Those Who Said No: a slickly made and polished film that is less than honest about the politics of the activists it champions

Nima Sarvestani, “Those Who Said No” (2015)

A very polished film, complete with stereotypical mournful droning music in parts, this Iranian / Swedish documentary follows proceedings of the Iran Tribunal, a people’s court hosted at The Hague, in its investigation of alleged violations of human rights and crimes against humanity committed by the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1988. According to a cleric, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, between 2,800 and 3,800 political prisoners were executed or disappeared by the Khomeini government. These massacres began in mid-July 1988 and went on for several months.

The documentary does a very good job recording the testimonies of people who had been arrested, imprisoned and tortured by Iranian prison authorities. One witness after another takes the stand to answer questions from stony-faced (and often bored-looking) judges about their time and experiences in prison. This constant narrative is broken up by a minor story of a man who survived the tortures and mistreatment, and who travels to Japan to confront Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a former representative of the Iranian court system in the 1980s, in Tokyo.

Where the documentary fails is in providing a full political context to the arrests, the imprisonment, torture and execution of the political prisoners by the Iranian government in 1988: why were these people arrested and for what crimes, and what were the organisations or groups they belonged to – these are details that are not mentioned in the film. Having to do my own research, I discovered that the majority of the prisoners who were executed were members of a radical leftist organisation known as the People’s Mojahedin of Iran or Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) which among other things it did during the 1980s carried out bomb attacks against and assassinations of various clerics in the government and sided with the then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces, even going so far as to set up its headquarters in Iraq: a move regarded by most Iranians as a grave betrayal since Iraq and Iran were at war. After 1985, MEK became a full-fledged fruitcake terrorist cult centred around Massoud Rajavi and his wife Maryam, and spends a great deal of its money on organising propaganda campaigns, using computer bots to spread disinformation on social media platforms and lobbying politicians in the US government. New recruits to MEK are subjected to intense indoctrination and bizarre rituals that may include sexual abuse with the aim of breaking down their sense of identity in an environment that deliberately isolates them from the outside world and makes them dependent on MEK members. The organisation has carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Iran and some other countries since the early 1970s and most people in Iran shun the organisation.

After discovering the MEK connection, I am not surprised then that the Iranian government cracked down severely on political prisoners and tortured and executed thousands. Political prisoners belonging to the Iranian Communist Party (Tudeh) and other leftist groups were also arrested and jailed, and many of them were killed; unfortunately the film does not identify these people who were swept up in the killings. What the film omits to mention lessens the impact it wants to make, and moreover makes the film less than honest as a crusading vehicle for political activism.

No Date, No Signature: a traffic collision leads to an investigation of class conflict and an unsympathetic bureaucracy in a gritty realist drama

Vahid Jalilvand, “No Date, No Signature” (2017)

A chance encounter between two characters who would never have met otherwise becomes an examination of class conflict in an impoverished society where, it seems, bureaucracy and legalism are more important than being true to one’s conscience in this painfully gritty, realist film, the second by upcoming Iranian art-house director Vahid Jalilvand. Forensic pathologist Dr Kaveh Nariman (Amir Agha’ee) is driving home at night when he is side-swiped by another car and collides with a working-class family travelling on a motorcycle. Stopping and checking to make sure everyone is all right, Nariman finds that the 8-year-old boy Amir seems to have suffered nothing more than a few scratches and a slightly wobbly head while dad Moosa (Navid Mohammadzadeh) pays more attention to fixing up the motorbike and mum Leila (Zakieh Behbahani) tries to console a crying baby. Nariman directs Moosa to take Amir to the nearest medical clinic and offers the family money. Moosa accepts the money but ends up taking the family past the clinic later on.

Some days later, Nariman is shocked to find that Amir’s body has been delivered to the city morgue where he works. Seeing that he is distressed, Nariman’s colleague (Hediyeh Tehrani) offers to perform the autopsy on the boy. She determines that the boy has died from botulism. The news leads to a rift between Moosa and Leila who accuses her husband of killing the boy because weeks ago he bought some chickens cheaply from a worker at a poultry plant. Moosa returns to the poultry plant to confront the worker Habib. The two fight and Habib ends up in a coma. Moosa is arrested and imprisoned for assault. Meanwhile Nariman becomes obsessed with the thought that his collision may have led to the boy’s death and this obsession fills his life to the extent that his working relationship with his colleague becomes strained. Nariman also becomes unnecessarily involved with Amir’s parents and the court case against Moosa when Habib dies.

