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.

The Gatekeepers: a powerful indictment of Israel’s obsession with security and use of fear, terror and violence

Dror Moresh, “The Gatekeepers” (2012)

An astonishing and powerful documentary about the Israeli internal intelligence security agency Shin Bet as seen through the eyes and viewpoints of six former heads of that service, “The Gatekeepers” turns out to be an indictment of Israel’s obsession with its security and resort to continual violence and terror in resolving its conflicts with Palestinians and neighbouring countries, and the instability and corruption such violence causes to Israel and the Palestinians alike. Moresh initially was moved to make this film after seeing the Errol Morris documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara” which dealt with the life and experiences of the former US Secretary of Defense.

The documentary takes the form of interwoven interviews between Moresh and his six interviewees and is set out in seven segments that follow a loose chronological structure starting with Shin Bet’s emergence as a result of the Six Day War in 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to the present day. Each segment focuses on a significant incident or series of incidents in which the Shin Bet was involved and which had a significant effect on Israeli government policy, public opinion and society generally. The interviews are embellished with archival footage and computer-generated reconstructions that approximate what happened.

Although the film appears dry, its impact and importance come through the men’s descriptions of their own feelings and views about their actions and the orders they were given by successive Israeli Prime Ministers like Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres among others. The former heads’ disgust for those politicians who bullied them and Shin Bet into performing hateful actions that killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of Palestinians and traumatised thousands more, yet hung out the Shin Bet heads to twist and wither in the condemnation of the Israeli media and public opinion, is very clear in the segment on the Bus 300 affair in which Shin Bet agents executed two Palestinian bus hijackers while the two men were tied up and helpless. Soon after this shocking incident, Avraham Shalom, one of Moresh’s interviewees, resigned as Shin Bet head and was pardoned, yet the memory of the incident in which he ordered the killings at the behest of the government affected him deeply at the time of interview nearly 30 years later.

Later segments in the film dealing with the Oslo Peace Process in the 1990s, the rise of extremism among born-again Jews and the Jewish settler movement, and the targeted assassination of prominent Hamas leaders and members like Yahya Ayyash show how the Israeli government’s reliance on terror and violence to thwart Palestinian aspirations to self-determination and right to land stolen from them has steadily corrupted both Israeli politics and society, and traumatised Israelis as well as Palestinians. Each side ends up being driven to commit more desperate and deadly acts of violence and killing which escalate in scale, inhumanity and impact, and leave the other side even more psychologically wounded and intent on revenge.

The focus on interviewing the former Shin Bet heads has the unfortunate effect of ignoring the wider effect on Israeli society and economy. The constant obsession with repressing the Palestinian people privileges certain segments of Israeli society and entrenches their power and influence over Israel institutions. At the same time, other issues in Israeli culture and society are ignored and government spending on dealing and resolving these issues is either scant or even declining. As I write, I can Google for information on the levels of poverty in Israel and find articles reporting that Israel has the highest poverty rate and the highest child poverty rate, with 1 in 3 children living in poverty, of the OECD countries. This is before we even consider the levels of destitution facing Arabs in pre-1967 Israel and Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. I can also Google for information on the levels of social and economic equality in Israel and discover to my amazement that a very small number of families there control over half the nation’s wealth and wield incredible influence over society.

The former Shin Bet heads admit that they have behaved immorally and criminally, and see the irony of their having treated Palestinians almost as dismally as the Nazis treated Jews during World War II. The climax of the film comes when all of them express contempt for past Israeli Prime Ministers and governments, and advocate dialogue with all Palestinians, including groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that were or are dedicated to wiping out the Israeli state, as the only way to resolve conflict and bring about peace. As one of the interviewees jokingly admits, retirement from Shin Bet has made him a little bit “leftist”.

Even if Israel as a whole were to turn to peaceful diplomacy and conflict resolution, the path ahead is still strewn with problems, of which the major one is certainly the United States and other Western countries and the lobby groups in those countries’ governments that have an interest in prolonging conflict and using Israel as an enforcer to steal the natural resources of Middle Eastern countries and deny all Middle Eastern peoples, Jews, Muslims and other religious groups there alike, the right to control and determine their own destinies and use their territories’ wealth to secure their own well-being.

