If there was one through line in the IFC’s first (and hopefully not last) annual Iranian Film Festival New York, it would be the idea of artistic stasis—of artists either incapable or not allowed to create. Many of the films are self-reflexive examinations of filmmaking within Iran’s notoriously tightly-censored industry, while in others writers struggle to conquer seemingly insurmountable writer’s block. But beyond the confines of the creative industry, we find families paralyzed by internal divisions or trapped within desperate socio-economic circumstances. Regardless of their differences, the films featured represent both the current art cinema Iran gained international fame for during the 80s and 90s as well as a healthy slice of their populist genre cinema many distributors don’t bother with in North America, making this line-up essential viewing for those curious about the state of one of the most vibrant cinematic cultures of the Middle East. Here’s a look at six of the ten films being shown from January 10-15, 2019.
76 MINUTES AND 15 SECONDS WITH ABBAS KIAROSTAMI
In her 1954 novel Under the Net, Iris Murdoch has two characters discuss the philosophical impossibility for language to properly communicate ideas between two people. “All the time when I speak to you, even now, I’m saying not precisely what I think, but what will impress you and make you respond,” one explains. His friend responds “so we never really communicate?” To which the first answers: “Well…I suppose actions don’t lie.” Probably realizing the impossibility of encapsulating in distinct terms just what made him so special a filmmaker and human being, director Seifollah Samadian didn’t seek to make a traditional documentary to honor his late friend, the irreplaceable fulcrum of Iranian cinema Abbas Kiarostami. Instead, he attempted an experimental project entitled 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami, a name even the abstraction-hating Murdoch couldn’t sniff at. Cobbled together from bits and pieces of home movies and behind-the-scenes footage from their last years together before Kiarostami’s death, the film boasts, according to the press release, “76 minutes and 15 seconds of undiscovered moments of Abbas Kiarostami’s life and work, in commemoration of his 76 years and 15 days of creative journey.” Through this compilation, Samadian shows us through actions just who he was: a man of endless curiosity, gentle playfulness, yet bottomless emotional depths.
Consider the opening sequence where Samadian and Kiarostami drive into a hilly countryside after a snowfall to take landscape photos. He stops their jeep several times to snap pictures of birds and stray dogs, and during one pause where they admire a twin pair of tire tracks snaking towards the horizon, Kiarostami gets out, hails an oncoming car, and demands their driver only travel on the pre-carved ruts, preserving their perfect symmetry. Later we see him humming twelfth century Iranian poetry about wine as he examines photo negatives with a magnifying glass, a look of blank contentment on his face echoed during another scene where he handwrites a copy of a script for a Jafar Panahi film. A man constantly at work even while playing, 76 Minutes is an indispensable a look into the great artist, as much as the man’s own posthumously completed 24 Frames (2017), itself a compilation of thematically connected images. The last scene where Kiarostami reenacts his legendary final shot from Through the Olive Trees (1994) is enough to choke up even the most curmudgeonly cinephile.
HENDI & HORMOZ
The bride is still in grade school and the morning after Hendi’s wedding her giggling classmates marvel at the henna on her hands, the lipstick on her lips, the ring on her finger, all proof that she’s no longer a thirteen-year-old girl, but a woman. The principal calls her to her office and sighs, warning “Husbands are for outside school,” before shooing her back to class. Just a few weeks before, this bride walked the beaches of her island home and sang songs to keep evil djinn away but now she’s a wife with marital duties and soon, much too soon, a child. Her husband Hormoz isn’t much older; only three years, to be exact but it’s old enough, and now he must work. He was promised a job in a local mine if he married, but the boss keeps reneging, stranding the boy without any money and an extra mouth to feed for the first time in his life. An acquaintance suggests joining a smuggling ring moving the rich, firehouse red volcanic ash covering the countryside to the mainland. Yes, the husband and wife are still children, but the world waits not for them. This is the central tragedy of Abbas Amini’s Hendi & Hormoz, a gorgeous slice of Iranian neorealism and one of the best titles debuting this month at the festival. Shot on Hormuz Island, a tiny speck of land less than 20 square miles off the coast of southern Iran, it turns a sun-bleached eye towards just one of the estimated 12 million child marriages that happen every year around the world. But instead of electing a direct, political route openly condemning their ghastly situation, Amini showers the unfortunate couple with a gentle, fatherly affection, allowing the injustice of their situation to seep slowly through. Consider a scene where the two walk a craggy shore and poke over dead and dying fish stranded by the tide with all the careful, morbid curiosity of elementary schoolchildren prodding dissected frogs in science class. They should be just like those imaginary schoolchildren, we think. Not impoverished, exhausted, and pregnant. It ends tragically—how couldn’t it?—but Amini’s eye towards the simple humanity of his subjects keeps the film from drowning in predictable clichés.