The film is more notable for its lead performances, particularly from Mohammadzadeh in playing a working-class man trying to make ends meet, behaving impulsively in ways that lead to grave consequences for himself and his family, and ending up trapped in an unsympathetic bureaucratic system lacking in compassion for the poor. The privileged Nariman spends much of the film moping about and putting off admitting the part he may have played in hastening the child’s death. His colleague and others question him as to why he didn’t report the collision to the police originally (though no-one thinks to ask him why he allowed his accident insurance policy lapse in the first place) or why he fails to admit that he offered money to Moosa. While Mohammadzadeh puts in a performance of a life-time in his showdown with Habib, and Agha’ee lends good support as the conscience-stricken doctor, the female actors stand out in rather more constrained and stereotyped roles: Behbahani’s Leila, initially subservient to Moosa, discovers her voice after his arrest and fights hard for him, and Tehrani’s coroner becomes as much inquisitor and devil’s advocate as friend and close associate to Nariman. Audiences are ultimately left uncertain as to what really did cause Amir’s death and it seems that Nariman might get off lightly compared to Moosa’s treatment for no reason other than that Nariman comes from a more privileged social layer than Moosa does.

Moosa’s rage at Habib is as much a rage against the social system that puts him in a position where he can be exploited, as it is against the people (including himself) he believes responsible for poisoning his son. The fact that Habib could be as much a victim of the system – otherwise why would he be driven to sell suspect chicken meat at a low price to a poor customer? – as he is escapes Moosa, and this helps to underline how unjust the system is and how it survives: while the poor squabble and fight among themselves, the society that divides and rules them, and forces them to fight for the few breadcrumbs it drops to them continues on impervious to their plight.

The cinematography with its emphasis on shades of grey and dull colour, and its relentless comparison of the morgue where Nariman works and the chicken-processing factory (and finding little difference, if any) is the other major feature that stands out in this bleak and often unflinching film.

While the plot is not always very clear and tends to jump ahead of what audiences might consider significant, audiences will get a good sense of how contemporary Iranian urban society, with all its faults, forces people into situations where they cannot be true to their values and principles, and instead have to ride roughshod over others simply to survive. The results of the decisions they have to make in order to make ends meet can be devastating.

The Baby: a snapshot of modern Tehran and young people caught between traditional family values and the temptations of city and university life

Ali Asgari, “The Baby / Bacheh” (2014)

In the space of 16 minutes, we’re drawn into a gritty world of urban bleakness and desperation that is modern Tehran under Shi’ite Islamic theocratic rule. Narges (Sahar Sotoudeh) who may or may not be studying at university is looking for someone to mind her newborn baby (Safoora Kazempour?) for a few days while her parents from out of town are visiting her. She enlists the help of a friend (Faezeh Bakhtiar) and together they traipse through the streets and travel by bus across the city trying to find someone who can look after the little one. The friend phones another friend, Samira, who may be able to help but the arrangement sounds a little too tentative. Narges has to return to her flat quickly to meet her parents so she parks the baby with her friend and goes back alone in the evening.

Through dialogue and silent acting we get a sense of Narges’ dilemma: her parents are likely to reject the child to the extent of disowning Narges and her baby for the shame done to their family, and this means Narges faces a bleak future having to care for her girl born out of wedlock. Viewers need to know something of the conservative society in which Narges, her friend and the baby live: a society where many people, especially working-class people and people outside the main cities in Iran, still disapprove of young people having sex outside marriage and single mothers, yet a society in which large numbers of young people leave home to attend college in large urban centres and for the first time in their lives experience freedom and the company of other young people in large numbers, male and female, away from sheltered family lives. Narges would be one of many young people caught between the temptations of city and university life and the strictures of a provincial, probably conservative religious family background.

While the acting is not bad and the baby is very well behaved, the characters are too sketchy and the story is not well developed enough for viewers to warm to Narges and sympathise with her plight. We never meet her parents so we have no idea whether they would be judgemental towards single mothers or not. Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the film is its general atmosphere and urban background – viewers get a sense of Tehran as an alienating city where compassion and sympathy for the disadvantaged and the vulnerable are thin and people don’t go out of their way to help those most in need.

