Friday 12 June 2015

Sydney Film Festival (34) - Barrie Pattison reviews Ghesse Ha/Tales (Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Iran, 2014)

This film arrives as the result of  a piece of slight of hand. The only way it came into existence is that director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad filmed  it as a series of shorts. Those  don’t require approval by the Iranian film censorship bureaucracy. Her film is something that would have been vetoed for its depiction of inadequacy and comic, insensitive authority pitted against done wrong bottom feeder citizens.

This history appears to have had a happy ending because the winning Bani-Etemad in a hijab turned up to introduce the film from the stage of the State Theater, saying that eight years after her last fiction movie and four years after completion, this one is finally showing on it’s home turf.

GHESSE-HA reaches us with many of its qualities filtered out. Bani-Etemad  made it because she wanted to re-visit characters from her earlier work, which we haven’t seen, and we learn it features prominent Iranian performers who we don’t recognize, Peyman Moaadi, the star of JODAEIYE NADER AZ SIMIN (A Separation, Ashghar Fahradi) among them. 

A succession of characters appear and vanish formlessly. A cab driver is filmed by the documentary video maker, who gives him a cigarette which he later passes to a woman passenger, who offers herself to him for a place to shelter her sick child. She turns out to be the childhood friend of his sister, whose hair his mother used to plat. The mother presents a petition at a government office, where a respectably dressed middle class man faces poverty because of a glitch in hospital paper work and is ejected by the bureaucrat too busy with personal calls on his mobile. In the train home, the man over hears a couple apparently plotting an assignation, which disgusts him, but they are actually preparing a scam to get money from their family. Stories lead back to a woman’s shelter where the film maker, the cab driver and the women all have business. The granny lady becomes spokesman for a van full of former workers going to a protest and moved on by the police. One woman worker goes home to be reviled by an indignant husband, who has accepted a letter sent by his wife’s former temporary husband, which being illiterate, he can’t understand. As the contents are read to him by her and their child, pried away from his homework, the man’s (and our) understanding changes. The ending, taking the dried out junkie social worker and her ex student-demonstrator driver  from the center, accompanying an ill girl, is a show stopper.

Message content includes sanctions hitting the already miserable and the characters
telling the reformer film maker that there are so many such documentaries. The answer that film won’t stay in someone’s drawer forever is less convincing. 

GHESSE-HA has the qualities we associate with the best Iranian films. We feel for the participants - on screen and behind the camera. There’s sympathy even for the aggro husband who scarred his wife with boiling water - more than the cell ‘phone guy gets. The final segment, with it’s revelation that always draws comment from reviewers, is a more startling version of the mating dance finale of  1994’s ZIRE DARAKHATAN ZEYTON (Through the Olive Trees.)

Film form is intriguing. The handling is accomplished and the colour quite presentable on the big screen, unlike the greenish video presentations we are used to seeing on Iranian material. Some of the material is done in single takes - two for the letter reading, though the apparent one-take of the bus ride betrays the concealed edit behind the passenger’s back by a change in the on-screen time code. However the ending ride cuts between the two participants, with their dialogue overlapping at one point, suggesting simultaneous cameras.

This one could be seen as the culmination of a cycle of  common-character sketch films, more like the Duvivier’s FLESH & FANTASY, with characters walking from one story to the next, than his TALES OF MANHATTAN having a linking device siring the John Badham THE GUN and others, closer in form if not mood to Pietro Germi’s  SIGNORE & SIGNORI where the lead in one ep. does walk-ons in another.

Pietro Germi! Now there’s someone who’s so little known and impressive enough to
deserve a major retrospective but then David Stratton would be afraid of being alone in the theater on that one.

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