Tabiat-e Bijan (1974) (aka Still Life)
Sohrab Shahid Saless

“It means that you’re retired now.”


Still LifeSohrab Shahid Saless’ Still Life (1974) is, barring Kiarostami’s Homework (1989), the greatest Iranian film that I’ve seen. To see that even during the pre-revolution era, when the escapist cinema of Hollywood and its imitations were much more popular, such uncompromising and quality films were being made is both surprising and hope-instilling. Typically European in its form but uniquely Iranian in its content, Still Life is the kind of movie that contemporary contemplative cinema takes off from. Produced by a newly formed group called Kanun-e Sinemagaran-e Pishro (Centre for Avant-Garde Filmmakers), that also produced some of Mehrjui’s early features, the film was one of the many films that were discontented with the existing way of governance. Although never overtly political, Still Life not only manages to critique deeply the disparity that existed between villages and cities of the country during the Shah’s regime, but also remains one of the best works from the country till date. Let’s wait and see what the present-day Iran brings in reply to this masterwork.

Still Life documents a period in the life of Mohammad Sardari (Bonyadi), a veteran employee of the railway services living in a rural part of the country and whose sole job is to close and open a railway crossing few times a day. He is waiting for a festival bonus from the department that is long pending. He is married and his wife (Zahra Yazdini) supplements his income by weaving carpets and carrying out minor tailoring jobs. We are only given such utterly quotidian details from his everyday life – he operates the railway gates in the morning, he rests at his accommodation near the crossing, he returns home for lunch, he goes back to operate the crossing for the evening train, he returns home for dinner and he sleeps – but that is all there is to Sardari. We are also given a few glimpses of his son who returns home for a day from the military service and a bunch of customers who exploit Sardari by underpaying him for the carpets his wife has woven. One day he receives a letter from the railway department that intimates him of his retirement from service. Sardari is unable to comprehend the meaning of the letter and starts to believe that he has been unreasonably given the sack. Heartbroken, he decides to go to the department headquarters located in the city and find out the reason.

Saless’ style is remarkable here. Almost throughout the entire film, he presents us long, uninterrupted extreme long shots of Sardari going about doing his routine at the railway crossing. Even when the old man is home, Saless and cinematographer Hushang Baharlu give us mostly medium and long shots that are filmed with the camera placed at the ground level, sometimes reminiscent of Ozu.  In either case, Saless’ eye is that of an ethnological documentarian – interested in what his protagonist is doing, but never wanting more than that. The mise en scène is spare, stripped down to bare essentials, with a chunk of space between the characters and the camera. Even gestures, dialogues and movements are reduced to an absolute minimum. Watching the indoor scenes in Still Life is like gazing at an aquarium in which the fishes indifferently perform the same mundane activities over and over again. Halfway into the film one is acquainted with the routines of the old man and his wife. He comes home, rolls his cigarette, and starts smoking and she continues to stitch clothes and weave carpets. Even when their son returns home after a long time, conversations are perfunctory and the character functions are unhampered.

Still LifeBut what is singular about Still Life is the way it handles cinematic time. Saless, while letting us witness individual scenes unfold in real time – be it entire dinner sessions or railway transitions – without hindrance, shuffles the order of these scenes in a way that disregards chronology. In one scene in the film we see the couple’s son return home and in the next one, he is missing. And then he’s back in the subsequent one. Soon one notices that most of the scenes could have taken place in any arbitrary order in real time and each of those orders is essentially irrelevant, given the idea of the film. What’s the use of chronology when time repeats itself by going in cycles? In Jeanne Dielman (1976), Chantal Akerman used each day of the protagonist life’s to illustrate its microscopic deviation from the previous. She seemed to be essentially constructing a spiral out of Jeanne’s life – a structure that made her life seem to go in circles but which, in actuality, ends only in annihilation. Saless, on the other hand, treats time as some form of stray deadlock that could only be resolved by an alien intervention. Within this loop, all time is one and each day is virtually indistinguishable from the other.

In one scene that comes towards the end of the film, Sardari visits the railway headquarters to seek an explanation for the retirement notice. In the building, he notices a pair of officers scanning through old photographs reminiscing about the past and talking about plans for the weekend, And just there, Saless provides the most overt and powerful contrast between the life in rural and urban Iran. The officers with a lush past and a busy future stand directly in opposition to Sardari, whose past is almost non-extant and whose future promises nothing different. Still Life would definitely form an interesting companion piece to Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), which seems to resonate more and more with the years. Both Thomas (played by David Jennings) and Sardari are perfectly alienated creatures who pass through life without an iota of an idea about their place in the world. Only that their geographical locations are poles apart. Thomas is one of cinema’s many alienated urbanites trying to impart a meaning to their lives. On the other hand, Sardari is the rare villager who believes that life will go on as it is and who is nudged to action only when that belief is shattered. But in essence, both of them are individuals wallowing in their own world unable to snap out of it.

