Cinema of Iran


It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. Best because a dizzying number of big and important projects surfaced this year and worst because I haven’t even been able to see even a fraction of that number, even though my film viewing hit an all-time high this December, That last bit was possible thanks to the city’s major international film festival, the first full-fledged fest that I’ve ever attended – a key event as far as my cinephilia is concerned. Although, I must admit, none of the new titles I saw at the fest blew me away, I was surprised by a handful of films that I think deserve wider exposure. (I’m thinking specifically of Jean-Jacques Jauffret’s debut film Heat Wave, a tragic, graceful hyperlionk movie in which piecing together the disorienting geography of Marseilles becomes as important as piecing together the four intersecting narratives.) Instead of continuing apologetically to emphasize my viewing gaps and to rationalize the countless number of entries on my to-see list, I present you another list, The Top 10 Films I Didn’t See This Year: (1) House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello, an indisputable masterpiece, probably) (2) Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs) (3) Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan) (4) This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi/Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) (5) Century of Birthing (Lav Diaz) (6) Life Without Principle (Johnnie To) (7) The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev) (8) Hugo (Martin Scorsese) (9) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) (10) La Havre (Aki Kaurismaki). Now that that’s out of my system, here are my favorites from the ones I did get to see.

1. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr/Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary)


The Turin HorseFor a number of films this year, the end of the world became some sort of a theme park ride taken with ease, but none of them ventured as far as Béla Tarr’s mesmerizing, awe-inspiring farewell to cinema. With The Turin Horse, Tarr’s filmmaking traverses the whole gamut, moving away from the wordy realist pictures of his early phase to this extreme abstraction suggesting, in Godard’s phrasing, a farewell to language itself. Centering on a man, his daughter and their horse as they eke out a skeletal existence in some damned plain somewhere in Europe, The Turin Horse is the last chapter of a testament never written, an anti-Genesis narrative that finds God forsaking the world and leaving it to beings on earth to sort it all out by themselves. Tarr’s film is a remarkable cinematic achievement, primal in its physicality and elemental in its force. Nothing this year was so laden with doom and so brimming with hope at once as the ultimate image of the film, where father and daughter – now awakened, perhaps – sit in the darkness with nothing to confront but each other.

2. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)


A SeparationAsghar Farhadi’s super-modest yet supremely ambitious chronicle of class conflict in Tehran is a massive deconstruction project that strikes right at the heart of systems that define us. Accumulating detail upon detail and soaking the film in the ambiguity that characterizes the real world, A Separation reveals the utter failure of binary logic – which not only forms the foundation of institutions such as justice but also permeates and petrifies our imagination – in dealing with human dilemmas. Farhadi’s centrism is not a form of bourgeois neutrality that plagues many a war movies, it is a recognition that truth lies somewhere in the recesses between the contours of language, law and logic. Working with unquantifiable parameters such as irrationality and doubt, Farhadi’s film is something of an aporia in the discourses that surround cinema and reality and an urgent call for revaluation of approaches towards critical problems in general. Rigorously shot, edited and directed, A Separation is a genuinely empathetic yet highly intelligent slice of reality in all its messy complexity and breathtaking grace.

3. The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, USA)


The Tree of LifeJuxtaposing the cosmic, the macroscopic and the infinite with the particular, the everyday and the finite, Terrence Malick’s fifth film The Tree of Life seeks to ask big questions. It is here that the director’s longstanding philosophical concerns find perfect articulation and efficacy in the specific form of the film. Seamlessly shifting between perspectives both all-knowing and limited, The Tree of Life posits the existence of a single shared consciousness across time and place, only a small part of which is each human being. It is also Malick’s most phenomenological film and mostly unfolds as a series of sensory impressions that both invites and resists interpretation. An awe-instilling tug-of-war between finitude and permanence, omniscience and ignorance, narrativization and immediate experience and rationalization and incomprehension, Malick’s unabashed celebration of the birth of consciousness – in general and in specific forms – locates the particular in the universal and vice versa. What lingers in the mind more than the grand ideas, though, are extremely minor details, which is pretty much what the medium must aspire to achieve.

4. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey (Mark Cousins, UK)


The Story of FilmA scandalous history, a disproportionate sense of importance and a frustrating accent. Critic-Filmmaker Mark Cousins’ project to present the story of cinema as a 15-part TV series appears doomed right from the conceptualization stage: can you even attempt to tell a story of film without omitting whole schools of filmmaking or national cinemas? Omit it certainly does, and unapologetically so, but when Cousins chronologically hops from one country to another, halting at particular films, scenes or even shots, providing commentary that is as insightful as they come and situating them in the larger scheme of things, you wouldn’t hesitate to lower your guard. Not only does Cousins’ 900-minute tribute to filmdom introduce us to names in world cinema rarely discussed about, but also presents newer approaches to canonical entries. Admirably inclusive (Matthew Barney and Baz Luhrmann find adjacent seats, so do Youssef Chahine and Steven Spielberg) and never condescending, The Story of Film exhibits towards the history of the form a sensitivity comparable to the finest of film criticism.

5. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK)


We Need to Talk About KevinWhat is stressed in Lynne Ramsay’s rattling third feature We Need to Talk About Kevin is not only the continuity between mother and son, but also the essential discontinuity. Where does the mother end and where does the son begin? Every inch of space between actors resonates with this dreadful ambiguity. The film is as much about Eva’s birth from the stifling womb of motherhood as it is Kevin’s apparent inability to be severed from her umbilical cord. Every visual in Ramsay’s chronicle of blood and birth works on three levels – literal, symbolic and associative – the last of which links the images of the film in subtle, subconscious and thoroughly unsettling ways. For the outcast Eva, the past bleeds into the present and every object, sound and gesture becomes a living, breathing reminder of whatever has been put behind. Ramsay’s intuitive, sensual approach to colour, composition and sound locates her directly in the tradition of the Surrealists and deems this unnerving, shattering, personal genre work as one of the most exciting pieces of cinema this year.

6. Life In A Day (Various, Various)


Life in a DayAn heir to the ideas of Dziga Vertov and Aleksandr Medvedkin, Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day is a moving, bewildering, charming, frustrating and dizzying snapshot of Planet Earth in all its glory, stupidity and complexity on a single day in 2011. An endless interplay of presence and absence, familiar and exotic, lack and excess, similarity and difference, the homogenous and the un-normalizable and the empowered and the marginalized, Life in a Day is a virtually inexhaustible film that is a strong testament to how many of us lived together on this particular planet on this particular day of this particular year. (That it represents only a cross section of the world population is a complaint that is subsumed by the film’s observations.) Each shot, loaded with so much cultural content, acts as a synecdoche, suggesting a dense social, political and historical network underneath. Most importantly, it taps right into the dread of death that accompanies cinematography: the heightened awareness of the finitude of existence and experience and the direct confrontation with the passing of time.

7. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK)


Kill ListOn the surface, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List comes across like a sick B-movie with a mischievous sense of plotting, but on closer examination, it reveals itself as a serious work with clear-cut philosophical and political inclination. That its philosophy is inseparable from its mind-bending narrative structure makes it a very challenging beast. Kill List is the kind of kick in the gut that video games must strive to emulate if they aspire to become art. Indeed, Wheatley’s chameleon of a film borrows much from video games – from its division of a mission into stages announced by intertitles to the third-person-shooter aesthetic that it segues into – making us complicit with the protagonist and his moral attitude, later pulling the rug from our feet and leaving us afloat. Early in the film, Iraq war veteran and protagonist Jay mumbles that it was better if he was fighting the Nazis – at least, he would know who the enemy was. He learns the hard way that this ‘othering’ of the enemy into a mass of unidentifiable groups is a psychological strategy to protect and redeem himself, that it’s judgment that defeats us.

8. Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, Australia)


Sleeping BeautyYour vagina will be a temple” one elderly procurer assures Lucy, a twenty something university student who takes up odd jobs to pay her fees. Not only is the vagina a temple in Julia Leigh’s markedly assured debut feature, but the human body itself is a space that is to be furnished, maintained and rented out for public use. Leigh’s vehemently anti-realist examination of continuous privatization of the public and publicization of the private works against any kind of psychological or sociological realism, instead unfolding as an academic study of the human body as a site of control. Setting up a dialectic between pristine, clinical public spaces and messy, emotional private ones, Sleeping Beauty attempts to explore not our relationship to the spaces that we inhabit, but also to the space that we ourselves are. Consistently baffling and irreducible, Leigh’s film displays an eccentric yet surefooted approach to design, composition and framing, revealing the presence of a personality beneath. Sleeping Beauty is, for me, the most impressive debut film of the year.