I’m somewhat surprised to learn that Asghar Yousefinejad’s superb chamber drama The Home didn’t originate as a stage production, as it positively sings of the more-is-more naturalism coming out of so much Western theater right now, particularly the maximalist ensemble plays of Jez Butterworth—an impressive comparison considering the film barely clocks in at 76 minutes. The film is shot in a simple, unassuming style at times reminiscent of John Cassavetes: scenes are predominately captured in long tracking shots held in medium close-up with roving hand-held cameras. The lighting is equally naturalistic, preferring natural light even to the detriment of the mise en scène—many scenes are either partially or completely obscured by incidental backlighting. Yet the result is one of the more unassuming rabbit punches to come out of recent Middle Eastern cinema, as Yousefinejad brilliantly tricks the audience multiple times into thinking the film is going in one direction before suddenly veering off into another, leaving us exhausted, exhilarated, and amazed, all while scarcely wasting a second of screen-time.
Set in the Turkish part of northwestern Iran, The Home follows a bereaved family in the immediate hours after the death of their father, an elderly Alzheimer’s patient whose sudden, unexpected death caught everyone off guard. At the center of the grieving is his estranged daughter Sayeh (Mohadeseh Heyrat) whom he hadn’t seen in the six years since she left home to marry her university boyfriend. Despite a past falling out, she weeps and wails as if the deceased were her own child. When a representative of the local Medical University named Ahmedi (Gholamreza Bagheri) arrives and informs the family that the father had donated his body for medical science, Sayeh refuses, screeching that even if his will was legally binding it doesn’t matter since his surviving family (i.e. her, and only her) want to give him a proper Islamic burial which demands the immediate interment of dead bodies. More and more supporting characters are gradually added—most prominently Sayeh’s long-suffering cousin Majid (Ramin Riazi) and a local imam who struggles to act as peacekeeper between the family, representatives of the Medical University, and the authorities called in after the two sides start fighting. But to say more would ruin mysteries viewers wouldn’t realize were mysteries until it’s too late. Viewers should go into this one completely cold; no context, no expectations.
I WANT TO DANCE
After being withheld for four years by the Iranian government, Bahman Farmanara I Want to Dance has finally escaped the censorship board for wide international release. It’s difficult to imagine why such an apparently anodyne film met with such resistance: unlike Farmanara’s other new film showing at the festival—Tale of the Sea—this film avoids broad societal metaphor in favor of broad, surreal comedy. It centers on Bahram Farzaneh (Reza Kianian), an elderly writer with debilitating writer’s block. That changes, however, after he receives a music CD from a mysterious young girl by the side of the road and almost gets into a fatal car accident. The near-death experience dislodges something in his brain, and he’s stricken with a case of musical tinnitus that leaves him perpetually hearing music in his head. Much like in Mike Judge’s Office Space (1999)—another comedy where a disaffected burn-out inadvertently gets their brain waves rejiggered—the music transforms him into a devil-may-care loony. When he gets extorted by a female scam artist, he merrily invites her to live with him in his apartment, smiling and laughing even as she incredulously starts pilfering his belongings. He frequently bursts out dancing, encouraging passersby to join in the fun. Incredibly, proximity to his madness proves catching, as he repeatedly sparks impromptu dance parties with the likes of construction workers. (One such dance party spills into the town square and carries on into the night, culminating in flag-waving and fireworks. The imagery for this scene is somewhat reminiscent of the mass protests associated with the Arab Spring, but that alone seems a preposterous reason for the Iranian government to censor the film for four years, particularly since the film first premiered several years after the protests ended.) I Want to Dance is a film that grows on you; the first thirty minutes before Farzaneh’s accident are a confused mess as it can’t seem to decide what tone it wants to settle on. Much of the early comedy misses the mark, too, particularly one montage where a group of “wacky” patients are interviewed by a put-upon psychiatrist who spends his sessions making paper airplanes out of his notes. (One such patient…wait till you hear this one…is a thirty-five year old woman with dyed purple hair!) But once it finds its feet the film becomes strangely compelling and charming.
