By Ali Moosavi.

Both these films show the lengths their makers have gone, the enormous risks they’ve taken, all for the sake of cinema.”

Two films made by Iranian directors have at least one thing in common: they both show the deep, undying passion that many Iranians have for cinema. This is something which seems to have been embedded in their DNA. Both these films show the lengths their makers have gone, the enormous risks they’ve taken, all for the sake of cinema. To be able to see the films that they want, to make the films that they want. Depriving them of these choices has only made their resolve stronger.

Watching Ehsan Khoshbakht’s Celluloid Underground (see top image) rekindled many memories for me. At school in Iran, we had a long lunch break and most students went home and then came back for the afternoon session. I would though always get a sandwich and go to the decrepit cinema close by and watch whatever was showing, which always was commercial Iranian films, almost always devoid of anything meriting the word art. I didn’t care whether the film was at the beginning or the middle, I was happy just to sit in the darkened auditorium and watch the silver screen. However, compared to Khoshbakht I was strictly an amateur film buff. The story of his time in Iran, from childhood to his late twenties when he emigrated to the UK is quite remarkable.

Khoshbakht started his film appreciation early. As a six year old he was given one frame of a movie as a birthday present and made a carboard projector and viewed the frame under his bed. Soon he was collecting movie reels and forming film clubs. This was at a time, in the early years of the Iranian Revolution, when western films were considered anti-Islamic and showing them was strictly forbidden. His film clubs were often raided by the security people and the reels confiscated, but he carried on regardless. Though he entered university to study architecture, most of his time was spent on finding and showing films. His enthusiasm, as seen in his film, is unwavering and infectious.

Khoshbakht’s big break came when he found out about this mysterious man named Ahmad who was rumored has a huge collection of original movie reels somewhere underground. After many attempts, Khoshbakht manages to contact Ahmad and, more importantly, had the presence of mind to take his camera with him and film their encounters. Ahmad is a fascinating character. He is a true film lover. He seems to know everything about the films that he has collected, their directors, stars. He quips that the western hat was made to fit Glen Ford’s head, more than any other actor! Ahmad stored more than five thousand films and hundreds of original movie posters at various underground locations; an absolute treasure trove for any movie buff. Films were his life; he spent every penny that he earned on buying movie reels and posters. These were so precious to him that despite prison and torture, he only gave the authorities one of the many locations where he had stored his collections.  

Celluloid Underground - Marché du Film

Khoshbakht decided to make this documentary when he got a call from Iran that Ahmad has passed away. Otherwise making this documentary would have put both Ahmad and his collection, which was dearer to him than his life, at risk. One just hopes that his collection will survive and one day can be rescued and exhibited without any fear. Ahmad’s story reminded me of an old school friend, who also passed away. His father had a film production and distribution in Iran before the revolution. I visited him after the Revolution, sitting in his late father’s office. I watched a number of key movies of Iranian Cinema in a small projection room within the offices. I told him he should keep these movies in a safe place, away from his offices. After an interval of a year or two I visited him again. He was just taking a few items left in the offices. I asked him about all the reels of films that were stored there. He said one day they came, collected all of them and burned them in the open space next to the offices.

Achilles is also based on experiences of its writer-director, Farhad Delaram. Here though, Delaram has turned his experiences into a fiction film. Delaram got the idea for the film when, fed up with not being able to make the films that he wanted, either due to censorship or lack of funds, he took a temporary admin job in a hospital and one day came across a female political prisoner who was being treated there.

Delaram’s alter ego in the film, Farid (Mirsaeed Molavian)’s job in the hospital is to provide bandage equipment whenever needed. One day he is called to perform this duty, but in a part of the hospital that hitherto he didn’t know existed. The woman that he administrates the bandages on, called Hedieh (Behdokht Valian) seems to be emotionally troubled. She complains of hearing noises from the walls. Farid sticks some adhesive tape on the walls and this seems to quieten the woman. The old nurse looking after her (veteran Iranian actress, Roya Afshar) is clearly sympathetic towards her. She tells Farid that Hedieh is a political prisoner. When Hedieh begs Farid to get her out of the hospital, he has to weigh up the enormous risks to him and his family against a desire to free Hedieh. His desires wins over logic and what we have then is both a thriller, with the Farid and Hedieh doing their best to evade the security forces, and a kind of odyssey and road movie, where these two drive around to various places, including a village which is actually where director Delaram’s father was born. We observe the different attitudes of people towards them and how their relationship towards each other develops.

The scenes at the village are particularly affective. There, in surroundings which are both familiar to Farid and people who are very friendly, he and Hedieh can forget about their ordeal for a short period and even join in the celebrations for a local wedding. We can fully understand their feeling that they don’t want those moments to end.

Achilles is undoubtedly a political film. It is made with passion and commitment. It is a marvel that with what in Hollywood terms would be classified as “no budget”, rather than “low budget”, Delaram has made quite a gripping and affecting road movie-cum-thriller. The two lead performances are also committed and heartfelt. Delaram ends the film with a political statement which may mean that his own return to his homeland may be in jeopardy now.

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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