Rotterdam, Netherlands — This year in the 35th International Rotterdam Film Festival (January 25-February 5, 2006) there were 6 feature length Iranian movies. These were The Fish Fall in Love (Ali Raffi, 2005), The Gaze (Sepideh Farsi, 2006), Full or Empty (Abolfazl Jalili, 2005), The Nightly Song of the Travellers (Chapour Haghighat, 2006), Writing on the Earth (Ali Mohammad Ghasemi, 2005), and President Mir Qanbar (Mohammad Shirvani, 2005).
I had the good fortune to see all six of them and they were all unique and very good films (by the way, my favorite film of the festival was My Nikifor, a Polish film about an old folk artist). Here, however, I want to focus on the two Iranian films that I liked best. These were The Fish Fall in Love (Mahiha ashegh mishavand) by Ali Raffi and The Gaze (Negah) by Sepideh Farsi.
There are two themes that these films have in common, the first is the theme of return and the second is what I want to call the forgotten generation. The main protagonist in each film is coming back home to Iran after a long stay overseas. They have been away because they were involved in dissident political activities against the regime in the early years of the revolution.
Within a couple of years after the revolution, after the religious bosses moved to solidify their power by excluding the younger generation, there was a revolt and in turn a purge that led to the death, torture, and imprisonment of thousands and thousands of the most bright and the most conscientious young people of Iran. They were the children of the revolution and they were politically conscious and so they assumed that they can have a say in the way Iran would be shaped and run. But because of the actions of a few, they were branded as traitors and enemies of the revolution and subsequently fiercely prosecuted and repressed.
They are forgotten because no one talks about them and no one remembers them. Many of them did time, got out, and are still around and in Iran. They are living normal lives, but they are no longer involved in any political activities. Many left Iran after getting out of jail. But generally in Iran they are not talked about because it is still dangerous to in any way show sympathy towards them or their former cause.
They were the opposition and they are also not talked about because most were associated with the unpopular Mujahedin, an Islamic leftist political organization which played an important role in mobilizing people before and during the revolution, sometimes used violence in Iran to achieve its aim and to make its point, and later joined Saddam Hussein in fighting the Iranian Army during the Iran-Iraq war.
They are not talked about, yet there is hardly any Iranian family who did not have some of its sons and daughters in jail or murdered by the regime in the early 1980's. They were our brothers and sisters, our cousins, and our friends. There are no reliable estimates for how many young people were executed in this bloody episode of our contemporary history, but the figures run from twenty thousand up to one hundred and twenty thousand.
The Fish Fall in Love(Mahiha ashegh mishavand) Let me begin my discussion of this film by quoting the director, who was present at the showing, about the main themes of the film and his aims in making it.
In his talk before the film and the question and answer session afterwards, Ali Raffi explained that one of his aims was to make a film in which there were strong and competent Iranian women. He complained that in too many Iranian films, Iranian women are portrayed as downtrodden, abused, and as victims or prostitutes. I believe that perhaps he was suggesting that not only this is not how many or most Iranian women are, but that in reality Iranian women are often assertive and in command of their lives and families.
Raffi also explained that in his portrayal of the two leading men, he wanted to focus on two generations of Iranians and their respective dreams and aspirations.
The Fish Fall in Love begins with the return of Aziz (played by Reza Kianian) to his home town near the Caspian Sea after more than twenty years of absence. We find out later that years ago Aziz had spent some time in prison for his political activities, and that later when he was freed he left Iran for a foreign land. Aziz is back and he is hoping to move to his deceased father's home which he assumes is now abandoned and empty. But he is wrong. His father's house is now a very nice and lively restaurant and it is run by his former love interest, Atieh (played by Roya Nonahali of Women's Prison). She runs it along with her daughter, Touka (played by Golshifteh Farahani), and two other perky women (played by Maryam Saadat and Farokh Nemati).
When Aziz and Atieh meet to discuss the ownership of the property, they both have to deal with a lot of repressed feelings and self-doubt. In particular, Atieh has all sorts of ambivalent and confused feeling towards Aziz which she does not want to deal with. But later these feelings gradually change to affection and the two become close again.
