Under the Shadow (2016)

There have been a number of recent films from the Middle East that deal with living through wartime, and which employ supernatural or surreal themes, like the Syrian film The Day I Lost My Shadow. One such is strictly speaking a British film (co-produced with Jordan and Qatar), although it’s made by expatriate Iranians and set in Tehran.


This isn’t the only recent horror film to locate terror in the chador (there was vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night too), as the shadowy djinn in this film is a mysterious robed figure. It’s also not the only recent film to centre its story around a mother (hello The Babadook), also much mentioned by reviewers. So if it’s not exactly startlingly original, it’s also nice to see a horror film set in wartime Iran (the late-80s to be precise, when it was at war with Iraq). The horror thus becomes an externalisation of the terrors of that war, as well as fundamentalist post-revolutionary crackdowns on dress and on left-wing politics — our heroine Shideh (Narges Rashidi), is unable to re-enrol as a doctor after a period of seditionary political engagement, and encounters all kinds of judgement from her nosy neighbours. It has a requisite number of scary bits, but it also — and this is what I really like about the best horror films — manages to bring qualities that I love about films to the mainstream, which is to say, a sense of stillness, of suffusing quiet, of creeping dread about the world and the future. I could have happily watched 90 minutes of a woman and her daughter living by themselves in a middle-class Tehran apartment, driven slowly mad, but for the rest of you, well, there are frights and they work pretty effectively.

Under the Shadow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Babak Anvari بابک انوری; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Narges Rashidi نرگس رشیدی‎, Avin Manshadi آوین منشادی; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Tuesday 4 October 2016.

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لذت دیوانگی Lezate divanegi (Joy of Madness, 2004)

There’s nothing particularly polished about this documentary, a sort of extended making-of feature, but it shines in what it captures of the struggle Samira Makhmalbaf undertook to make her film At Five in the Afternoon (2003). It’s also made by Samira’s younger sister Hana (yet another woman making excellent films under the Makhmalbaf Film House banner), herself a teenager at the time, which makes it all the more fascinating. Basically, we see a series of scenes of Samira battling to convince local Afghan actors to take roles in her film (which is primarily about the setbacks in educating women after the Taliban have been ousted from the country). She tries to convince a mullah to drive a cart, and when he starts to feel foolish or inadequate to the task (presumably), she has to convince him not to renege on his word as a cleric. Then there’s her lead actor (Agheleh Rezaie), who takes quite some persuading of the film’s merit, as baseless rumours fly around of the production’s immorality, and that it will kill kids (not to mention require people to wake at four in the morning for several months). Still, we know from the existence of the finished feature (which is excellent) that Samira prevails — the documentary finishes before shooting begins — and we have this document to prove it’s possible for women to make thought-provoking and polished films even under intolerant regimes.

CREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Hana Makhmalbaf حنا مخملباف; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 31 May 2017.

پنج عصر Panj e asr (At Five in the Afternoon, 2003)

It’s fair to say that Samira Makhmalbaf is very much her own filmmaker (despite working with her more famous father, Mohsen), and it’s evident from this feature that she has an exceptional control over her actors, not to mention the visual style. There are numerous shots which have great beauty and formal rigour. Of course, that would be nothing were it not for her script, which puts across one woman’s life (Nogreh, played by Agheleh Rezaie) in ‘liberated’ Afghanistan. Without being overtly magical it puts across an almost dreamlike reality; without being politically angry it puts across an astute argument for change (its protagonist has dreams of becoming President); and without being strident (not that there’d be anything wrong with that), it makes a clear case for the promotion of women’s rights across the region. It’s at heart a humanist and warm film about a situation that’s anything but.

At Five in the Afternoon film posterCREDITS
Director Samira Makhmalbaf سمیرا مخملباف; Writers Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف and Samira Makhmalbaf; Cinematographers Ebrahim Ghafori ابراهیم غفوری and Samira Makhmalbaf; Starring Agheleh Rezaie عاقله رضایی; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017.

