By Ali Moosavi.
Among the many Iranian films that I have watched this year, six have stood out for me. If we don’t consider the purely commercial and state-funded films which dominate the screens in Iran, the Achilles heel of most independent Iranian films is their screenplay. If there is one common factor in my selection, it is that they all benefit from well-structured scripts. Three of these films (Son-Mother, Gold, Dance with Me) are yet to receive public screening in Iran and have only been shown in various film festivals. I have already written about two of my selected films in Film International: Pig (Khook, Mani Haghighi) and Son-Mother (Pesar-Madar, Mahnaz Mohammadi).
The Warden (Sorkhpoost) is set almost entirely within the confines of a prison. Major Jahed (Navid Mohammadzadeh) is the warden of a prison in a remote part of Iran. The time is in the sixties, pre-revolution. The prison is being knocked down as part of an airport expansion project. A colonel visits the warden and gives him the good news that he has been recommended for promotion. This promotion, however, depends on the orderly evacuation of the prison and safe delivery of all its inmates to their new sojourn within the next 48 hours. The evacuation goes well until the warden is informed that one prisoner is missing. His nickname is Sorkhpoost, (meaning red skin in Farsi and the title of the film in Iran). Can they find him in time and save the Major his promotion? What are the true intentions of the visiting social worker Susan (Parinaz Izadyar)?; a striking beauty who believes that the missing inmate was framed and is innocent. The warden though is more interested in her than her pleas. The warden’s romantic intentions are highlighted by inclusion of old romantic Iranian songs and the skillful acting of Navid Mohammadzadeh in depiction of the way the Major looks at Susan and practices his demeanor and speech in front of the mirror to boost his self-confidence. The search becomes an exercise in creating tension by writer-director Nima Javidi as the clock keeps ticking with the missing inmate nowhere in sight. Javidi plants a number of red herrings along the way to keep wrong footing the viewers. The prison itself becomes a major character in the story (production design by Mohsen Nasrollahi), its labyrinth structure enabling Javidi to create a claustrophobic feeling and further heightening the tension, which is both psychological and, with the interplay between Jahed and Susan, sexual. Other notable technical credits are the cinematography by Hooman Behmanesh and the music by Ramin Kousha. The Warden is a solid entertaining film in a genre rarely utilized by Iranian filmmakers.
A Hairy Tale (Maskhare Baz) is set entirely in a barbershop run by Kazem Khan (Ali Nassirian) and his two assistants, Danesh (Saber Abar) and Shapour (Babak Hamidian). Kazem Khan is getting on in years and has a habit of completely shaving off the customer’s moustache, when all they ask for is a trim. This is a recurring visual joke in the film that never fails to amuse thanks to the considerable skills of the veteran actor, Ali Nassirian. He has deemed his barbershop off limits for women and the women beggars who come to the shop are seen off at the door by Danesh who gives them a bit of money too. Kazem Khan is also obsessed with Casablanca and keeps reminiscing about it. Danesh, who also narrates the story, is an aspiring actor. He keeps a photo of the actress Homa (Hediyeh Tehrani) on the door of his locker and she repeatedly appears in his imagination. A theatrical agent has told Danesh that if he collects sufficient women hair to make a few wigs, he can help him to get an audition with a famous director. We also hear in the news that there is a serial killer on the loose, killing vagrant women and cutting their hair. Is Danesh the killer or perhaps Shapour, who has a prison record? Detective Kiani (Reza Kianian), a customer of the barbershop, who fought successfully over a girl with Kazem Khan when they were young, aims to find out. Shapour meanwhile is politically aware and diligently follows the current events. His attention to details and obsession to stand up for his rights are demonstrated in another recurring visual gag of him finding a hair in tuna cans.
A Hairy Tale is the film debut of Homayoun Ghanizadeh who has made a name for himself in the Iranian theatre. The look of the film is strongly reminiscent of the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet such as Delicatessen (1991) and Amelie (2001), as well as Patrice Leconte’s The Hairdresser’s Husband (1990). There many film references in the film, with political overtones. Hayedeh Safiyari’s breakneck editing moves the film forward, covering for some lags in the screenplay. Ghanizadeh, who also wrote the script, may be accused of having let his imagination run wild and damaging the film’s structure. But what initially seems like a number of loose threads actually come together neatly in the end to make a satisfying whole. A Hairy Tale is a breath of fresh air in the Iranian film industry which has been in danger of getting stuck in a rut of predictable and copycat social dramas or unimaginative and unfunny comedies.
