From Iran, films on freedom and fascism
While women in Iran took to the streets against stringent rules on wearing the hijab, a bunch of new Iranian films are expanding the boundaries of the cinema of resistance
One of the highlights of the Toronto International Film Festival last month was the showcasing of two intensely personal films by two giants of cinema—American icon Steven Spielberg and Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi—both about filmmaking.
Spielberg’s The Fabelmans that had its world premiere at TIFF and won the People’s Choice Award (regarded as an early indicator of the Best Picture Oscar) is a semi-autobiographical take on Spielberg’s own childhood and youth and focuses on Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) discovering the magic of cinema in the middle of shattering family upheavals and tumultuous adolescent struggles in a Jew hating school in California.
Even as it dwells on the power of dreamlike, larger than life images one encounters in the darkness of a theatre, the film celebrates the nitty gritty, the essential tools, technology, and engineering—like a 16mm Ariflex—and the imagination and ingenuity of the filmmaker wielding it. On the one hand is the wildly celebratory take of David Lynch as the irreverent John “the greatest director who ever lived” Ford and, on the other, the grace, subtlety, and delicacy in young filmmaker Sammy’s painful discovery of the secrets, lies and emotional quandaries chipping away the seeming happiness and togetherness of his family. Spielberg’s empathetic gaze at both feat and frailty, The Fabelmans, is about the human truths that a movie camera can unearth but the individual eye may not be able to perceive.
While the element of the personal in filmmaking is grounded largely in the familial in Spielberg, with Panahi cinema gets expectedly ideological. His most recent work No Bears was premiered a few days before TIFF at the Venice Film Festival and was awarded the Special Jury Prize. Panahi shot the film surreptitiously in Iran; it was completed in May, just before he was sentenced to six-year imprisonment in July on charges of propaganda against the regime.
Panahi implicates himself into the film, probes the politics of filmmaking itself even while examining the fractured societal and economic terrain of contemporary Iran and the pressures put on artistic pursuits. The commentary is quiet, gentle, philosophical but powerful in the indictment of the world it is rooted in and emerges from
As real and reel run parallel and intertwine, we see Panahi on screen as Panahi himself, living in a far-flung village, trying to make a film with the aid of his assistant director, who shoots as per his remote instructions and delivers the hard disk of the footage back to him to edit and bring the movie to shape.
The film within the film is about two love birds intending to flee the oppressive country by securing fake passports. Meanwhile, a photograph of a couple in an illicit relationship, that he is alleged to have taken while filming in the village has its denizens up in arms against Panahi. As the tension rises so does the suffocation and limitations for Panahi as a filmmaker.
Can his art exist without any sense of human responsibility? On the flip side can it blossom and bloom in the face of the challenges at home? How can he create to his satisfaction when his movements are restricted and constantly monitored? Panahi’s film turns out to be a unique, metaphorical dissent against curbs and constraints of all kinds—artistic, societal, institutional, State-imposed.
In that sense the film is in line with Panahi’s oeuvre. He has been consistently casting a humane gaze at the marginalised in Iran, the condition of women and children, much to the consternation of the government. Earlier too, in 2010, he was sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban was imposed on him against directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving interviews to the media, or leaving the country except for medical treatment or Haj pilgrimage. He was later put under house arrest and disallowed travel out of Iran.
So, No Bears, much like all his recent films, doesn’t just have him on screen but has been made underhandedly, as an ode to cinema flourishing in captivity. In 2011 he made This Is Not A Film clandestinely, which was smuggled out of Iran to the Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive hidden inside a cake. Closed Curtain, Taxi and 3 Faces were also made in the face of the ongoing ban.
Over the years new wave Iranian cinema has developed its own modes and tools to protest in the face authoritarianism, censorship and bans. Filmmakers like Dariush Mehrjui, Abbas Kiarostami, Rakshan Bani-Etemad, Tehmineh Milani and others have been at the receiving end of the authorities. But in the case of Panahi, with his last four films in particular, making of a film has become itself an act of resistance, a powerful one at that.
