Posts Tagged ‘Iran’

Just off the back of its theatrical release in the United Arab Emirates (via MAD Solutions) and one of the most intriguing entries at the 2016 Dubai International Film Festival – and recipient of the festival’s Muhr Emirati award – is the stylish, taboo courting, arthouse melodrama Only Men Go To The Grave.

The debut feature of 30 year old Emirati director Abdulla Al Kaabi, who previously made a name for himself in 2010 with The Philosopher starring Jean Reno, Only Men Go To The Grave tells the story of a group of women trying to deal with the loss of their blind mother and a secret she kept from them. Set following the Iran-Iraq war, the film introduces us to an ensemble of bold, complex women; it is a film that recalls the radical cinema of Fassbinder & Almodovar and hints at great things to come from the director.

Independently produced over a 5 year span and shot in Iran, with a cast made up of Iranian and Iraqi actors, Only Men Go To The Grave is a film made of many bold decisions. As director Al Kaabi explained, the challenge of making his first feature pushed him to tackle themes that he initially felt uncomfortable exploring, as well as to shoot in a neighbouring country he thought he might never visit.

We spoke to Al Kaabi about making bold Arab films and finding peace through cinema.

There is something of Pedro Almodovar in the perspective of this film. How did you develop the story and what inspired the central character of a blind woman?

I came to learn later on that Pedro Almodovar draws inspiration from Douglas Sirk, who is a fantastic ‘mood film’ director. I love his movies very much. During the period when I came up with this story I was watching a lot of his movies, I got the DVD collection. I got really obsessed by him and that’s how my movie came together. I was just looking for that story: where would I find this story that would be very much inspired by his movies? I was on a flight coming back from Spain to Dubai and next to me was a blind lady and I could have sworn that that lady could see, because half way through the flight she woke up, grabbed the menu and looked at it and put it back and then when the flight landed she was blind again. So she stayed with me that woman and I started to think: why would she do that? And then slowly, slowly, I found myself having a story that I could work on and that’s how the idea of Only Men Go To The Grave came about. I knew I wanted to shoot it in Arabic. I just wanted to show powerful women and I love how Pedro Almodovar portrays his women; they are extremely powerful. Arab women, in my opinion and the way I see them, from my perspective, are powerful individuals too. That’s why we came to do that.

As an ensemble the characters are really strong. How did you go about casting them? I know you had Iranian and Iraqi actresses…

If you would have told me 5 years ago that I would be talking to you right now about a movie I shot in Iran – a feature film, my first and all of that – I would say you’re out of your mind. I didn’t think that would ever happen, let alone for me just to visit. But it came about because I thought I had the opportunity to do whatever I can with this movie. We can talk about financing later. This movie was self-financed, so I had the freedom to do whatever I want and I wanted to explore the Arabs over there in Iran. I have a lot of Iranian friends who are fantastic individuals, I love Iranian cinema very, very much; one of my greatest filmmakers and mentors that I was fortunate to meet was Abbas Kiarostami. So that’s how it came about. It’s a country that’s just an hour away, films are there to bring people together and despite of all the disagreements and all of the problems that we might have with the Persians, I believe my film echoes a beautiful message to the world which is that cinema only understands one language: it’s peace. It is bringing people together despite everything. Not only that we also had Iraqi actresses coming into Iran and shooting this film, so there was a lot of firsts in this movie I believe and I think that’s why it’s so talked about in the festival this year, in addition to the themes that we’re exploring.

The film looks at certain taboo issues and i’d be surprised to see issues such as transgender in many films. What was it like dealing with those themes? Did you have any limitations or were you completely open?

You know when I first started off I didn’t have much courage to explore these themes. They were there but they weren’t so bold and over the years, as it started to get harder for me to finance the movie and to get it on it’s feet I started to push the boundaries even more and more and more. By the time I was ready to shoot and had got the project green lit I had reached the point of no return, so I was sure I wanted to shoot these themes. I wanted to explore transgenderism, I wanted to explore gender identity in the Arab world and I wanted to explore alternative love in the Arab world. I wanted to expose these themes through the storytelling of an Arab filmmaker. So because today that’s the only thing that people want to watch: they want to watch something original. Nobody wants to watch a replica of a Hollywood movie, because they’re doing a great job themselves, why should we copy? So I think that’s the only thing that sells today. If you have an original, unique perspective I think this career is great for you and it’s my first feature you see and I wanted to create my own mood and universe and introduce myself to the film industry, that this is my style.

And in terms of the practicalities of doing that, this took 5 years, which is not a strange amount of time for a first feature, but it’s a long time. I’m wondering how that was broken down, so what kind of period did you shoot in? Or was it a long protracted shoot?

