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?

Or (My Treasure): film treads gingerly around prostitution issue

Keren Yedaya, “Or (My Treasure)” (2004)
 Source: www.allmovie.com
Debut feature from director Keren Yedaya, this Israeli film is a study of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship dominated by the mother’s career “choice”: street prostitution. For lack of a better word, I chose “choice” and put it in inverted commas as the movie is unclear as to whether the mother Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz) made the choice to be a hooker or just drifted, or was forced, into prostitution under circumstances she had no control over. The film takes the point of view of Or (Dana Ivgy), Ruthie’s teenage daughter, and can be seen as a coming-of-age film of a despairing kind. We follow Or as she goes through her daily routine in her working-class neighbourhood, trying to juggle schoolwork with working at a restaurant at nights, collecting bottles for recycling and keeping her mother out of trouble. Mum has just left hospital and already Or has lined up a cleaning job to keep the woman occupied and bring in some money to pay the rent which is already in arrears. Over the course of the movie though, it’s apparent Ruthie has little appetite for cleaning work, however easy it looks, and soon drifts back into prostitution out of habit. This drives Or to desperation as the bills mount up and she breaks up with her boyfriend Ido and joins an escort agency.
The effects of prostitution on Ruthie and Or are devastating and dehumanising: Ruthie must have worked the streets for so long that she is incapable of interacting with men in ways that don’t involve trading sexual favours for something needed, like repairs to the apartment where she and Or live or getting more time from the landlord to pay the rent. She seems desensitised by both her work and its brutal and dangerous consequences: in one scene, she comes home from a tryst with blood streaming down her legs yet seems not to care enough to see a doctor. In a mental fug during her waking hours, Ruthie is a child who must be told what to do and Or is the mother who keeps dragging her back from the front door to stop her from walking the streets in her skimpy outfits that scream “hooker”. When Ruthie is at home, she either sleeps or watches TV listlessly and whines to her daughter when she is there. Or in her interactions with Ido (Meshar Cohen) and other boys is falling into the same trap as Ruthie did: she sleeps with Ido, causing friction between Ido’s mother and Ruthie, in order to be close to him and can’t say no to an old boyfriend on leave from the Israeli Army when he demands a kiss and a blow-job. As Ruthie continues her downward slide back into prostitution, she becomes increasingly robotic and casually brushes off Or’s pleas not to return to her old ways. Or herself shows signs of emotional withdrawal and desensitisation when she pushes Ido away, seduces the landlord and, after joining the escort agency, services an elderly client who demands anal sex of her.
I’ve seen Elkabetz in “The Band’s Visit” and “La Fille du RER”, and it’s hard to believe that the child-like zombie padding around the apartment in underwear or dressed pathetically in boob-tube and hot pants with gaudy make-up painted all over her face wandering the city streets at night is the same actor who plays the elegant lawyer (“La Fille …”) or the helpful shop-owner who aids the stranded Egyptian musicians (“The Band’s Visit”): proof if any is needed that Elkabetz is a versatile character actor whose own personality quirks, if she has any, disappear completely in the character she plays. Ivgy who appears in nearly every scene holds up her side of acting very well, particularly near the end where she is fighting to hold back tears as she watches her mother paint her face. Together these two actors anchor the entire film, no small challenge even for someone as experienced as Elkabetz, and so it’s all the more amazing for me to discover that this is Ivgy’s first film where she plays a main character forced into a harrowing situation.
There are three significant moments in the film where Or laughs, and laughs abundantly: when she is with Ruthie at home watching TV, enjoying each other’s company and free of all cares; when she is with Ido in his room before she gives herself to him freely; and when she describes to the girls at school her sexual encounter with the ageing landlord. These moments can be interpreted as transition points in Or’s transformation from innocent, sensitive girl to world-weary, cynical adult; in the first moment, the laughter is genuine and spontaneous, in the second moment a little less so, and in the third moment, the laughter seems forced and a bit cynical.
The people around Or seem sympathetic to her problems but no-one suggests she contact a social welfare officer or an Israeli government or private equivalent to seek help for herself and Ruthie. Ido’s mother, confronting Ruthie and Or in their home, doesn’t suggest Or and Ido should seek sex education counselling; she simply wants them apart. Perhaps the people in Or’s neighbourhood distrust the government for some reason or are unaware of what’s available to help people in need. Perhaps the Israeli government has cut back on funding social services in neighbourhoods such as where Ruthie and Or live. The hospital where Ruthie is simply dumps her outside its doors and offers no further support. Whatever the reason, Or is on her own struggling to save her mother from herself and the girl is neglecting her own needs and education. (Though it could be said that Or is her own worst enemy in a way as she rejects Ido’s offer of help and refuses to see the school careers advisor.) Society as portrayed in the film seems self-absorbed and atomistic: the opening scene in the film shows pedestrians and commuters going about their business in a busy city street, all of them appearing oblivious to one another’s existence or condition and absorbed in their own mental worlds. Apart from Ido who genuinely cares about Or’s well-being, the men in the film are either predatory, taking advantage of Ruthie or Or in some way, or just plain ineffective.
Certainly the film is critical of the effects of prostitution on prostitutes themselves and their families – Or and Ruthie are not condemned for their actions and Ruthie appears driven by forces and urges she can’t understand and control – but its teenage-based scope and minimal fly-on-the-wall fixed-frame exposition of the problem of women’s sexual exploitation in Israel and what that might suggest about the position of women generally in that country limit its effectiveness as a plea for social and political change and reform. The issue is too personalised and the focus is very much on whether Or can wrench herself away from Ruthie and get out of the prostitution rut before it consumes her spirit and youth as it did her mother’s. The ambiguous ending suggests she might still have a chance while she’s young but the choice that faces Or is too cruel: dump her mother and save herself, risking censure and self-guilt along the way for abandoning Ruthie, or sink into her mother’s abyss. The solution for Or has to be a win-win situation for herself and for Ruthie but the events of the film are set up in a way that prevents such an outcome.
It’s hard not to escape the feeling that as social criticism, “Or (My Treasure)” treads very gingerly around prostitution and how it traps women and girls. The film risks being seen as having a conservative and narrow agenda about what can be done (it’s up to the individual to save herself, society has no responsibility to help people like Ruthie and Or break their particular vicious cycle) or exploiting the issue for titillation purposes.