شرایط‎ Sharayet (Circumstance, 2011)

I know there’s a great respect and love for film in Iran, because there are so many Iranian-set films made entirely outside the country by diasporan Iranian actors, writers, directors and producers (this one, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Under the Shadow are just three that come to mind from recent years). I’m never sure how accurate these are to the experience of living there, but they generally function as allegories in any case — here we have love between two women trying to blossom under patriarchal surveillance. There’s a hint of Mustang to it (another film about the patriarchal limits of desire made by a largely expatriate crew to its country), but it’s somewhat less successful. The actors handle their material well, and putting attractive young women against saturated colours makes for a good-looking film, but there’s a sense in which it feels unfulfilling (though of course that’s also, I suppose, thematically apropos). Maybe I just wanted a happier ending for the central couple.

Circumstance film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maryam Keshavarz مریم کشاورز‎; Cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard; Starring Nikohl Boosheri مریم کشاورز‎, Sarah Kazemy سارا کاظمی, Reza Sixo Safai رضا سیکسو صفایی; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017.

بانوی اردیبهشت Banoo-Ye Ordibehesht (The May Lady, 1997)

A quiet, thoughtful film about a middle-aged woman reflecting on motherhood, and how to weigh the feelings of her (almost grown) son with her own desires. It uses documentary footage of women talking about being mothers — the protagonist is a filmmaker — to introduce these themes, as she talks about her feelings in voiceover. Her son really is quite an annoying chap, but it leaves it until the very last moment to resolve her indecision.

The May Lady film posterFILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rakhshan Bani-Etemad خشان بنی‌اعتماد; Cinematographer Hossein Jafarian حسین جعفریان; Starring Minoo Farshchi مینو فرشچی; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 12 January 2017.

تاکسی Taxi (aka Taxi Tehran, 2015)

Of all last year’s films I’ve belatedly caught up on, this is the most likely to have been top-10 rated. For all the difficulties of its creation — its director, after all, is still officially banned from making films, and so this one is released without any credits — it never feels anything less than fresh and insightful. The set-up, which undoubtedly has a documentary-like flavour to it for official censorious reasons, is that director Jafar Panahi is driving a cab around Tehran while surreptitiously filming his fares from a hidden dashboard camera, which he occasionally manipulates to turn around and face out to the street (though there appears to be a second camera somewhere in the roof). Needless to say, it’s not at all clear that all of this isn’t staged, but it’s a fascinating insight into a hidden society every bit as damning as, say, The Circle (2000), or one of Panahi’s earlier, licit, films, while being on the surface fairly sunny and easygoing — no little thanks to Panahi’s friendly, smiling presence in the driver’s seat. There’s also, as is de rigueur for a certain strand of Iranian filmmaking (his first two films were The White Balloon and The Mirror, the latter referenced here), an adorable young girl, Panahi’s niece, who seems pretty on-the-ball about filmmaking, and is the conduit for explicitly introducing the Islamic State’s official self-censoring rules about it. The film may never leave the confines of the car, but it never feels claustrophobic or limited as a result, but is instead a free-wheeling portrait of a society, and a ripose to Panahi’s official critics.

Taxi Tehran film posterFILM REVIEW
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Jafar Panahi جعفر پناهی; Starring Jafar Panahi جعفر پناهی; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 19 January 2016.