Well the script took almost two years and that I think – and i’m so glad I took two years to work on the script because it’s the foundation of my story – so that took a long time, I didn’t think it would take such a long time. And then after that I started to shop around the script and it was really hard for me. I think it was too daring and, not only with the themes it has, but also too daring with the plot. I had a protagonist who was dead and yet alone she was the hero of the film, so a lot of people didn’t get that and I thought why couldn’t we get that? In the end we screened it last night and I heard that most of the audience were completely gripped by the story until the end of the movie, so that’s a good sign. We were able to do that with such a bold, unique plot. So then I went into a period, honestly I can say I was very discouraged, depressed, so I completely gave up on the film for a period and shelved it and I was quite sad for a while until I met a producer, actually an art patron, who was very much in the art world, who had the means. He loved the script, he’s in the contemporary arts scene, his name is Farshad Mahoutforoush, he’s in the credits in the movie as a producer and he said “lets shoot it.” He had no experience in film and I think the universe gave me that.

How long was the actual shooting period?

We took a long time preparing for it, because as I shot it in Iran most of my actresses haven’t spoken Arabic. They were Arabs, but they haven’t spoken Arabic for a very long time, so we had to train them for a while to bring back their language. A lot of people yesterday were actually shocked that my actress didn’t speak Arabic because she speaks Arabic so well in the movie. Well you know I’m a perfectionist, I had to take twenty takes [laughs.]

Did you have to go phonetically?

No, no, she worked on her Arabic. She was actually speaking Arabic. I haven’t seen her for a year since we wrapped up and I think during this year she might have forgotten a bit [laughs.]

What are your plans for your next project after this?

Well my plans right now, i’m really focused and invested in this one. I need to get it distributed, it needs to be screened across the Middle East. In Europe I think it’s going to do big. I’ve also got the festivals going on. Probably I am going to be travelling a lot for another year. Hopefully during these travels I will pick up inspiration for a new script, but for the time being i’m really invested in this one.

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There’s a scene in Panahi’s 2015 Golden Bear winner Taxi when the director meets a young fan looking for stories to film. The youngster asks Panahi which movies he should watch and which books he should read, and Panahi replies that no books that have already been written or movies already directed could ever provide the inspiration the boy is after. “One should look elsewhere”.

And elsewhere, or to be more precise, inside a taxi, is where Panahi stages his latest work. Officially banned by his country’s regime from making films and traveling for at least the next decade after being convicted on propaganda charges in 2010, Panahi must yet again resort to unconventional techniques to direct his thirteenth film. After This is Not a Movie, shot entirely with a home video camera and an iPhone, Panahi acts as a taxi driver and fills his cab with cameras to record his conversations with Tehran’s inhabitants who jump in and out of the car after sharing their thoughts on the country’s state, cinema and life itself.

We do not know whether the passengers are professional actors or whether all scenes are entirely improvised (though the latter is hardly the case). Early in the film a movie-smuggler (arguably one of Taxi’s most interesting characters) asks whether everyone else is just an actor, and reproaches Panahi for not warning him it was all fiction. Panahi, however, says nothing.

This unresolved question and constant jumping in between fiction and reality is, however, a hit-and-miss. There are moments in which it is hard not to see Taxi as a self-referential, self-aggrandizing effort: Panahi magnanimously rejects the money he is offered by his passengers and smiles happily when some of them recognise his face as that of the great movie director.

Where the dynamic does work is when Taxi gives in to his profound cinefile essence and turns into a means to deconstruct Iran’s present. At some fundamental level, Taxi is a love declaration to cinema itself. It is hard for a cinefile not to smile when the movie-smuggler invites a client inside Panahi’s cab and deals with art-house cinema as if it were class A drugs, with Pahani nodding at the names of Kurosawa, Kim Ki-duk and Woody Allen. But there are moments when cinema turns into an explicitly political instrument and the smile turns into a much more chilling sensation, as when Panahi and his passengers clash against the regime’s oppression and its coercive apparatus.

Are these moments improvised too? Panahi does not say, but the doubt here is probably even more powerful than a clear-cut answer. By the end, as the real seemingly merges with fiction and the drama reaches its climax, Taxi turns into a vehement, albeit somehow self-congratulatory, cry against a regime’s totalitarianism.

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“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” – L.P. Hartley

Following on from his widely successful breakthrough film A Separation (2011) Iranian director Asghar Farhadi relocates to Paris for his latest family drama, The Past.  Here, Farhadi compiles a strong cast of current French talent, Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Tahar Rahim (A Prophet), and places them in Parisian territory as outsiders (much like himself.) As a non-French speaker, Farhadi it would appear, has his work cut out for him directing and writing a French narrative. Through his lead actor, Iranian Ali Mosaffa, who speaks in a broken French, there is a vulnerable distance inevitably created; however through Farhadi’s masterful storytelling ability, he manages to utilise this and express some fairly unifying themes.

