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)

 

Khesht Va Ayeneh (1965) (aka Brick And Mirror)
Ebrahim Golestan
Persian

“Do you see those panes, those windows? Behind each, there is an evil eye, a wicked tongue, a jealous black heart, each detesting the other and all unified to detest each other.

 

Ebrahim Golestan’s Brick and Mirror (1965) begins inside a taxi. The man at the wheel changes the radio station and a voice begins to narrate:

“The night had settled over the forest. The hunter trod through the thicket stealthily. Danger throbbed in the dark. Fear filled the forest. And terror sparked the night. The night was hard. The night seemed long. Nothing was reflected in the eye of the owl but anguish. And fear was life’s only sign. The hunter trod stealthily through the night. Beasts were staring. And the eyes of the thousand-eyed perils were wide. It was dark. And in the dark, there was no one to tell the hunter and the hunted who was the hunter and who was the hunted.”

The camera, meanwhile, gazes safely from behind the windshield, the vast city of Tehran. Night has well fallen and all the street lights are up. It seems like thousands of gigantic eyes staring at the camera, hiding behind the darkness, waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting taxi. After a couple of minutes, we cut to the face of the driver – a thirty-ish gentleman resembling De Niro during his prime. Golestan’s composition is immediately striking. The taxi driver, here and throughout the film, is placed at the margin of the frame, with the dark city pushing him to the boundaries. One gets the feeling that this one might just be the (premeditated) Iranian reply to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

Brick and Mirror

Brick and Mirror is unlike anything I have seen from Iran, for it is my introduction to Iranian cinema before the revolution. With the world’s eyes keenly focused on Iran, – politically or otherwise – there prevails a risk of drawing a monolithic portrait of the country. Watching Brick and Mirror, one can see how starkly different the two ages are and how drastic a cultural shift its citizens were subject to after 1979. Golestan’s film, more or less, also testifies the strong relation between France and Iran that prevailed during the Shah’s regime. He, evidently and interestingly, draws inspiration from both Godard and Bresson, apart from incorporating tenets from other famous schools of filmmaking. With complete control over every aspect of the film (writing, directing, editing and producing it by himself), Golestan churns out a film that is clearly Iranian in content, yet could pass of as one of the French New Wave movies.

Brick and Mirror
takes place over the course of 24 hours in the life of this taxi driver, whom we come to know as Hashemi (Zackaria Hashemi). That fateful night, a woman in a veil (apparently played by the iconic Forugh Farrokhzad) boards his taxi and leaves behind a baby. Unable to locate the woman, Hashemi is forced to provide shelter to the child for the night. He is helped by his love Taji (Taji Ahmadi), a woman who works at the local pub. But the most important of all characters in the film is the city of Tehran itself.  The city is also the most powerful of all characters, devouring mentally and physically one character after another. Never has a metropolis been filmed so beautifully yet menacingly. Using the cinemascope judiciously and employing camera movements that are seldom meaningless, Golestan and cinematographer Soleiman Minassian ensnare their characters, like the city itself, surrounding them and locking them to their environment. And how often do we see a tracking shot that is as pregnant with emotion and significance as the final shot of Taji standing at the end of the long, dark corridor of the hospital?

Hashemi and Taji are two well written characters, who complement each other emotionally and ideologically. He is a thorough fatalist, classifying every outcome as good or bad luck. He prefers to live in the dark, literally and figuratively, away from prying eyes of the society. She, on the other hand, is the quintessential existentialist (Again, a possible influence of contemporary French philosophy), believing strongly that we make our own lives and being too prude is no good. But she is also an extreme romantic, always giving Hashemi hope for a new beginning, who seems to shrug off her philosophies (At one point, Golestan even frames Taji in such a way that she appears as one of the photos on the walls of Hashemi’s house). In an explosive scene shot on the streets, both of them plunge into a heated discussion after he delivers the baby to an orphanage against her wishes. The camera tracks in front of them as they walk arguing with each other. And all of a sudden, in a humbling manner, they break into utter silence after a funeral procession cuts through them, reminding the about the futility of their words and the ever tangible presence of death.

