The Most Fragile

Hamid Rahmanian's “The Glass House”


The Most Fragile
by Setareh Sabety

The Glass House, competing in the World Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival, is a one of those rare films that make you forget that you are watching a documentary. Hamid Rahmanian and Melissa Hibbard have given us a documentary that flows as easily as the tears of their young and troubled protagonists.

The film, which Rahmanian shoots and directs, unravels the lives of downtrodden, runaway and distressed girls who have taken refuge in a private half-way house established by a benevolent Iranian expatriate, Marjaneh Halati.

Omid-e-Mehr house is a private rehabilitation center and NGO, in Tehran, for girls aged 15 to 25 who have no where else to turn. It accommodates eighty-five young women who stay for eighteen months and are provided with psychological counseling and classes like computer skills and expository writing which are designed to give them the tools and the confidence to stand on their own feet.

The subject, troubled and abused girls, from poor dysfunctional families, is intriguing enough, but what makes this documentary work is Rahmanian’s camera. While invisible in the best tradition of cinema verite the director does not pretend to be able to make you completely forget him; he owns up to his presence and does it in a humble and ever so subtle way. His is an unpretentious style that does not flaunt his invisibility but rather acknowledges his camera and his subjectivity, while allowing his subjects to do the story-telling. The candid unfolding of the stories of these girls is witness to the unintimidating character of the filmmaker who asks questions and gets involved with admirable compassion, finesse and subtlety.

The score, brilliantly composed by David Bergeaud, plays an essential role in the film. It expresses musically, like good film soundtrack should, what the camera sees and what the director feels. The music is so expressive that it acts like an omnipresent narrator.

We follow four of the girls’ lives through the dark alleys and traffic jammed highways of contemporary Tehran. Samira is a fourteen-year-old who still loves dolls but is forced into drug addiction by her dealer mother. Mitra has been abandoned by her family and has to learn to avoid her father’s abuse. Nazila an angry and articulate girl has a family that misunderstands and mistreats. She dreams of recording her rap song. Sussan is brain damaged from the frequent beatings at the hands of her sigheh (temporary husband) and/or of her brothers who raped and beat her when she was just a child. And of course there is Ms. Halati herself, whose confident and empathetic energy, is in direct contrast to the fragile existence of the girls. Much loved and adored by those she is trying to help this handsome and feisty woman is the matronly strength that makes the Center function. She bestows on both the film’s audience and its subjects desperately needed hope. She represents a new kind of Iranian woman one, who is hard working and positive, who refuses to let her empathy turn into paralyzed pity.

Poverty and the cruel conditions of the sprawling metropolis that Tehran has become are the constant fixtures of all these girls’ stories. The film is painful at times. Like when Sussan talks about her brain damage and shows awareness of it. Or when Samira’s father visits her at the State Psychiatric hospital promising her that he will try to find a place for them to live once she is dismissed. He has to work hard and plan for months just to rent a room that can accommodate them. The problem of unaffordable housing is again revisited when Nazila and her siblings are evicted from their apartment. Always Ms. Halati and the social workers at the Center come to the rescue. Usually with money and backing provided by the benevolent expat herself. Which underlines the fact that these acts are the acts of one woman, a drop in the bucket of the misery that envelopes the down trodden and marginalized citizens of Tehran.

Mitra runs away from an abusive father who makes her cook and clean and constantly calls her ugly, fat and worthless. She admiringly keeps her sense of humor bringing comic relief to the unbearable gravity of the girl’s stories and finally finds solace in writing.

Sussan, with the help of the Center, gets a divorce from her abusive sigheh and immediately enters another temporary marriage. When we see her a few months later we are shocked to find her transformed into a short-haired and skinny crystal-meth addict who is beaten by her husband’s brother. The social workers of the Center intervene to no avail. Sussan’s is the only story in this film that takes a definite tragic turn for the worse. She symbolizes the hopelessness that permeates this Islamic society that feigns moral righteousness but neglects its weakest and most troubled citizens.

The film ends with the empowered voice of Nazila and her friend secretly recording (female solo singing is forbidden in Iran) her poignant rap. They let loose the rage, shared by the audience by now, towards the inequities of modern day Tehrani life in a youthful, loud and resonating scream that has, with the beautiful midwifery of Rahmanian and Hibbard, managed to reach Utah.



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or go to this link:

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