Notes from the LFF: Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, Uncategorized

Mourning is one of the three Iranian films playing at this year’s London Film Festival – and I will be blogging about all three once I have had a chance to see them.

Mourning tells the story of Arshia (Amir Hossein Maleki), a young boy whose parents abandon him one night after a row.

The next thing we see is a car traveling through the Iranian countryside, a nice black 4×4 drifting along dirt tracks and surrounded by lush grass dancing in the wind.

Subtitles appear as if in error on the bottom of the screen – we can hear no spoken words. But after some time we realise that this is the conversation taking place in the car in sign language between Kamran (Kiomars Giti) and Sharareh (Sharareh Pasha), two middle-aged deaf and dumb people who have taken Arshia into their care after his parents’ departure.

En route, Kamran and Sharareh come across a car crash in a tunnel. Kamran leaves his vehicle and goes to investigate. It soon transpires that Arshia’s parents have seemingly died in this car crash, meaning that Kamran and Sharareh will have to look after Arshia from now on.

Mourning is not quite a real time movie, but all of its action takes place over a night and a day, as Arshia, Sharareh and Kamran try to come to terms with the death of the former’s parents, and to envisage a future for the young boy that has been left behind.

The car seems to be a staple motif – and setting – for various Iranian films, with Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran/USA, 2002), 10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran, 2004) and the more recent The Hunter (Rafi Pitts, Iran/Germany, 2010) emerging as prominent examples. Given that director Farshbaf is a Kiarostami protégé, this perhaps comes as no surprise.

The car suggests a simple paradox: it enables mobility while at the same time being an enclosed space. What is more, the use of tunnels along the way in this movie, and in The Hunter also, suggests further layers of enclosure – and darkness.

Given the prominence of these visual motifs – the car and the tunnel – it becomes hard not to read Mourning allegorically.

That is, the film does play as an affecting character piece in which Arshia, who seemingly can both lip read and sign, must learn in a brutal fashion about the death of his parents (which we never see), and in which Kamran and Sharareh run through a range of responses to the death of the child’s parents, from the pragmatic (they are the best placed people to look after Arshia) to the darkly comic (Kamran complaining about how Arshia needs the loo every few minutes).

But the film nonetheless – perhaps in a ‘bad’ way given Fredric Jameson‘s belief that Westerners cannot help but read ‘Third World’ literature, and by extension films, as national allegories – seems to be less about the characters whose lives briefly we share, and more about the place in which the story takes place.

Given the overwhelming silence of the film, the allegory is far from over-stated. And yet the abandonment of a child, his adoption by kind, mobile, but ultimately confined-to-the-car ersatz parents, whose voices literally cannot be heard, and whose language is alien to all but the happiest few, seems strongly to suggest an Iran whose youth has also been abandoned by rowing parents who will drive each other to death, and whose institutional support is minimal.

This reading is without question simplistic – as well as arguably problematic given the perennial issue of for whom this film was made and to whom it will most likely appeal (your average Iranian Joe, or well-to-do Westerners who have time to worry about a land so foreign to them as Iran). That is, in (over-)determining Mourning as a ‘message’ film, I have almost certainly overlooked its power to affect viewers in diverse ways, some abstract (such are allegories) and some physical.

But to stick to the allegorical, the film ends with Arshia in a tunnel. We see a protracted shot of the tunnel – a gaping black hole in the middle of the screen, the impenetrability of which suggests an uncertain future. And then we see a reverse shot: daylight at the end of the tunnel, but with darkness all around us. The light seems ever-so-close, but we do not approach.

Having also had the chance recently to see The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi, Germany, 2010), a guerrilla film involving tweets, amateur footage, voice recordings, talking heads interviews and animated versions of blogs concerning the Green Movement, Mourning becomes even more resonant.

The Green Wave documents the repressive violence that surrounded the wave of protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s seemingly fraudulent re-election to office in the 2009 Iranian presidential elections.

There have since been arrests, murders and brutality aplenty – condoned if not directly authorised by the government.

And what is being protested is not just a stolen election but the deprivation of the right to a democratic society based upon choice.

Iran is a country with a huge youth population – not least in part as a result of the Iran-Iraq war that ran from 1980 to 1988, and which resulted in 500,000 to 1,000,000 deaths. In other words, with the adult generation of the 1980s depleted and scarred by war, it is those who have grown up since who now are the driving force, or the main constituent part, of the Green Movement.

As such, Arshia seems to stand for all Iranian youth – stuck in a tunnel, having lost his parents to internecine disputes, and with new, surrogate parents who do not necessarily speak his language – however benign-willed they are or wish to be.

