Rumi, opium and the beauty of genuine forgiveness
A review of Bijan Daneshmand’s “A Snake’s Tail”
April 6, 2006
UPDATE: A SNAKE'S TAIL, an Iranian film made in London by Bijan Daneshmand has received 2 nominations: one for Best Foreign Picture, and the other for Best Actor at the Bare Bones International Film Festival Oklahoma 17-23 April. It will be screened on 18th April at 7pm at the Roxy Theatre, Muskogee, Oklahoma. This Festival focuses on films of budgets of less than US$ 5 million and where the auteur, director, and producer may be all the same person. The film is also present at Cannes Film Festival Marche du Film 17-28 May 2006.
“A Snake’s Tail,” is a gem of a film written, acted and directed by Bijan Daneshmand.
The film is set in London and is about the relationship between Kami, a forty year old businessman whose father has just passed away, and Agha, the Mullah or Muslim priest, who conducts the burial ceremony. The story shows how Agha, an opium addict with a penchant for Persian Sufi poetry, takes Kami, who is distraught by the death of his father, under his wings. During their weekly meetings Agha not only exposes Kami to the beautiful poetry of Rumi and Hafiz but to the euphoric pleasures of opium, the preferred drug of Iranians since time immemorial.
Agha, in his cloak and turban, is soft spoken and possesses an inner grace. He shows Kami how to consume opium the proper way: with the proper kind of pipe, tea and sweets. Kami, who is westernized and lives the busy life of a businessman discovers through Agha both opium and the ancient culture and literature of his fatherland.
Agha is never a pusher, but he uses Kami with a subtlety that is peculiarly Iranian. Every time Kami visits the Agha he is asked to provide him with one thing or another. One week it is a dishwasher another a satellite dish or fax machine. Slowly Kami finds himself becoming addicted to the opium. But he also finds himself doing whatever the Agha asks him. One too many demands from the Agha and Kami realizes that he is being used and decides to stop seeing him.
He procures for himself all the paraphernalia needed to continue his habit on his own. Slowly we watch as Kami sinks into greater and greater addiction. A near fatal accident that luckily spares him shocks him into stopping.
He starts a regime of sports and abstinence until he is finally freed. He re-reads Rumi’s poetry and realizes that the immorality that he saw in the Agha was in fact not as bad as it seemed. He realizes that Agha, too, is an addict and therefore unable to see the harm that he is inflicting. Kami also realizes that the ugliness that he saw in the Agha was really partly due to his own weakness. He remembers one of the poems that claim that the blackness that we see is caused by the dark lens that we wear which darkens our vision and that if we get rid of our own inner darkness then we can see the good in everything even the bad. He comes to this realization because, and at the same time, despite, Agha: because he reaches it after he stops seeing him.
Having shed the yoke of addiction and become free, Kami realizes that he is ready to see Agha without feeling so weak as to be afraid of being used by him. Kami reaches the extreme state of Sufi realization which is that in every bad there is a good and we only need to change our lens to see it. He learns forgiveness at its deepest level: to forgive he who wants to harm you. He in fact realizes that the harm is only there because one allows it to be.
When he goes to see the Agha, ready to meet him on his own terms he is greeted by the Agha’s wife who tells Kami that Agha died the night before in his sleep.
Kami through his harrowing journey of opium addiction, his reading of Sufi poetry and his relationship with the Agha, reaches the stage in his spiritual development where he realizes the greatest lesson of the Sufi’s: that in the end we choose the lens through which we perceive others and that it is up to us to see them in their brilliance or darkness.
The film besides being a little lesson in Sufism also works beautifully cinematically. Daneshmand’s conversations about the story and the making of the film, with a brilliantly natural acting friend, Manu Marzban, acts as the thread that keeps the narrative together.
Daneshmand’s choice of playing both the Agha and Kami’s role is also clever because it accentuates and underlines their difference and their similarity. As one of the poems in the film claims the bad that we see in others exists in ourselves, what better way to express that than by having both the antagonist and the protagonist played by the same actor. The editing and cinematography by Paul Cronin is tight and extremely professional. The music, all original, mostly percussion, traditional Persian music, written and preformed by Fariborz Kiani, against the backdrop of London adds an ethnic flavor while giving the story an indigenous rhythm.
When I first saw Bijan Daneshmand act in his first major role in “20 Fingers” (Directed by Mania Akbari, winner of Venice Film Festival, 2005, Best Film, Digital category) I was impressed by how naturally and effortlessly he preformed. Now, with “A Snake’s Tail” he has shown his stature as a director and writer as well. This film is not only a must see for all Iranians living abroad and in search of their roots but also for all those who are curious about Sufi philosophy and the way Iranians live abroad. Through the life of one successful Iranian the audience can see that Iranians are not all slogan shouting fundamentalist living in ghettos, but ordinary citizens facing the same existential dilemmas that confront us all. This delightful film like the poetry of Rumi that it so often evokes, has depth without being heavy. It is in the end a simple quest of one soul in search of his identity.