Still LifeEven with all its serious themes, Still Life isn’t entirely humourless. There is a constant undercurrent of dark comedy throughout the film (In a masterstroke of black humour, Saless has Sardari regularly tune the alarm clock!), but, like all the other elements of the film, it remains extremely subtle and never thrusts itself upon us. Instead, Saless builds one stretch of time upon another, elevating the film from the territory of mere narrative cinema to the realm of the philosophical, the experiential and the contemplative. In the shattering last scene of the film, we see Sardari, who is now forced to accept the reality that he can no longer work at the railway crossing, vacating his quarters. After he loads the cart with his possessions, he decides to check the house one last time for any object he may have forgotten. As he stands in the middle of the now-empty house, gazing at the room of whose inanimate furniture he had become a part of through the years, Sardari notices the final remnant of his life at this place – a piece of mirror hanging on the wall. He reaches out to collect it and, in the process, looks at himself for the first time in the film. Mohammad Sardari has indeed become old.


Also published at Unspoken Cinema

Mashgh-e Shab (1989) (aka Homework)
Abbas Kiarostami

Punishment means getting beaten up.”



There are a few directors whose films I can never say no to. More Jarmusch? Yes please. More Herzog? You bet. More Kubrick? Is there even a question? Abbas Kiarostami clearly belongs to this pantheon. Trust Kiarostami to come up with something completely new and radically profound. In what may be his greatest work to date, Homework (1989), he pulls off something that world directors have been struggling to even script. But more than the content, what baffles us about all his films, more so in Homework…

Homework is, quite predictably, a plotless film. It involves the director interviewing some first graders about why they don’t complete their homework on time. If you are tempted to ask what ever can be interesting about it, please think again. Using what are decidedly banal questions, Kiarostami emphatically derives and establishes social, cultural, political, emotional and even moral patterns prevalent in the contemporary Iranian society in a fashion no spectacular cinema can provide. Without ever being overtly controversial, he successfully exposes the national mentality through the words of children that indicate the society’s complacency towards violence and the influence of the extremely competition-oriented behavior of the west.

“What do you like more – cartoons or homework?” is the question that he asks the children, who invariably reply that they prefer the latter. They are obviously lying and proved so when they contradict themselves in the succeeding questions. But why should they lie? It can be seen that they are aware of the presence of the camera and realize that someone watching them would directly mean prosecution for their petty crimes. Kiarostami then asks them the meaning of punishment. The children are quick to answer unanimously that punishment means getting beaten up with a waist band. He then goes on to ask them what encouragement means which too produces some interesting trends. Also seen in parallel is the tendency of the children to desire top grades and look at anything below that as poor. And encouragement for them seems to be a causal commodity that follows only these top grades.

The emotional responses of the children are simple and their priorities, straight-forward. They try to save their skin but also try not to implicate anyone in the process. They want to be fearless, patriotic and go war against Iraq but, in accordance with the morals they have been taught, do not like fights at home. The passivity of the adults towards domestic violence is alarmingly evident and the children seem to be happy enough to continue the tradition. The freedom of choice and of preference for indifference over involvement seems to have been overridden by the authoritarian and one-dimensional nature of the educational system, which in turn reflects the political-ideology and history of the country.Kiarostami integrates such macroscopic facets into a disarmingly and deceivingly simple format that one wonders if censorial prohibition is a hindrance to handle controversial subjects at all.

Earlier in the film we are shown the school’s prayer song that contains anti-Saddam lines interspersed with lines in praise of God. We also come to know that this theological element runs deep into the education system and into the figures of speech. The choice of Faith is removed and the morals made black and white. So is the cinema that the kids watch – based on war between Iran and Iraq with altruistic Iranian soldiers and Iraqi baddies. I must say that sadly, the same patterns would be revealed if such a film was made in other countries too. There is, however, a healthy pattern that is visible too. Almost all the parents seem to be illiterate and the kids seem to be helped by their sisters. Clearly, the awareness about the importance of education, especially girls’, seems to have spread largely in comparison to the previous generation.

