Open City Docs Fest has a regional focus on Iran and its CINEMADOOSTI: DOCUMENTING IRAN strand offers the work of six remarkable documentary filmmakers. In eager anticipation, I have been re-watching some of my favourite films, which happen to have been made by Iranian directors, aware of the fact that there is little more stultifying than claiming essential or exclusive ‘national cinema’ traits. However, I can’t help recognizing a common characteristic; an internal ambiguity, a kind of anxiety that in various ways all these films simply refuse to resolve.
Such is the case in A Taste of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami, the first half of which consists of a remarkably uncomfortable car journey in which the film’s protagonist, Mr. Badii, offers various men on the street a well paid job, the nature of which he keeps secret. After a number of straight up rejections, he offers a ride to a young Afghani soldier, before taking him on a tortuously worrying detour along thin and winding dirt roads. `We and the soldier are left to nervously wonder what motivates the mysterious man whom the film so closely follows. We can at least ponder the sexual connotations in the title as we watch and wait. Although are darkest suspicions are eventually clarified as groundless, the film’s dynamic viscerally raises the question - “how much should we trust strangers, particularly strange ones?”. This practically universal moral problem has no satisfactory answer; for though we can comprehend it as an abstract problem, each and every encounter necessarily resides in the unknown.
What Mr Badii is actually asking his temporary passengers to do is something altogether more simple and more difficult ; they must bury this man who intends to commit suicide (at an allotted time and place the next morning), and then collect his money for their service. After Mr Badii finally convinces a man to carry out the burial, he lies down in his self-dug grave as the light fades. Before long he is completely immersed in the black of night, only briefly becoming visible again with a single flash of lightning, the last time we see our protagonist. So, can we do right by strangers in need, or, in helping them, might we risk doing something very wrong indeed?
Another of Kiarostami’s films, Close Up, depicts the true story of a young man, Hossain Sabzian, who is on trial for infiltrating and deceiving an Iranian family by pretending to be internationally acclaimed fellow-Iranian film director Mohsen Mahkmalbaf, and offering them a chance to star in ‘his’ latest film. Is it Sabzian’s intense love of Mahkmalbaf’s films that lie behind his deception; is he looking for a free meal; a criminal; or, genuinely attempting to uplift the family through cinema. The reconstructions of Sabzian’s infiltration of the family and his subsequent arrest, are so seamlessly achieved that it becomes difficult to fathom what is real and what is a performance. Nor is this resolved. Kiarostami arranges the meeting of Sabzian and Mahkmalbaf, following the pair as they scoot along a busy road on a moped, in an apparently joyful ending.
In Mahkmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema (Hello Cinema) the infatuations and anxieties of Iranian celebrity culture are on show. Salaam Cinema is a documentary about an audition that Mahkmalbaf organises, to which thousands of applicants arrive. A small number of the attendees are randomly selected and are invited inside a large hall, where they undergo a rigorous audition process conducted by Mahkmalbaf. Unbeknownst to them, this is the film itself. Stunning performances are again elicited from ‘non-actors’, who despair over and resist Mahkmalbaf’s persistent orders to laugh, cry, and act on the spot. Like the film’s participants, the viewer experiences the tortuous anxiety of the auditions, and frets over the mistreatment of the film’s subjects. But this is its brilliance. Salaam Cinema breaks down the typically hidden power relationship between director and actor, films and their audiences, and shows this relationship to be a struggle.
Samira Mahkmalbaf, Mohsen’s daughter, collaborates with her father for At Five in the Afternoon, in which a young girl in Afghanistan, homeless and living in abject poverty, dreams of one day becoming president and thereby defying Afghanistan’s patriarchal regime. Nogreh’s attempts to help those struggling around her, whilst secretly acting out her fantasy of a better life in which she can be who she wants and wear what she wants are a touching variation on the human survival mechanism. Again no solution is offered: eventually, when her family move from the ruins in which they live, it is to encounter nothing but a vast desert which they must cross, despite there being little promise of a better life on the other side.
Moving from the classic feature films to the latest exercises in Iranian documentary - one film not to miss at OCDF is Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa's short essay film Jerry and Me which looks back over her upbringing as an Iranian woman living in America, and her sense of dissociation from the many big Hollywood movies with their stereotypes of femininity and masculinity. She contrasts this with her love of Hollywood comic film actor Jerry Lewis, whose buffoonery appealed to her as a child. The juxtaposition of clips from these films with her story creates some memorable sequences, such as when the death scene from West Side Story becomes a visual counterpart to the story of some of her students dying.
But the most remarkable part of Jerry and Me is the recent interview with Jerry Lewis, over which Saeed-Vafa meditates on the nature of being an outsider, asking whether being a misfit, with all the anxieties that this position entails, is a perspective or a reality. She concludes that it must always be both. Once again film itself, the impact of film on our very different lives, the amused and joyful play between fiction and non-fiction becomes a source of adept self-questioning and Iranian creativity.
openDemocracy is an Open City Docs Fest media partner.