The 20th Celebration of Iranian Cinema kicked off this weekend at University of California, Los Angeles, featuring a collection of established and emerging talents from Iran. The goal of this greatly received show-case is, and has been, to present a diverse portrait of Iran’s variety of cultural communities, leading customs and expressions as well as ethnic minorities’ way of living.
On Friday February 5th, the opening night was dedicated to Heiran (2009) Shalizeh Alizadeh’s first feature film. Alizadeh invites the audience to experience a forbidden love-story between Mahi an Iranian young woman played by Baran Kosari (Gilaneh, 2005), and Heiran a young Afghani man played by Mehrdad Sedighian (The Wall, 2008). These two young lovers’ exciting and yet precarious journey show us what a refugee’s life is like in Iran and what are the consequences of going against societal norms.
It’s important to mention that Iranian marriage law does not grant Iranian citizenship to a non-Iranian man through matrimony with an Iranian woman. Which means, given the matriarchal nature of the legal system of Iran, a child born into a non-Iranian father in Iran will not have an official birth certificate, meaning he or she won’t have an identity recognized by the state. Each year countless number of Afghan refugees marry Iranian women without having proper documentation to legally live in Iran, most of the times they are sent back to Afghanistan, leaving their wives and children behind.
Alizadeh’s version of this tragic account involves a passionate adolescent romance, a familiar impulse in human history. Just like Mahi, the arrows of that first love can blind any young woman to take all the risks only to be with the man she loves so fervently. The point of this movie is to show that this unfulfilled romance was completely a voluntarily act from the female protagonist of the story and was not in any way something imposed upon her by her lover, or his or her family. Moreover, once the family and the people of the society accept Mahi and Heiran’s marriage, it’s the outdated legal system that separates them apart, setting the grounds for many unnecessary problems for generations to come. Alizadeh’s collaboration with veteran director and producer, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad provides a strong movie with engaging narrative, beautiful imagery and witty moments between Mahi and her eccentric Grandpa played by legendary actor Khosrow Shakibaei. This movie also marks Khosro Shakibaei’s last film before he passed away shortly after this picture.
The highlight of this weekend was the highly praised and anticipated musical docu-drama No Body Knows About Persian Cats (2009) by one of Iran’s most socially conscious directors, Bahman Ghobadi (Turtles Can Fly, 2004). Decidedly engaging, intense, humorous and surreal, with his fifth feature film Ghobadi has mastered the art of directing real people as actors on actual locations facing unforeseen situations. Persian Cats is about two young musicians, Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Khoshanejad searching for several other band members to complete their indie-rock group and go overseas for a tour.
This journey takes us through the “illegal” underground music scenes of Tehran, where you meet a society of professional dreamers. Dreamers are these young talented people so thirsty for expressing themselves through their music to risk governmental punishment and imprisonment. As preposterous as it sounds, Ghobadi himself could face imprisonment for making this movie without any permits from the government, exposing the “dark” sides of the Iranian youth culture. Needless to say that this movie is banned in Iran and he now lives on exile in the West. Moreover, the executive producer of the movie is Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-Japanese American journalist, who was imprisoned in Iran for a short time when she was charged by the Iranian government with espionage.
Negar and Ashkan go through various astonishing episodes of interviewing different musicians through their notoriously funny agent Nader, played by Hamed Behdad. They face challenges to raise money, get their visas to Europe, and most importantly leave and come back to Iran with dignity. As any dream so extreme is bound to be shattered by a somber awakening, alas the heroes of this story remain underground along side their shattered dreams.
Ghobadi’s jarring, fast-paste editing and cinematography give you an idea of life in Tehran during these times, being a dreamer or not. In between different interview and meeting episodes, he creates different montages of life in the capital, juxtaposing contradictory urban shots associated with the lyrics of each song. Part music videos style and part Soviet Montage; these transitional segments give the viewer time to digest the extremity of socio-economic clashes in Tehran. The movie leaves you with a feeble sense of regret, for what a nation so rich with human and natural resources have come to terms with.
Shot guerilla style in seventeen days without a script, No Body Knots about Persian Cats is a powerful movie befriending Iran with the West, alienating it from its own government. This movie is a must see by anyone caring for freedom for all beings.
Set in the beautiful Alborz mountains Tradition of Killing Lovers (2004) directed by Khosro Masoumi touches on another aspect of making ends meet illegally in Iran. From immigration issues to youth culture, this movie evolves around human necessities and our echo system. Salar, played by Hossein Mahjoub (Color of Paradise, 1999) goes to jail for illegally cutting trees in northern Iran to support his family. His wife played by Gohar Kheirandish (Maxx, 2005) needs to support the family of their soon to be married daughter, a ten year-old son named Jalal and a baby. In order to pay their debts, Jalal discretely works for another group of wood smugglers and gradually encounters elevating violence and sudden loss of a loved one. While the premise stands as a profound idea, the screenplay could go for another round of rewrite. Needless to say that despite the irony of the characters, there could be less personas involved, giving the key characters more depth, dilemma and tension.
Having said that, Masoumi clearly used cutting trees as an allegory for dismissing our deeply rooted values when we need to feed our family, or perhaps bail a family member out of jail. It’s not so much the person that is responsible for an immoral act but the corrupt economic system that invites him to do things he would never do, had he been merrily employed.
The three movies of this weekend mirror what Iran is going through with an overly oppressive regime, lack of basic human rights, skyrocketing inflation and unemployment rates, and sanctions imposed upon it from the West. All three movies have light moments and romance, however with unexpectedly tragic endings. Iranian art house cinema has long been notorious for being dark and yet real, but they often had satisfying conclusions. Movies of this weekend show a new wave of films coming out of Iran where being satisfied is luxury, let alone being happy. Hence, salute to all the dreamers who manage to express themselves so brilliantly, despite the minimum opportunities their country offers.
The 20th Celebration of Iranian Cinema continues with a number of critically acclaimed films both in short subject and feature length, until February 20th, 2010 at Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater, the new home of the UCLA Film & Television Archive's Exhibition & Public Programs, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard Los Angeles, CA 90024. For more information on the upcoming screenings visit their website.
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