Taste of Cherry: looks simple and minimal but carries an uncompromising message for viewers

Abbas Kiarostami, “Taste of Cherry” (1997)

 Source: www.thefilmpilgrim.com

On the surface this looks like a very minimalist, in parts improvised film about a man contemplating suicide who implores three people to help him. Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi, in his acting debut) who may or may not be a taxi driver – most interpretations of the film assume he is but I didn’t see anything in the film that suggests what his occupation is – drives around Tehran’s industrial and working class zones in his Range Rover trying to pick up a passenger among the various loitering men he sees. At first the suggestion is he may be trying to pick up a potential boyfriend or male prostitute and some of the men he talks to certainly think that’s what he wants. A shy teenage army recruit decides to get into the car and Badii takes him on a long journey out of town and into a semi-barren area where dirt roads twist and wind around hills in an invisible labyrinth. Naturally the recruit wants to know why they passed his barracks and Badii tells him he’s needed for a job. Badii needles some information out of the youngster and we learn the boy is from a Kurdish farming family and needs money to support his relatives and maybe resume his schooling. Badii offers to pay the youngster huge sums of money if he will do what Badii wants him to do. Deep in the scrubby desert, Badii stops on a particular stretch of road, points out an empty grave next to a tree (both never seen in the film) and tells the boy that he, Badii, plans to swallow all his sleeping pills and lie in that grave overnight. The boy’s job is to return the following morning and call out to him: if Badii responds, the boy is to help him out of the grave; if Badii doesn’t reply, the boy is to bury him. The teenager, spooked, refuses to help Badii in this way and dashes off to rejoin his barracks.

