Hot Docs Spotlights Iran

18 mins read

This year, Hot Docs turns its annual national spotlight on Iran, a country known in cinematic circles for two things: the remarkable feature films produced by directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Moshen Makmalbaf, and the difficulties faced by them and their fellow filmmakers within the strictures of what has been since 1979 an essentially totalitarian society. It’s hardly an environment conducive to documentary filmmaking, at least not the kind that attempts to differentiate between state-approved “reality” and the genuine article.


“Iran has robust narrative and documentary industries, and there has always been a lot of aesthetic cross-pollination between the genres,” says Chris McDonald, Hot Docs’ Executive Director and one of the Spotlight’s key architects. He’s referring to the elegant machinations of films like Kiarostami’s Close Up (1990), a fourth-wall fracturing masterpiece that dramatizes a real-life incident (the impersonation of Kiarostami’s friend and colleague Moshen Makmalbaf) using the actual participants as actors, or more recently, Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006), a deeply felt critique of his country’s gender inequalities shot verité-style in the midst of an important soccer match. But the list of canonical Iranian docs is comparatively short: Kamran Shirdel’s subversive The Night When It Rained (1973) would surely qualify, as would Forough Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1963), considered the best Iranian film of all time by no less an authority than Jonathan Rosenbaum, as well as a few titles by Kiarostami.

“Hot Docs had only ever screened a handful of Iranian docs in the past, as we were just not on [their] radar,” admits McDonald. “We began to make contact with the key film and television producers, associations, distributors and festivals about a year ago. Then, in October, Sean Farnel and I attended Cinema Verité in Tehran, which was the first edition of a very well-run documentary festival.”

The very existence of Cinema Verité, a festival devoted to screening international documentaries, is fascinating. At the opening ceremonies, Iran’sMinister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Mohammed-Hossein Saffar Harandi offered the following pearl of wisdom: “Documentary cinema and the desire to seek the truth will be forever linked. The art of producing documentaries can itself be a method of uprising against a world in which the truth is denied and is a readily understood language which can be used in the struggle against evil. ”It was an interesting choice of words considering the source. One wonders how many documentary projects have been scuttled underneath this particular form of “guidance.” But considering Iran’s repressionof foreign content, the inclusion of American films like An Inconvenient Truth alongside the national selections speaks to some vestigial progressive impulse.

“The films [at Cinema Verité] ranged in quality,” says McDonald, “but we did see some very strong work. The cinemas were packed and the energy was palpable—their audiences love movies. It was our first opportunity to meet with these folks and the spike in submissions speaks to the impact we were able to achieve with just one visit.” He’s not kidding about the spike: after proposing a spotlight on Iran, Hot Docs received over 100 submissions— up from seven the previous year.

Not all of the films submitted had official approval, ofcourse. “It is no secret that Iranian filmmakers have to contend with strict censorship rules,” says McDonald. “Many of their films that enjoy great international acclaim are in fact banned in their home country. It is hard to get a handle on where the authorities draw the line, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of the films we’ve programmed won’t see the light of day in Iran. We didn’t see any films that were overtly critical of politics or religion, but there were some clever references to the irrepressive culture that might not make it past a censor’s scrutiny.”

This process actually forms the subject of Massoud Bakhshi’s bracing, irreverent Tehran Has No More Pomegranates! The film opens with the director penning a letter to the President of Iran’s Documentary Film Center, to explain why the project, billed as a “musical-historical-comedy-docu-drama-love-story-experimental film,” proved impossible to complete. It seems he started out on the right path: “with the grace of God and yourself,” he writes,“the authorization for shooting was issued.” What he’d pitched was a film about the history of Tehran,but what we’re seeing, winkingly referred to as a “production report,” is less an homage to Iran’s capital city than a withering critique that unravels municipal histories both official and otherwise to chart a century’s worth of dubious development— and to point out how old ideologies die hard, or not at all.

The film is riddled with comic dissonances. A 13th Century account of Tehran—“a beautiful place but its people are bad”—is read underneath sped-up footage of a highway at night; descriptions of the city’s beauty are juxtaposed with its images of pollution and decay. “All the characters and events seemed to be real, but it’s not true,” proclaims one early inter-title. There’s something very Western (or very Comedy Central) in the way it generates subversion from the inside out.The censor-baiting is subtle but pointed: as the film gallops past any topic that might be seen as politically sensitive, it calls attention to the way content is monitored. Bakhshi makes a great, sardonic show of colouring inside the lines.

Tehran Has No Pomegranates! stands out among the films in the programme, more for its formal gamesmanship than its courage, as there’s no short-age of that. “One thing that amazed us,” notes McDonald,“was the dozens of films that dealt openly with Iran’s extremely high rate of drug abuse.”

The most striking of these is probably It’s Always Late For Freedom, a narration-free tour of a youth corrections facility in Tehran directed by Mehrdad Oskouei. The film is not an exposé in the conventional sense: Oskouei has not made a film about substandard living conditions or institutional abuse; in fact, the facility appears to be well-run and its staff well-respected by the inhabitants. Instead, It’s Always Late For Freedom surveys the collateral damage of a country’s profound social dysfunction: its young men.

None of the boys profiled in the film are more than 15 years old, but you wouldn’t know it from their world-weary bearing and the matter-of-fact way they unravel personal narratives of physical abuse (mostly at the hands of their parents) and drug use. As a portrait of children forced into a kind of pre-emptive adulthood, with suffering and disappointment rudely substituted for wisdom, the film is heartbreaking, but at the same time, impressively unsentimental. There’s no untoward prodding of our emotions, and Oskouei, who obviously earned his subjects’ trust over the duration of the shoot, assumes a respectful distance when necessary.