Interestingly, there are two segments where adults speak about this homework issue to Kiarostami. I initially disliked this idea as it seemed like a tacked up summary of the film so far. But a closer inspection revealed that these guys were as camera-conscious as the kids themselves. Only that these guys were crafty enough to hide their lies and seem like being utterly objective about it all.It is extremely difficult to pin them down with their statements but it is observable that they were both trying to exonerate themselves of the blame (a laRashomon), and to criticize the state of the educational system. So eventually, no one speaks the truth in the film except the film itself. And in some ways,Kiarostami scores over Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) which at least provided a humanitarian glimmer at the end.

Like his extremely acclaimed Close Up (1990) that was to follow, Homework’s biggest success is its meditation of the nature of the medium and the tag of reality that goes with it. It is known that Kiarostami never hesitates from letting his audience know that there is a camera in operation during the film. Kiarostamiquotes:

A filmmaker has to be conscious about his responsibility. I always wish to remind the audience that they are watching a film. You see, it is very dangerous to make the audience more emotionally engaged than they need to be. In the darkness of the cinema, people are so innocent. It makes them feel that everything is closer and stronger. That is why we should not make them even more emotional: People need to think when they watch films, not to be robbed of their reason … I make half movies. The rest is up to the audience to create for themselves.

Furthermore, in Homework, even his characters are conscious of the film tools.Kiarostami crosscuts the interviews with shots of the cinematographer behind his camera – the omniscient eye – to remind us that we are watching a film and the characters that they are being watched in a film. In essence, he removes the transparency of the camera from his cinema and makes it an opaque and often intrusive object for us and the characters. Kiarostami’s technique is perhaps the smoothest form of Brechtian alienation employed in modern cinema. He trivializes the film image by exposing the tricks of the trade, yet this knowledge of the truth is ironically what makes it so complex. Like the classic case of the Schrödinger cat, reality seems to be altered by the presence of the film camera, proving that reality in cinema can indeed be achieved only through artifice and by undoing the consciousness induced by the camera.

An additional layer of complexity is added by the presence of Kiarostami, the director (over Kiarostami, the interviewer). Two possible answers evolve when one thinks how Kiarostami might have carried out the film. One – he might have told the parents about his project about homework and the parents’ involvement in it (as he does in the first scene to an admirer, possibly one of the two adults in the film). In this case, the parents would have been quick to ‘condition’ their children in order to save their faces and prepare the kids with all the statements required to conceal truth. This would be an indirect and psychologically complex way of directing children by actually directing their parents. Or Two – he might have hinted to the children that the information they provide will be delivered to their parents and teachers. This would also shape up the stimuli of the children who would try to evade the waist belts. In either case, Kiarostami’s point turns out true – that children are being made victims of a violent game of power, ego and greed of the adults.

Homework is an epic film. Not in its spectacle, but in its scope and implications. It is too profound, too complex and too vast for words. Both its form and content are uniquely and completely cinematic to the point of redefining its boundaries. This is a film that shows why the perspective of a director is more important than his ambitions. A must-see.

To Sir, Sans Love

To Sir, Sans Love

Ever since the ultra-slow moment of lunatic ecstasy took shape in Zero for Conduct (1933), schools in cinema have always been about kids. Everything revolves around them, for good or otherwise. They have been the be all and end all through the decades no matter how complex the scripts got. Even when the films, such as To Sir, With Love (1967), had the teachers as the focal point, the protagonists were always hinged to the acts and moves of the students. Or they turned the table around completely. Some of these films would have this altruistic, uncanny, omniscient and awe-inspiring teachers where the student community is a monolithic entity that served merely as the outlet to emotions. Palm D’Or winner Entre Les Murs (The Class, 2008) (perhaps Half Nelson (2006) too, which I have not seen) breaks all these rules and formulae in a naturalistic and unforced fashion.

The Class is a film where multiculturalism is written right on the face. It does not take the issue as a matter-of-fact as the other films of the year do, but cleverly, builds a premise that enables it to confront it straight on. It does not have a script that tries to be subtle and hence be cheeky enough to implant a message or two. That doesn’t mean The Class does not have a message. It sure does and in loads. It just doesn’t try to hide it. In fact, it attempts to highlight the same. Mr. Cantet avoids the temptation of placing the kids at the edge of the frame and takes them head on (and in focus) as individuals and not as outcasts or marginal. The diversity in Entre Les Murs is not restricted to just nationality or ethnicity, In fact, it goes even beyond the disparities of language, sexual orientation and religious customs, into regions of personal likes and dislikes. To the point where the term ‘diversity loses meaning and it all boils down to individuals, who are like human islands with personalized cultural traits.