Badii gets back in his car and drives down to what looks like a waste tip supervised by a lone security guard. This guy turns out to be an Afghan and in his conversation with Badii, we learn that there are some 2 – 3 million Afghans working in Iran, probably in jobs and industries where the pay is bad and the work is hard and dangerous; and that while Iran was preoccupied with the decade-long war against Iraq in the 1680’s, few Iranians spared a thought for their Afghan neighbours fighting the Soviets in a tougher war in the same period. Badii offers to drive the security guard around to relieve the tedium of his work but the guard declines: he has a friend, a young seminarian, come to visit and keep him company. Badii sees the seminarian in the near distance so goes out to see him and offers him a ride. The seminarian accepts and so again Badii asks him about his background: the fellow has come from Afghanistan seeking labouring work so he can continue his theological studies. Badii offers him the same job and money he offered to the soldier; the seminarian argues that suicide is forbidden by their common Islamic faith. Badii protests that God surely allows people to kill themselves if not doing so is the greater sin because of the risk of harming other people if one were to continue to live. The seminarian continues to put up a weak and dogmatic religious argument against suicide and soon leaves Badii.

After a period of despair, Badii picks up a third man, this time an Azeri or Turkish man, Mr Bagheri (Abdolhossain Bagheri), apparently a simple, warm-hearted chap who in turn is subjected to Badii’s suicide proposition. Bagheri then talks about his own attempt to commit suicide by hanging from a mulberry tree and about how he eventually was dissuaded from killing himself by a quirk of fate: he eats a mulberry and finds it delicious. This leads to a lengthy amble about appreciating nature and simple things, and not to allow life’s pressures to overcome one’s thinking as eventually they will pass. If one changes one’s outlook, one can change the world. The pop psychology advice makes little impression on Badii. Bagheri agrees to Badii’s proposition as he could use the money for his sick son and Badii drops him off at a natural history museum where he works. Suddenly anxious, Badii visits the museum and meets Bagheri again, this time a technical or scientific worker specialising in taxidermy, who brusquely assures him he’ll be at the graveside at the crack of dawn.

Up to this point the film has been very straightforward if minimal and stingy with details. We know nothing about Badii, why he spends his time driving aimlessly around soliciting help for an elaborate suicide plan, how he has come into so much money if he’s supposedly a taxi driver (an occupation not known for making easy money – and Range Rovers are hardly what I’d call typical taxi cars) and what has happened that he is so despondent that he wants to end his life. The lack of specific background knowledge about Badii makes him a representative of humanity rather than a particular human being. Likewise, the three people he picks up represent particular sections of Iranian society, all tied somehow to the Iranian government: the military, the religious class and the bureaucracy; they also represent three stages in the life of a human being: youth, early adulthood and early old age. In addition Bagheri isn’t what he seems at first: in the car, he babbles on and on about living in the moment, enjoying nature and having a different outlook on life; he quotes poetry and sings a song to cheer up Badii; he understands Badii’s pain and readily talks about his own suicide attempt. Out of the car and in the grounds of the museum, Bagheri appears in a lab coat, his entire being radiating a superior, impatient attitude – this hints at how a person’s circumstances determine his or her personality and undercuts what he told Badii in the car. This is a chilling moment which may say something about modern Iranian society that prompts some people to have split personalities to survive in it.