The Past follows Ahmad (Mosaffa) as he returns to Paris after a 4 year absence, to sign his divorce papers with his ex-wife Marie (Bejo). While there, Marie asks Ahmad to speak to his step-daughter Lucie, played by a young and particularly impressive Pauline Burlet (La Vie en Rose), who disapproves of her mothers’ upcoming union with Samir (Rahim). This establishing and overlapping of characters is a strong indication of the film’s tone. These four main characters are all connected and yet distant. Ahmad is not the father of Lucie, or her younger sister Léa (Jeanne Jestin), as much as Samir’s son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) has no relation to Marie, and yet here all these characters are brought together under one roof, for a short time at least.

The film largely feels like one of Ibsen’s dramatic family stage plays, or the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960’s in Britain. The mood can often be oppressive and claustrophobic, with Paris standing in largely as a suburban backdrop rather than a tourist locale, which gives the film a weight of authenticity and naturalism. It is important that Paris remains recognisable but largely absent, as initially at least, we view the narrative through “outsider” Ahmad. He tries to help around the house and crucially understand Lucie’s increasing isolation, he quickly takes on the role of investigator. As he and we learn more about what “the past” actually is here, Ahmad unwittingly becomes a sub-film noir hero, with his past left no clearer than simply being Iranian, Marie’s ex-husband and having previously suffered bouts of depression.

In the centre of all this is Samir’s wife, whose attempted suicide has left her in a comatose state, between life and death, much as the rest of the characters are between the past and the present with their interactions. This is what we, initially through Ahmad, piece together as the narrative moves forward. One of the film’s strengths is that The Past refuses to have a single focaliser and as a result, does not allow the viewer to form assumptions about any of the characters for too long. The film easily could have made Samir the straw-man, a guy who is partly responsible for his wife’s tragic act, yet actually appears to be moving on to a better life with Marie when he should really be wallowing in guilt. However Farhadi instead closes the narrative through his perspective, allowing a good deal of empathy to be shared with all of the main characters here.

As a result, there is an inherent and fascinating tension in The Past which is never truly resolved. Everyone here is somewhat culpable for their actions and simultaneously sympathetic, which makes for a highly believable narrative. It’s fairly modernist in this approach, especially as Farhadi refuses to allow ethnic or class backgrounds to define any of his characters; instead they express themselves largely off-screen (through unseen emails and phone-calls) and dwell largely on their actions in the past.

But while there is much to admire about Farhadi’s film, it’s a tough film to become truly engrossed in. For all his expertly placed motifs, of not allowing a single character to seem entirely blameable, it’s difficult to really forge relationships with these people who are piecing together their miscommunication. While there are some lighter moments earlier on in the film, most notably in Samir and Ahmad’s prolonged awkward silence, it’s suffocatingly serious tone for 2 hours and 10 minutes makes it hard to really ever enjoy. While it’s intriguing to learn about the past of this dysfunctional family, the plot turns exist to the point of distraction; this softens its intended climax somewhat.

Ultimately, for all it’s excellent performances, layered-narrative and stage-play atmosphere, the shared empathy across the board prevents us from making a meaningful connection. For all it’s achievements The Past suffers from its own accomplishments as an excellent modernist morality play. It is something to be seen, but not really felt.

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On December 20th 2010 one of Iran’s strongest cinematic voices was forcibly silenced. Internationally famous filmmaker Jafar Panahi was charged with “carrying out propaganda against the system” (1). Panahi was initially arrested while making a film in his house along with 18 others. The Tehran Prosecutor said that his arrest is not related to his filmmaking, stating: “His arrest is not because he is an artist and is not political, either. This individual is a suspect for some crimes.” (2) However, the credibility of this claim is seriously lacking given Panahi’s sentence. The sentence means that he will be jailed for six years, but perhaps worse is that he is prevented from writing, filmmaking, giving interviews or travelling abroad for twenty years (3). Essentially he is stripped of his livelihood, his freedom and his voice as a filmmaker. With due consideration to Panahi’s current situation, I will examine three of his films and consider the problems they may pose to the current Iranian constitution. The films I will explore are: The White Balloon (1995), The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006).