Given the difficulty with which filmmakers can make films in contemporary Iran (and given the arrest of some 25 filmmakers recently in Iran), it seems that allegory is the only means through which filmmakers can make any political points – even if the use of allegory risks confusing that message (if the message could be anything but confused if it were to pay respect to the complexities of the world and perhaps of Iran in particular).

As such, my take on Mourning as being allegorical is reinforced, since films like The Green Wave cannot be made in Iran, as that film’s German production location makes clear. Farshbaf must be political – like Kiarostami his master – by avoiding the overtly political.

Once again, this is not to overlook the film’s poetic nature: beautiful landscapes filled with human and humane people who live and love like anywhere else on Earth. But politics and poetics do not have to be mutually exclusive; indeed, the film’s patiently long takes – especially of Iran’s luscious green grass – lend to Mourning not the howl that The Green Wave evokes, but a calm, reasoned, certain appeal to a better future…

The Hunter (Rafi Pitts, Iran/Germany, 2010)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema

The Hunter is about Ali (Rafi Pitts), a former convict-turned-factory worker who tries to support his wife and child. Ali returns home one day to discover that his wife and daughter have gone missing. After hours at the police station, he discovers that his wife has been killed during a demonstration – and that his daughter is still missing. When the daughter is also discovered to be dead, Ali goes on a rampage, killing two police officers before being hunted down in a wood north of Tehran.

The Hunter sounds like a thriller, and in many ways it is one, but the film is also very slow paced in comparison to your average thriller from Hollywood, such as the recent Unstoppable (Tony Scott, USA, 2010). For example, the film is filled with prolonged scenes of Ali driving, particularly in and through tunnels, as he wanders around Tehran in his pastel green sedan. The film features a car chase, as Ali tries to elude a police car along mist-covered and winding hill roads. This scene is surprisingly effective, because, unlike Unstoppable with the numerous close ups of its star vehicle runaway train and its rapid cutting, the chase in The Hunter is filmed mainly in long shot and with takes that last a good few seconds.

In other words, if The Hunter is a thriller, its slow pace makes it a very unusual one, while the painterly composition of the film’s images, which director Pitts retains from It’s Winter (Iran/France, 2006) similarly draws our attention away from simply the action. While beautiful from start to finish, this painterly quality of The Hunter suggests that it wants us to understand not just what happens in the film, but why it has been filmed in the way that it has. Indeed, how the police manage so easily to track down Ali after his crime is never explained; they just seem to find him immediately, and the film does not seem to care especially for showing us how this came to be.

As a result, The Hunter seems to ask us to think about its formal properties, or how it is put together, and here the colour of the film comes to the fore. Ali’s sedan is the most striking example, but the colour green features prominently throughout the film. Green is an important colour in Iran, because the so-called Green Movement has since 2009 used green to symbolise its struggle against the fraudulent election result that saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regain power. to read some background from WikiLeaks, read here.

In this way, the slowness of the film becomes not a fault but a symbol of the difficulty to move freely in contemporary Iran, as reinforced by the tunnel sequences. The police’s immediate discovery of Ali also suggests a repressive state surveillance system, while the death of Ali’s wife and daughter might reflect indirectly upon the social incarceration of women under the present Iranian regime (thereby perhaps making a link between this film and Zamani Esmati’s Orion (Iran, 2010), which refers to Orion as a hunter constellation in its critique of a phsyicist’s irresponsible treatment of its main character, Elham, played by Nasim Kiani).

As a result of its pace, The Hunter is a film that many might dismiss as dull and slow. However, these supposedly ‘negative’ elements of the film really reveal the call for freedom in Iran – and in a way that is seemingly novel for Iranian cinema.

For, by giving us a thriller/non-thriller, Pitts’ film marks a shift towards at least some acknowledgement of mainstream film audiences as a potential target for his political/artistic ambitions (even if distribution companies subsequently crush this by marketing the film in ways that do not reflect what or how the film is).

It is not that Iran does not have a mainstream cinema. However, rarely does this mainstream cinema from Iran receive large audiences in the West (except, perhaps, in Los Angeles and other areas with large diasporic Iranian communities). It is generally ignored by the commercial cinemas and not given much of a chance in film festivals. In part, this prejudice against Iranian mainstream cinema is propagated by Iranian scholars in the West, particularly Hamid Dabashi, who rarely has a good word to say about it. And in part this prejudice is also unjustified.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, for example, is widely feted (not least by Dabashi) as one of Iran’s greatest art house filmmakers. However, his early film Baykot/Boycott (Iran, 1985), which Dabashi does mark as being Makhamalbaf’s first ‘mature’ film (and he says that the films prior to this one can go into the trashcan), is most certainly a political action film, with shootouts and chases galore. In comparison to his better known Nun va Goldoon/A Moment of Innocence (Iran/France, 1996), Gabbeh (Iran/France, 1996), and Safar e Ghandehar/Kandahar (Iran/France, 2001), Boycott is rarely discussed. It is as if this more commercial film somehow did not count (and as if many people had drawn the line in a slightly different place from Dabashi and consigned this one to the trashcan, too).

