Friday, 7 November 2014

On the surreal in contemporary Iranian cinema

Surreal images permeate FAT SHAKER
by Travis Bird, Shotgun Cinema

Contemporary Iran is one place where the very fact that a film is made is just as vital as what’s in it. It defies the comfortable notion that art can exist in an idealized vacuum. Art is made by and experienced by individuals, and in the case of Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, cinema in particular sends filmmakers and cinephiles on their own strange trips.

Cinephilia and filmgoing is something Americans can take for granted (maybe too much so), but in Iran, it ranges from difficult to ridiculous. As Azadeh Jafari and Vahid Mortazavi detail in this piece for Reverse Shot, encountering movies in Islamic Iran has often involved black-market VHS peddlers and non-subtitled material, in addition to dubbed and censored versions of more generic fare. As the authors suggest, encountering non-standard cinema was (and is) often an individual exercise, both empowering and isolated.

Independent filmmaking, similarly, has become an isolated exercise in Iran. Actually, most of what Americans hear about contemporary Iranian cinema revolves around its not being produced, mainly due to individual bans on filmmaking doled out by the Iranian government. Jafar Panahi has been perhaps the most notable cause célèbre, in part because of his success before receiving a 20-year ban and six-year jail sentence in 2010, but also because he has in fact managed to defy the ban by making (to date) two powerful feature films, This Is Not A Film (2011) – which was smuggled out of the country to the Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake – and Closed Curtain (2013).

Panahi was and remains a genuinely significant filmmaker, and his post-ban films can be read as evidence of the psychological deterioration he’s endured as an ideological target: as desperate as they are defiant, as much therapy as protest. The cake story in particular adds a darkly surrealistic element, showing just how extreme the measures must be taken in order to avoid being caught, which in turn suggests just how nightmarish it would actually be to get caught.

Artist repression in Iran has been compared to the Stalin-era Soviet Union, where people were terrorized, by many accounts, seemingly at random. The result was that each individual, imagining the night when the police would bang on his door, was left with his own fears. The surreal, a concept originally grounded in the non-rational, also relies on individuality to power its images.

In his 2013 feature Fat Shaker, Mohammad Shirvani combines surrealism with the power of authority, allowing it to run amok in shifting, unnerving ways. The fat man’s vulgar power over his cherubic son crumbles in the face of a calm, self-possessed woman who is seemingly unafraid of him. Although she’s suggested to be a photographer, it doesn’t appear that she wants anything from him – she’s just there, interfering with the balance between father, son, and the rest of their lives. Unexplained touches show up everywhere in memorable visuals: grotesque body imagery, chickens clucking incessantly during a tense interrogation scene, a Florida license plate. Shirvani’s film is so defiantly personal that it resists interpretation, but it bestows the sensation that unpredictable authority not only haunts a person, but also can activate something that breaks one down from the inside.

A scene from "The White Meadows", 2009, Dir. Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran.
Mohammad Rasoulof, on the other hand, responds to repression with total calculated rage in 2014’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn. By 2010, Rasoulof had gained a fair bit of attention through films like The White Meadows (2009), which channeled repression into austere allegory (with Shirvani as one of the actors - here is an excellent piece detailing, among other things, Rasoulof’s filmography). As a result, he received a six-year prison sentence, and a 20-year filmmaking ban). Filmed partially in Germany, where Rasoulof has been permitted to travel, Manuscripts is far from allegorical. It aims its vitriol directly at the low-level functionaries who carry out the actual actions of terror, themselves powerless and ranging from willfully ignorant to naïve to sociopathic. Its surreal power comes from a sense of overwhelming inevitability that grows throughout its 125 minutes, as thoughts of I can’t believe this is actually happening move into This has to happen this way and there’s no way out. By forcing the viewer to confront ethically despicable actions, Rasoulof also forces an acknowledgement of how little sense the whole thing makes.

One element that links Fat Shaker, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, and other works of contemporary Iranian cinema is that they’re individualized visions, not only in how they fit their stories together, but also in how certain parts don’t add up. These elements of the surreal are vital for viewers to understand how much is at stake for Iranian independent filmmakers, which itself might seem impossible to believe.

Via Shotgun Cinema


Iranian film-maker Mohammad Shirvani takes aim at weighty issues



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