After the scenes with Bagheri, we see Badii shutting up his apartment, being driven back into the badlands, preparing for his death and lying in his tomb. The weather turns bad and there’s a thunderstorm. The film suddenly blacks out and pops out into an apparently washed-out dream sequence (this part of the film is recorded on a handheld video recorder) with soldiers chanting and marching up a hill to where Badii’s grave lies. Kiarostami and his film crew appear on another part of the hill filming the soldiers and issuing instructions to their leader via cellphone or walkie-talkie while actor Ershadi waits nearby. In the distance, Badii’s car zooms off with an unseen driver. I was disappointed initially at never learning if Badii lives or dies but this is not what the film is about: among other things it’s about one man’s questioning of the world he has to live in through the theme of suicide. He interrogates others through their experience about this world and finds their answers unsatisfactory or contradictory. He questions the army recruit about his experience of the army and the recruit is unable or reluctant to reply, perhaps because his experience is so different from what Badii remembers of his own military experience. He interrogates the seminarian and the seminarian’s answers demonstrate book-learning and deference to authority rather than understanding of what he’s learned. Badii interrogates the taxidermist whose answers seem New-Age banal and whose work and later attitude undermine everything he says. Life around Badii also exhibits contradictions, some a bit cruel: after he finds someone who agrees to help him commit suicide, he suddenly sees flowers and trees in a flourishing landscape, he sees a young woman who asks him to take a photograph of her with her boyfriend and all of a sudden women start appearing, walking with school-children or attending Bagheri’s lecture at the museum.

Significantly the women we see, though dressed according to conservative Islamic doctrine, seem to be educated middle class or independent types while most men in the film are poor, ignorant or in a position of serving others: in a severe theocratic society dominated by men, that’s a very strange contradiction indeed. Badii himself may be a contrast to these men: his demeanour and manner, and some of the things he says, suggest he is highly educated and cultured and perhaps finds himself an outsider which would give his pain an existential edge. He is unaware of his own contradictions: he’s intent on ending it all yet takes care going down an unsteady ladder, refuses a meal because it might set off a bad allergic reaction and manages to avoid two serious car accidents. He remembers his time in the army as the happiest time in his life, meeting people and making friends, yet he must have also been shooting and killing lots of people. Perhaps this knowledge is a burden on his mind and has contributed to his decision to end his life?

The film’s simple style belies its careful construction: much of the time we see Badii framed by the windscreen or the window of his car and we never see him and his passenger together in the one shot. It’s as if we’re not just eavesdropping in the conversations between him and his passengers, we’re actually in their heads going from one to the other. At times the camera draws away from the car to take in the scenery which becomes very significant: from the time Badii meets the soldier and presents his proposition to the time Bagheri accepts it, the film is centred in a barren, scrubby landscape of hills and dirt roads that snake around them and fork off into different directions. This landscape perhaps reflects Badii’s inner world, going around in circles each time someone rebuffs him. When he is at his most desperate, he is in a landscape of rubbish dumps and flying dust clouds, reflecting his fragmenting state of mind. Only after Bagheri agrees to the deal does the landscape spring into life. The changing moods of the landscape are in stark contrast to Ershadi’s acting: Ershadi usually has just one expression and one even tone of voice throughout the film which on paper wouldn’t qualify him as having any acting skill at all, yet by his movements and sometimes doleful look in his eyes, and the slight speed in his voice in scenes with the seminarian and Bagheri, he actually does convey something of Badii’s inner anguish and despair. The totally unexpected thing is that since making “Taste of Cherry”, Ershadi has had a steady if not prolific acting career; I’ve seen him in “The Kite Runner” where he had a significant acting and speaking role and his character had to age 10-15 years, and for someone of limited range and no training, he was impressive in an unassuming and straightforward way.

Most reviewers see “Taste of Cherry” as a gentle and meditative film about enjoying life’s pleasures but I find its real underlying message severe and uncompromising. I think Iranian viewers (the target audience) are asked to question the kind of society they live in that causes people like Badii to conclude that he and others would be better off if he killed himself. The answer doesn’t look good: some recent statistics released by the Aria Strategic Studies Center and quoted by the Iranian Labor News Agency show that 30% of people in Tehran have severe depression and another 28% suffer mild depression with some of causes being violence by security and law enforcement, mass arrest and murder of arrested citizens in torture centres or during protests and the results of the 2009 Presidential election, and other causes relating to the falling economic situation which is partly caused by a corrupt and incompetent government. (Source: Payvand News of Iran, www.payvand.com) I don’t know if Tehran is representative of Iran but it does have about 18% of the country’s population. Telling people living in a brutal and grinding police state that they should live for the moment and take pleasure in the simple things in life becomes an insult when I see figures like these.