Cyberpunk trio of shorts proves substance still triumphs over style

Marcio E Gonçalves, “Rendering Lisa” (2010)

Mehmet Can Koçak, “Perspective” (2011)

Jesus Orellana, “Rosa” (2011)

A homage to cyberpunk sci-fi writers William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson, “Rendering Lisa” is a short home-made film about the pitfalls of entering virtual reality. Some time before the events of “Rendering Lisa”, a young man steals money from an eco-terrorist group and explodes a bomb in a park, killing himself and his girlfriend Lisa. The young man’s surviving brother Michael (Kenny Leu) is strong-armed by eco-terrorist group member Harry (Shahaub Roudbari) into hacking into a computer program that contains the details of the bank account where the brother put the money. Problem is, once Michael’s in the program, he must speak to an avatar to access the account details and the avatar turns out to be Lisa (Jennifer Vo Le) who only wants to talk about the brother and a past romance the real Lisa had with Michael. After several attempts, Michael finally convinces Lisa to hand over details of the account and the relationship they had looks to be reviving until something unexpected happens …

It’s a pithy little short in which Michael realises the thin line between reality and virtuality is wafer-thin indeed, and at the end of the film he’s tempted to revive that lost romance with “Lisa” in spite of all that’s happened. Roudbari and Leu over-act their parts but as they’re not professional actors (though Leu looks like Cantopop romeo material), their histrionic efforts can be forgiven. The action is crisp and fast and editing is very well done. The stuttering electronic music is annoying and Gonçalves could have done without it entirely. The opening and closing credits are wonderfully done by Gonçalves and perhaps if he had more money, he could have added more special effects to make his virtual world look more realistic and colourful than the real world, so much so that Kenny could have been tempted to stay there with Lisa and never return to Harry.

“Perspective” is a clever Turkish cyberpunk short by Koçak who stars as the nameless hobo in a futuristic dystopian city. He pays money to a pimp who hands him some software and then enters a derelict building and goes up to an empty room where he finds a computer keyboard. He plugs the software into the keyboard, jacks into it by plugging a wire into a portal in his head (in the manner of the hero of William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer”) and using his retinas as a computer screen, pursues a red-haired girl in the software. He is interrupted by an intruder who turns out to be a mirror image of himself. Or is the stranger really an image? Horrified, Koçak ‘s character challenges the avatar to a duel with predictably disastrous results.

This is a highly intriguing film with a well developed concept and everything in the short working together: the film’s ambience is grimy and oppressive in a way reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and the sharp-edged music, used sparingly, suits the dark tone of the short. The use of hand-held camera conveys claustrophobia and comes into its own when the hobo meets his double and there’s a delicious twist when he reaches out to touch what he expects should be a mirror. The animation is cleverly inserted into the short and viewers get a real sense of first-person perspective with the clever use of the viewing screen as the hobo’s eyes which double as the computer screen.

Not quite so clever though versatile nevertheless is Orellana’s “Rosa”, set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which a female android fights for survival against two other androids in an endless post-industrial labyrinth. Although the animation is beautiful and Gothic in appearance and ambience, the plot features too much superhero fighting, jumping and other unbelievable hi-jinx, and no actual story is told. We never find out why the male android and a second female android, in appearance the clone of the protagonist, are so hostile towards her or why the original female bleeds blood that turns into roses when the other female android doesn’t have the same effect on her surroundings when bloodied. Pity really because Orellana did everything himself and the details of the building’s backgrounds and the near-religious associations and nostalgia they evoke are stunning and Romantic: “Rosa” is a real work of love as well as labour on Orellana’s part.

I hazard that Orellana originally wanted to make something different from what’s actually realised but his bosses at Hollywood insisted on the short being “accessible” to the lowest common couch-potato public denominator so that meant having to include a lot of tiresome martial arts faffing and flailing about. The short might have worked better if the androids had fought, then faced a common enemy so they reconcile their differences to defeat the foe, and maybe as they’re deciding whether to live and work together or resume their petty grievances, the film cuts out.

Best of the trio is “Perspective” for its clever story with a twist done on a limited budget.

Fukushima Fallout: even-handed survey of situation in northeast Japan, one year after the earthquake / tsunami / nuclear meltdown disaster

Kathy Hearn, “Fukushima Fallout” (101 East / Al Jazeera, 8 March 2012)

A year after the combined earthquake / tsunami / Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant explosion and meltdown disaster in northeast Japan in March, 2011, very little has appeared in the news about how the country is coping and whether there’ve been moves to prevent another nuclear plant catastrophe. This documentary by Kathy Hearn, made for the 101 East program on the TV news channel Al Jazeera, goes some way towards explaining what’s been happening in Fukushima and surrounds, what the Japanese government has been doing (or not doing), what the Tokyo Electric Power Company has been doing (or not doing) and what ordinary citizens have been up to and how they have been coping. Hearn travelled about northeast Japan to interview Fukushima residents and refugees, a TEPCO spokesperson, an actor-turned-activist, some politicians, a researcher and others about their views on the nuclear disaster and what they believe Japan should be doing with the Fukushima reactors, other nuclear reactors around the country, and its future energy needs.

