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[Pleasure Dome, an exhibition collective in Toronto that screens experimental media arts, will show two films about Iran on July 23rd: Taravat Khalili’s Does the Sand Hear the Waves? and Miranda Pennell’s The Host. For more information about the screenings, please visit Pleasure Dome’s website.]
If there is such a thing as “the immigrant experience,” cinema has rarely been able to capture it truthfully. Sob stories of poverty and hardship, and rags-to-riches narratives of success constitute an unrealistic binary of immigrant experiences on screen that remains very limited. Rarely do those extreme ends of the spectrum convey the complex emotional challenges of leaving home and settling in a foreign land. In her short documentary film, Does the Sand Hear the Waves?, Taravat Khalili sets aside familiar questions such as financial and linguistic limitations to explore deeper issues of identity and memory. Through the story of her own family, she studies the continuously evolving psyche of a young immigrant who spends her formative years in between two different worlds.
Having left Iran as a young girl to settle in Canada with her family, Khalili’s perspective is one shared by thousands of Iranians around the world who have moved from the country in the years since the Islamic revolution. What sets Khalili’s film apart from the majority of other works made by the Iranian diaspora about immigration is that it eschews politics almost entirely.
Filmed partly in Canada and partly at her home in Iran, Khalili’s nearly wordless film effortlessly traverses between the two spaces. The film’s structure appears incoherent, stitched together from images that individually lack focus. Yet, as part of the larger whole, they capture a chaotic, complicated process of reforming one’s identity in a new home. These ideas are difficult to articulate, and the film succeeds precisely because it allows the viewer to piece the images together on their own.
Does the Sand Hear the Waves? is an autobiographical video essay, and as such, an intensely personal experience. Yet, it is through these private moments that Khalili arrives at universal truths. When the filmmaker attends to her grandfather’s grave through a video feed on an iPad, the feeling of grief and the difficulty of remaining connected from afar will ring familiar to anyone who has left their home. In another arresting sequence, videos of earlier memories are projected on the director’s hands, emphasizing the weight of history that the body carries despite being removed from its roots. The images are personal, but their power transcends beyond the life of the artist.
If Sand is wordless, loosely structured and emotionally engaging, Miranda’s Pennell’s The Host is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Pennell also starts her film from a personal place: her British parents had lived in Iran before the Islamic revolution, where her father worked on the oil fields of the country’s fertile Southwestern province, Khuzestan.
The Host is comprised entirely of still images: aerial photographs sourced from British Petroleum’s archives, personal photos of the filmmaker’s family, photos taken by a British geologist on assignment in Iran and even paintings and hand-drawn notes. Pennell narrates the film with a somber voice that reflects the stoicism of the material. She studies the transformation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company into BP, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh’s strong stance for the nationalization of the oil industry, and the infamous 1953 coup, in which Britain, with the aid of the American government, toppled Mossadegh to deliver full power to the Shah.
Pennell’s study is a snapshot of a specific moment in Iranian history, but a critical one that shaped the country and the region’s future for decades to come. Her lens is politically impartial and visually fascinated by the sinuous milieus of the oil fields. Thus, her research results in a rare entity, a devastating, meticulously researched film that allows access to previously hidden archival material, and an insight into the inner workings of the British colonial project in Iran.
The most fascinating juncture in the film is the discovery of letters sent from British dignitaries in Iran back to the British government, reporting their findings about Iran and its inhabitants. The episode reveals the explicit racism and disregard for Iranian culture and identity among the British and the ruthlessness with which they usurped Iranian properties. Pennell stops short of adding her commentary throughout the film, always maintaining a distance to her findings. Yet, the striking final shot of The Host, a brief sojourn to a photo of three African labourers working on another colonized field, equates her perspective with that her of audience. It’s a definitive political statement from the filmmaker, and one that elevates her work from a methodical research project to a profound treatise on colonialism.