Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Simin Behbahani: National Poet, Nation's Mother

Behbahani at a Glimpse
Image courtesy of Tavaana
by Tavaana

Simin Behbahani, one of Iran’s most prominent poets, was born to a cultured family and raised amongst the literary elite. Behbahani published her first poem when she was only 14 years old, and in the years that followed, she gradually developed her own style of writing as she became a renowned poet. Prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution, Behbahani worked as a songwriter for the Iranian National Radio. She was also a member of the Iranian National Radio and Television Council for Music for some time.

Alongside her career as a poet, Behbahani was always involved in social and civic activism. In her youth, she was a member of the Tudeh Party of Iran’s Youth Organization, and later on, she helped found the Iranian Writers’ Association. In later years, Behbahani became known as a women’s rights activist respected by the young members of the Iranian feminist movement. Even though her poetry mainly touches on personal themes, socio-political concerns, too, played an important part in informing her vision. Social justice, poverty, women’s rights, freedom of speech, and resisting censorship are all central themes in many of her poems.

In recent years, the Iranian government had imposed restrictions on Behbahani’s activism, and the authoritarian voices in the media attacked her character. Nevertheless, Behbahani continued to express herself and chose to address these attacks from a compassionate perspective. She passed away at age 87 in August 2014.

A Poet Raised from Her Mother’s Bosom

Simin Khalili, better known as Simin Behbahani, was born on July 20, 1927 in Tehran.[1] Her father, Abbas Khalili, wrote poetry in both Persian and Arabic. He was the editor-in-chief of Nedaay-e-Islam’ newspaper before starting his own paper, Eghdam.[2] He translated over 1,100 stanzas from Ferdowsi’s mythical epic poem, the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings). Behbahani’s mother, Fakhr-Ozmaa Arghoun, was erudite and progressive: she was born in 1898 in Tehran and had learned Arabic and Persian in elementary school alongside her brothers before continuing her education in French and English at the Joan of Arc French school and the American School.[3]

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Rediscovering Iranian Artist Bahman Mohassess in Fifi Howls from Happiness

Bahman Mohassess. Image courtesy of Music Box Films and The Huffington Post.
 by , The Huffington Post

To most, the name Bahman Mohassess will not mean much. I know it didn't to me at first, before coming across a wonderful new documentary titled Fifi Howls from Happiness.

The film, directed by Mitra Farahani, is a very personal, insightful, intimate look at the exiled Iranian artist's last few months, living in self-imposed reclusion in a small residence hotel in Rome. An openly gay artist known as the "Persian Picasso", Mohassess left Iran in the late 1950s when the attention bestowed on his talents turned from praise and adoration to persecution and censorship. It was the era after the fall of Mossadegh and the incoming regime performed its own brand of cultural revolution, making artists the scapegoats.

As is often the case.

If my own ignorance was betrayed by my lack of awareness of this spectacular, satirical, utterly irreverent and unapologetic genius, the film thankfully caught me up on all I needed to know. Farahani gently introduces the audience to his work and character, while letting the artist think he's dictating the direction the documentary should take. But the director's intent is not to be manipulative, in any way, she's simply living a magnificent moment in time with the larger-than-life Mohassess, just before he's about to leave this world. The sky, quite literally, is the limit.

Farahani is ever present, her voice heard off-camera softly prodding the artist in Farsi to reveal more and more of himself; during a meal out, at a local restaurant, her salad sits untouched in front of the camera, her work to capture everything about Mohassess for posterity clearly overtaking those more mundane needs, like eating. She's teased by Mohassess, asked for cigarettes, bargained with and throughout the film, her grace shines the light on one of the great minds of the 20th Century.

The true brilliance of a documentary filmmaker lies in the editing, the way the narrative is put together to create a story worth watching, one that entertains and enlightens at the same time. As you can tell, I wish to laugh and cry, not just watch a doc to be instructed. And Farahani achieves that so seamlessly, perfectly, dancing a sultry tango with her subject. Yet she never oversteps her boundaries, she's always the student, Mohassess ever the Maestro. She intersperses her video diary with clips from the artist's favorite film, Luchino Visconti's classic Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), and statements by other artists like a favorite quote from Marino Marini: "We built, we destroyed and a sad song weighed on the world."