The weather could have not been any better for the invited guests, the spectator crowd and photographers from across the globe during the 80th Annual Academy Awards, held at Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, California, last night.
Hosted by Senator Barack Obama the Presidential hopeful for the Democratic Party, it was the first time ever, that a US Senator entertained the Academy Awards crowd. With his bizarre sense of humor, Obama captured the audience and brought them to laughter and standing ovations with humor and punch lines that matched the most celebrated of all hosts such as Billy Crystal and other comedians such as Ronald Reagan and Whoopi Goldberg.
The highlight of the evening was when the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film was announced. There were total of eight nominees for this category:
“The Wall in My Land” from Palestine, a condemnation of the wall of hatred. “In Oil We Trust” France, an unauthorized biography of U.S. V.P., Dick Cheney. “We Build for Obsolescence” from China, a confession about Chinese products. “Days of Rum and Cigars” from Cuba. Will an Islamic Republic happen in Cuba? “Child Molestation” from United Arab Emirate. The child traffic boom in UAE. “Weapons of Mass Delusion” from USA. The rise and fall of George W. Bush “We are all Gays” from England. Tony Blair philosophizes about life in Britain.
But, beating all the odds, it was the 36 year old Iranian born, Pantheon Xeroxes and her 110 minutes documentary called “Iran, Land of Hydraulic Cranes” that won the Oscar last night for the best foreign language film…
Born in Tehran as Zahra Hazrati Islampanah, she fled Iran at the tender age of 25 as a passenger in a British Air Lines flight from Tehran to Stockholm. Upon arrival she dyed her hair blonde and changed her name to Pantheon Xeroxes to better blend with the Swedish crowd. The name Xeroxes does not refer to the ancient Persian king Xerxes, and indeed it’s a generic name for the famous photocopy maker Xerox and mistakenly appears as an anagram of the king’s name. According to Pantheon, she chose that last name because she liked it and it had nothing to do with any king. The Xerox machine in the hands of people was an enemy of state. In the absence of free press, Xerox gave people the freedom to express and propagate their feelings towards the establishment.
Thus, using a photocopy machine without prior authorization became a felony during the first decade of the Revolution. Vendors were forced to install cameras above the machines to monitor the traffic. It took four secret service agents to allow the operation of each machine. The agents simply sat next to the machines and played backgammon until a customer would show up. While this eventually proved to be an overdone security measure by the government, nonetheless, the hiring of guards to monitor the photocopy machines boosted the employment substantially across the nation and reduced paper usage drastically for obvious reasons and thereby the preservation of forests by saving trees.
According to French tabloids, Pantheon’s departure from Iran was rumored to have not been an escape and she was a mere ticketed passenger and this was her third visit to a European city. This allegation she vehemently denied during her interview with Vanity Fair last December. She explained in her interview, that she hiked through many mountains north of Tehran and Dizin and Shemshak and other ski resorts, until she arrived to Istanbul, Turkey, a truly amazing journey if searched and looked up on Google Map, as being one of the favorite tourist routes in the country.
In the Hollywood style of film noir and crime dramas, with emphasis on sexual ambiguity and dark pains of a society, Xeroxes has depicted the pain and sufferings of people in her native country Iran, also known as Persia, depending on which Iranian you stop on the street to ask for the name of their country.
In fact the documentary’s opening shot describes the old Persia as land of “Flower and Bulbul” a songbird (Pycnonotus barbatus) a nightingale. The camera zooms into a garden with many birds singing and a large pasture with thousands of wild flowers gently dancing in the breeze on a cloudy day and one can clearly see in the distance, an old man urinating behind a tree and shaking himself up and down to get the very last drop out of his mind; a breathtaking scene by any standard.
Yet, the entire movie is shot in black and white, with tight perspectives, sharp corners and shifting camera angles. The documentary shifts from depiction of prosperity of some people, to the austerity of others. Homeless children drift on wet and slippery sidewalks and sharp objects poking into the viewfinder from time to time and then on another scene, young teenagers are skiing in northern Tehran, a sign of affluence.
Pantheon leaves no chance for the audience to brace and prepare themselves for what is to come next. The second shot is a transition from the flower pasture and fades out to aerial view of a huge crowd gathered in a soccer stadium in Tehran, paradoxically named “Azadi Stadium” or Freedom. The huge and growing crowd in the stadium is preparing itself to watch a young woman and two young men to be executed by being hanged from three hydraulic cranes!
The public is quite unconcerned about the nature of the crimes that were committed by the three convicts. What brought them here again, is the adrenaline rush that one gets to experience watching another human being hanged, like watching a bullfight with a grand finale, the killing of a lion at point blank, suffocation of a deer by a hyena, the sound of a human’s bone snaping and joints shattering in someone’s skull and neck and the sensation of being able to walk back home satisfied, that I am alive, oh god, others die for their deeds and their sins and I am alive and I made it through another day. I am a blessed soul.
The roaring and thunderous sounds of thousands of people gathered to watch the execution has similar effect on the audience as the chariot race in the 1959 movie Ben-Hur. Yet in place of Cesar of the Rome, you see a heavily bearded clergy, an Ayatollah sitting in the VIP area, smoking hookah and surrounded by no less than fifty bodyguards all in black uniforms and wearing black ski masks. The ski masks are the symbol of Iran’s prosperity and progress. This shows that Iran indeed has many ski resorts. So much so, that a secret service agent can go on skiing during his lunch break and not even remove his mask while back to work. This is the “cool” harvest and dividend of the Revolution.
