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Berlinale 2020: Spotlight on New Iranian Cinema

Pari (Siamak Etemadi)

By Ali Moosavi.

There were four films made by Iranian directors in this year’s Berlin Film Festival, shown at four different festival sections: Panorama, Forum, Generation and Berlinale (Main Competition). Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil (Shaytan Vogoud Nadared), shown at the Main Competition section, walked away with the Festival’s Golden Bear. I watched two of these films, Pari (Siamak Etemadi) and The Alien/Namo (Nader Saeivar).

Pari, written and directed by Siamak Etemadi was shown in the Panorama section. It is a Greek-French-Belgian-Dutch Co-production. Iranian diaspora filmmakers can usually be divided into two categories; those who had a long career in Iran and then, for reasons ranging from personal to political, emigrated abroad. Amir Naderi (The Runner) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (A Moment of Innocence) can be counted among those this group. The other group consists of younger filmmakers who started their film career abroad after emigrating there. These include, among others, Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow), Alireza Khatami (Oblivion Verses), Bani Khoshnoudi (Fireflies).  Siamak Etemadi, however, is in a category all to himself. After making a few short films, Pari is his feature debut, which he made after emigrating to Greece.

Pari brings together two genres: mystery and fish-out-of-water /stranger in a strange land. Pari (Melika Foroutan) and her husband Farrokh (Shahbaz Noshir) arrive at Athens airport. Our first impressions are that he looks considerably older than her and that he is a very devout Muslim. These impressions are formed by his long white beard and Pari dressed in the full Islamic veil or Chador. They expected their son Babak to greet and pick them at airport but there is no sign of him. The film then becomes a search for the missing son, who it transcribes is Pari’s son from an earlier marriage. Farrokh is obviously deeply in love with Pari. He has sacrificed considerable time, effort and money to assist his wife in relocating her son. Farrokh’s dedication becomes even more apparent when we see that he is not in the best of health. Their search is not just handicapped by being in unfamiliar surroundings but also by language. Farrokh does not speak any foreign language and Pari only knows very basic English.

The mystery surrounding Babak’s whereabouts deepens when they find out that he left his studies over two years ago and no one seems to know where he has disappeared to. Director Etemadi highlights the couple’s stranger-in-a-strange-land predicament by framing them against a background of graffiti strewn walls, placing them trapped in student riots, and other unfamiliar surroundings. In a scene where Pari and Farrokh are temporarily separated, a man mistakes Pari for a prostitute and attempts to rape her. How much of this can they endure? The answer is that Pari’s love for her son is so deep that there is no limit to her endurance. In the scenes where Pari loses her veil, we see that she is a strikingly beautiful woman. In a dwelling where her son lived for a while, she finds notebooks filled with poetry. Much of these poems are by the Persian poet Rumi, praising the virtues of love, freedom and red wine. Not exactly in line with the doctrine of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Was Babak rebelling against his religious stepfather? Did he renounce Islam and embrace Christianity? (a practice fairly common among Iranian refugees, as it has proven an easy ticket to gaining refugee status)? Did he drop out of medical college because he wanted to pursue arts and literature? These are the questions with which Pari is grappling with.

Pari’s familiarity with Rumi’s poems and her basic knowledge of English show her to be an educated woman. Her good looks and education, coupled with her relatively young age, make an even bigger contrast with Farrokh that was first apparent. She obviously married Farrokh for Babak’s sake; to have somebody who could support her son’s education. She remembers a key sentence that she told Babak: “I did not get the life that I wanted, I hope you get to live the life that you want.” Pari’s search for Babak becomes an odyssey where, in the labyrinth of alleys and streets in Athens she wanders looking not only for her son, but also for her true self. The scenes where Pari on her own is going from place to place in her search are particularly visually striking with one scene, where she is fleeing with her chador on fire, specially memorable.

Etemadi has made a triumphant return to film making with Pari. He is first and foremost a visual story teller. The photography by Claudio Bolivar is very expressive and Etemadi himself acted as a camera operator. Melika Foroutan shines in the title role, gaining our total empathy in what appears to be logically a fruitless search.  I felt that towards the end the film dragged on a bit and could have benefitted from a little trimming. The sex scenes in the film, though very modest by western standards, will ensure that Pari will not get a public screening in Iran; at least not without considerable cuts.

Alien/Namo (Nader Saeivar)

The Alien (Namo), shown in the Forum section can be described as a socio-political thriller. It is directed by Nader Saeivar, who also co-wrote the screenplay with the distinguished Iranian filmmaker, and a past recipient of Berlinale’s Golden Bear, Jafar Panahi.

Bakhtiyar (Bakhtiyar Panjeei) is a part-time high school teacher, living with his wife Sevil (Sevil Shirgir), their small daughter and Bakhtiyar’s old and ailing father in a town in Turkish speaking region of Iran. In order to make ends meet, he moonlights as a taxi driver after working hours. Bakhtiyar and his wife are not too unlike the working class characters in a Ken Loach movie. Bakhtiyar is also ethnically Kurdish, coming from a region which in the past has fought with authorities for independence. His father was a political activist who was jailed for his activities. One of his young relatives was also an activist who has fled abroad. Bakhtiyar’s ethnicity and his family’s political history looms like a dark shadow over his head as he prepares for an interview at the school for a permanent teaching post.

Bakhtiyar is a man of principle. He catches a student cheating and banishes him from the exam. The student fires back a veiled threat that dismissing him can be bad for both of them. Later, the school principal asks Bakhtiyar to pass the student with high marks as his father is a very influential person on the school board and a key sponsor of school events. A mystery also develops which puts further pressure on Bakhtiyar. A car is parked in front of his building with two strangers inside it. The car does not move for days. Because of Bakhtiyar’s past history, the locals assume that the people in the car are government security watching Bakhtiyar’s activities and put pressure on Bakhtiyar to go and talk to them. This pressure is not only from the locals, but also from his wife who is worried that this could adversely affect Bakhtiyar’s forthcoming job interview.

Bakhtiyar is constantly reminded of his status as an outsider. The school principal tells him “we love strangers in this town”! Director Saeivar and his writing partner Panahi have created an atmosphere where Bakhtiyar can have no illusions of being anywhere but in the heart of the Islamic Republic of Iran. We continuously hear radio broadcasts proclaiming the sacrifices of the martyrs for the Islamic Republic, people chanting Down with America and Down with Israel. At the job interview the principal asks Bakhtiyar if he is socializing and whether in such social functions the women wore the Islamic veil and were separated from the men! He is also questioned about his father’s past and Bakhtiyar blows his fuse protesting that he is there to answer questions about the subjects that he teaches and not whether women wore veils at social events!

Bakhtiyar is an honest, hardworking person forced to live in an environment where corruption is endemic and any misgivings to the main political system of the country are not tolerated. He is also proud of his Kurdish heritage but does not publicly exhibit this. He listens to Kurdish songs when driving alone, talks in Kurdish to his daughter and, in the birthday party of a neighbor, when asked to sing something, sings a Kurdish song. Bakhtiyar’s isolation and the wall built around him is visually depicted by Saeivar by filming Bakhtiyar through glasses, from behind gates and any other aids which present this visual motif. Saeivar is very successful in creating a tense atmosphere and depicting the predicament of someone who feels like an outsider in his own country. The performances are uniformly excellent, as is the photography by Vahid Biyote and editing by Jafar Panahi. The political theme of the film and Panahi’s name will ensure that The Alien is not likely to be granted a public screening permit in Iran. All these films though will eventually be watched by Iranians through unofficial channels.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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