Fourteenth Annual Festival of Iranian Cinema Explores Youth Culture
By Azadeh Farahmand
Published: Monday, May 10, 2004
If women were the focus of last year’s Iranian film series at UCLA, this year youth with all of their aspirations and discontents provided the common theme among the diverse selections at the Film and Television Archive’s 14th Annual Celebration of Iranian Cinema. Running from January 16 to February 8, the program showcased features by all male directors, two of whom, Jafar Panahi and Abolfazl Jalili, are veterans of Iranian cinema, while the rest are up-and-coming directors whose vision at times sparkles with originality.
Parviz Shahbazi’s Deep Breath — Iran’s 2004 Academy Award submission in the foreign film category — is an Iranian urban slacker movie that follows the meanderings and random vandalism of two listless twenty-somethings from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Cool and carefree, they steal cars and cell phones, smoke joints and share tea with identical twins who pretend to be a single person living next door in a hostel. To this double duo add a vivacious college girl who talks and laughs without reserve — whenever she unplugs herself from her Walkman. Deep Breath is a breath of fresh air that eschews the allegorical cliché and excessive dialogue of many recent Iranian films.
Another treat in the series was Letters in the Wind, the sweet short-turned-feature debut of Ali Reza Amini. It depicts conscripts coping with the routine discipline and harsh punishment of a military training camp where a smuggled tape recorder becomes the source of their secret pleasure and their connection to the outside world. Like a joint passed along at a fraternity party, the tape recorder goes from hand to hand as the deprived young men illicitly savor the voice of a woman seductively scolding a presumably male caller who remains silent on the phone.
A video camera that records a slice of horror in the life of an eighteen-year-old Kurdish woman is the central device in Black Tape – A Tehran Diary by first-timer Fariborz Kamkari. Black Tape is presented as found footage from the video diary of a young woman who struggles helplessly with her older, abusive husband. The film attempts to rise above its trite form by casting their relationship as an allegory of the powerlessness of the dispossessed Kurdish people, but its humanitarian stance is undercut by endless footage of the lead character’s torment and humiliation and its shamelessly sadistic depiction of her plight.
Asghar Farhadi’s Dancing in the Dust is about a penniless youth forced to divorce his wife because his family insists that her mother is a prostitute. An overdrawn drama of a tragic lover’s persistent principles, Dancing is a poetic examination of wasted lives and second chances. Love is also the pretext of Amir Shahab Razavian’s Tehran, 7 AM, which interweaves the paths of disparate characters through Tehran’s early morning drivetime. The film’s episodes are sandwiched between the stories of the traffic cop who in the opening shot extends the red light in order to gaze upon his favorite actress, and the disaffected actress who at film’s end misses the absent cop’s gaze. But the real star of the film is Tehran in all its chaotic glory.
The delicate treatment of an unattainable love between a Muslim boy and a Jewish girl may be one reason why Abolfazl Jalili’s Abjad is still banned in Iran. The director was not allowed to travel to Venice when his film screened at the 2003 Biennale. But Abjad also touches on another sensitive topic — the seismic social and political shifts of late-1970s Iran. The semi-autobiographical story of a maturing adolescent exploring literature, art and sensual compassion in a hostile environment, Abjad presents a fleeting and tumultuous image of Iranian life on the verge of revolution. Picturesque and well-acted, Abjad offers a subtle critique of bureaucracy, intolerance, religious fanaticism and traditional values.
Commencing the series, Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold was the only selection to enjoy a theatrical release after its UCLA screening. The film opens with a robbery scene gone wrong, then turns into a long flashback showing how the lead character reached the breaking point. Crimson’s lead is a war veteran turned pizza-delivery-man who moves about in the dark hours of Tehran where he observes power games, empty human relations and rifts in the class structure.
Animation from Iran, inserted in the middle of the series on a Sunday afternoon, provided the program for the Kid’s Flicks mini-series, the Film and Television Archive’s monthly treat for the entire family. One of the least attended screenings in the Iranian series, it was also one of the richest and most enjoyable, bringing together short works from the 1980s and 1990s by animators nurtured at Iran’s prolific Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. With especially notable contributions from Noureddin Zarrinkelk and Farkhondeh Torabi, the animation program stood out as a testament to the timeless pleasures and the power of visual media to reach viewers across ages, languages and cultures.