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Between life and death: two Iranian films

About the authors
Ed Hayes is an Editorial Intern at openDemocracy, who graduated in Arabic and Persian from Oxford and has directred a Britten opera.
Flora Roberts is Visual Editor of openDemocracy. She volunteers for the Refugee Council in London.
Despite the critical feeding frenzy that tends to surround a new release from either of the best-known Iranian directors, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the chance for other Iranian stories and directors to impact on non-Iranian consciousness is still a rare and precious one. For two of us in the audience at last year’s London Film Festival, the recent films of Aboufazl Jalili and Bahman Farmanara provided vivid evidence of the compelling intimacy of this filmic world, and prompted a desire to share our excitement.

Delbaran, by Aboufazl Jalili

Kaim is an Afghan boy who has escaped the poverty and violence of his home country and works illegally at a way-station, the ‘Delbaran Inn’, on a remote road near the Afghan border in north-east Iran. Kaim’s boss is an old man who makes a living servicing the ramshackle vehicles of the little community, and the passing trickle of traffic, whilst providing a stopping point for the stream of refugees coming from the border.

For the average audience in Iran, almost as much as for the audience of cinema lovers in London, this is a window onto an incredibly harsh and alien existence. People’s only income seems to come directly or indirectly from the traffic of Afghan refugees. The main pastime is the smoking of opium. Every piece of machinery seems on the verge of collapse.

The film is an expressive meditation on the theme of marginality. The nearby hills marking the Afghan border provide one of the strongest presences in the dusty, expansive setting. These hills hum with the noise of bullets, and spew out refugees to be trafficked by the community of Delbaran: death-dealing and life-sustaining.

Kaim visits these hills twice in the course of the film. The first is to organise a package to be taken across the border to his family. It is a short scene: the deal is struck, money changes hands, and the boy who is acting as Kaim’s courier dashes up the side of the hill to the sound of gunfire. He then rolls down again, shot dead, fingers unclenching as he releases his red bundle. The second time Kaim returns to the hills, it is to cross the border himself, to search for his family.

The paradoxical life and death of these hills fills the life of the people surviving on their outskirts. The community is sustained by the traffic of refugees but also threatened by its illegality. In the face of the constant, crass questioning of the local policeman, the response is always: “There are no refugees”.

The conspiracy of silence that infuriates the policeman is at the heart of Jalili’s compassionate rendering of his harsh subject. One of the film’s many unexpectedly comic moments comes when the policeman finds a clandestine wedding party taking place in a hole in the ground.

He interrogates the Iranian bride, Afghan groom and their respective guardians to uncover suspected foul play. He becomes more and more enraged by the non-committal answers given to his assertion that such a marriage should not take place.

Finally, on addressing the bride, asking her why she wants to marry a man whose language she cannot even understand properly, she tells the policeman that the reason is that she loves him. The policeman is foiled and disappears, grumbling.

It is these little victories of living that make the film so watchable and excuse some of its longeurs. Thanks to Jalili’s technique of presenting his films more as a collage of ideas than a merely linear narrative, Delbaran remains a consistently interesting cinematic experience.

Though Kaim is central to the narrative that builds up from these vignettes, the camera does not follow him to the exclusion of the marginal characters. In fact, the film is entirely peopled with marginal characters – from the refugees who sustain the local economy of Delbaran Inn, only to pass through and disappear, to the policeman who represents authority and legitimacy in the community but is comically excluded from it by its pact of silence. The centrality of Kaim himself is at odds with this identity as representative of a class of people who many Iranians (and indeed their European equivalents) prefer not to see.

One can only hope, along with its director, that films like Delbaran become more widely available.

Smell of camphor, scent of jasmine, by Bahman Farmanara

For an explanation of the title in the director’s own words, see here

Bahman Farmanara’s film also features the life of a male outsider, but rather than a resourceful young boy, the protagonist is an ageing and disenchanted film director. Deeply enmeshed in the fabric of Iranian society, he is nonetheless marginalised by his own long, but not entirely self-imposed, silence. Both on and off the screen, the director has long been inactive: Farmanara had not made a film since the 1979 revolution.

A driver stops on the kerb to pick up a young woman who waves at him to ask for a lift. By the courteous, almost deferential way in which he asks her where she would like to go, he might almost be a taxi driver, were it not for his rather flash car.

His passenger is not clear about where she wants to be taken, and seems visibly distressed as she cradles a baby hidden in the folds of her black chador. Her husband has been hitting her, she wails, at which the driver tut-tuts in sympathy, but unsurprised – his daughter too, is slapped around by her husband, but her father feels powerless to intervene.

So far, western devotees of Iranian cinema may feel on familiar territory, as a film discussing the parlous treatment of women in the Islamic world has a rather higher than average chance of being shown on the international film circuit.

