|Kajart at work in their studio Photograph: /Kajart. Courtesy Guardian.|
We were at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Kajart were declared winners of the Sixth Farhang Foundation Short Film Festival held earlier this month. Mehrizi and one of his colleagues – Taravat Khalili, a beautiful, reticent and soulful young woman – had told me that they had spent half of their lives in Iran and the other half in Canada. When I asked Mehrizi if he had returned to Iran since moving abroad, he said yes. But when I inquired what the experience was like, he clearly didn’t want to go into detail.
Kahlili was more forthcoming. She fought back tears as she recalled her trip to Iran two years earlier. “You know what it’s like,” she said. “People are angry about the sanctions and perpetually in a bad mood.” It was clear that the return had been bittersweet.
Kajart’s prize-winning animated short, Aghaye Past (Mr. Mean), addresses the misogynist patriarch, that cultural archetype that has haunted many an Iranian family through the generations. In this deeply spooky film, we see the patriarch’s son leave home at night, kerb crawling in Tehran’s red light district and picking up prostitutes in his car. We see that the effect of misogynistic abuse is neither confined within the family nor the mark of a particular generation. It’s an infectious disease that makes the whole society sick.
Observing the discomfort that my mention of Iran had caused the filmmakers, we moved on to other topics, such as the coin necklace that Khalili was wearing for the event. She had purchased it at an Afghan market in Tehran. It included an effigy of former Afghan president Daud Khan, who was murdered alongside his family in the violent communist coup of 1978. I had a spooky story to share with her, one that later circulated about Khan: supposedly, he had been decapitated but his ghost was still around, roaming the streets of Kabul, holding his head in his hand.
She hadn’t heard the story, which was only to be expected. If global politics have divorced Iranians from the world beyond the Middle East, regional conflicts have left them no less divided from the other Persian speakers in their own neighborhood – the Afghans, the Tajiks in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Still, there was much to enjoy in this evening of Iranian art and glamour. I successfully cornered the dashing Navid Negahban, one of the festival competition’s six jurors. He has starred in the movie The Stoning of Soraya M., and the popular American TV series Homeland and 24.
I started our conversation with my usual disclaimer: “I am Afghan, by the way.” To my surprise, he answered in Dari, the variety of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, and showed a keen interest in learning some Pashto, as well. I suspected that he was practicing for a possible Afghan film role but he charmingly evaded my question. Instead we talked about the well-known fact that Iranian parents are usually horrified when they find out that their son or daughter is artistically inclined and not exactly keen on becoming a doctor.
Could he relate to this conflict, I asked Negahban. “Oh, yes, they still sometimes ask me when I will start doing something serious.” He pointed toward his daughter, a tall, unassuming, pretty girl, and said, “I let her do whatever she wants to do.” She wasn’t sure yet, it turned out. Marketing maybe, but this here, the red carpet, she said, also appealed to her.
Earlier, I had put the same question to the Kajart members, asking how they had managed to bypass parental sanctions against the pursuit of art as a career. Mehrizi and Khalali were both adamant that they had their parents’ full support, though Mehrizi admitted that he had heard the word “dentist” raised suggestively more than once.
I told him that, when I was a student in Germany, it was possible to study dentistry without ever speaking a word of German. “You could get along with Persian alone. The entire department was Persian.” We laughed at this, but there is no doubt that Iranians abroad have paid a heavy price for neglecting artistic self-representation in pursuit of financially stable professions.
The festival itself was testimony to another cultural burden: the endless effort to shift American perceptions of Iranians as fanatics and “terrorists”. How else to explain the fact that K-von Presents: A Splash of Nowruz, a documentary short with little artistic merit and even less originality, won the second prize. It features a young comedian of half-American, half-Iranian parentage investigating his Iranian cultural heritage through an exploration of Nowruz in a US context. Hapless young Americans are shown being interviewed about Iran; aside from vague associations with terrorism, they know nothing. K-von himself had similarly known little before making the film and afterward, it seemed, all he had learned was that Iranian culture actually embraced dancing and festivity. That, despite all the stereotypes, Iranians were basically harmless and fun.