Tehran Taxi / Jafar Panahi’s Taxi: purporting to be a snapshot of life in Tehran but an examination of life and behaviour under a police state

Jafar Panahi, “Tehran Taxi” aka “Jafar Panahi’s Taxi” (2015)

Banned by the Iranian government in 2010 from making films, director Jafar Panahi nevertheless managed to make at least three more films (as of this time of review) in ingenious if not always original ways. His 2015 comedy / drama flick “Tehran Taxi”, following in the foot-steps of that uniquely Iranian film genre of taxi dramas (the classic being Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” which made Homayun Ershadi an international star), poses as a snapshot of life in the streets of Iran as Panahi, playing at taxi driver (and not doing very well at that), picks up passengers and takes them (or not) to their various destinations. What drives the film and makes it appealing despite the supposedly spontaneous nature of the narrative is the conversations the driver and his passengers have, and the underlying political and social context – how to live and survive, and knowing what is right and what is wrong, in a repressive police state that seeks to shape people’s thoughts and behaviour – that unites all that everyone says and does.

The film has a minimalist style with bare-bones musical accompaniment though its look is not as raw and the cameras are not as jumpy as one might have expected. Panahi’s first two passengers have an animated discussion about the effectiveness of capital punishment in deterring future crimes. This discussion ends quite abruptly when the passengers have to leave but the opinions the two express later resurface unexpectedly when Panahi meets an old acquaintance who was recently robbed by an impoverished couple but did not report them to the police – because he feared that they would end up being executed In a subtle way, the film exposes how, in a totalitarian society, the law can be used as a sledgehammer to pound the poor and weak, without tackling and resolving the issue of why people might be driven to commit crimes, and at the same instill fear into others and create disrespect for law and order.

Iran’s treatment of the poor and most socially disadvantaged, and the effect of government propaganda and restrictions on their thinking and behaviour, is demonstrated in various scenes and a tiny sub-plot involving Panahi’s nine-year-old schoolgirl niece Hana Saeidi who is one of his passengers. A woman with an injured husband gets into Panahi’s car early on and he rushes them to hospital; during the trip the husband narrates his will to try to circumvent the law that prevents his sobbing wife from inheriting their home. Two elderly ladies with a bowl of goldfish urge Panahi to rush them to a place where they can return the goldfish and get two new ones before noon, in the belief that their lives will be extended and they won’t suddenly drop dead. In these two scenes, the effect of poverty on people’s lives and their thinking and behaviour which earns them ridicule and isolation can be tragic.

The sub-plot in which Saeidi harangues a poor boy for apparently stealing money from a bridal couple and thus wrecking her school assignment home movie (because his actions don’t fit the school’s requirement that the film be heroic and uplifting, not dark or “sordid”) looks more forced and artificial than the earlier strand with the accident victim, and only manages to succeed to the extent it does due to Saeidi’s bossy-boots character. Initially bright, perky and sassy, the girl becomes a bullying little bitch towards the passive yet rebellious boy and her transformation can be unsettling to watch.

How people manage to navigate or bluster their way around government restrictions is illustrated by a dealer who sells pirated foreign films and gets Panahi to drive him to see a film student, and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh who discusses the case of a woman, Ghonche Ghatami, jailed for going to see a volleyball game, with Panahi. Even the film itself is Panahi’s attempt to evade the restrictions on his ability to sustain himself and maintain his career, and this along with the dealer’s activities and Sotoudeh’s defiance in continuing her career despite previous imprisonment and torture says much about Iranian spirit and determination in the face of tremendous opposition.

The film turns out to be less spontaneous and improvised than it first appears so the documentary aspect of the film wears out very quickly. “Tehran Taxi” is a vehicle (pun intended) for exploring the effects of an all-encompassing and repressive police state and its ideology on people’s thinking, speech and actions and how all citizens are forced, more or less, to maintain and uphold that structure. Questions of how such control informs people’s morality, what actions people take to circumvent the law and how in control the state actually is, when people find ways to flout its laws, arise. The film’s climax comes as an unexpected and devastating blow when the state makes its move against Panahi and Hana.

Wild Iran: interesting film on a photographer’s journey across Iran

Herbert Ostwald, “Wild Iran” (2011)

This documentary follows the Iranian-German wildlife photographer and environmentalist Benny Rebel on a 6-week journey across Iran taking photographs and videos of endangered species of animals in their natural habitats in the country’s national parks. The film zigzags through a variety of landscapes from the semi-tropical forests of northern Iran through the mountains in the central part of the country down to the hot and arid desert regions of the south and then back north to the Caspian Sea coast. Animals encountered along the way include brown bears, Asiatic cheetahs, deer, flamingoes, gazelles, ibexes, leopards, mouflon sheep, picas and various species of birds and reptiles.

