile – as indicated by the lack of hurry in pursuing her. This sense of imprisonment makes the film powerfully unbearable (for me).

Akin to Bahman Ghobadi’s recent Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh/No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran, 2009), Esmati’s film was shot on a micro-budget with digital cameras and without a permit, meaning that the film is ‘underground’ in Iran but obviously something of interest to film festivals. Matthew Holtmeier has perceptively written about how that film is reminiscent of Gilles Deleuze’s (and Félix Guattari’s) notion of a ‘people to come.’ Since Deleuze and Guattari came up with the notion in relation to Kafka, and since this film is reminiscent (to me) of Kafka, then one feels tempted to say the same of Orion. But in some respects, the film is not as defiant as Ghobadi’s; it is singularly more pessimistic and as a result, one does not sense much in the way of ‘futurity’ or hope.

The film ends with Elham being dragged from the back seat of her father’s car and into the desert, where he may or may not stab her with a screwdriver. Elham’s mother pleads with him to stop, and as a gale blows up and a sandstorm blows from right to left across the screen, all three are framed from the open car door on their knees, howling to God and to each other. The shot of the desert is a powerful one, bringing to mind the hopelessness of Elham’s situation – one cannot fight these natural and, more pointedly, naturalised forces such as desire (which, sadly, got her in trouble in the first place) and the (here, Iranian Islamic) Law (which is not natural, but has become naturalised/made to be thought of as natural).

However, for all that Orion is pessimistic, we should be careful not to read it as a documentary that tells it like it is (in every case, even if stuff like this does happen). That is, we should not generalise from this film that everyone’s experiences in Iran are the same. The reasons for this are not to say that the film is inaccurate, or wrong. But just that non-Iranian viewers might feel compelled to ‘condemn’ all Iranians for being in some sense ‘bigots,’ the problem being that this is perchance a bigoted attitude to have in the first place (and provided that this is not a bigoted attitude to have against bigots and bigotry as a whole).

While I was inclined to argue that Brillante Mendoza’s Lola/Grandmother (France/Philippines, 2009) is more realistic than John Sayles’ Amigo (USA, 2010) on account of its budget in a recent post (my argument being that a lower budget means less control when shooting on the streets, which means more ‘reality’ creeps in), here I should make clear that no film is absolutely realistic (particularly when representing history, as Sayles’ film purports to). So – yes, Orion was shot ‘underground’ (i.e. without permission from the authorities), and it was funded by Esmati himself for a very small amount of money, and it is shot with handheld digital cameras that suggests realism, but this does not make what the film shows us as real or even wholly realistic.

In some respects, the film knows this: many of the film’s framings are arch, in the sense that they are knowingly ‘meaningful’: shots of the main characters from behind bars, or an inserted moment where a child’s kite gets stuck on the roof of the filmmaker’s house all attest to the lack of freedom that the characters endure not just from the authorities/the Law, but also from the story that the filmmaker imposes upon them. Furthermore, in that same house, posters for films and, in particular, film stock are seen hanging from the walls. An image of Al Pacino is on its side: Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, USA, 1975) this is not. But that we see images that are framed by strips of celluloid also brings to mind that we are watching not reality itself, but a fabricated reality (even if one that takes in real locations).

Perhaps this is most noticeable in a long scene in the filmmaker’s editing ‘suite,’ in which Esmati/his editor/Panahi (as editing advisor) has inserted multiple ‘jump cuts’ in which perhaps (as few as) one, two or three frames have been removed from the image track, while the sound track seems to remain constant. The effect of this scene is to make the viewer not only aware that they are watching a film, but it is also to suggest that the male characters in this scene, who discuss the relative freedom of their lives, and who complain about women, somehow elude the camera. Or that they have a freedom of mobility that the camera cannot quite capture, while Elham struggles to run away (from the camera as much as from the police officers that we do not see chasing her), but never can. Perhaps this explains why we do not see Elham in prison at all; the camera does not need to imprison her there; its only function is to imprison her while not in prison, the camera serving as a panopticon machine.

If Orion is not necessarily to be considered as realistic, then, perhaps we can draw something out of its status as a festival film. If the lack of a permit means that the economic potential of this film in Iran is nil (even though, as a recent book on Iranian cinema makes clear, those who grant filmmaking permits in Iran can often spot and even turn a blind eye to/implicitly encourage subversive material), its aspirations for life lie in both the pirate market and its strange bedfellow, the film festival circuit.