The Class presents us two worlds – one each of the students and the teachers – that exist on their own without apparent causality. These are truly independent worlds whose inhabitants have their own problems to attend to, their own private jokes and their own reasons for celebrations. The teachers are assigned a big responsibility of handling multicultural students and that too, in a not-so-reputed school. The teachers have not only to handle this responsibility carefully, but the task of gaining an identity as a teacher in spite of the school. François’ (François Bégaudeau , also the author of the book on which the film is based) personal problems only add to the complication. So do the students, who seem confused about where they belong or who they are. And the class forms the playground for both parties to work within the system and find a place and name of their own.

I believe The Class is a film that has to be watched exactly twice. It is like that stretch of time where you have just quarreled with your friend and you are recollecting what exactly went wrong, only to discover that nothing did. Both the sides and their arguments seem correct upon objective evaluation and the mess seems just like the result of a moment of misplaced subjectivity. This problem arises because the story of The Class is filtered through a highly flawed protagonist. He may psychologically be meaning good, but what his actions at the end of it seem rash and unfitting. So are the acts and intentions of the troublesome Souleymane (Franck Keita). I’m sure that we would have had a symmetrically placed opinion had the tale been told through the eyes of Souleymane. This is precisely the reason I say the movie should be watched twice – in order to understand the two sides instead of passing judgments on them or taking a complacent stand.

The Class works even on a very basic level as it explores the explosive atmosphere between the teacher and the students in the class. This is a very tricky relationship indeed. The teacher tries to cut some slack in order to encourage interaction, ease up his job and ultimately gain reputation among the students. The students being the majority, on the other hand, try to display their wit or skill and get a upper hand in this cat and mouse game. But all this is laid on the foundation of a solid principle. That the adult is always the boss. The kids in Entre Les Murs realize that and try hard to keep themselves in control whenever they can. François too tries not to overstress the principle and to listen to the children as responsible individuals. But a small perceived disturbance, lands to shatter the balance and to provide the dramatic momentum to the film. Funny that this extremely talkative film is the successor of an exceedingly quiet one at Cannes.

The other day, I saw an orphaned girl speaking on TV after she had been admitted to a institution for children. She was speaking in Hindi and was using masculine forms of speech throughout. One could instantly make out the circumstances and environment in which she spent the previous years of her life. The importance of language is a vastly underestimated one and the extinction of languages is as critical as any other issue. The Class is a very talkative film as I said but it is these very words that support its premise. The world seems to have changed so much that the demarcations between the student and the teacher become blurred. They learn French grammar and vocabulary from François. They learn words like “Austrian” and “Argentine” which seems to be much sought after. François learns terms like “honky” and what not from the kids. It doesn’t look like degradation of culture, but rather as the evolution of an alternate culture that has much to teach as the existing one does. A lot of dialectical dialog in the film has gone over my head and understanding that perhaps would help one to see the socio-cultural patterns that are established during the conversations.

There is obviously a pitfall in a situation where a director intends to make broader comments using seemingly minor elements of the film, in this case – the children. One cannot make them too simplistic that it falls laughably flat nor too elaborate such that the elements themselves lose identity (of course, there are exceptions where the intention is not to preserve the elements but to map them completely). Kiarostami’s phenomenal film Homework (1989) is perhaps the bible for directors who want to make film that refuses to compromise on any level. Like Homework, but far less perfect, The Class elicits social, cultural and political structures of the society present outside the school through the interaction and behaviour of the students.

Although there are some forced moments here and there in the film, The Class for a large part is an unpolished film. It does not provide us easy questions or comfortable answers. It carefully avoids all clichés of conventional movies that earnestly move towards a self-congratulatory climax. At the end of The Class, one might be expecting François to pin up the self-portrait of the expelled Souleymane or at least provide a symbolic close to it. No, Mr. Cantel avoids that. Nor does he sweeten anything when the hitherto quiet student insists that she has not learnt anything the whole year. Mr. Cantet is perhaps asking us to see them as they are. Some people just can’t be brought into the clockwork of the system and the system in turn should not pat itself for bringing about the change.

“The System” here may not just denote an educational institution but a larger entity that Mr. Cantet has miniaturized into the four walls of a classroom (Interestingly, “Entre Les Murs” translates to “Between the Walls”). In what may be a metaphor for France itself, Mr. Cantet uses the class to make a commentary on the authoritative mentality of the establishment that tries to impose its values upon its variegated set of inhabitants. Those who don’t conform to the standards set by the system are either marked or expelled. The students feel what the school teaches is irrelevant and outdated, the school feels the what students know is useless and fake. As the whole class – the teacher and the students – vacate the room for winter break, we realize that this ordinary room, which could well have been a hospital, a post office or a shop, was given meaning only because of the presence of the system and its constituents – like our earth that is divided by man-made boundaries with its inhabitants having to adhere to a synthetic feeling called patriotism.