By Ali Moosavi.

With the rather unsure state of the Iranian cinema at the moment, it remains to be seen what the future holds for WWIII and its talented director.”

I have been a fan of the young Iranian filmmaker Houman Seyyedi ever since I saw his sophomore directing feature Thirteen (2012), about which I wrote the following in the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Ed. Parviz Jahed, Intellect, 2015):

In Iranian cinema there have been topics from which most filmmakers have shied away; Seyyedi, however, has fiercely gone forward with considerable success. He has shown a total mastery of mise-en-scene and [Thirteen] is also totally devoid of cliches.”

Seyyedi has continued this trend, every time further challenging both himself and the audience. World War Three / Jang-e Jahani Sevom is his most mature and challenging film to date. It was awarded Best Film and Best Actor (Mohsen Tanabandeh) at the Horizons section of this year’s Venice Film Festival and was subsequently selected as Iran’s entry for next year’s International Feature section of Academy Awards.

The film starts with a quote by Mark Twain: History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Tanabandeh plays Shakib, a rather simple, meek and submissive labourer. He lives in the north side of Iran which borders the Caspian Sea (also Seyyedi’s birthplace). At the beginning of the film we see him give some money to Ladan (Mahsa Hejazi), a beautiful girl pushed into prostitution by a couple of vicious thugs. Ladan is mute but Shakib, whose own mother was mute, can communicate with her in sign language. Meanwhile Shakib gets a temporary job as a labourer on a film set which is depicting WWII. He is also used as an extra in the film portraying one of the concentration camp prisoners. As chance would have it, the actor portraying Hitler has a heart attack and Shakib is picked to portray the Fuhrer, much against his will. These scenes when he is used as an extra and also portraying Hitler are pieces of fine black comedy, which also take a punch at big-budget Iranian film productions. Seyedi’s masterstroke here is to show that the extras used as concentration camp prisoners are poor local people desperate for that little bit of money they get paid as extras just to make ends meet. This makes the audience feel the real pain of these people and fully sympathize with them, and in effect with the real victims of concentration camps. The impact on the audience wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling if in the film it was shown that professional actors were used as extras.

The film then takes on a thriller element when Ladan comes to the film set and begs Shakib to hide her there as the two thugs are after her. Shakib is not a hero, or a tough guy who would suddenly follow Hollywood cliches and stand up to the pimps. He wants to quit the film but the producers show him a contract that he has signed and threaten him with legal action. An event then occurs that makes it crystal clear to Shakib that all those around him, from the filmmakers to the pimps, put money above everything, even human life. This shakes him beyond what he and we thought was imaginable. His actions could be subscribed to what Hannah Arendt wrote about in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Arendt argued that Eichmann performed evil acts without evil intentions and he was totally disengaged from the reality of his evil acts. Seyyedi and his co-screenwriters Arian Vazirdaftari and Azad Jafarian also make reference in the film to Arendt (whose work was also the source of inspiration for Mohammad Rasoulof’s Berlin Golden Bear winner There is No Evil). The parallels with Hitler in the film are not inapt. Hitler was a meek boy regularly beaten up by his father, he was a failed farmer, sang in church choir and even considered becoming a priest. Not a background one would associate with a psychopathic mass murderer. Some events which took place later, including the death of his younger brother, totally changed his personality.

Seyyedi has threaded on thin ice in juggling between serious drama referring to the Holocaust and black comedy dealing with antics of a bumbling simpleton on a film set, but has come up trumps. The work of his cinematographer Payman Shadmanfar and production designer Mohsen Nasrollahi are also worthy of special praise. With the rather unsure state of the Iranian cinema at the moment, it remains to be seen what the future holds for WWIII and its talented director.

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 Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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