It can be a bit bewildering to watch: there appears to be no logic in the way the film was put together and viewers have the impression that Rebel was dashing all over the country in Range Rovers and planes whenever the whim took him. The film would have done better to map out the routes he actually took on an animated map that would appear from time to time throughout the film just so viewers could appreciate the scope of the work Rebel undertook. Few in the West know much about Iran and most Westerners have very stereotyped views of the country and its people from news reports which either hammer on about Iran’s nuclear energy programs, its treatment of women and minority groups, and human rights violations. The narration can sometimes be annoying and a little patronising to viewers; far better it would have been for the film-makers to follow Rebel about and let him do all the explaining and talking as his English language skills are very good and his passion for his work lights up the screen.

The film does a good job of emphasising Iran’s unique position as a crossroads of animal life and landscapes: animals we associate with European temperate climes (bears, boar, deer, mouflon) live almost cheek by jowl with animals more usually representative of African desert and Asian tropical areas. Feral camels wander the desert in Iran and Caspian leopards hunt red deer. A cheetah is filmed chasing down a rabbit. The off-camera narrator will sometimes give current population figures for particular species of animals and note that the creatures were far more populous and widespread in the past. Opportunities to examine human-animal interactions and the role nature has played in Iranian history and culture over two to three millennia are unfortunately few but those that appear in the film can be quite astounding, in particular the filming of the interiors of pigeon towers, used not just to house pigeons but also to express Iranian ingenuity and artistry in arranging nesting places in pleasing geometric patterns such that the pigeons don’t crap on top of one another, and to collect the guano that falls to the ground for use as fertiliser. The film stops to visit a group of nomadic Qashqai herders taking their goats to new grazing grounds and to follow some animals that have taken refuge in the ruins of Persepolis, built about 2,500 years as a monument to imperial Persian power.

Unfortunately the emphasis on Rebel’s journey around Iran means that the film-makers did not consider asking members of the Iranian public about their views on conservation and preserving the country’s remaining wilderness areas as this was not part of the film’s scope. It might have been interesting and informative for Western viewers to see and hear what ordinary Iranians think of Rebel’s efforts and his aims in documenting wildlife conservation efforts. We also do not see Rebel writing his report for the Iranian government – mention of the report comes as an after-thought near the end of the film – and so we have no idea of how committed the government might be to preserving the nation’s wildlife and natural environments.

Some information on Rebel’s photography and particular methods of capturing animals on film and the equipment is given but it is very vague. He works very close-up to the animals, so much so that he often puts himself in some danger from the animals’ reactions to his presence and the noise his equipment makes.

The film works as an interesting nature documentary and travelogue for family viewing and as a snapshot of life in Iran in a very general way. People wanting more depth to their nature documentaries and to know more about Iran’s conservation efforts must treat this film as an introduction and find out more information for themselves.

A Separation: snapshot of how people survive under grinding pressure in a police state

Asghar Farhadi, “A Separation / Jodái-e Náder az Simin” (2011)

A tragic story about how good intentions can start off a snowball that turns into an avalanche of conflict, moral self-betrayal and tragedy in a context whose cultural, social and political oppressions feed into and off this downward slide. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) are a middle-class couple fighting over the future of their daughter, Termeh: Simin wants to take her overseas so the girl will not have to grow up in a misogynistic theocracy but Nader can’t leave his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease, behind and Termeh won’t leave without Dad. Simin files for divorce and leaves Nader and Termeh to care for the elderly man but Nader also has to work so on Simin’s recommendation he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a young working-class woman, to look after Grandpa. The work of looking after Nader’s dad is too much for the pregnant Razieh who also has a small girl, Somayeh, in tow and so a series of mishaps occurs which escalate into confrontations that have the effect of straining Simin and Nader’s fragile marriage further and roping in other innocent parties such as Termeh’s tutor, various neighbours and Razieh and her husband Hojjat’s relatives and his creditors. Along the way, Termeh, perhaps the wisest and sanest person in the film, learns a hard lesson about moral ambiguity, the class divide between herself and Somayeh, the oppressive role that religion is made to play in Iranian society, and how living in Iran with all its restrictions simply grinds good people like her parents, Razieh and others into situations where they abase themselves and one another.