Those with just a passing familiarity with Iranian cinema might be astonished to find in Mani Haghighi’s Pig damn near everything they’ve come not to expect from the country that holds such calm, measured, and introspective filmmakers as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and Asghar Farhadi as their canonical titans. For one thing, gore, and lots of it. The film revolves around a serial killer stalking the Iranian film industry, murdering all of the country’s biggest, most beloved directors. (In a smirking meta-joke, Haghighi himself is revealed to be the fourth victim.) The targets aren’t just killed, they’re decapitated, mutilated, and disposed of in public, leaving nothing to the imagination. Multiple characters are killed onscreen, usually in the tried and true shock-effect method of somebody’s head randomly erupting in a volcano of red stuff mid-conversation as somebody picks them off with a rifle from offscreen. But even more than the carnage, casual viewers might be thrown off by the film’s use of dark humor, as the central conflict arises around Hasan (Hasan Majuni), a blacklisted director being driven slowly mad by inadequacy anxiety for not being chosen by the killer as a target. Sure, his life is falling apart—he can only get work making asinine commercials, his favorite actress has abandoned him for a rival director, his marriage is falling apart, and his grandmother appears to be in the early stages of dementia. But dammit, isn’t he important enough to be slaughtered?
Consciously or not, Haghighi seems to take many cues from the Coen Brothers in his juggling of philosophical nihilism, veritable slapstick violence, and genre pastiche. There’s even a hallucination sequence ripped right out of The Big Lebowski (1998) where Hassan imagines playing AC/DC on a neon-colored tennis racket while showgirls in leotards dance around like rogue extras in a Busby Berkeley number. The film is at its best when it embraces the madcap insanity of its plot, but Haghighi frequently sidesteps away from the kookiness with weaker attempts to make big, important statements about the dehumanizing effect of social media. Did this absurdist, ultra-violent black comedy really need its hero to get into a flame war with a youtuber while the bodies pile up?
TALE OF THE SEA
According to IMDb, Tale of the Sea marks the third time director Bahman Farmanara has ever acted in a movie, and it’s only the second time he’s done so in his own film, the first being Smell of Camphor, Scent of Jasmine (2000). That film was nakedly autobiographic, as Farmanara cast himself as an aged filmmaker grappling with his own mortality. Tale of the Sea takes a more oblique approach towards the autobiographic angle, as Farmanara designed it less as a statement on his life, but as a commentary on the state of twenty-first century Iranian art. The film follows Taher Mohebi (Farmanara), an elderly writer struggling with late-onset schizophrenia who’s spent three years in a mental institution. The first act sees him released into the custody of his long-suffering wife Jaleh (Motamed Arya), who reveals to his doctor (Ali Mosaffa) that she wants a divorce. The doctor convinces her to grin and bear it just a bit longer while he settles back into the groove of life in the outside world, as such a shock could thrust him over the edge of sanity. But despite her best efforts, dreams and hallucinations haunt Taher—visions of gentle rainbows draped over silent beaches; encounters with long-dead colleagues while walking in the woods. Eventually things reach a crisis when Taher is unexpectedly visited by a young woman named Parvaneh (Leila Hatami) who explains that she’s his daughter from a secret affair he’d had several decades ago. Combined with the sudden appearance of a former student wounded during a police protest, and Taher’s sanity seems all but doomed. As mentioned above, Farmanara describes the film on his distributor’s website as “a metaphor for the surreal lives of a whole nation,” and as such it’s dedicated to several Iranian artists—the recently deceased Abbas Kiarostami gets a dedication card all to himself. But is it? Casting oneself as the lead in one’s own film pigeonholes it as primarily autobiographical—why else are all of Orson Welles’ films seen as statements on his own life? Considered alongside the work’s insistent languidness, the entire piece can come across as a woe-is-me self-pity party. But even giving Farmanara the benefit of the doubt, Tale of the Sea gets lost in its own reserved frigidity. For each scene’s impressive beauty and superb acting, there’s precious little momentum keeping the whole together.