Mahvash Sheikholeslami’s Where Do I Belong, which won the jury prize at CinemaVerité, addresses a different kind of familial anxiety, the marginalization faced by children born out of unions between Afghani refugees and Iranian residents. An opening title card informs us of the statistics. In the past 30 years, some 300,000 children have been born out of marriages that were never legally recognized by the Iranian government. The problems these families face—primarily poverty, but also disdain within the community—are exacerbated by the looming threat of deportation: “if they ask me to leave,” says one man,“all Ican do is ask for my salary and kiss [my family] goodbye.”

_Where Do I Belong_is for the most part conventionally made but shot through with a certain intelligence: a segment detailing the circular torment of being caught between two countries is followed by a shot of children pushing a tire up a hill only to send it rolling right back down. This bluntly Sisyphean metaphor hits with real force as does the final shot, a long, tracking camera move that end supputting hundreds of bodies and faces to the issue of bureaucratic impasse.

One of the only films in the selection to focus on a single individual rather than a group is Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s short documentary Cyanosis. This portrait of a Tehran street painter named Jamshid Aminfar succeeds in taking us inside a troubled consciousness. Ghaemmaghami integrates animation into her DV compositions, bringing Aminfar’s rather frightening images—masses of strange fanged creatures and various implied violent traumas—to vivid life. Aminfar, who claims artistic solidarity with Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon, is undoubtedly talented, but hardly well adjusted; he seems to be the author of his own alienation. The film is framed around his first gallery exhibition—an unheard-of privilege for a non-professional who spends most of his time evading civil wardens bent on wrecking his canvases—and his tentative but determined courts hip of a 20-some-thing French girl who professes affection for his artworks.

The director doesn’t milk these situations for suspense nor does she labour to keep us on side with her subject. Aminfar’s more unpleasant aspects are on full display. When he discusses his disconnect from his wife—whom he resents for not supporting his painting—we feel a twinge of sympathy for the woman who has had to cope with his daunting personal baggage. Cyanosis does conclude with a few revelations about Aminfar’s background (including a clarification on the meaning of the title,which refers to a condition involving de-oxygenation in the blood) but the best moments are the most impressionistic. It’s encouraging to hear, then that Ghaemmaghami’s next project will be “an animated documentary about her own childhood memories of Iran’s war and revolution,” a description that can’t help but bring to mind Mariane Satrapi’s marvelous Persepolis.

Ghaemmaghami is just 32 years old; Tanaz Eshagian, who directed _Be Like Others_—a film screening outside of the National Spotlight programme but very much worth discussing here—is 34. Eshagian, who graduated from Brown University with a degree in semiotics, went back to Iran for the first time in 25 years for her debut feature, which shows a segment of Iranian society that many of us might not realize exists: a burgeoning subculture of young men willing to risk their money, their families, and their lives on sex-change surgery.

Surprisingly, this practice is actually fairly common. Iran performs the second most gender-reassignment surgeries in the world. Homosexuality is,of course, still punishable by death, but sex changes are permissible following a ruling by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. “An action is allowed,” explains one cleric, “unless it states specifically in the Koran that an act is a sin…because it does not specifically say that sex change is a sin, we cannot call it a sin.”

Which is not to say that transsexuals aren’t stigmatized in Iran. Men who dress as women are subject to harassment, and their families often reject them or worse (one interviewee describes his father’s attempt to murder him with rat poison). But there is a system, and to a certain extent, it works. If a man is diagnosed as transsexual, as opposed to gay or merely confused, and can afford the procedure, then Dr.Bahram Mir Jalali, thecountry’s leading surgeon in this particular field, will take their case—which sometimes involves going in to his own pocket to help provide post-op care.

This is politically charged material, but Be Like Others isn’t a polemic. Eshagian doesn’t seem to have a political agenda, and chances are she’d be at odds with some of her subjects on some key issues. It’s shocking when Vida, a post-op woman whose slyly flamboyant demeanor makes her instantly likeable, admits that her religious beliefs dictate that she could never be friends with a gay man. Apparently the marginalization she’s experienced as a result of her orientation has not inspired across-the-board feelings of empathy or solidarity.

Vida isn’t the main focus, however; she’s there as an example of men who have undergone the procedure and adjusted. We get much closer to 20-year-old Anoosh, who is making the change with the support of his boyfriend—they’ve sworn off sexual contact until after the operation as a way of differentiating themselves from gay men— and the grudging tolerance of his family: his mother, who’s far better-humored than she lets on, sighs that she’d always wanted a daughter. Anoosh’s experiences are contrasted with those of Ali, who has no significant other and who has been disowned by his family—which is where Vida, who makes a show of taking others under her ever-flapping wing, comes in.

The question of why men would want to relinquish the rights that their gender affords them in a religiously fundamentalist society isn’t answered in the film. It is to the director’s credit that she doesn’t try to place her subjects’ motives along a single continuum. This acceptance of contradiction makes Be Like Others such a valuable documentary: it strives to communicate individual experience at a time when our everyday knowledge of Iran is predicated on cultural generalizations.

Adam Nayman is a critic and teacher in Toronto. He writes for Cinema Scope, The Ringer, and other publications.

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