9. The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)


The Kid with a BikeThe Dardenne brothers have turned out to be the preeminent documentarians of our world and their latest wonder The Kid with a Bike sits alongside their best works as an unadorned, incisive portrait of our time. Admittedly inspired by fairly tales, Dardennes’ film might appear like an archetypal illustration of innocence lured by the devil, but its parameters are all drawn from here and now. Structured as a series of transactions – persons, objects, moral grounds – where human interaction is inextricably bound to the movement of physical objects, the film presents our world as one defined by exchanges of all kind, but never reduces this observation to some cynical reading of life as a business. Also characteristic of Dardennes’ universe is the intense physicality that pervades each shot. Be it the boy scurrying about on foot or on bike or the countless number of doors that are opened and closed, the Dardennes, once more, show us that cinema must concern itself with superficies and it is on the surface of things that one can find depth.

10. The Monk (Dominik Moll, France/Spain)


The MonkDominik Moll’s adaptation of Matthew Lewis’ eponymous novel concerning a self-righteous priest tempted by the devil could be described as an intervention of late nineteenth century tools – psychoanalysis and cinema – into a late eighteenth century text. Located on this side of the birth of psychoanalysis, Moll’s film comes across as essentially Freudian in the way it portrays the titular monk as a human being flawed by design and the church, society and family as institutions responsible for suppressing those basic impulses. Incest, rape and murder abound as hell breaks loose, but the film’s sympathy is clearly with the devil. The Monk uses an array of early silent cinema techniques including a schema that combines an impressionistic illustration of the protagonist’s sensory experience and expressionistic mise en scène to signal his irreversible descent into decadence. Alternating between metallic blues of the night and sun bathed brown, Moll’s film teeters on the obscure boundary between Good and Evil. Exquisitely composed and expertly realized, The Monk supplies that irresistible dose of classicism missing in the other films on this list.

“The truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth.”

- Rumi

 

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[This post is my final contribution to Sheila O'Malley's Iranian Film Blogathon which concludes today. It has been an astonishing week, with dozens of insightful and informative articles and comments from across the blogosphere. A truly remarkable effort, Sheila. I hope your marvelous work paves way for lots more discussions on Iranian cinema, which, along with Chinese cinema, pretty much owned the last two decades. Cheers.]

 

Iran Zendan (2010) (Iran Prison)
Daryush Shokof
Farsi/English

 

Daryush Shokof, whose films have been my holy grail for a long time now, made Iran Prison (2010) at the wake of the 2009 presidential elections, which was marked by massive waves of public unrest. An open hate letter to the Ahmadinejad regime, the hour long film depicts the inhuman treatment of captured demonstrators in underground cells, which ranges from physical mutilation to murder. These scenes are shot mostly interior, in low-lit chiaroscuro arrangements with an earthy color tone, with handheld recorders and non-professional actors (Shokof casts himself as the supervisor of the facility). This thread of the film reminds one of Wang Bing’s Brutality Factory (2007), in the way it religiously narrows down its scope to merely recording the torture sessions. However, unlike Wang Bing’s movie, which situates itself in the past in order to open it up for contemporary analysis, Shokof’s film is almost totally anti-dialectical and it works upon a given set of firm beliefs and a clear cut ideology. But ‘objectivity’ or ‘nuanced’ synthesis is not its objective, in any case, and it is probably more fruitful to look at the film as a solidarity picture supporting the cause of the protestors against the Islamist regime than as an elaborate critique. Intercut with this fictional recreation of the torture sessions are amateur, low quality video clips (obtained from online video sites, I guess) of mass protests in the streets of Tehran, in which we see young men and women directly confronting the police, often with brutal consequences. This jarring (geographical, cinematic, political) contrast between the two narratives is, additionally, suggestive of Shokof’s own status as an outsider deeply involved with the situation in his home country.

(Posted as part of Sheila O’Malley’s Iranian Film Blogathon, 21st-27th February)

 


Yek Atash (1961) (A Fire)
Ebrahim Golestan
Iran
24 Min.