Hearn provides some voice-over narration and appears sporadically throughout the documentary: her style is straightforward and low-key, sticking to presenting the facts she finds. She allows her interviewees to speak for themselves with English-language translators speaking over them where needed. Throughout the film, various issues in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster arise and pop up periodically: the ragged psychological health of the Fukushima residents and refugees, many of whom are suffering stress, uncertainty and depression; the continuing leakage of radiation from the stricken reactors into the environment and the panic and other reactions this causes; the inaction and obfuscation by the Japanese government and TEPCO; and what to do about the country’s remaining nuclear reactors. All these issues and others are linked: the longer the government and TEPCO delay doing anything significant to the Dai-ichi nuclear complex, the more frustrated and upset people in the affected areas become. A researcher is shown teaching Fukushima residents how to take matters in their own hands and not rely on the government for help that might never come; a volunteer, Kenji, delivers donated bottled water to elderly residents and teaches yoga as a way of helping people to cope with stress.

The film moves at a steady clip and features some beautiful nature vistas in parts. There is a sickly kitsch Oriental music soundtrack but most of the time it’s not obtrusive. The narrative frequently takes the point of view of the interviewees and zigzags smoothly between individual points of view and an overarching general survey of the situation in Fukushima and Japan.

While the documentary tries to be even-handed in its treatment of its interviewees and of TEPCO and the government, neither condemning nor praising anyone, it’s hard not to be angry at Japan’s leaders and TEPCO for concentrating so heavily on nuclear energy production and neglecting other forms of energy production such as solar energy, wind energy, tidal energy and geothermal energy. The United States also must share some of the blame for pressuring Japan in the late 1940s and the 1950s into adopting nuclear energy technology as part of the American Cold War strategy to use allies to counter the power of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps the film could have gone much further and looked at ways in which Japan is developing alternative forms of energy production and by doing so, ended on a more optimistic note about the country’s future. As is, Hearn’s presentation is an interesting and informative survey of the post-3/11 nuclear meltdown disaster and of how people cope with on-going stress and uncertainty in the face of a dithering and ineffective government.

 

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.

Waltz with Bashir: a film revealing repressed memories and a hideous war crime in parallel

Ari Folman, “Waltz with Bashir” (2008)

Few movies about war must be as personal and intense as this animated film about an Israeli ex-soldier’s gradual acknowledgement of the part he played in a specific war-crime incident in 1982 – the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Lebanese Phalangist militias, for whom units of the Israeli Defense Forces gave cover, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near Beirut during the Lebanese civil war – through his recovery by various means of memories he has repressed since his military service in the early 1980’s. Film-maker Ari Folman’s personal odyssey begins when a friend, Boaz, tells him that he (Boaz) has been having recurring nightmares about being pursued by 26 dogs through city streets. Boaz’s recovered memory, which he attributes to the time when he shot 26 dogs as a soldier serving with the Israeli Defense Forces in Beirut in 1982, triggers memory flashbacks for Folman; until then, Folman had no memory of what he did as a young teenage soldier. Folman determines to discover what he got up to during military service by visiting and interviewing old friends and a journalist. The stories they tell him are harrowing and painful. Folman consults a psychiatrist and others who discuss with him topics like repressed memory, recurring dreams and their meanings, mental dissociation and the consequences of such phenomena when they continue for too long and are never brought into consciousness. Gradually by recovering his memories, Folman is able to reconstruct where he was and what he was doing in Beirut in mid-September 1982; the revelation of his part in the massacres, however indirect, is horrific but not surprising.

The film deals with the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder, manifested as memory repression, insomnia and unpleasant recurring dreams, in individuals like Folman and his friends, and the parallel recovery of an important historic event which still remains deliberately suppressed by many people within and outside Israel and Lebanon as a major war crime. Major people who could have prevented the massacre either directly or indirectly have never been punished or censured appropriately for their failure, deliberate or otherwise, to act. Yet the massacre itself and the context it occurred in obviously had a deep effect on the soldiers who participated: one friend, Carmi, once an outstanding school student, left Israel to open a falafel-selling business in the Netherlands after finishing military service. This reviewer had the impression that other friends like Boaz and Ronny also achieved much less in their lives than they could have as a result of their army service. Perhaps “Waltz …” could have made a more general point about how compulsory military service has affected generations of Israelis and how its effects have percolated through Israeli society and values  but this might have widened the film’s scope too much and risked making it unfocussed.

