The 2005 Iranian film series organized by the UCLA Film and Television Archive offered a pleasantly diverse range of narrative forms and visual styles. Although each film or video invariably borrowed its culturally specific subject matter from contemporary issues, the universal themes of loss and yearning were present in most of this year's selections.
The series began with Iranian-born Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly. Just before the US invasion of Iraq, Kurds in a village near the Turkish border are shown putting up antennas in order to get news of the impending war that will inevitably affect their lives. As the film progresses, we realize that the main players in the story are children. Kak, aka Satellite, is an astute and charming 13-year old boy in oversized glasses who leads a group of orphans to unearth landmines and turn them in for cash. One day, a soulful boy left armless by the atrocities of previous wars, yet armed with the power to predict the future and the skill to disarm mines with his teeth, arrives in the village accompanied by his sister carrying on her back a blind child who could be her younger brother or her son. Both childlike and adult, these parentless kids humanly dwell in a geopolitically ravaged environment.
Parental loss is at the center of River's End, directed by Behrooz Afkhami. Based on a best-selling contemporary novel, the film is a lyrical meditation on the arresting impact and dizzying aftermath of loss. Its pace and visuals proceed like a whirlpool as barren dreams, scattered memories and inert realities blend and sink into endless yearning.
Themes of loss and nostalgia resurface in Vahid Mousaian's Silence of the Sea. A middle-aged Iranian man who has been settled in Sweden for many years is consumed by the guilt of having left his homeland and his parents who remained there and died without ever seeing him again. He compounds his loss when he leaves his Swedish wife and children and goes to a free port near Iran in the vain hope of crossing over. Grainy video footage, cell phone signals breaking up, and the unyielding sea are recurrent motifs that symbolize his inability to bridge the gap between past and present.
In the absence of functional families and an effective judiciary system, Asghar Farhadi's Beautiful City places its young protagonist at a crossroads where she must choose between her love and her brother's life. In Abadan, Mani Haghighi takes a humorous tone and an exhilaratingly fast pace to tell the tale of an ex-wrestling champion who yearns to leave his family and go to the southern Iranian city of the film's title. The film follows the old man's daughter who enlists her ex-husband to find her father amidst the chaos of Tehran while she waits at the home of her ex, soon to meet and befriend his mistress. It is ironic that this uniquely crafted and realistic film was shunned by European film festivals for not being “Iranian” enough, while it was banned in Iran for its frank language and depiction of casual adultery.
One of the few documentary selections in this series—and by far the most provocative and sincere—was Mitra Farahani's Zohre and Manouchehr which centers on the loss of a cohesive moral and social stance toward sex. Juxtaposing visual renditions of one of the most erotic poems in classical Persian literature, the film pieces together candid interviews that collectively underscore societal suppression and the ensuing contradictions that are imploding within Iranian society. In counterpoint to the paternal figure of a mullah adamantly preaching against sexual temptation, a prostitute recalls her experience in the service of the clergy. Interestingly, the same prostitute upholds the traditional stance against premarital intercourse, claiming that she has maintained her purity for her future husband.
Ali Reza Amini's Tiny Snowflakes, which closed the series, stands as a graceful testament that, unlike the flat humanism of some exported cinema and the dialogue-ridden distraction of domestic action movies, Iranian filmmakers are fully capable of telling solid stories and conveying character arc.
UCLA Film & Television alumna Azadeh Farahmand works with Landmark Theatres.