Atieh makes beautiful and delicious food and runs her restaurant diligently and with love. She becomes upset with one of the women who work for her because she refers to the restaurant patrons as customers instead of guests or visitors. Atieh is happy and fulfilled with her own business. She likes her work and her life and she does not want to give up her restaurant, so she decides, along with the other women, to dissuade Aziz from taking back his father's home by cooking him wonderful and irresistible tasty Iranian dishes and feeding him a lot of very good food.
The other important character of the film is the young Reza (played by Mehdi Pakdel). Reza is Touka's fiancé but he goes to jail because he tries his hand at smuggling to make some quick cash in order to be able to marry his love. Aziz tries to help Reza to get out and reunite with Touka. But Reza is not anything like Aziz when he was young. He is not interested in politics and he is very cynical about politics and life. His goals are materialist goals and he is looking for some easy money so that he can make real some of his dreams. Because Reza thinks that everyone is out for themselves, he distrusts Aziz's motives and accuses him of trying to steal his girlfriend.
I will say no more about the story. In order to find out how the various plots, subplots, and love relations work themselves out, you should really see the film and find out for your self. But I want to add that like many Iranian films, The Fish Fall in Love is very beautiful and almost every scene is like a picture and a painting. What makes the film particularly so charming is the shots of the scrumptious and enticing Iranian food which are good enough to be published in a cook book.
The story of the film is unraveled through cooking and presenting a lot of appetizing and delightful gourmet dishes from the northern Iranian cuisine. Moreover, from the beginning to the end, the film is filled with slicing, chopping, simmering, and grilling of vegetables, fish, and fowl. It is bound to make you hungry and nostalgic for Iranian food. The Fish Fall in Love is truly a feast for the eyes and hard to dislike.
The Gaze (Negah) This film had its world premiere at the International Rotterdam Film festival and it was among the films awarded the VPRO Tiger Awards Competition 2006. The Gaze is a mystery about the return of Esfandyar (played by Hamid Reza Danechvar) to Iran after more than twenty years of absence. Esfandyar belonged to a band of dissidents in the early 1980s uprisings. When some of his comrades were arrested, he fled the country to escape prosecution.
Esfandyar lives in Paris. He decides to return after being told that the dizziness and headaches he has been suffering from will eventually lead to his complete blindness. Before his sight completely fails, he wants to go to Iran to visit his ailing father and to settle some old scores. When Esfandyar comes home, he has an angry exchange with his bedridden father. Shortly after this dispute, his father passes away. Then seeking revenge Esfandyar digs up an old gun and begins looking for and later stalking one of his old comrades who betrayed his group many years earlier.
In his parental home, Esfandyar is very alienated from most of his family members, particularly his father's wife, Forough (Played by Fariba Kossari). It turns out, she not only belonged to his group but she was also his former love interest. Esfandyar who has never accepted her marriage to his father wants some answers. This situation and his eventual confrontation with Forough give this film its romantic angle and they add to the political plot.
Sepideh Farsi, the director, does a good job of unraveling the story and developing the characters. She is effective in setting a suspenseful tone to the film. The acting and the whole cast in The Gaze is very good. The dialogue is well-written. The relationships between the family members are believable. The main protagonist, Hamid Danechvar, gives a strong performance and works well with his Iranian counterparts.
In the question and answer session after the screening where both the director and the lead actor were present, Danechvar, an Iranian-French, said that like the character he played, he himself had not returned to Iran for more than 20 years, he had also fled Iran for political reasons, and he has been living in exile in Paris. Farsi explained that it was important for her to use an Iranian actor who had not been back to Iran for many years in the film to capture how he would get on.
The film is called The Gaze in part because the characters are sometimes cold and distant and so they are always looking at each other and often conveying emotions without saying anything. Sometimes these long looks are very unsettling, other times they signal the need to be affirmed and accepted.
The Gaze is beautifully shot by Jamshid Alvandi with the use of mirrors, windows, multiple level vantage points and different perspectives. The cinematographer often puts before our eyes scenes in which subject and object, inside and outside, interior and exterior, become obscured. The film is further enhanced by an outstanding score by the Iranian-French composer Christophe Rezai. The score is subtle and never obtrusive. Arching over the entire film, the music is crucial to its effectiveness.