Choosing animation over a live-action format is a wise move: the animated approach, which includes hand-drawn animation and flash cut-outs, turns the film’s structure away from a documentary genre to a historical fiction genre into which dreams and repressed memories can be reconstructed and replayed. The approach also allows the film to be flexible, flying from an interview into a memory flashback or a dream, then back into real life in a smooth flow. Even if Folman had opted for a live-action approach, he still would have found it necessary to portray flashbacks as animated or semi-animated to alert viewers of the change. The animation does look awkward and amateurish at first – characters look stiff, their heads are too big, their movements are sometimes jerky – but it does have a definite three-dimensional look, especially when the scene draws back from viewers. Transport technology like helicopters and tanks are rendered realistically if not in detail. The predominant use of colours like yellows, browns, greys and murky blue-greens give a very surreal look to large parts of the film; in later scenes in the movie where there is much fighting and killing, the yellowish-brown tints to the sky and bullet-ridden buildings in Beirut along the Mediterranean shoreline give the impression of Hell on Earth.

The animation is at its most effective in scenes where the young Folman is on leave and goes back home; he feels distant from the life whizzing around him in the streets. People behave as if there is no war and Folman senses the disconnect between his experiences in southern Lebanon and life at home. What impact that disconnection must have had on him is never investigated. One very beautiful and quite surreal scene is one in which Folman and Carmi sit on a couch in a field of flowers; another great scene is one where Israeli soldiers are walking through an olive grove while the sun beats down and the trees leave shadows over the soldiers. Suddenly a hidden Arab boy with a rocket launcher on his shoulder lets fly with a projectile that flies in slow motion past the soldiers and blasts their tank apart: beautifully poetic yet very shocking and horrifying.

Whether the recovery of his memories has been therapeutic for Folman, the film doesn’t say: the revelation of what did happen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in mid-September 1982, turning from animation into actual newsreels of the massacre and its aftermath, and Folman’s role in aiding the Phalangist militias lead to an abrupt and open ending. No accounts from relatives of the murdered Palestinians are included, no death toll is given – the figures are still disputed but Folman could have included the minimum and maximum figures in a title card – and there is no mention of Israel’s Kahan commission which found Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Defense Minister, personally responsible for the massacre. Such omissions weaken the film’s impact by making it appear a self-pitying sob story with no end. More could also have been said in the film about the culture of the IDF; there’s a hint in a scene where a senior officer watches a porn film that the army is a corrupt and dysfunctional institution.

Viewers need to know the broader context of Israel’s involvement in southern Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war, in particular the IDF’s role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, to be able to follow the film’s narrative which does fly back and forth between past and present. An appreciation of the consequences of Israel’s intrusion into the Lebanese civil war helps: after all, the Hezbollah movement formed in south Lebanon at the same time to resist Israel. Some repetition is to be expected with a theme that includes repressed memories and flashbacks.

“Waltz …” is a brave and confronting attempt to investigate the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder and its symptoms of repressed memory, flashbacks and recurring dreams, and how this investigation brings an entire historical event, still  lacking proper closure, to collective consciousness, perhaps in the hope that it may lead to collective healing for a generation of Israelis.

 

 

 

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.

Niloofar: moving story examines ideals of honour, tradition and predestination

 Sabine el Gemayel, “Niloofar” (2008)

That familiar maxim “Less is more” applies as much to making movies as it does in composing music and creating other works in so many areas of art and literature. French-Lebanese director Sabine el Gemayel presents what looks like a simple and straightforward story in her debut directorial effort. An Iranian tribal village girl, Niloofar (Mobina Aynehdar), wants to learn reading and writing so she can go to the city and train to be a doctor. Her family has other plans for her: her mum (Roya Nownahali), the village midwife, needs a successor and Niloofar, her only daughter, is the logical choice; and her father, Abdollah (Sadegh Safai), needing to support two wives and their children, has agreed to trade Niloofar in marriage to Sheikh Abbas (Amir Aghai) who will split his property between himself and Abdollah once a council bridge over the land is completed. In the meantime, Niloofar takes lessons with a friend from a teacher known only as Banoo (Fatemah Motamed-Aria); in her leisure time, Niloofar chats to her uncle Aziz (Shahab Hosseini) and reads constantly. Time flies by: Sheikh Abbas gets impatient and leans on Abdollah to hand over Niloofar who must surely have reached puberty; the mother worries that Niloofar hasn’t started menstruating (with help from the second wife the girl has been hiding evidence of bleeding) and isn’t interested in midwife duties; and Niloofar is despondent and depressed, becoming more so when news reaches her that Sheikh Abbas allowed his own daughter to die in an honour killing. She goes to Uncle Aziz for help. The young man, remembering a girl he once tried to help and failed, is moved by Niloofar’s plea and hatches a plan.