So many problems as highlighted in this film exist in modern Iranian society due to its police-state nature and ham-fisted interpretation of Islamic principles and shari’a law. If the theocracy weren’t so oppressive towards women, Simin would never have thought of leaving the country and Razieh might have left overbearing and violent Hojjat ages ago. If the government would allow free exchanges between medical professionals and scientists, help for Alzheimer’s disease sufferers would be more available and Simin and Nader would know enough to realise that Nader’s father is deteriorating rapidly and that he needs to be in a nursing home to receive 24/7 care. If the government weren’t so strict and narrow-minded in structuring society along religious lines, the officials in charge of mediating disputes could offer better advice to parties in conflict other than rely on simplistic interpretations of Islam. Farhadi’s genius in “A Separation” is to show at once how a theocratic society such as Iran’s with its structures and ideology is ill-equipped to deal with day-to-day problems that Nader, Simin, Razieh and Hojjat encounter, and how they all end up not only coming to blows with one another but meaner and baser as a result.

Some people might believe that Islam is being criticised in this film but I disagree; true, Razieh relies too much on the Phone-a-mullah Helpline service for advice as to whether it’s OK for a woman to wash an unrelated man’s privates but her example is not all that different from those North Americans who rely on “What would Jesus do?” agony aunts on radio and cable TV for advice on losing weight, how to deal with kids skipping Bible classes and getting little Ebenezer or Jayleigh to do their creationist science homework (because the kids figured out they were being lied to). It’s likely that Razieh has turned to an Allah-of-the-gaps religion for comfort from hot-tempered Hojjat, coping with his family and the pressure of poverty which forces her into accepting a job that’s beyond her ability to cope with and requires a long commute as well. The real criticism should be aimed at the government for abusing Islam and its principles in such a way as to alienate Simin, Nader and Termeh from it and to reduce Razieh to a child incapable of making independent moral decisions. There is a suggestion in the film that Simin has told Nader that Razieh has confided in her of her (Razieh’s) doubts about the cause of her miscarriage and that Nader uses what Razieh has told Simin and Razieh’s own simple religious faith to blackmail both Razieh and Hojjat and make them look bad in front of Hojjat’s family.

The acting all round is top class and viewers will sympathise deeply with the characters and above all Termeh and Somayeh. Moaadi especially gives a great performance as Nader and Sarina Farhadi as the intelligent and sensitive Termeh is also a stand-out performer. Filming with a handheld camera throughout gives the movie a voyeuristic intimacy that involves the audience, particularly in its opening scene in which the audience is placed in the position of the court judge mediating between Simin and Nader as Simin applies for divorce. Viewers will see something of the daily grinding pressure on Nader, Razieh and the rest of the cast placed by the strictures of Iranian theocratic society as they try to do the best they can to survive and raise their children; the film clearly demonstrates this pressure is not unique to those characters but applies to all Iranians as they try to negotiate and organise their lives under and around the restrictions the government places on them. No wonder so many people are so desperate to leave the country, so much so that they are willing to pay smugglers and risk dangerous sea voyages to countries such as Australia and Canada.

No-one Knows About Persian Cats: showcase of Iranian pop culture and contemporary society

Bahman Ghobadi, “No-one Knows About Persian Cats” (2009)

An ingenious film that uses a fiction plot to structure and showcase the Iranian pop music scene and youth culture, “No-one Knows About Persian Cats” brims with young energy and zest and combines youthful hope with tragedy born of the repressive authoritarian restrictions in modern Iranian society. Two young musicians, Ashkan and Negar, played by non-actors who really are called Ashkan (Koshanejad) and Negar (Shaghaghi), dream of hiring two other musicians for their band so they can get passports and visas to go to Britain, ostensibly to play at a music festival there; in reality, they need the passports to escape Iran permanently so that they will be free to play the kind of indie bubble pop they specialise in without having to conform to Iranian government requirements. To this end, they must raise the money by organising a gig and they must find other musicians; they are directed by a friend to Nader (Hamed Behdad), a hyperactive, fast-talking impresario, who agrees to organise the passports and visas, and chase various bands, artists and others to perform at the gig. The bulk of the film is devoted to Ashkan, Negar and Nader travelling around Tehran on Nader’s scooter, meeting bands and musicians, and hearing their music. As time goes by, the threesome feel the pressure to get the documents done, the gig line-up ready and the money on hand to pay the shonky passport-makers; Nader disappears for three days so our friends Ashkan and Negar look for him. They find him at a rave party but as Ashkan tries to coax him out, the party is gate-crashed by the police, everyone tries to flee, the cops resort to heavy-handed tactics and tragedy results.