The festival circuit and piracy are arguably two sides of the same coin regarding what they can offer a film in terms of life and audiences. By taking images without authorisation, Esmati is something of a pirate (he takes his camera into the street while other pirates take their cameras into the cinema), who is in turn supported by the festival circuit. Aside from making this parallel, it is important to note that Esmati might well have made this film knowing that it would get on to the festival circuit, not least because Iran is a hot topic now that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is threatening to go nuclear (how could a country so medieval in its treatment of women dare to become a power so modern as to have nuclear?).

That is to say: non-Iranian viewers of film festival films (i.e. the relatively wealthy and specialised audiences that get to and can afford film festival films, which, in London at least, typically cost more than a normal cinema ticket) arguably like seeing images of ‘backwardness’ in Iran, because it conforms to the media image of Iran/Ahmadinejad as a cruel tyrant keeping a desert-strewn country in the Dark Ages.

This is not to say that Iran is not unstable as a country, nor to say that Ahmadinejad is not an election-stealing tyrant. That is not my opinion to give. But it is to question the motives of festival goers and programmers for going to and putting into film festivals films that are critical of Iran, and by extension Islam (since the country is an Islamic Republic) – especially its/the religion’s treatment of women.

Given the overwhelming youth of Iran’s population, one wonders how taboo extra-marital sex really is (that is, on the – or under the – ground), even if sex is supposed not to be depicted in/on film (though I am sure that pornography proliferates in Iran, whether or not there is a specifically Iranian porn industry). Furthermore, when we compare this film to recent work by, say, Tahmineh Milani, one wonders to what extent this is a stylised portrayal of middle class life as much as her films are but in the opposite direction (if very different to her earlier films, Atash bas/Cease Fire, Iran, 2006, is a comedy about affluent middle class Iranians, featuring a very strong female lead).

No doubt there are problems in Iran and perhaps with Islam in general with regard to the imbalance between the sexes, even if prominent women like Shirin Ebadi might suggest otherwise. But for whatever Orion shows us that is troubling and problematic, we should not, as Western/festival audiences, trust that it is true without at least some questioning of the film. Indeed, given the self-conscious moments in the film (in particular the framing and the jump cuts in the editing suite), Orion itself seems to want us to know that it is presenting us not with reality itself, but with, as per the moments when Elham tries to run away but cannot, a nightmare version of reality.

Amir is an astrophysicist who is expecting to escape to the West – although this may not happen for him if he is forced to stay and marry Elham. The constellation Orion is mentioned in the film as the constellation of the hunter. This might make of Orion an interesting companion to Rafi Pitts’ new film, The Hunter (Iran/Germany, 2010), which is due out shortly in the UK. But for this film, it seems that Amir, as a man, hunts women/has freedom (to exert his power) over them. In one particularly cruel scene, he barefacedly lies to a judge that he has not had an affair with Elham – Amir not thus being found guilty of perjury, but instead Elham being convicted more forcefully for his crime. He perhaps aspires to a god-like status (not least because he will escape Iran), while Elham and presumably other women are treated as mere humans, perhaps even as less than human.

While we do not see Elham’s incarceration, we do see the overnight stay that Amir and his friends make in a cell. They drink alcohol (supposedly against the law) and banter: apparently being arrested does not particularly fluster them. Elham, meanwhile, is isolated, silent and barely gets to speak throughout the film. Because the film challenges the typical understanding of prison (guards telling men to shut up, rattling the prison bars, etc), it seems rather to suggest that the prison is as much a mental one as a physical one – not least because Amir’s physician friend gets his assistant to bring them food and ethanol (what poor security that prison has!).

As such, the film becomes not so much a realistic portrayal of life in Iran, as opposed to an allegory about freedom, perchance a more specific allegory about the freedom of women in the Islamic Republic. This might put us back in the territory of Fredric Jameson who relatively problematically has suggested that all ‘Third World’ texts (including films?) are necessarily read in the West as allegories of the nation. But in some respects, I wonder that the ‘allegorical’ reading is paradoxically more accurate than extrapolating from the film that Iran is a terrible society full of evil men and victimised women. I’ve no doubt that Iran has its share of these as do all corners of the planet, and perhaps Iran is unfortunate in having such people (the men, anyway) actually in positions of power.

But if nothing else, and as Hamid Dabashi has argued, Iran is a complex and multicultural society that has rich intellectual, artistic, cultural, social and scientific traditions. To look upon it in simplistic terms, not as Orion does, but as Orion‘s audience might feel tempted to do, is look upon it with veiled eyes.

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