“Niloofar” is a very moving story in its structure: it has humanity and urges compassion for people who find themselves in difficult situations which they try to deal with using what they know and have but come up against customs and traditions that limit their options. Into this story is woven an examination of concepts of honour, tradition and belief in predestination: that God has already determined a person’s path in life and the person must follow it in faith. As the movie progresses, the various characters who include Aziz’s fortune-teller grandmother start questioning in their own way what these concepts mean to them, especially in relation to Niloofar’s pending marriage. Abdollah is assailed by complaints from his wife that he didn’t consult her about horse-trading Niloofar; Aziz tells him that even the Prophet Mohammad consulted his daughter Fatima as to whether she wanted to marry and whom; and other characters tell him he’s going against God’s will in marrying his teenage daughter off to a much older man. El Gemayel shows the burden of family and tribal honour weighs as heavily on the men as it does on women, and how it traps families in dilemmas in which doing the “right thing” can end up tormenting them psychologically. Abdollah looks more and more like a trapped rat in a mess that’s partly his fault. After discovering that Niloofar has run away from home, the extended family gathers to discuss how to get her back and what should be done with her. Sheikh Abbas confesses to being troubled by his daughter’s death long ago and tries to plead clemency for Niloofar. The village elder decides on what to do with Niloofar; her father quickly falls in line with the decision while her mother, perhaps mindful of the fortune-teller’s advice about allowing a finger of hers to go away but still believing in the old customs and respecting the advice of the elder, steadily crumbles into tears.

The plot progresses steadily with a build-up in tension to two high points: one where Niloofar must decide whether to follow Aziz in hiding in a bus, the other where her brother finds her in a back-room at a town grocery and tells her he’s been ordered to kill her if she doesn’t return with him to the village. The increase in tension is relentless and conveys perfectly Niloofar’s growing despair and the worry and inner turmoil experienced by people close to her. The plot seems real enough up to the moment where the brother is forced by the family into travelling on his own into town and finding Niloofar: sending a child to fetch and kill the girl doesn’t seem credible at all. I imagine that in real life, the village would send two adult male relatives to get Niloofar and Aziz. It’s possible that the family, by sending a boy rather than a man or two men, is giving Niloofar a chance of escape while keeping the appearance of fulfilling tribal custom. The more realistic explanation is that Abdollah has no other close male relatives to do the job for him. At least the film ends on a hopeful note with Niloofar pitying her brother as she prepares to leave with Aziz for Tehran. The ending is deliberately left uncertain so that there’s the possibility that she changes her mind and returns home with her brother.

“Niloofar” is so naturalistic in its filming that it has a slight documentary feel. The documentary impression is especially strong in scenes that take in the landscapes around the village: el Gemayel uses many fixed-camera shots that show the characters at some distance though there are many close-up shots of Niloofar and others. The village scenes are very colourful and female characters especially wear bright clothing that contrast with the desert surrounds. There is a memorable sequence early in the film in which Niloofar and her mother help a woman give birth in a river; underwater shots of the woman’s clothed body and the baby floating in the water have a glowing, radiant quality. The effect of el Gemayel’s filming decisions and methods enables some distance between the viewer and the characters so that viewers can see the wider socio-cultural context in which people operate and how their beliefs and traditions limit their choices and decision-making and cause them anguish and sorrow. Although characters act in ways against their own interests and appear weak, stupid and vacillating, viewers are encouraged not to condemn them for what they do.

Though the film was made in Iran with Iranian actors, many of whom must have been amateurs with no prior acting experience, no clerics appear and Islam isn’t mentioned except as an excuse to justify folk beliefs. That’s sure to make non-Muslim Western viewers wonder just how much the name of Islam is used and abused by people, innocently sometimes, not so innocently other times, to support and force conformity with ideas, beliefs and customs that aren’t in the spirit of the religion.

“Niloofar” is a very moving film: it urges compassion for people caught in difficult situations who must make decisions affecting themselves and others but are subject to strict rules and expectations that make knowing what decisions to take. Is it any wonder that people end up making decisions that cause grief and regret for the rest of their lives?