With hand-held cameras, the film uses a mixture of music-video filming and home-movie filming methods for a somewhat amateurish (but not fully improvised) look with some scenes that are very obviously rehearsed and staged. Each act the trio visits represents a different genre of music popular in Iran: folk, jazz rock, r’n’b, Metallica-influenced thrash metal, garage rock, hard rock, hard blues, fusion, indie pop and rave, and while each act plays, the music-video filming methods adopted for each are borrowed from the filming style associated with the act’s genre. So while hiphop artist Rap Khon sings, the camera moves slowly before the singer as he walks towards it, during the rave scene, the camera shutters flicker to simulate the trippy atmosphere of the party. The subject of the songs sung is significant: romance, longing for freedom, modern urban life and its ills, anomie and lack of connection in contemporary Iran are covered; most of the songs though are not sung in full. The most noteworthy performances are those of Rap Khon and the honey-voiced female torch singer Rana Farhan.

Most actors are non-professionals and viewers get an insight into the restrictions the musicians labour under: the guitar-oriented bands talk of having to practise in cow sheds and garages at certain times of the day, else their neighbours will report them to the police. Ever present by their very absence are the authorities who are portrayed by Ghobadi as hovering at the edges, unseen yet ever ready to strike. Ashkan and Negar play their characters straight and are a little dour; Negar almost verges on being a hysterical nagging mother-hen. The person most likely to make the most impression on viewers is the fast-talking Nader who rattles away so quickly he makes even the most stereotyped, fast-talking Hollywood music impresario creation look like a Texas drawler. In a memorable Best-Actor-Oscar scene with an unseen police inspector, Nader prattles at near-Mach speed, lying through his teeth so hard it’s a wonder they don’t break, and collapses into tears so convincingly that the hardened police inspector, who’s obviously seen a lot of hammy Iran’s-Got-Talent performances, takes pity on him and waives the fines and punishments! Near the end though, Nader unexpectedly reveals a more sensitive side to his otherwise sparkling if irresponsible personality.

The climax could almost have come straight out of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel / film “Persepolis” but it’s more likely a coincidence that the party scenes in both Ghobadi and Satrapi’s creations are so similar. For most young Iranians, private parties are a way of discovering new music, making contacts and meeting new people; they are also an expression of dissent in a society where authorities are intrusive enough to dictate what people, men and women, are allowed or not allowed to wear on pain of imprisonment or heavy fines. No wonder the police are so thuggish in chasing and arresting party-goers.

The film does get repetitive but Ghobadi is as interested in showcasing contemporary life for young people and musicians in an underground music scene as in telling his story. A tension arises from the filming techniques used and the mixed documentary / fiction narrative adopted which gives energy and crackle to the film’s subject matter. Viewers may feel Ghobadi is trying to prove to Western audiences that Iranian kids are just as hip as everyone else in the world and there may very well be an element of that striving in Ghobadi’s decision to make the film.

Overall this is worthwhile viewing to get a snapshot glimpse of Iranian youth culture as it was in 2009 and of the broader Iranian society, its challenges and problems for young people there generally.

Sara in 10 Minutes: portrait of a young orphan girl expresses hope for a better life

Sadaf Foroughi, “Sara in 10 Minutes / Sara Dar Dah Daghighe-h” (2007)

This is a charming documentary about a young orphan Sara, living in an orphanage somewhere in Iran with no knowledge of who her parents are or where she comes from. A girl with a blank past and history who nevertheless expresses faith in God and hope for a better future, Sara spends her free time dreaming about beaches, waves and moving water, reading books and watching films. No wonder director Foroughi picked the girl as the subject for this brief little doco: Sara might be representative of a bigger slab of society, maybe even Iran itself, looking to shake off a not-perfect past and going hopefully into a better, brighter future.

The film is in both colour and black-and-white: colour mostly for the dream sequences of scenes of serene beaches, rolling waves and moving water, all representing for Sara the ebb and flow of life (and maybe the ebb and flow of fortune for viewers); the black-and-white scenes are of Sara herself talking to the camera. It’s only in the final shots that Sara, playing on a swing, is revealed in colour. The film itself is highly self-referential with the sound of the film projector whirring away in the background and the use of captions indicating pause in the middle of the film. At the very end of the film, Sara says she might be lying and viewers will have to decide whether she makes this statement seriously or in jest.