Criterion Sunday 45: طعم گيلاس… Ta’ame Gilas… (Taste of Cherry, 1997)

It’s a simple premise: a man drives around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone who will help fill in his grave after he commits suicide. In many ways it’s a simple film, too, or at least it’s very straightforward. Kiarostami points his camera at our protagonist Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) as he sits in the driving seat, and occasionally gets out. Sometimes there’s a reverse shot to see the man he’s talking to in the passenger seat, but it doesn’t overtly challenge one’s sense of film grammar. Except that in its very simplicity it hides a delicately shaded tale, which is largely unconcerned with the reasons for Badii’s actions, but more about the dialogue that happens as he looks for an accomplice. His interlocutors are working folk, migrants who’ve come to Iran from elsewhere (a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminary, a Turkish taxidermist), of differing ages, and in each of them Badii (or the viewer perhaps) seems to find an implicit challenge to his decision. After talking about his conscript days with the Kurd (who, in one of the film’s occasional bursts of something approaching comedy, runs away), Badii stops to watch the soldiers jogging by as the sun sets, chanting the refrain Badii had just been nostalgically recalling. His later dialogue with the seminary touches on religious arguments against suicide and we see Badii standing by a quarry afterwards, his shadow commingling with the parched earth being churned up by the machines. And the taxidermist, who has agreed to help Badii, talks of the transformative power of nature (which is what the film’s title alludes to), and again there are these long, gorgeous shots of the dusty landscape, with Badii’s car moving across it, as he drives to the picturesque spot he’s picked out to dig his grave. I don’t feel there are any spoilers in recounting this, as the film’s power and grace comes from the way it unfolds and the dialogues Badii engages in, in the world-weary faces (surely Badii is some kind of stand in for the director), and in the unexpected self-reflexivity of the coda, which hardly seems to answer any questions, but also places them in a different context entirely. Its simplicity of form can be challenging (not every critic has warmed to it, though it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in its year), but it lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards, and its enfolding mystery drew me back to watch it a second time in two days. Full understanding may never be possible, but despite its premise, it’s a film that seems to deal with the simple wonders of being alive.

Criterion Extras: Aside from a really pointless biography page listing a handful of films, and a trailer, the only significant extra is a filmed interview with (the sunglasses-wearing) Kiarostami where he talks about a number of issues related to his filmmaking, which is interesting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Homayoun Payvar همایون پایور; Starring Homayoun Ershadi همایون ارشادی; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 1 August 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 26 July 2015, and at my home, London, Monday 27 July 2015).

قصه‌ها‎ Ghesse-ha (Tales, 2014)

There’s flashy auteurism of the sort that baits the juries of Cannes and Berlin, and then there’s the kind of solid humanist filmmaking that Iranian cinema is so good at delivering. This is not to say it’s without cinematic artistry — it’s evident here as in most Iranian films which gain distribution in the West (not least in the films of that critical darling, Abbas Kiarostami) — but Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s latest film exemplifies an attentiveness to the human dimension of storytelling, of just following the stories of a handful of characters over the course of 90 minutes. Which is all merely a wordy way to say that this was one of the most enjoyable films I saw at the London Film Festival. It comes on from the outset like one of those films (so popular with acolytes of Robert Altman in the 1990s) featuring multiple intersecting narratives, and though its tales do intersect, there’s no grand resolution, just the ongoing flow of human drama. One figure who recurs throughout is the video filmmaker (Habib Rezaei) who seems to hover on the edges of all the tales, though his attempts to document the world around him are frequently thwarted, whether by officious bureaucrats or unwilling participants. There are times when the proceedings seem a bit televisual (for some reason, the sequence set at a women’s shelter reminds me of a British TV play of the 1970s), but that needn’t be a bad thing, given the focus on dialogue, of people sharing with one another. There’s a real attentiveness to people’s stories, particularly of those who are powerless in different ways, and if there is something that unites all the various strands, it’s in Bani-Etemad’s clear desire to expose inequities within society, and her fascination towards people who are ordinarily marginalised. I could quite happily have watched many more such tales.

Tales film posterCREDITS
Director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad رخشان بنی‌اعتماد; Writers Bani-Etemad and Farid Mostafavi فرید مصطفوی; Cinematographer Koohyar Kalari کوهیار کلاری; Starring Habib Rezaei حبیب رضایی; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 15 October 2014.