Brick and Mirror

Hashemi does bear a striking resemblance to Schrader’s Travis Bickle, in the sense that both of them are marginal characters who are forced to witness a society that is vigorously dragging itself to doom. But the commonality stops at that. While Bickle is an alien frustrated by what he sees in the rear view mirror, Hashemi is the one in that mirror (In one scene, the driver of the taxi that Hashemi boards cribs about his profession and tells the latter that he is lucky not to be a taxi driver). Moreover, Bickle’s decision to do something about it all is exactly contrary to the borderline-agoraphobic Hashemi, who believes it is better to stay low and go through life unnoticed by anyone. True that he comes to know of all the rotten crevices of the city and the breakdown that it is leading to, but, being the determinist that he is, is satisfied with having posters of heroes in his room rather than becoming one. In fact, it is Taji who is closer to Bickle than Hashemi. Only that her search, here, is for inner peace.

Jonathan Rosenbaum describes the film as being Godardian. I doubt if there is any other way to describe it at all.  Take a look at the narrative structure of the film, whose episodic nature and style reminds us of My Life to Live (1962) than any other Godard film. Like the French director, Golestan lets his script freewheel all the way. Characters come and characters go. Their lines are seldom relevant to what is happening. But as always, what they speak is less important than why they speak so. The spirit of the 60s, especially of Paris, seems to show clearly in Tehran too. Intellectualism seems to have taken control over pragmatism and emotionality. People sit all day in pubs philosophizing and indulging themselves with tangential conversations. Consider the scene at the bar where Hashemi arrives, carrying the baby. One of the well dressed gentlemen, out of the blue, begins a monologue about the importance of alphabets in the search for truth and the relation of crossword puzzles to all that (Don’t ask me!). One is reminded immediately of the scene at the pub in Made in U.S.A. (1967), where, too, one of the characters goes on talking about the futility of words and sentences!

Brick and Mirror

Furthermore, Golestan never cares about the progressive coherence of these episodes. He generously shifts gears and tones throughout the film. Hopping regularly between vérité, expressionism, documentary and realism, he concocts something very fresh and unique, even by the New Wave standards. Yes, the jump cuts are there too.  Additionally, Golestan’s shot composition shows influence of Bresson also. Golestan breaks down action into atomic parts with no history or future, attaining the same effect that the French master achieved. Also Bressonian, and one that would go on to become the forte of directors like Kiarostami, is Golestan’s use of off-screen space through sounds. Often, we see that the camera is fixated on certain characters, even when they are not the ones talking. When Hashemi and Taji are out in the streets, their voices are regularly consumed by the noise of the city. One scene would perhaps sum up the entire attitude of the film. There is a sequence at an orphanage where Hashemi is trying to admit the child he is holding. There is also a middle-class woman in the room who, at one point, breaks down revealing that she has been feigning pregnancy all the time. This is an intensely melodramatic moment in the script and the natural reaction for a director’s camera would be to gradually zoom in to the crying lady’s face. Surprisingly, Golestan shows us the face of the receptionist of the orphanage, who turns teary-eyed for a reason that might not at all be related to the drama of the instant.

Almost the whole film, both formally and script-wise, never conforms to the popular law of cause and effect. Golestan refuses to explain everything and seems to want us to not understand the city, much like Hashemi himself.  Who is that crazy female at the hell-hole that Hashemi meets earlier? No answer. What is the guy, whom one might have called a charlatan earlier in the film, doing on the national channel talking about the ethics of living? No answer. Could that female, whom Hashemi sees the second night be the same lady who left the baby in his car the previous day? May be. But surely, all these aren’t merely confusing or distancing devices. Each of these scenes reveals something about the city and the era, in one way or the other. Each of them has indirectly managed to document history – cultural and cinematic. Consequently, now more than ever, it feels that these seemingly stray events are the very elements that can help us perceive better a country that has been unjustly homogenized using, what Brick and Mirror shows us, a faux identity.