Writer-Director Parviz Shahbazi has shown a good understanding of the alienated Iranian youth in films such as Deep Breath (2003) and Malaria (2016). He continues this trend in Gold (Talla). The film opens with a workers’ demonstration for better pay and conditions and against job cuts outside a factory in Iran; very much in tune with current events in Iran. Mansour (Houman Seyyedi) has come to see the factory management to plead for reinstatement of his brother who has been made redundant. His plea is on the grounds that his brother is a single parent looking after his young daughter who is suffering from a serious illness which requires expensive treatment. His plea though falls on deaf ears and he ends up losing his own job too. Two other friends, Leila (Tannaz Tabatabayi) and Reza (Mehrdad Sedighian) who, like many of the young generation of Iranians are unable to find a job, invite Mansour to join them in equal partnership to open a soup shop. Unlike Mansour, they both have access to funds for investing in this undertaking. Mansour is urged by his girlfriend Darya (Negar Javaherian) to join this venture. He is very reluctant though as he sees his first priority helping his brother to find money for treating his daughter Talla (Talla, the title of the film in Iran, means gold, which has significance beyond a child’s name here). The money Mansour receives by selling his car is not enough and Darya comes up with a solution. Her father is in currency exchange business and Darya is aware that he has $10,000 stashed in a basement next to his office. Darya can get Mansour the key to the basement and after some persuasion, he agrees to go and take the money with the proviso that when their business became successful, he would put it back. A Farhadi-like twist dramatically changes the course of events. In the hand of a lesser writer-director, this would have ended up as another run-of-the-mill social drama with a very predictable ending. However, Shahbazi very skillfully navigates us through uncharted territory reaching a very satisfying bitter-sweet ending. Gold is one of the films which is yet to be screened publicly (apart from the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran). This could be due to crossing a few red lines, chief among them the matter of Darya being pregnant by Mansour out of wedlock. Hopefully this issue can be resolved as Gold deserves to be seen by the cinema going public in Iran.
The Iranian actor Soroosh Sehat is as well known for his personal blogs as he is for his acting. In his blogs he describes his real and imaginary adventures while riding in Tehran taxis. Dance with Me (Jahan Ba Man Beraghs) is his directorial debut. Jahangir (Ali Mosaffa) separated from his wife, has left the maddening crowd of Tehran to live with his teenage daughter in a coastal village in the rural part of northern Iran. He is affectionately known to his friends as Jahan (meaning The World in Farsi, the Iranian title of the film thus means The World Dance with Me). Jahan’s brother invites a select group of close friends of Jahan to come to his coastal chalet and surprise him on his 54th birthday. The friends duly arrive and indeed surprise Jahan, who has a much bigger surprise in store for them. This will be his last birthday party as he has been told that he has only two months to live. This scenario bears a striking resemblance to Frankie (Ira Sachs), which premiered at Cannes earlier this year in the Main Competition category. In that film the title character, played by Isabelle Huppert, invites a group of close friends to a resort in Portugal for a last reunion as she is terminally ill. However, whereas I found Frankie to be quite predictable and tedious, with cardboard characters and an unimaginative script, Dance with Me is brimming with imagination and interesting, believable characters and unpredictable situations. It never lets the condition of its leading character form a sad and depressive cloud over the proceedings and remains bittersweet in nature. The gathered group include a newly married middle-aged man who is risking a heart attack by joining in athletic exercises to impress his much younger wife. There are two former best friends who are no longer on talking terms since one of the married the other’s divorced wife. There is the doctor with a playboy reputation who is flirting with Jahan’s sister, much to the displeasure of Jahan’s brother. Jahan’s daughter is madly in love with a local boy who is into rap. The changes in the mood of the Jahan is illustrated by imaginary musicians who appear and play classical, rock and Persian folk music. Sehat, who also co-wrote the screenplay, also makes fun of Iranians’ current obsession with social media. The interplay between these characters, with their history and reactions to events, provide Sehat a canvass to examine all the main ingredients that constitute life: love, happiness, sadness, jealousy, forgiveness, anger, depression, desire, … and ultimately dealing with death. Dance with Me is a very promising directorial debut for Soroush Sehat and another hopeful sign that the Iranian independent cinema is on the ascent again.
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).