The only other person who appears in the documentary is an unidentified psychologist who in one scene discusses the possibility that a child so immersed in her dreams may be on the verge of mental illness and then in a second scene talks about how children use their dreams and imaginations to build a construct or narrative of a better life. Again viewers must decide which opinion they want to believe.

It’s a whimsical piece and as the title says it’s just 10 minutes long so not too much is to be read into the film. Something more serious – an inquiry into the girl’s living conditions in the orphanage, what opportunities for employment and study are available to her when she has to leave, whether she needs family connections to be able to achieve her dreams and ambitions – would require a much longer running-time and the subject expanded to include other girls at the orphanage where she lives. For all that, the playful nature of the film which toys with viewers’ expectations suggests that Sara isn’t even what she claims to be.

The House is Black: a meditation on human condition, suffering and the beauty of creation in a leper colony

Forough Farrokhzad, “The House is Black” / “Khaneh siah ast” (1962)

Made about 50 years ago but still very confronting, “The House is Black” is the only film ever made by Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad. About five years after making the film, Farrokhzad died in a car accident. The documentary focusses on the daily lives of patients in a leper colony in an unflinching manner. A narrator warns that there is no shortage of ugliness in the world at the beginning of the film and as if to confirm that statement, the camera zooms in on a woman gazing at herself in her mirror, her face and in particular her eyes distorted (and one eye made blind) by her leprosy. Fast editing and close-ups enable viewers to see many, if not most, people in the leper colony Farrokhzad and her film crew visited and we come to realise that the leper colony is humanity in microcosm: the lepers go to school, they pray to God, they eat meals together, they play games and sports, they spin and weave and do other work, they sit around and get bored. Several women lepers are shown grooming themselves and applying make-up and celebrate a wedding.

The confrontational approach used in filming the lepers – the camera does zoom in very closely on the erosion leprosy causes to people’s faces, hands and feet, and the difficulties people can have moving around and handling objects – forces us to acknowledge the lepers’ humanity and their stoicism in coping with their disease and the limitations it causes. Initial shock and repugnance fade away, perhaps to be replaced by pity which itself might be replaced by admiration for the lepers’ perseverance and good humour. The disfiguration quickly becomes just another aspect of a person’s appearance and viewers start to notice the patients’ personality quirks, eccentricities and lively natures. Children lepers in particular are boisterous, playful and cheeky as they would be anyway if they were not afflicted with the disease. The film’s directness is balanced by Farrokhzad’s soft and compassionate narration, in which she quotes verses from the Qu’ran and her own poetry, mixed with dialogue between a teacher and his pupils, and a clinical monologue about leprosy, its pathology and treatment by a male voice who assures us that leprosy is curable and that it is a disease associated with poverty, implying that it is also preventable and is not due to something the sufferers brought onto themselves.

The film has a very flowing quality with a structure that seems dictated by the lepers’ activities and their schedule, however loose, for the day. The filming of the colony inmates more or less begins and ends with people in a group reading aloud, praying or following the teacher. An ingenious music soundtrack, derived from the patients’ activities with a squeaking wheelbarrow, a bouncing ball, crutches and the wedding march, has a musique concrete quality and is highly rhythmic, at times even dictating the editing and flow of the camera’s images. Farrokhzad’s own poetry readings are also very rhythmic, even hypnotic, as she alternately praises God and laments the existence of suffering, death and evil.

Leprosy was a widespread disease in Iran at the time the film was made but has since been brought under control and is now a fairly rare disease in that country. Though the context in which it was made may have long disappeared, the film is still worthwhile viewing for its compassion and empathy with its subjects, and its effortless and natural structuring in which Farrokhzad and her crew seem to have followed the lepers’ routine rather than impose their own on the patients; even the end credits, written on the school blackboard after classes have apparently finished, have to fit in with the lepers’ schedule. The film treats its subjects with dignity and respect. We in our comfortable Western lifestyles should take notice.

Buddha Collapsed out of Shame: charming child actors carry a bleak and pessimistic message

Hana Makhmalbaf, “Buddha Collapsed out of Shame” (2007)

Charming and delightful with two small child actors playing the main parts, this film carries a sombre message about the effects of grinding war and religious fundamentalism on ordinary people in Afghanistan. It shows how, far from liberating women and girls from the restrictions imposed by the former Taliban government, the US-led invasion actually helped cement the oppression of all females by making the country more unstable, driving people deeper into poverty and enabling the Taliban and similar groups to present themselves as fighters against the invading forces. By framing and presenting these issues in an ingenious way from the viewpoints of young children in the games they play, Hana Makhmalbaf, the daughter of Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, shows how the attitudes and prejudices of adults pass down to and are maintained and embellished by a new generation.

