Saturday, August 4, 2012

Contemporary Iranian Cinema Marathon (Part 2)

In my June 9th post, I had explained the concept behind Filmspotting’s “marathons.”  Over the past weeks, I have relished the opportunity to play along with my favorite podcast’s most recent marathon topic.  To save my readers from scrolling through an endless post covering all six films, I have split my reactions to the Contemporary Iranian Cinema marathon into multiple parts.

My earlier post (part one) covered the first three films I watched while playing along:  Close-Up, Taste of Cherry, and Fireworks Wednesday.  This post (part two) will cover the final three films in the marathon.  And in the near future, I will post a third part in my Contemporary Iranian Cinema coverage where I will wrap up my overall experience and pick out my favorites. 

Hopefully, this can act as a template for how Mark It 8, Dude will address future Filmspotting marathons.

Children of Heaven (1997) – Mark it 6.

Directed by Majid Majidi
Starring Amir Farrokh Hasemian, Bahare Seddiqi, Mohammad Amir Naji

After the first three films in the Iranian Cinema Marathon (covered in my earlier post), I naively expected all Iranian films to be heavy, intellectual works of art.  Therefore, a lighthearted family feature like Children of Heaven really caught me off guard.  After realizing what I was experiencing, it became clear that Majid Majidi’s film is a very sweet entry into the family film genre.  From its linear narrative to its set design that is obviously a soundstage, there are no pretensions of higher art as Abbas Kiarostami and Ashghar Farhadi have previously displayed.  It may not be as intellectually stimulating as previous films in the marathon, but that is okay when the simpler film is well made.

Children of Heaven takes us inside the trials of a small family living in poverty in Tehran, presumably.  This family has many issues to deal with:  trouble paying rent, an ill mother, a father looking for work.  But Majidi limits the focus of the film on an issue affecting the brother and sister in family (who have one of the most heartwarming sibling relationships I have ever seen).  When the 9-year old boy, Ali (Amir Farrokh Hasemian), accidently loses his 7-year-old sister’s, Zahra (Bahare Seddiqi), shoes, the two must share Ali’s ratty old sneakers so their parents won’t find out and worry about something they cannot afford.  The sneakers lead the two on a few adventures as they hunt for Zahra’s lost shoes.  If the old shoes are gone, Ali will risk trouble and do anything to win his sister a brand new pair.

Simple is the best descriptor of this film, but I do not mean that pejoratively.  This small story effectively shows us how serious poverty is for many Iranians.   Something taken for granted so often, footwear, can be cause for life-changing circumstances to some.  The performances by Children of Heaven’s two child stars make the pain these lost shoes cause undeniable, but more importantly the love that unites this family is just as strong.   Majidi also inserts some beautiful moments throughout the film that shows this family bonding.  By its end, you are rooting for them to move into a bigger apartment, the mother to find health, the father to find work, and most importantly, the kids to find their shoes.  This is not a film that will challenge your brain but it is one that can easily warm your heart.   

The Mirror (1998) – Mark it 7.

Directed by Jafar Panahi
Starring Mina Mohammad Khani

At the onset of Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror, a sense of disappointment began setting in.  Throughout this marathon, I have begun generating expectations of what an Iranian film will entail (whether that is good or bad).  What the film begins as is a very simple, and dull, story of a cute little girl who is lost in the big city, trying to get home.  This girl walks around and asks some strangers for help, then walks around and asks some strangers for help.  For forty minutes, I felt boredom set in and was not looking forward to the next fifty.  However, whether it was planned or improvised, The Mirror adds a fantastic twist that tells a similar story, a little girl lost in the city, in a far more interesting way and completely turned the film for me in a very special direction.

In the middle of the film, the little girl we’ve been following through the city, Mina (Mina Mohammad Khani), decides that she no longer wants to be in a movie.  The simple story that began to bore me a bit screeches to a halt, and The Mirror suddenly becomes something like a documentary.  The film’s crew becomes characters themselves and the director (Panahi) changes strategy to tell his story.  From here on out, the young diva takes off to find her own way home, without taking off her microphone, and the filmmakers witness her trek from a distance, with the cameras rolling.  With its newfound realism, every decision this second-grader makes and every stranger she talks to has an added sense of drama that benefits the film greatly.

While watching the “documentary” half of the film, I was a somewhat disturbed by the filmmaker’s irresponsibility as they allow Mina to cross dangerous intersections, approach groups of strangers, and hop in random taxis, for the sake of their film.  But this feeling begins to diminish when you see how smart (and sassy) Mina is and how the people she interacts with are generally nice and caring.  There is a fine line between naivety and over-protectiveness that I struggle with, regarding unknown people and places.  The Mirror shows that people can be nice at heart, helping Mina find her way home, rather than display worse circumstances that I would have initially feared.  Not that I would feel comfortable letting a small child roam the streets of Milwaukee; just my perspective may not be as cynical while I protect them myself.

Offside (2006) – Mark it 8.

Directed by Jafar Panahi
Starring Sima Mobarak-Shahi, Shayesteh Irani, Ayda Sadeqi, Mahnez Zabihi, Golnaz Farmani, Safdar Samandar

After completing Filmspotting’s “Contemporary Iranian Cinema Marathon,” Jafar Panahi emerged as the filmmaker I admired most.  My reasoning is Panahi’s courage to question authority through his art, a dangerous task under Iran’s oppressive regime.  He does this by masking critical questions behind seemingly simple stories (however, this tactic has gotten him into a lot of trouble regardless).  Offside tells simple story of women disguising themselves as men to sneak into a soccer game, a practice strictly forbidden in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Behind this sports story is a poignant critique of Iran’s absurd standards of gender inequality.  Panahi amplifies the perils women live under without the demonizing the men who must enforce the state’s inhumane policies for their own safety.  The individuals come across as pawns stuck in the state’s cruel game.  It is amazing that Panahi was able to get this film past Iran’s board of censors in the first place.

One of Offside’s most impressive features is its pseudo-documentary feel, aided by Panahi’s decision to shoot at the actual event depicted in the film: Iran’s 2006 World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain.  This is a fictional story that had to adapt its narrative based on the results of an actual game.  Obviously, its celebration of national pride (that the traditions of Iran itself is greater than any current governing body is a theme throughout) could only happen if the game turned out a certain way.  It is a pleasure to watch the joy these women display over their country’s soccer team even as their country’s rules have them stuck in a makeshift jail cell outside the stadium.  Each of these five women’s distinct personalities, histories, and motivations to challenge the state come through as they get their captors to open up and understand their perspective (in an attempt to get updates on the game, of course).  The soldiers are just regular people who have been trained to take on certain roles in their society, not necessarily the cold-hearted monsters that one would assume.

Offside is a gem of a film and one of my favorites of the marathon.  The great risks that these women had to take to do something as simple as seeing your favorite team was humbling.  And the possible repercussions they faced disgusted me.   Yet the bonds these women make during their ordeal and their ability to undermine the oppressive state was inspiring.  Offside shows that the spirit of an individual can be greater than the iron fist of a regime.  For intimating this lesson in modern Iran, Jafar Panahi must be praised.  Unfortunately, Iranian officials took notice as well; he has since been placed under arrest and facing a 20-year ban from filmmaking.  However, the lesson about the individual’s strength that Offside tells can be seen in Panahi’s real life (just Google the story behind his 2011 film, This Is Not a Film, for proof).

*click here to read my reviews of the first three films in the marathon.

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