When the audience burst into wild applause at the film’s conclusion, I feared that it might very well win the top prize. After decades spent in the US, the members of the diaspora community are still desperate for the wider American public to recognize them simply as fellow human beings who also happen to be good company. I felt sad about this state of affairs for which, once again, we have politics to blame.
Via the festival website, I had already seen all six shortlisted films chosen from among 100 submitted from all over the world, including remote parts of Iran such as Orumieh. I was curious about the Iranian audience’s take, especially their reaction to Bride of Rain. I found it boring and, with its focus on magic, children and rural Iran, derivative at best, harkening back to the magic realism for which Iranian cinema was internationally celebrated in the 1990s.
Still, there is one special aspect to the film: it is in Kurdish, with English subtitles. I was not surprised to hear the people behind me ask each other in Persian, “What’s this language? Is it Kurdish?” The fact that it was among the finalists gave me hope that perhaps Iranians had begun to acknowledge the great diversity of their own country, which also includes Sunni Muslims and people of Turkic and Arab ancestry who have hardly ever featured as representatives of Iranian culture and heritage.
My own favorite film was Amirali Haghayeghi’s The Legend of Gheysar. An animation made with Lego figures, it brilliantly retells famous scenes from Masoud Kimiai’s hugely popular 1969 feature film Gheysar. It makes use of the original’s music and dialogue, which are dramatic enough to engage even those viewers who had not seen Kimiai’s movie, drawing them into the pathos of its story of honour, blood and revenge.
I asked Haghayeghi how he had come up with the idea to re-create this tale of Elizabethan-style tragedy in such an unexpected manner. The Lego figures convey the story in all seriousness, but their travails inevitably come across as juvenile. It is a masterful subversion of form and content but, like many true artists, Haghayeghi could not explain his art.
During the screening, I observed that the audience was laughing at the honour-obsessed protagonist, who is ready to murder multiple times for the sake of his notion of manly esteem. The laughter sounded more like ridicule than hilarity. I felt that I was the only one touched by the film, perhaps because killing for “honour” is still very much part of life in my own Afghan society. I wondered if the concept of javanmardi – now associated with young working-class men who profess a distinct code of honour – no longer resonated among this class of sophisticated, globalized, professional Iranians.
Maybe the ideals of Iranian manliness had themselves shifted, but the theme of nasty patriarchy was also central to Kajart’s Aghaye Past. When I first watched it, I was moved by the exquisite animation and Ali Azimi’s beautiful song that accompanied it. But I was disturbed that its young creative team seemed still to be concerned with that old story of the hypocritical misogynist, the pietistic patriarch who sports a thick white beard and is never without his prayer beads. I felt that it could not have been the story of this new generation who are, after all, the grandchildren of the revolution. I feared that Kajart’s members had fallen into the familiar trap of confusing their own stories with those of their parents’ generation, telling their elders’ tales instead of discovering their own voices.
I asked Mehrizi whether he knew someone who had inspired the narrative and he told me there was no one in particular. It was just one of those common, shared stories. Everyone knew a man like that, he said. Aghaye Past’s first prize suggested he was right, its message having powerfully resonated with the jurors and audience alike.
Exemplifying how much new and exciting art is coming from the diaspora communities and Iran itself, the festival ultimately left me elated. As I had found out through my conversations with Kajart, there is music to explore by bands such as Ajam, who would be playing as part of the Nowruz celebrations the following evening at LACMA, and King Raam. And there is my happiest discovery, the animations of Sarah Tabibzadeh, who was asleep in Tehran when on the far side of the planet the jury awarded the festival’s third prize to her hauntingly beautiful Lady with Flower-Hair. It is one of the most moving depictions of loneliness and altruism I’ve seen.