The White Balloon, written by Abbas Kiarostami, is Panahi’s debut feature. It tells the story of a young girl determined to buy a fish. The story explores the various obstacles she encounters as a result of her innocence; a snake charmer steals her money though she manages to get it back, before promptly losing it again down the grate at the entrance to a closed shop. The film gives us a sense of the struggle the little girl has to go through in a society largely dominated by adult males. While this theme is subtle it is still very much present and hints at the prominent concern of both The Circle and Offside. The White Balloon also resembles a reality which provided the inspiration for Offside, that of childish persistence. Panahi has said that his inspiration for Offside (in which a young girl tries to gain entry to a football match) was his own daughter’s determination to get into a football match (4); these subtle ideas in Panahi’s work represent a tendency to contest fundamental conservative values in Iranian society.

I will return to discuss Offside shortly, but before that I want to look at The Circle. Perhaps the bleakest (but by no means hopeless) of the three films I choose to look at here. The Circle displays a storytelling device that Panahi also employs within Offside, that of using multiple protagonists; Panahi uses this as an effective method of representing woman as a social group. In The Circle we follow six characters, each experiencing a different dilemma caused in part by simply being a woman in a decidedly patriarchal society.  The film begins with the mother of a woman who has just given birth to a baby girl. The mother worries that her daughter will be divorced by her husband, as he wanted a son. The mother then encounters three women who have just been released from prison. Without any money the women are worried that they will be arrested again as their only resources may be criminal. One of the women goes in search of another friend who has just escaped from prison. The escapee is pregnant and wants an abortion, but cannot have the abortion approved as the baby’s father was executed in prison.  The escapee meets another woman who attempts to abandon her daughter with a wealthy family, to give her a better life. Following this the escapee is mistaken for a prostitute and is almost arrested. She manages to escape however, but we witness another prostitute being taken to prison instead. As the title suggests, the women are all stuck in a ‘vicious circle’.  While bleak the end of the film involves an act of defiance as the prostitute lights a cigarette, despite being ordered not to by the men taking her to jail. It is the themes of persistence and defiance as seen in The White Balloon and The Circle that characterise Panahi’s films. In Offside he makes the strongest statement, by subversively celebrating these characteristics.

Offside makes use of the multiple protagonist technique as seen in The Circle, once again to explore the defiant nature of a group of girls who share a love of football. The film explores the taboo in Islamic Iranian society whereby women are not allowed to attend male sporting events as spectators (5), regardless of their appreciation of the sport. Panahi successfully dramatises the problem by not simply making this issue a problem purely experienced by females. For instance in one scene a girl who has been caught sneaking into the stadium requests to be taken to the toilet. Her guard escorts her to the toilets, but loses her in the chaos of the stadium; suddenly where once the girl had a problem, the man now does instead. Many of the men in the film are represented as simply doing their duty, often appearing frustrated at their difficult responsibilities and this suggests that it is the overriding ideology that is governing their actions, rather than a real and heartfelt responsibility. Perhaps by exposing the cracks in the dominant ideology Panahi is even more subversive; he does not just represent women as repressed, but represents the consequences the ideology has for men too.  At the end of the film Panahi shows the detained group of women being taken to the Vice Squad, but on the way they are caught up in traffic when news breaks of Iran’s victory in the world cup qualifiers. The women take the opportunity to break out into the streets and celebrate with the male supporters all around them. The idea that Panahi presents here is very powerful and it draws me to consider the twenty year filmmaking ban he has placed on him.

If Panahi is capable of articulately suggesting flaws in the codes of conduct in present-day Iranian society, as well glorifying moments of defiance in day to day activity, then it is no surprise that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s right-wing government would benefit from having his voice as a filmmaker silenced. Furthermore Panahi is also a supporter of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s Green Party of Hope and given the controversy over the 2009 Iranian elections, where Mousavi claimed Ahmadinejad’s victory to be fraudulent, it comes as no surprise that he should find himself in jail. The truth of the situation though is that this is a tragedy not only for freedom of speech in Iran, but also for the international cinema community. We are now deprived of an important cinematic voice for twenty years. But as Panahi put it in an open letter to the Berlin Film Festival 2011:

“I wish my fellow filmmakers in every corner of the world would create such great films that by the time I leave the prison I will be inspired to continue to live in the world they have dreamed of in their films.” (6)

For this reason we must share the work of Jafar Panahi as a symbol of his wish and we must hope that when he is released his influence as a filmmaker will be great enough to make up for the time cinema has spent without him.

OFFSIDE TRAILER:

FREE JAFAR PANAHI PETITION: http://www.petitiononline.com/mod_perl/signed.cgi?FJP2310&1

Sources:

  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12045248
  2. http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2010/03/arrest-of-iranian-filmmaker-jafar-panahi-and-new-pressure-on-independent-filmmakers/
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12045248
  4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xy8mj4EjHjw
  5. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/jun/06/iran.roberttait
  6. http://www.berlinale.de/en/das_festival/festivalprofil/berlinale_themen/openletterpanahi.html

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