Tuesday 14 November 2017

Seventh Iranian Film Festival in Australia - Barrie Pattison reports on his highlights

The Seventh Iranian Film Festival unfurled over last weekend in the Top Ryde City Multiplex. Apparently Top Ryde is the centre of the Sydney Iranian community, something I didn’t know. The event itself proved intriguing. Women in head scarves on the screen were watched by women without them in the audience.

I only took in a limited selection of the near dozen films on show, which I rather regret because the material I caught was excellent. The standard was superior to the work from the Makmalbaf era which got the attention of critics, and as good as the titles which have surfaced in festivals and art houses more recently.

Leila (Dariush Mehrjui, 1997)
Dariush Mehrjui’s 1997 Leila was their retrospective item and certainly held its own with its contemporaries. I’m not a great admirer of Mehrjui whose celebrated early films 1969 ‘s Gaav/The Cow and the 1972 Postchi/The Postman only half digested their European literary influences. However, he is venerated on his home turf.

Leila is the best of his work that I have seen and it’s impressive. Leila Hatami (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin/A Separation) and Ali Mosaffa (Le Passé) are a happily married professional couple. However, they discover that she is barren. Fertilisation treatments prove ineffective and the idea of adoption doesn’t ring though they are Moslem and educated, the two qualifications. The husband’s mother however, an impressively monstrous turn by actress Jamileh Sheikhi, looks to him as the way of continuing the family, her other children having been daughters.

Sheikhi pours all her efforts into making Hatami herself convince her husband that he should take a second wife. The ringing of their white cordless ‘phone becomes dreaded when the couple know that it will be Sheikhi trying to advance her scheme. She brings a family heirloom gift and pictures the couple’s old age when her son will go off and secretly visit women because of his inadequate home life. At first the unseen candidates recruited by Mosaffa’s aunt are comically unsuited but she finally comes up with Shaghayegh Farahani - first glimpsed in stretched images as her car passes - and she is ideal.

The marriage night is irresistibly harrowing, with the guests, along with a wedding videographer, invading the house that Hatami has prepared. It is powerful because it is so alien to the customs we are familiar with and still so recognisable.

The ending is bitter sweet in the best Renoir manner.

Mehrjui’s skills are flawed. The constant emphasis on food lacks subtlety, starting by stirring the communal Sholezar pudding and going through the meals which are an inescapable part of hospitality. In this excellent copy, Hatami’s make-up is too obvious and the nearest thing they can come to style is fading to red, and once yellow, at the end of scenes. These short-comings are however slight in such a strong item.

Take Me Home (Abbas Kiarostami)
Also screening was the last film of the accom-plished Abbas Kiarostami, a sixteen minute short in sharp black and white called Take Me Home, where a ball left by a boy outside his front door rolls down endless flights of stairs. The piece does give a glimpse of the back alley areas of Teheran(?) but it’s hard to work out the impulse behind it.

The Home (Asghar Yousefinejad)
Asghar Yousef-inejad’s Ev/The Home was in Turkish and not Farsi but still connected to other new Iranian films. It starts off with a sustained take of Mohadeseh Heyrat hysterical among the mourners for her dead father. Her cousin, chubby Ramin Riazi, is trying to keep control of the situation, calm the girl, borrow the neighbour’s Quran to be read over the dead man and send off a stranger (who pockets his money) to buy dates for the guests. As the film develops both cousins prove to not to be what they seem, with a sinister Agatha Christie twist.

The first scene is done with a hand held mobile camera weaving in the courtyard and home keeping the characters in close shot. Photographer Hamid Mehrafrouz has drawn favourable comment for his work here. As the film progresses the coverage becomes more traditional and Heyrat quietens, only to find herself in conflict with newcomer Gholamreza Bagheri, a representative of the University Hospital who has a copy of the will that gives them the cadaver for use in the medical school.

There’s a fight and reconciliation with Riazi over this and we discover that the visitor is not the assured authority figure he represents himself to be. Heyrat, who has left the care of her senile parent to Riazi since her marriage, demands that the body be interred immediately according to religious practice. Keeping it on ice has not proved all that effective.

It is only when her husband arrives that the shape becomes clear. The unfamiliar developments make the film an attention grabber.

The Girl's House (Shahram Shah Hosseini)
The event’s big night (near full house in the larger auditorium as opposed to the twenty or so viewers some films attracted) was  Shahram Shah Hosseini’s Khaneye dokhtar/The Girls House made in 2015 but banned for three years and introduced by Mohamad Shayesteh who tells us he is the youngest Iranian film producer.

Young girl students Pegah Ahangarani and Baran Kosari are shopping for their needs for the wedding of their friend Ra'na Azadivar (About Elly) when they receive a mysterious cell ‘phone call saying that the girl is dead and the wedding cancelled. At first they think this is a hoax but they find groom Hamed Behdad is divided between his grief and the need to cancel the arrangements and provide for the needs of the gathered guests become mourners. The bride’s father Babak Karimi (in Caos calmo/Quiet Chaos) is hostile to him.    

They receive messages from the dead girl. Another sinister mother in law hoves into view. The structure of this one is intriguing, doubling back on itself so that the incidents of the opening are seen again with a new significance and the shot of Behdad,  uncomprehending as the crowd diffused behind him rush past, is a great piece of film craft.

Shayesteh told us that none of these serious Iranian films returns a profit and he makes popular productions to sustain his business. He explained that the film was about incest which surprised me and apparently the Farsi speakers who had also just watched it and who had taken it at face value as being about the demand for virginity.

It occurred to me that I’d been through this before when I heard John Frankenheimer explain that his exceptional All Fall Down, which I’d taken as a comment on obsessive mother love, was also about incest. The two films have a surprising amount in common.

The recently elected Iranian government had made part of their election campaign releasing the eight movies that had been banned by their predecessors. This is the first one where they have made good on their promise.

Of course, beyond the qualities I enjoy in this work are its insights into the Iranian scene, something of no small value in the Trump era. What we see here are prosperous professional people. Even their orphans are well dressed and happy. They are not unlike the people in US mid-day movies. We have no way of telling whether their representation is any more (or less) accurate. Women drive cars. We hear a little about Sharia law and a few misguided mullahs appear. The one in Home gets quite a bit of space, a boy who grew up on the next street now faced with sorting out the problems of his neighbours. These are unlike the idealised clerics who showed up in American movies in the thirties and forties or the ones we see in contemporary Nigerian films.

Certainly this work deserves more scrutiny than it’s getting in isolated art movie screenings.

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