The film resembles a documentary in the way it shows scenes of the Afghan countryside: panning shots that emphasise its vast deserts and mountains, shots of farmers and shepherds at work, and in particular the scenes of the Taliban’s detonation of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan that bookend the movie. The scenery looks beautiful with stunning blue skies, wide brown plains and clear rivers that beguile viewers and leave them unprepared for the wretched conditions the local people live and work in. In the caves that surround Bamiyan lives a six year old girl Bakhtay (Nikbakht Noruz) with her family. When morning dawns, the parents have already left home and Bakhtay is left alone to care for a baby sibling. She hears the neighbours’ son Abbas (Abbas Alijome), about her age, reading aloud so she investigates and discovers he is reading from a book. Bakhtay is inspired to want to learn to read – she too wants to read funny stories about walnuts falling from trees and hitting grown-up men – so when Abbas and a shopkeeper tell her she needs a note-book and pencil for school, she zealously raises the money to buy the items by taking some eggs to the local market to sell. Selling the eggs turns out to be an ordeal but Bakhtay has just enough to get a note-book so she takes her mum’s lipstick to write with. From then on, it’s another ordeal for Bakhtay to go to the right school: Abbas takes her to his school but it’s a boys-only school so she must go off on her own. On the way, a gang of boys torments her and holds her hostage in a cave; after escaping, she must follow a river all the way to the school. The teacher and the girls at the school reject her and she is forced to leave.

Apart from some plot strands left dangling – once Bakhtay leaves for school, we see nothing more of the baby left at home – and various passages in the movie that could have been edited for length (some shots linger too long after they’ve made their point), “Buddha …” is well-made with a basic plot that moves at a steady pace. Simple, straightforward dialogue helps move the plot along yet successfully conveys Bakhtay’s feelings about the harrowing situations she must endure. The bullying she receives from both boys and girls can be painful to watch. Apart from the teenage stationery shopkeeper, most adults in the film appear uninterested in Bakhtay’s travails or refuse to help her; in an almost Kafkaesque scene, a traffic police officer cannot help her as his duties restrict him to directing invisible traffic; the teacher at the girls’ school boots her out because of the disruption she causes with her mother’s lipstick. All the obstacles in Bakhtay’s way as she struggles to kick-start her education are Afghanistan’s problems in miniature: Bakhtay’s foray into the local market, completely dominated by men, shows how much women are shut out of everyday life; the boys’ taunts and games centre around war and ethnic, gender and social divisions in Afghan society; the teacher’s reaction to Bakhtay shows the extreme fear Afghan women have of the Taliban and what they represent. The symbolism can be overdone and many scenes can have several interpretations that are equally valid and relevant to Afghanistan’s present condition and human society generally.

Noruz is appealing as the chubby-cheeked moppet who through sheer persistence and a chirpy nature overcomes a series of challenges that would make most adults faint: nearly being buried, kept in a dark cave, forced to wear a “burqa”, finding a seat in a crowded classroom only to be kicked back out. Bakhtay shows considerable cheek in leaving the baby at home, stomping around calling for her mum, intruding on adult men’s conversations and foiling the boy bullies’ schemes. Alijome is equally lovable as Bakhtay’s loyal friend who also suffers from the other boys’ bullying.

Ultimately though the film’s message is very bleak: Bakhtay is eventually forced to conform in a way that suggests all Afghans, male and female, no matter how spirited and determined they are, will be crushed under the extreme conditions of Taliban and warlord rule, if people inside and outside the country do not resolve to stop the war and force the withdrawal of foreign troops. Makhmalbaf takes no sides and the suggestion is that the Americans are as much to blame as the Taliban and warlords have been in perpetuating Afghan social inequities and suffering. Enterprise, individuality and integrity will falter under such a regime. Though the film pounds these and other points about Afghan society relentlessly, with ominous music to match, the heavy-handedness is balanced by the child actors’ charm and innocence and by the simple narrative which has many moments of humour. This is definitely a film for adults even though it’s dominated by children and their games and activities.

“Buddha …” was made by Hana Makhmalbaf when she was nineteen years old and is her first feature film. Her mother Marzieh helped to write the script and other members of her family also assisted with filming.