No Bears continues to resonate with me weeks later in the light of the recent protests by women against compulsory hijab in Iran and the subsequent escalation in tension after Mahsa Amini’s death in custody. Their protests forced even the largely circumspect and non-confrontational contemporary Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi, to come out in support of the ongoing movement.
“I deeply respect their struggle for freedom and the right to choose their own destiny despite all the brutality they are subjected to. I am proud of my country’s powerful women, and I sincerely hope that through their efforts, they reach their goals… I invite all artists, filmmakers, intellectuals, civil rights activists from all over the world and all countries, and everyone who believes in human dignity and freedom to stand in solidarity with the powerful and brave women and men of Iran by making videos, in writing or any other way,” said Farhadi.
Ironically, the internet shutdown in Iran in the wake of the crackdown on the protests deprived me of a prized opportunity to conduct a long-distance interview with filmmaker Houman Seyyedi whose film World War III won the best film and best actor awards in the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival and is the official submission of Iran for the Best International Film Oscar this year.
Like Panahi, Seyyedi too uses the device of film within a film to make a commentary on humanity and society at large and, despite having the backing and patronage of the state, manages to cock a snook at despotism.
A poor labourer, Shakib, manages to get a construction job on the set of a Holocaust film. But things don’t end here. He soon finds fortune turn around in the blink of an eye for him when he is offered the lead role of the Fuhrer himself. The comic-ironic element of the disempowered playacting the fascist, the oppressed becoming the oppressor, slowly shifts shape to eventually turn into a boundlesstragedy.
Seyyedi’s evocation of Hannah Arendt in his Director’s Statement is itself packed with politics and makes for a strong stand on freedom as opposed to fascism. It dwells on the flashpoints between a fascist State and the marginalised and the constant victimisation of the disenfranchised leading to their boundless rage and rebellion.“Arendt once said that in dictatorships, everything goes well, up until 15 minutes before total collapse,” writes Seyyedi, adding, “Societies ruled by such totalitarian regimes are the most effective creators of anarchists.”
He wonders how much longer can there be tyranny and oppression in the world and who will be the people to get crushed by the powerful rulers of such plagued societies. “People who will fight tooth and nail to obtain their most basic needs—a house, a job and a family. And everything they end up obtaining is nothing but a façade—decorative and artificial. There will always be those who have the power to give and those who are desperate enough to receive. And this vicious cycle will continue up until 15 minutes before total collapse—and it will restart soon after...,” he writes.
In such turbulent times on the Iranian streets,brave and probing films like World War III reach out with an added urgency.
Babak Payami’s 752 Is Not A Number that had its world premiere at TIFF is another such film, which interestingly is on another ongoing protest in Iran and Canada—by the families of the 176 people killed in 2020 in the shooting down of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by the Iranian military. ”
A totalitarian state, inhuman laws and innocent individuals caught in the impasse, Payami’s film centred on Hamed Esmaeilion, a dentist in Newmarket, Ontario, who lost his wife and young daughter in the incident, is a powerful record of grit, determination and heroism in the face of tragedy, loss and grief.
Forced into exile since 2003, Payami now lives and works out of Canada, as a Canadian citizen, even though the themes of his work hark back to his roots. In fact, there is a joke that has been doing the rounds for long, that the best of Iranian cinema is being made outside Iran.
One such practitioner is Ali Abbasi, a Tehran born Iranian filmmaker who currently lives in Copenhagen. His latest film, Holy Spider, that played at TIFF, had its premiere at Cannes and won Zar Amir Ebrahimi the best actress award. A Denmark, Germany, Sweden, France co-production, the Persian language film is Denmark’s entry to the Oscars.
Set in Mashhad, it is about a woman journalist investigating a serial killer and is based on a real-life story about killing of 16 sex workers between 2000-2001. A pulse-pounding, dark thriller with graphic scenes of sexual violence and explicit murder sequences (unimaginable in Iranian cinema), it’s an angry castigation of the brutal misogyny that constantly gets sanctioned and is often celebrated in the name of religious and moral cleansing.