In an attempt to put her at ease, the driver switches on the radio, but not before enquiring whether the music will disturb the baby. “No, it won’t disturb him”, the woman answers as her vacant dark eyes rove this way and that. “He’s dead”.

The unknown woman abruptly asks to be let out, following an apparent change of heart: her husband is a good man really, it is not his fault that he has lost his job (in a country of rampant unemployment), nor that this should drive him to violence.

Bahman Farjami (who is played in the film by its director, Bahman Farmanara) had been on his way to visit the grave of his sorely missed wife. He reaches the cemetery to find, on retrieving his bunch of flowers, that the dead baby has been left on his back seat.

His next jolt is not long in coming. Approaching the grave, he discovers that the adjacent plot, reserved long ago for himself, has been occupied. He confronts the cemetery attendants, and his simple plea to be buried alongside his wife clashes with their adamant assertions that no mistake can have occurred – their computing system is infallible. Farjami must in fact have booked another layer of the same plot as his wife (out of a possible ten, apparently, in crowded Tehran).

Ebrahim Golestan’s celebrated 1964 film, The brick and the mirror, showed a woman leaving a child behind in a taxi, forcing the driver to make the decision to keep it: in a cinema sealed for so long from outside influences but so richly cross-referenced internally, Farmanara’s scene may be a deliberate echo.

In any case, the dead baby needs to be dealt with, a task the sickened Bahman entrusts to his breezily efficient lawyer. But the effects of his gruesome discovery reverberate through the film.

This sequence of disturbing events jolts Farjami out of his torpor and, at last, into a new project, when the taciturn protagonist embarks on a meditation on death in the form of a filmed narrative of his own funeral, solemnly and meticulously rehearsed step by step.

The tone is low key, slightly surreal and never far from the comical.

Bahman visits the undertaker, the coffin maker, and the purveyor of funereal cloths. He watches, in heavy-lidded immobility, a video of a mullah reciting in orotund style the prescribed stages of a correct Islamic burial.

He sets out to buy an exhibition case – those caskets lit with coloured light bulbs placed along the pavements of Iranian streets to alert passers-by of the demise of a neighbour, and which display photos and written memoirs. The man in this last shop, unctuously enquiring for whom the casket is intended, thinks Farjami is pulling his leg when receiving the laconic reply, “for me”.

He chides Farjami for wasting his time, but on hearing that the casket will be used in a film, his tone changes completely. In a burst of generosity, he flicks a switch that sets myriad fairy lights, his entire stock, alight in a blaze of colour.

This is as good a mark as any of the high regard with which cinema is treated in Iran, where generous government funding has permitted a flowering of the arts unparalleled anywhere else, still less anywhere as relatively poor and repressive.

The current President of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, is rightly credited for his role in this resurgence, thanks to his creation of the Farabi Cinematic Foundation in 1983, when he was Minister of Culture and Information.

This Foundation monitors both the export of Iranian films, many of which it promotes with variable success on the international festival circuit; and the import of foreign films, reduced to a trickle following the imposition of exacting guidelines. The good effects of this centralised body – which also distributed imported equipment and film stock at reduced prices – were immediately felt. In 1983, twenty-two feature films were produced, a figure which has climbed ever since.

Khatami was forced to resign from his ministry following the outcry generated by his having granted permission to a female singer to perform in public, to an all-female audience. For such deeds the softly-spoken, gently smiling president is ardently admired by the progressive middle classes and the young, in spite of his apparent powerlessness in the face of intransigence from religious conservatives.

In the film, Farmanara acknowledges this darling-cum-martyr of the intelligentsia by airing one of the President’s stirring (but notoriously under-televised) speeches in his film, as the director’s alter ego Farjami collapses on a sofa.

A baby’s demise triggers this self-exploratory, potentially self-indulgent voyage around the paraphernalia of death, and it is another young life that jolts Farjami out of it. Just as he is on the verge of losing all contact with reality, the ’phone rings and his daughter announces the birth of her first child.

The film offers an honest, unflinching look at the life of a middle-aged Iranian intellectual, who has been biding his time waiting for a story that could be told without fear of censorship or craven nods towards the establishment. Despite his chosen subject matter, he is not a pessimist, nor, despite his long silence, does he seem out of touch with the cultural and political world around him (in the television scene, reformist newspapers are also visible).

Each character is vividly, and lovingly, portrayed: witness the clash of wills between Farjami’s well-meaning sister and his loyal but somewhat slovenly manservant. As the sister sweeps in bearing flowers, upbraiding the servant over the house’s growing untidiness, the latter listens in silence. But as soon as the sister leaves the room, the servant asks his master whether he should throw away the flowers – which he knows his master hates – and bears them away triumphantly.

Bahman Farmanara’s novel way of reflecting on the meaning of his own life illuminates through cinema something of the inner life not just of Iran, but of our shared humanity.

The last sequence in the film quotes Kafka: “When you throw a stone in the water, you can’t control the waves”.

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