 

The oldest Iranian film I’ve seen, Ebrahim Golestan’s short documentary A Fire (1961), chronicles an incident of fire at the oil wells near Ahwaz, Iran, that raged for several months and the relentless efforts to put it out. Edited by poet and Golestan’s partner Forough Farrokhzad, A Fire seemingly plays out as a straightforward reportage, although made about three years late. The firefighting is carried out mainly during the night time and we see silhouettes of men spraying water and of machines trying to clear the debris from the spot of the accident. (The men look like silhouettes even in daylight, thanks to heavy carbon deposits on their bodies). The narrator, speaking in English, tells us that the fire has been on for such a long time that it has become a part of the local landscape. Golestan (who, by the way, made one of the finest Iranian films I’ve seen) digresses regularly from the happenings at the centre to observe the impact of the fire on the residents of the adjacent village and the firefighters themselves. When we are told that the villagers were relocated in order to avoid being poisoned by the residual gases. (We are later informed that the well was shut down and another site was captured for the mining operation). The plight of the firefighters, on the other hand, is even more affecting. Assigned to some of the most life-threatening tasks by the American site managers, they appear as if resigned to fate, their eyes betraying a deep fatigue that’s more than just physical, their bodies (literally) moving ever closer to death, like moth flies approaching a light source. However, Golestan’s film stands in stark contrast to Herzog’s beautiful and atrocious decontextualization game, Lessons of Darkness (1992), in that it recognizes that its subjects are not fuelled by madness, but charcoaled by despair.

(This post comes as a part of the splendid Iranian Film Blogathon hosted by Sheila O’Malley)

 

Kiseye Berendj (1998) (Bag Of Rice)
Mohammad Ali-Talebi
Farsi

 

Bag of RiceMohammad Ali-Talebi’s (aptly) modestly titled Bag of Rice (1998) is the sort of film that is generally associated with Iranian cinema, thanks in no small part to the works of Majid Majidi: a drama of everyday events shot on location, with little or no music, usually involving children maneuvering through narrow bylanes in the outskirts of Tehran. These are, no doubt, conservative films that attempt to represent the country on a larger scale, perhaps even serve as a right-wing corrective to the ‘scandalous’ festival films. More than any other film of this ‘anti-movement’, it is Bag of Rice that appears the most unapologetic about its stance. Evil does not exist in Talebi’s film, at least as an active agent. Bad things happen not because of bad deeds, but just due to accidents. Even in films such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or Rio Bravo (1959), there is at least a notion of evil (in the form of a social pervert or an outsider) which is utilized to build a case for conservatism. Not in Bag of Rice, a film that reveals itself as one of the most ethical and effective defences of that ideology. Every one in the city offers to help the old woman and the little girl who travel to the city to buy the titular sack of rice. One person’s task is distributed – like the rice in the bag – and executed willingly by a group. Both grandma and the kid have their own needs and (voluntary) responsibilities that play tug-of-war with each other, but the pair works through them amicably. Although the scenario keeps highlighting the financial crunch of its characters, conflict between classes is dissolved into an organic, throbbing, seamless and wholesome portrait of a community, in which clashes of interest, instead of rupturing relationships, are resolved through compassion and understanding. When the little girl wears the scarf for the first time towards the end, during a ceremony of communal good will, one wonders whether to read through the fissures of the film’s hardline, pro-revolution message or to appreciate the graciousness of what’s on the plate.

(Posted as part of the ongoing Iranian Film Blogathon at Sheila O’Malley‘s. Formidable collection of articles on Iranian cinema building up…)

The Rook (1974)
Ali Akbar Sadeghi
Iran
10 Min.

 

Renowned painter and filmmaker Ali Akbar Sadeghi’s The Rook (1974) is a hilarious short animation based on a quick little game of chess. The idea of bringing the game to life, in itself, isn’t a terribly novel thing. Many people, like me, would have wondered how a film based on chess would pan out, given the inherent capacity for not only sadism and spectacle, but even analysis of class, war and bipolar politics. (Kubrick’s chess movie is probably the closest one comes to witnessing such a treatment). Sadeghi, given that he was working for the Kanun, undermines the scope for gratuitous violence throughout, instead opting for a Lego-like version of the war. The result is nearly as hysterical as Pudovkin’s and Shpikovsky’s brilliant comedy based on the game Chess Fever (1925). Sadeghi’s style of animation (that seems to have died out now and which one used to see so often in government sponsored animation programmes in India) generally consists of two planes of action, which appear as if they are sliding one beneath the other, and involves hand-drawn sketches animated to puppet-like gestures marked by repetition and rigidity. And the director uses this rigidity to great effect in The Rook. The kamikaze match (which actually sticks religiously to the rules of the game), right till its recursive, anti-climactic showdown is full of absurdities, not only in the way each move is presented, but also in the playing strategy itself. I don’t know if I should understand it as a remark on the absurdity of war or on the absurdity of the game, but Sadeghi sure harnesses the absurdity of the medium to its fullest here.

(Posted as part of the ongoing Iranian Film Blogathon at Sheila O’Malley‘s. Do check out the rich collection there)


 

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