Pleasure Dome: Far From Iran

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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.

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The Father (Pedar, 1996)

Majid Majidi started his film career as an actor in the 1980s, with secondary roles in a range of films including Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Boycott (Baykot, 1985). Because of his limited roles, it was hard to envision then that he would go on to become one of Iran’s most renowned filmmakers. Yet, Majidi established himself as a vital voice when his second feature, The Father, won the top prize at the Fajr Film Festival.

The Father centres on Mehrollah (Hassan Sadeghi), a fourteen-year-old boy who has recently been involved in a motorcycle accident which killed his father. Majidi communicates the details of the death in the opening sequence with an affecting shot-reverse-shot that shows Mehrollah longingly looking at a picture of himself and his father on the road. This scene is the first example of Majidi’s visual approach to storytelling in The Father, a film in which dialogue is used minimally for the purpose of exposition. Gestures, gazes and the mood that the mise-en-scène evokes convey plot points. Assisted by the percussive regional music, the rough, sunburnt setting of the barren Iranian South creates an aggressive atmosphere and externalizes the internal turmoil of the film’s young hero after his traumatic experience.

Mehrollah works in a city near his village to provide for his mother (Parivash Nazarieh) and three sisters. He is audacious and wise beyond his years but only shows his limitless rage and stubbornness upon returning home, when he learns of his mother’s remarriage. His stepfather (Mohammad Kasebi) is a gendarme in the local police force, a respected lawman who, despite his imposing figure, shows immense compassion toward Mehrollah’s sisters.

Mehrollah is incensed at the “replacement” of his father and confronts his mother. Majidi exaggerates Mehrollah’s response to the marriage through his choice of profession for the stepfather: the young boy appears all the more rebellious since standing tall against the gendarme constitutes his disregard for the law itself. Mehrollah’s hostility toward his stepfather manifests itself in different ways and eventually leads him to escape the village. His stepfather tracks him down, but the two men are stranded and hit by a sandstorm on their way back home. Their journey together forms the entirety of The Father’s final act. 

Majidi examined wildly different issues within the paradigm of children’s stories in his first four features. The Father is ostensibly about the lack of empathy in adults for adolescents during their sensitive, formative years. Mehrollah’s increasingly violent behaviour is shrugged off and he is repeatedly told to just get on with it, a mistreatment of mental issues in young adults that is unfortunately prevalent in rural Iran. Yet, while Majidi exposes this problem, he doesn’t quite explore it. It is a behaviour that simply exists and is accepted by the film. The lack of commentary by The Father in this regard, coupled with a finale that resolves the boy’s problems by brushing them under the rug does little to suggest Majidi understands this social phenomenon more than the people whose story he is telling.

On the other hand, the director subtly criticizes the patriarchal traditions of Southern Iran. The film suggests that Mehrollah’s reactionary approach to the marriage isn’t simply a case of post-traumatic distress, but also a consequence of deep-rooted conventions that the community at large hasn’t addressed. The misogynistic mentality is exposed during a physical altercation between the boy and his mother. Mehrollah, believing money to be the only motive, insultingly demands an explanation from her for marrying without his permission, a common expectation in Islamicized rural areas. In response, she relates that the murmurs and looks aimed at her after the death of her first husband had become overbearing, uncovering an unfortunate facet of Islamic societies’ attitude toward widowed women: they are properties to be reclaimed. The mother objects to this norm but remains sadly powerless against the patriarchal society, as even her son questions her autonomy over her own life.

The above sequence explicitly visualizes this chauvinistic mentality and the film’s observations about the role of patriarchy in the Iranian social consciousness are repeated throughout the film’s final act, during which the tension between Mehrollah and his stepfather increases as they trudge through the desert. Majidi assures us that a bond is forming between the two men. The clues are both visual (one particular shot of them handcuffed together looks deceptively like a father holding his son’s hand) and written in the text (the stepfather picks Mehrollah up where his father left him, on a motorcycle in the wilderness).

When the finale arrives, however, it only undermines the film’s structure. The final shot actualizes the inevitable bonding, while remaining coy about the outcome of the two men’s quest for survival, an ending that is a misguided attempt at bringing emotional closure to a story that doesn’t need one. Majidi forgoes all sense of mystery in favour of a single, aesthetically pleasing image, too calculated to move the audience or leave them with much to ponder. This ending is a testament to Majidi’s deft hand at constructing poetic images and finding the sensational in the mundane, but the full emotional force of such picturesque compositions would only begin to be realized in his next film, Children of Heaven (Bacheha-ye Asemaan, 1997).

Baduk (1992)

When Majid Majidi’s Baduk (1992) begins, we meet Jafar (Mehrolah Mazazehi) and Jamal (Maryam Tahan), a young brother and sister waiting for their father to return from the depths of a water well in the dry desert of Southeast Iran. Following their short conversation with a group of elderly men which conveys the recent death of the children’s mother, they watch as the soil begins to fall inward on the well, and their father, trapped beneath heaps of sand, loses his short, helpless battle with nature. Left without parental and financial support, Jafar and Jamal leave their small village in search of a better future. In a matter of hours, they’re lured by a man whose ulterior motive is to sell them for profit. Jafar is sold into slavery and trained to become a drug smuggler at the Iran-Pakistan border. Jamal is sold into an underage prostitution ring operated by Saudis in Pakistan. Jafar begins to learn the tricks of the trade, but all he has on his mind is finding his way across the border to rescue his sister.

