By Ali Moosavi.
After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, a number of national filmmakers, who were well-established in their homeland, such as Dariush Mehrjui (The Cow; The Cycle), Amir Naderi (The Runner; Water, Wind, Dust), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh; A Moment of Innocence), moved abroad. In the late director Sohrab Shahid Saless (Still Life; A Simple Event)’s case, this happened before the revolution. The reasons for these moves were either one, or a combination of personal, professional and political. Arguably, in every single case, the quality and success of their work abroad did not and has not matched of their films made in Iran. Not having roots in the new countries and unfamiliarity with their culture and traditions, made it difficult for them to turn out films that resonated with the audience. Mehrjui returned home and found even greater success, critically and commercially, than before. Naderi and Makhmalbaf continue to make films abroad.
In recent years, a new generation of filmmakers with Iranian parentage, have begun making films abroad. These filmmakers have either been born in another country or moved there from a very early age. They have therefore totally assimilated that country’s culture and received their film making training there. Many have gone to make successful films and make a name for themselves. Some are making commercial films in Hollywood. They include Nima Nourizadeh (American Ultra, 2015), Babak Najafi (London Has Fallen, 2016; Proud Mary, 2018) and Kasra Farahani (The Good Neighbor, 2016). While others have made critically acclaimed films in various countries, such as Ramin Bahrani in the USA (Goodbye Solo, 2008; 99 Homes, 2014), Alireza Khatami in Chile (Oblivion Verses, 2017), Ali Abbasi (Border, 2018) and Milad Alami (The Charmer, 2017) in Denmark and Babak Anvari in the UK (Under the Shadow, 2016). Another member of this group is the female Iranian filmmaker, Bani Khoshnoudi. She resides and works in Mexico. Fireflies is her second feature film.
Fireflies opens with a shot of a group of hirelings picking pineapples in Mexico. One of them is Ramin (Arash Marandi), a migrant worker in a country better known for exporting migrant workers. He has made it to the industrial port of Vera Cruz in Mexico by sea route. Writer-Director Khoshnoudi gradually fills us with more information about Ramin. When, back in his room in a cheap hotel, he takes his shirt off, we see a tattoo relating to the old Persian Empire, where most Persians were Zoroastrians and their slogan was Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds. As far away from the current ruling Islamic Republic as can be. Then Ramin plays a pre-revolutionary Persian love song on his mobile. The introduction is complete when we see Ramin looking longingly at a photo of another young man. Later, he chats to him online and we find out that the two are lovers, separated for reasons that later become apparent.
Ramin is a stranger in a strange land. He neither speaks the language, nor is familiar with Mexican culture. He keeps his sexual orientation to himself, being unsure of the local attitudes towards homosexuality. He strikes up a couple of relationships. One is with the hotel receptionist, Leti (Flor Eduarda Gurrola). He asks her to teach him some basic Spanish. Leti has problems of her own; her ex-boyfriend is visiting from the US and wants to see her. For Leti though, he is past history and trouble and she is none too happy about his visit. We have two characters with contradictory feelings towards their past loves. One is longing for a visit while the other is dreading it. Ramin’s other new-found friend is Guillermo (Luis Alberti), another laborer who is looking to get out of Mexico and reach Los Angeles. The two of them do some bonding by spending some time on the beaches in daytime and in the bars at night. In one of their beach outings, Guillermo see the scars on Ramin’s back and enquires about them. Ramin though, still not being sure of the local attitudes, does not divulge the story behind the scars. We know though that he received these because of his homosexuality, which is considered an immoral act in Iran and punishable by lashes. Khoshnoudi has included this scene so that the audience can empathize with Ramin as to why he endures the hardship in a foreign land and being away from his love and homeland.
Like any other person in a new environment, Ramin tries to find friendly people and places. He ventures in the city to find gay haunts. Are they freer to flaunt their sexuality in public? Can he find love and tranquility in this part of the world? Is grass greener on the other side? Khoshnoudi, being a diaspora filmmaker herself, has a good eye and ear for what goes through the minds of characters like Ramin. This gives the film an air of authenticity, which is further helped by Arash Marandi’s sensitive and subtle performance. The tone and look of the film, depicting a small industrial port where people work in the day time and go home or to the bars at night, with its deserted streets at night and the rather grey color-washed appearance, is perfectly in tune with the film and highlights Ramin’s isolation. Khoshnoudi has engaged the services of a number of key crew of Sebastian Leilo’s marvelous A Fantastic Woman (2017), which looked at the life of a transgender woman in Chile. These include that film’s cinematographer, Benjamin Echazarreta, and production designer, Estefania Larrain. Fireflies is another admirable achievement by an Iranian diaspora filmmaker.
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).