By Ali Moosavi.
A new and original voice in the Iranian Cinemas whose films deserve to find a wider audience.”
With only two feature films to his credit, Iranian writer-director Reza Jamali has emerged as a new and unique voice in the Iranian cinema. Both his films, Old Men Never Die (2019) and Childless Village (2022) have been shown at multiple international film festivals and been showered with awards; the latest being Best Screenplay for Childless Village at the Red Sea International Film Festival, where I had the privilege and pleasure of acting as Persian-English interpreter for him.
I can best describe his films as being a cross between those of Abbas Kiarostami and Mario Monicelli. The environment depicted in Jamali’s films and his use of non-actors remind one of Kiarostami while the way he finds humour in the bleakest of subjects: death, poverty, infertility, patriarchal societies; are reminiscent of Monicelli’s movies.
In Old Men Never Die, ever since Aslan (Nader Mahdilou) set foot in a village 45 years ago, there has been no deaths there. Aslan himself is over a hundred years old and fraternalizes with a group of old men, all single and all tired of living. They are poor, have debts, some are sick, and all of them lonely. Aslan used to be a hangman when he was young and he’s both afraid of the families of the men he executed to take their revenge and also carries a heavy burden of guilt over the countless executions he has carried out. He also believes that in return for all the men he has killed, the Angel of Death has reprieved taking his life. The old men all contemplate suicide but every attempt they make, jumping off a mountain top or assisting each other to drown in the hot water pool, is thwarted hilariously by a young soldier named Ali (played by Jamali’s regular producer, Salman Abbasi), who’s afraid that a single death could ignite a wave of deaths in the community. A young and pretty single girl named Sarah runs her father’s teahouse in the village. She is the centre of attraction and all the old men, and Ali the young soldier, find a variety of excuses to visit the teahouse. One of the old men even dares to ask her father for his daughter’s hand in marriage!
The best kind of humour can normally be found in tragic situations, as Chaplin and Wilder have shown before. Jamali uses the central idea of seemingly eternal life in misery to find ideas to inject humour into the story. An old man who runs a funeral parlour has gone bankrupt and an insurance salesman offers life insurance with unusual confidence. Whenever the old men hear of anyone being sick and close to death, they gather at his house and beg him to remind the Angel of Death about the others when he meets him!
In Childless Village, when the women in a village in Iran failed to bear children, their husbands divorced them and married women from another village. All this was documented by a director (Behrouz Allahverdizadeh) in a documentary film. Later, as the new wives also couldn’t bring any children, tests were carried out which showed that in fact the men were sterile. Now, twenty years later, that director has returned to the village to atone for his wrongdoing by making a new documentary which would show the men as the guilty party. The women, however, are reluctant to appear in front of the camera and shun the director whom they see as responsible for their divorce and misery. A local old man (Hamdollah Salimi) offers to help get the women’s concession to appear before cameras, in return for an assistant director credit, even though he doesn’t know the first thing about film making!
Again Jamali finds humour in the patently miserable life of the village’s inhabitants. Here Jamali has used a documentary style to make the events appear more authentic. Events of both films occur against a backdrop of breathtaking beauty of the environment in Northwest Iran, where Jamali lives, beautifully captured by the cameramen in each film. Jamali started as a photographer and his films are visually enchanting. Both of Jamali’s films started as short films and each took about ten years to go from a short to a feature. Each shot in his films has been carefully composed and often the background is just as interesting as the foreground. In Childless Village whenever a woman is in the foreground the background is light, depicting their transparent and innocent personality while in case of men, Jamali shows a dark background, indicating guilt and dishonesty.
Another of Jamali’s achievements is the performances he obtains from his cast of non-actors. He discovered Hamdollah Salimi, who appears in both movies, riding his bike in an alley in one of the villages. Jamali has not only coaxed a natural and believable performance from him, but also used his bike in framing many of the shots in Childless Village. Jamali has said that he gets his ideas when driving around in the villages near where he lives. He also finds his cast of non-actors in these villages and puts a lot of effort in his casting, making sure that each person selected, even for a single scene appearance, fits the role.
Both feature films have been personally financed by Jamali and his producer Abbasi. They’ve had to mortgage a house and sell the family silver to raise the budgets, which are very meagre by any standards ($30,000 for Childless Village). Reza Jamali is a new and original voice in the Iranian Cinemas whose films deserve to find a wider audience.
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).