The Unseen Review: Cardboard City

Animated doc provides an intimate portrait of five Iranian homeless women in a most unusual shelter

4 mins read

The Unseen
(Iran, 62 min.)
Dir. Behzad Nalbandi

In Iran, people refer to the homeless as “cardboard sleepers.” Knowing this name evokes a disquieting sense of melancholia, as we gaze out a car window at the urban landscapes of Iran’s capital, Tehran, reconstructed entirely out of cardboard in The Unseen, which received the Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Animated Film. The city’s native artist and documentary filmmaker, Behzad Nalbandi, spent years fabricating the handmade set of his film entirely out of cardboard, glue, and ripped papers—or Kaghaz-Pareh Ha, the film’s title in Farsi. Driving past a bright billboard proclaiming that more children make for a happy life, and past Milad tower, the sixth-tallest in the world, the metropolis’ bustle is slowly replaced by barren trees. We finally arrive on location: a desolate women’s shelter operating in secrecy at the edge of the city.

Agreeing beforehand not to bring a camera to the shelter, the director uses cardboard as his medium and stop-motion as his technique to animate the experiences of five homeless women living in the shelter. He records audio interviews with them, stepping seamlessly between the roles of interviewer, visitor, and confidant. Narrating the film and recalling from childhood “Cardboard Zari”—who he’d shut his eyes to as he walked to school as a student—Nablandi’s subjectivity and his position in relationship to both the women and the emblematic shelter become part of the film’s story and its testimony.

Nalbandi says that his sister’s friend invited him into the unusual shelter where she works. When foreign dignitaries visit Iran, she told him, the authorities round up and detain sex workers, drug addicts and homeless “cardboard sleepers.” A few days later, the men are generally released, but the women are transferred to the state-run shelter. Surrounded by barbed wire, the women can receive visitors, but cannot leave unless a member of their family offers to take them back in. Since these women were already fending for themselves on the streets, this is highly unlikely. They live their lives in the shelter, no longer seen in the streets, nor arousing fear or curiosity in the minds of people of Tehran.

27-year-old Arezou, one of the women in the shelter, hurriedly reads lines from a book in her nervous hands: “Insanity makes me laugh. Misery makes me crave wine. I am anxious. I complain with love.” She is gently directed by Nalbandi to read the lines again, slowly. She repeats the lines even faster, fidgeting in her small cardboard chair. This time, she interrupts herself, “Meth made me this way. I talk fast. I move fast.”

Throughout the film, we meet four other women, who battle with addiction, poverty, violence, and sexual abuse. In his debut feature film, Nalbandi treats their accounts with exceptional tenderness, care and compassion. After all, he spent five years working on this animated doc, which he crafted, shot, and edited.

The Unseen screens at Toronto’s Rendezvous with Madness Festival with a conversation with filmmaker Behzad Nalbandi.

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