Furthermore, I have been trying to publish work for some time now on Tahmineh Milani, exploring her work as a similar example of a woman who makes mainstream and popular films that are not only not bad, but in fact are good and, regardless of their ‘quality,’ are certainly worthy of scholarly attention (my would-be article, which is supposed at some point to come out in this journal, or one of its affiliates, is about Milani’s film Atash bas/Cease Fire (Iran, 2006) a comedy about divorce that was the highest grossing film in Iran of all time).

Somewhat akin to Darbareye Elly/About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 2009), which is currently showing as part of the first London Iranian Film Festival, which I saw last year in Paris, and which is also something of a thriller about a child who goes missing, The Hunter seems to want actively to move towards these mainstream and ‘genre’ films – and not away from them as has seemingly been the trend for some time in the areas of Iranian cinema that are most successful internationally, that is, its art house or ‘festival’ films (made by the likes of Makhamalbaf and his family, Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and so on).

Again, not that The Hunter, About Elly, or, for that matter, Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh/No One Knows About Persian Cats (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran, 2009), which in its use of a hip hop and indy soundtrack at least makes moves towards a more ‘commercial’ and MTV-influenced aesthetic, are fully commercial films, but they are signalling a shift towards more commercially-minded endeavours.

What might the reasoning be behind this? Well, firstly, since Makhmalbaf and family have fled to Afghanistan, and since Kiarostami has fled to Europe, and since Panahi was placed under house arrest by the Iranian government, perhaps filmmakers need now to occult even more their opposition to the powers that be. And while some, Ghobadi and Esmati included, have gone ‘underground’ to make their films, others – in a manner somewhat akin to André Breton, who in his Second Surrealist Manifesto suggested that surrealism also needed to hide in more commercial ventures if it was to retain its political power – have moved closer to the mainstream, because there is no point only making festival films that reach a small, if willing, audience that is already ready to hear what the film has to say (via its mise-en-scene, as seems the case in The Hunter).

If film is to be part of the effort to bring about change in Iran, against whose repressive regime The Hunter seems indirectly to be something of a call to arms, perhaps appealing not just to the international cinerati of the festival circuit, but (can I speculate?) a hopefully wider audience at home, is the most likely way of making this happen.

There is a scene in The Hunter where Ali drives on to the hillside outside of Tehran, perhaps to the very same spot that Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) goes to die in Ta’m e guilass/Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France, 1997), the film that won its director the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and arguably which launched or cemented the trend for Iranian ‘festival’ films around the world.

Not so much a critique per se of Kiarostami, whose Certified Copy (France/Italy/Iran, 2010) feels like something of a ‘cop out’ as the director decides not to engage with Iran in order to make wordy films about high art (can we really blame Kiarostami, though?), the moment in The Hunter, which bears a striking resemblance to the setting in Taste of Cherry, does seem to link this film to that film’s sense of hopelessness and the feeling of oppression (no one knows why Badii wants to die, or if they do, I can’t remember), but, given the violence of The Hunter, Badii’s resignation is implicitly criticised in the face of Ali’s desire to take up (maniacal) arms.

The Hunter, then, may yet signal/be part of a new evolution in Iranian cinema, the ‘mainstream’-seeming but deeply political cinema that accompanies the ‘underground’ movement signalled by Ghobadi and Esmati. In comparison, Kiarostami’s Certified Copy does seem somewhat irrelevant, a generic art house film in one of the worst senses of the word, but this is not to rule Kiarostami out, since who knows where he will go next, and we could argue that the mythical epic that his female audience watches in Shirin (Iran, 2008) also signals the increasing need for a mainstream presence in Iran’s art house cinema/the need for Iran’s art house cinema to hide itself a bit more in ‘mainstream’-seeming/’generic’ films. As Iran’s cinema evolves, however (with Kiarostami’s move to Europe perhaps a very important personal evolution, even if it is somewhat lost on me), we are certainly witnessing a cinema that has life in its bones yet. For all of the problems that Ahmadinejad’s Iran seems to impose on its citizens, and for the damnation that faces me for saying it, perversely this makes for exciting and dynamic times in Iranian cinema (cue Graham Greene and Orson Welles on Italy, the Borgias, art, Switzerland, and the cuckoo clock).