The opening of Majid Majidi’s debut feature is perhaps the most definitive scene in his career, from a director who would go on to nab Iran’s first ever Oscar nomination with Children of Heaven (Bache-haye Asemaan, 1997). The scene serves as a reference point to which many of the director’s favorite motifs can be connected. In Majidi’s next feature, The Father (Pedar, 1996), the plot is again initiated by the premature death of the protagonist’s father. The intimate relationship between siblings is the thematic fulcrum in Children of Heaven. Humanist explorations of poverty continued to be Majidi’s focus in his work, as did multiethnic tensions and examinations of life in rural Iran. On the surface and the basis of their plots, Children of Heaven is the film with the closest parallels to Baduk. One could even argue that the former tells an innocent, milder version of the same story, in which the stakes have been significantly lowered. Both narratives follow a young boy and the lengths to which he must go to save his sister. Jafar is thrown into the adult world and must sneak across national borders to liberate Jamal from her captors. The burden on Ali’s shoulders in Children of Heaven doesn’t weigh quite as much—he is given the financial responsibility to find Zahra a new pair of shoes—but the thematic foundation is the same. Both films tell stories of young boys who have to punch above their weight in order to provide for their family, yet Baduk is the bolder, more politically daring film. 

Baduk navigates, literally and figuratively, the dangerous waters of child slavery, prostitution and the tumultuous politics of Iran’s most underrepresented province in cinema, Sistan and Baluchestan, with poise and subtlety. Very few Iranian films have tackled these issues since. Was it the trouble Majidi faced with censors over Baduk that pushed him into more conservative territory in his later works? Is that why the brutal murder of a young child so openly depicted in this film gave way to the portrayal of death in Color of Paradise, in which “the boy’s soul departed like a fading light” so gracefully?¹ This is no slight on Majidi’s later films; his oeuvre exhibits remarkable consistency in quality. Plus, provocation alone does not make for a good film and its absence not for a bad one. However, it is intriguing in retrospect that the flag-bearer of humanist cinema in Iran started his directorial career by holding a knife to his audience’s throats. Would Majidi’s career have turned out differently if his first film was celebrated, rather than slashed, by authorities for its critical but compassionate look at Iran’s neglected southeast?

There is no romanticization in Baduk. Majidi plunges so deep into the Baluch milieu, with its long history of social troubles, that the realities of Jafar’s severe circumstances speak volumes without any need for melodrama. The young man’s acts of valor are not consequences of a need for dramatic beats; they are rugged, thorny truths from a part of the country that has barely been recognized for its destitution. The depiction of a child sold into slavery and taught to smuggle drugs from one country to another, climbing across barbed wire in search of his sister is Majidi’s indictment of a reality close to home yet almost seemingly foreign in a national cinema centered in Tehran and populated by films about the city and its residents. Though Majidi’s later works took him on a journey to other distant reaches of rural Iran, none expressed as much ideological audacity as Baduk.

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1. Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Vol. 4: The Globalizing Era, 1984-2010, pg. 221.

Hello Cinema (Salaam Cinema, 1995)

Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Hello Cinema (Salaam Cinema, 1995) opens with shots of a crowd of thousands of segregated men and women, impatiently and chaotically waiting as a small car arrives and passes through the labyrinthine, narrow streets of north Tehran. The unsuspecting viewer would be forgiven for mistaking the scene for footage from a political riot, especially when the ensuing mayhem results in the entire crowd pushing through an outmuscled gate. The beginning of Hello Cinema serves multiple purposes: exposing the extent to which cinema enjoys popularity among Iranians of all ages, genders and social strata; cheekily shedding light on a culture that has little respect for social decorum; and establishing the film as a documentary, a distinction that is mysteriously and intriguingly up for debate to this day.

Makhmalbaf’s original idea was to make a film that celebrated the 100th anniversary of cinema, but when the casting call for 100 actors brought in nearly 5,000 contestants to Tehran’s Ferdows Garden, the director began to shape his film around these audition tapes. The final product is an innovative tribute to the possibilities of the cinematic medium and an astute evisceration of both the history and status quo of Iranian cinema. Hello Cinema was made at a time when the national cinema of Iran was at the height of its international popularity. Jafar Panahi was about to release The White Balloon (Badkonake Sefid, 1995), his first major global success, and Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up (Nema-ye Nazdik, 1990) and Through the Olive Trees (Zir-e Derkhtan-e Zeytoon, 1994) had just made the festival rounds, with A Taste of Cherry (Ta’m-e Guilas, 1997) on its way to Cannes, where it would win the Palme d’Or. It was also made at a time when Makhmalbaf was beginning to shift his focus slightly from the patently political likes of Nasuh’s Repentance (Tobe-ye Nasuh, 1983) and Marriage of the Blessed (Aroosi-ye Khooban, 1989) to the structurally challenging, evocative brilliance of Gabbeh (1996) and A Moment of Innocence (Nun va Goldun, 1996). This was a filmmaker transitioning from being an ideologue with a creative spirit to a provocative auteur. There would be no ideologically motivated sounds of dogs barking, no opening a film with a call to all angels to come to the world’s rescue (shorthand for the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war). This was a film about the cinema itself. 

Yet, Makhmalbaf is at the forefront of his film and his engaging, complicated but aggressive personality breathes life into a work of art that could have otherwise been reduced to an academic experiment. Hello Cinema is a frank discussion about the meaning of art, its place in society and the ambitions and challenges of its practitioners. Few directors would take a premise as narrowly straightforward as a series of audition tapes stitched together and turn it on its head to discuss issues as varied as a nation’s justice system, the history of domestic genre filmmaking, and socially entrenched ideas about virginity, motherhood and women’s role in society with equal perceptiveness and humor. Makhmalbaf had the audacity—and enjoyed, at the time, a rare position with the Iranian censorship system—to extend his reach to such far horizons. The resulting film is a timeless rumination on the process of filmmaking and, paradoxically, a time capsule for the director himself, a bewilderingly unique persona caught at his artistic peak, immediately following the end of his religiopolitical sermons and a short while before beginning a process of rebellious emancipation.