“Women Without Men”, One More Must See Film from Iran.

Women Without Men.

Women Without Men.

Women Without Men sounds like another of those worthy but dull, educational chores. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a sumptuous, richly evocative film that calls to mind the heady days of Italian cinema in the 60s and early 70s.

Think late Visconti, De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi Continis (reviewed earlier here) and the Taviani brothers. Imagine if Bertolucci had ever managed to use his technical bravura to actually say something.

Shirin Neshat, whose first film this was, has said that she was influenced by Kiarostami when she decided to make the move from conceptual art into the world of feature films. And she is very much part of that new wave of Iranian film makers that also includes Ashgar Farhadi, whose A Separation and About Elly I reviewed here and here, and poor Jafar Panahi, reviewed here who, outrageously, remains imprisoned in Iran.

This Is Not A Film

Panahi’s This Is Not A Film.

Interestingly and unlike them, she is looking at Iran from the outside, having lived most of her life as an exile in the US.

Neshat  has taken Shahrnush Parisipur’s famous novella, which charts the lives of four women, and has posited their stories against the backdrop of the events of 1953. It was then that the British and the US came together to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mosaddegh, and supplant him with a military dictatorship under the Shah, so they could regain control of Iran’s oil supply.

I can’t for the life of me imagine why a film maker would waste her time on historical events like this that clearly have so little relevance to the world we live in today.

Inevitably, indeed necessarily, revolution followed 25 years later. And immediately after which, the same crowd armed and funded Iraq in its war against Iran. And then, more oil, more US and British troops, yet more resentment, and so on ad infinitum. And let’s not even get into the centuries of abuse in neighbouring Afghanistan. Little wonder then that Iran looks at the West with all too weary and jaundiced eyes.

Women Without Men.

Women Without Men.

All of which could have resulted in a painfully dull film, part historical lecture, part feminist tract. But what Neshat has made instead is a marriage of magic realism and exquisite, formal precision. The result is ravishingly beautiful and quietly moving. Four female archetypes set against the backdrop of political turmoil, in the face of which, resistance appears futile.

And yet, resist they must. We all should.

It won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2009 – in fairness, the Golden Lion went to the brilliant Lebanon. You should see them both, and you can see the trailer for Women Without Men here.

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“About Elly”, Yet Another Superb Iranian Film.

2009_about_elly_0011After the huge success of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011), viewers in the West have now been given a chance to catch up with the film he made before it, About Elly (’09).

A Separation was Farhadi’s fifth film, and was quietly brilliant. Unsurprisingly it swept the boards, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 2011 as well a Berlin’s prestigious Golden Bear, and was reviewed by me earlier here.

About Elly is yet further confirmation that Iran is one of the most exciting centres for cinema in the world – you can see the trailer here. Film makers like Farhadi and Jafar Panahi are spearheading a second wave who have now arrived to supplement what was going on there in the 80s and 90s. You can read about that in my review of Panahi’s This Is Not A Film here. Who by the way is presumably still under house arrest there.

This Is Not A FilmAbout Elly‘s opening 20 minutes or so meander along in an apparently sleepy fashion. Three or four pairs of middle class Iranians have travelled to the coast for a holiday break. But then out of the blue, something happens. And then we and they spend the rest of the film trying to piece together what it was.

It’s not a thriller though. It’s a small, personal drama, in which the tension arises from the little lies that the friends begin telling each other as a result of the event that they are all trying to unravel.

FRENCH211-2Not a million miles from the terrain covered by Antonioni in L’Avventura, though without the latter’s formal rigour and austere beauty. Rather, as with A Separation, it’s closer in tone to Bergman. Farhadi is less interested in form and space, and choses instead to immerse himself in the world of his characters and the stories that enfold them.

And once again, those kind of comparisons are fully merited. About Elly is a riveting, engrossing and at once beguiling story. And Farhadi’s ability to reel you in by withholding story points until the very last moment makes him one of the most exciting film makers in world cinema.

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Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not A Film”, Yet Another Iranian Triumph, Not.

This Is Not A FilmIn late 2010 the gifted Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail and forbidden from make films for 20 years.

Films of his such as The Circle from 2000 and Offside from 2006 had suggested that here was yet another Iranian film maker who seemed to have successfully found a way to gently critique the land of his birth, especially its attitude to women, but to do so in such a way that the authorities were begrudgingly prepared to put up with. Not any more, alas.

Under house arrest, and forbidden from in any way being seen to make films, he invited a film maker friend of his around to record a day in his life. Lightheartedly at first, he begins to act out the film that he’d hoped to be making. It’s a story of a girl imprisoned in her own home, forbidden by her traditional parents from leaving to pursue her studies at university.

But as he tries to tell the film, all levity suddenly evaporates, and the hopelessness of his situation finally dawns on him. You can’t tell a film, that’s not what a film is. And suddenly, the title’s no longer funny or mischievous, but quietly tragic. He might never make a film ever again. And he’s probably on his way to gaol, for years.

Something quite remarkable happened to Iranian cinema about 20 years ago. Its natural mode had always been that of neorealism. So when we see the boy impatiently asking an elder for directions in Kiarostami’s Where Is The Friend’s Home from 1987, the old man continues preparing his pipe before stirring himself to reply.

His face seems to say, empires rise and empires fall, but nothing ever really changes, so I might as well enjoy my smoke before eventually addressing your question – which by the way, and unsurprisingly, I’ll not be able to help you with.

But in 1990 Kiarostami made a completely different kind of film, with the brilliant Close Up. It follows a man who impersonates another major Iranian film maker, Mohsan Makhmalbaf. But as you watch what appears to be a documentary, you realize that a lot of what you’re seeing must in fact have been re-enacted. And the film’s subject, truth and lies, is mirrored by the form it takes to tell its story, as it becomes increasingly difficult to untangle fact from fiction.

The following year in ’91 he made a documentary cum feature film about the actors from Where Is My Friend’s Home called Life And Nothing More. And in ’94 he made Through The Olive Trees, which was a film about the actors in that film and the tension between how they treated one another on and off set. In other words, he made a film, about a film, about a film.

Then in ’96, Makhmalbaf, he of Close Up, made a remarkable film about a film maker making a film about an incident in his youth, when he’d stabbed a policeman. But the film, provocatively titled A Moment of Innocence, starred the actual policeman playing his older self, advising the actor who was cast as his younger self!

Most remarkably of all, Makhmalbaf’s 18 year old daughter Samira then made a stunning film called The Apple in ’98, about which I’ll say nothing other than I defy anyone to unpick which scenes were fictionalized and which bits actually happened.

So when we see the forlorn Panahi pointing his iPhone at his friend, as his friend films him in his apartment in This Is Not A Film, it’s a particularly poignant image. Here are two Iranian film makers engaged in a yet another fascinating exploration of artifice and the film making process, and how it can impinge on the every day lives of ordinary people. It’s an artistic conversation that we in the rest of the world have been hypnotized by and have watched and listened to in awe and wonder.

What an amazing country, to have produced so many serous film makers producing such an extraordinary variety of films. A Separation for instance, is a completely different kind of film (reviewed here). And yet here is yet another major film maker quietly questioning the country he loves and lives in.

But what was once a source of domestic pride has been transformed into one of national shame. The authorities in Iran appear to be incapable of seeing the wood from the trees. And instead of celebrating one of their many, brilliant film makers, they’re sending one of them to gaol. Shame on you.

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