In an interview with Guardian, when asked, why she chose this subject for her documentary, Xeroxes responded “I want the World to realize what goes on in my country”. Admittedly, despite the fact that close to thirty years has past since the Iranian Revolution, you can still stop someone on any street in western hemisphere to ask where Iran is located on the map and most people have very little idea or at least can not locate it on the map.
In the same shot, the camera angle descends and flows through a group of young men and women all having their cell phones and digital cameras ready to photograph the macabre, chilling and gruesome execution event. The noise level becomes numbing, vendors selling fast food out of their pushcarts, barbecued liver and roasted corn, cooked lima beans, baked and roasted beets and other local favorite baked turnips! If one is unaware, that this is the judgment day for a doomed woman and two men, he might think this is the crowd before a soccer game begins, in any town in South America.
In another scene taken inside the crowd, you hear vendors yelling and pushing their merchandise, steaming baked beets shining and glistening under their gas lamps and people chatting in Persian, their native language. Speaking of that, Iranians abroad are quite polarized as what to call their native language. Some call it Farsi, others Parsi and the rest wants it to be known as Persian. They waste a lot of time and energy convincing each other, without paying attention to what the authorities in the field of language and linguistics have advised.
It took ten years for Pantheon Xeroxes to make her documentary! What makes this documentary very unique and novel, both technically and of the subject matter, is the brilliant idea she implemented on how to capture the shots without herself being in Iran.
Being banned from returning to Iran, she decided to transform her audience and the people to become her cameramen and camerawomen. To implement the idea, she raised money in Sweden and was able to buy more than three hundred cell phones with cameras and some low priced digital cameras and gave them to friends to take to Iran and distribute them among their friends and family. Each person was responsible for specific shots and angles. Some to climb trees and electric poles for aerial shots, while others were assigned to interview cab drivers, family of the victims and the convicts, the clergies, the prostitutes, the homeless and the affluent class. All such short movie clips were then downloaded into a computer and emailed to her address in Sweden! Indeed, quite clever and the first movie of its kind ever. For ten years, short movie clips and emails kept arriving and she was hard at work for editing the scenes and creating her story.
In total, she and her colleagues, have captured and documented more than fifty such executions by hanging, stoning and other forms of punishments in the streets of Tehran and other cities in Iran.
During her Oscar appearance last night, six feet tall and slender, Pantheon Xeroxes was dressed elegantly in another masterpiece creation by Donatella Versace. The black and red gown was half Islamic “chador” and the other half a strapless bead-encrusted gown made of red lingerie fabrics and covered with sheer wrap, revealing her shoulders, thighs and beyond, with substantial peek-a-boo effect. This became the favorite and most exotic of all dresses for the paparazzi to photograph. The black chador covered half of her head and her body and the other half of her head had a fashionable tiara made by Tiffany and dotted with precious stones. Half of her face was hidden and the other half with beautiful hues of pink make up, truly an amazing visual effect reflecting a divided society and social clash of today’s Iran.
While silent clips of her documentary were being cast on a huge silver screen in the background she accepted the Oscar with tears in her eyes:
“I am speechless! I am indebted to so many selfless men and women of Iran who risked their lives to take so many of these shots with their small digital cameras and or cell phones and send them to me. This Oscar belongs to all of you.”
“I wish they could be here, my dear mom and dad, who believed in me, their only surviving child and supported me no matter what. I also thank my stillborn brother who is in an alcohol-filled jar as a fetus at University of Tehran’s School of Medicine, the only one in my family lineage that made it to a medical school.”
She wiped off some of the tears with a handkerchief that was handed to her by her escort on the stage, Jennifer Lopez. She then continued:
“I also have to give credit and recognition in a very nauseating and sick way, to the influential Ayatollahs and their roles and functions in today’s Iran, enabling me to win the Oscar, Ayatollah Nategh Noori, Mesbah (aka Temsah) Yazdi, Ayatollah Shahroudi and their leader Seyed Ali Khamenhi, whom by their actions, verdicts and policies made this documentary a viable reality.”
The audience gave her a standing ovation, some in tears, some just watching and others sipping on their champagne while a few left the auditorium. She went on:
“I also have to thank and express my sincere appreciation and gratitude to certain multi-national organizations: The Free Masonry Grand Lodge of Assad Abaadi, Members of Ekhvanol-Moslemin or the London Chapter of Islamic Brotherhood, members of Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah office in Tehran. In their own way of brutality, savagery and extreme measures of criminal activities in Iran, they were so instrumental to the success of this documentary; I could have not done it without them and words can not explain my feelings towards them.”
She wiped more tears, but offered a smile:
“And last but not least, I have to thank a few manufacturers of those hydraulic cranes, such as Komatsu, Alice Chalmers, Caterpillar and John Deer. Without their hydraulic cranes the Iranian government would be forced to use the old savage ways of hanging the convicts from trees and electric poles, your technology is well adapted and utilized in my homeland, and now anyone can be hanged in an efficient and humane way and justice for all. God bless you all. Thank you”
The audience gave her another standing ovation and while raising the Oscar above her head, the tall Iranian Pantheon Xeroxes walked away gracefully to join the audience.
The audience then sat in silence and watched in shock and horror, the last part of the documentary sample footage with a wonderful and powerful sound effect:
A mother is holding her baby and she looks pensive and sad. The baby has her finger in her nose and gazed look in her eyes. An old man puffing on his cigarette and shaking his head in astonishment and a young boy’s eyes are pinned into the covered eyes of the condemned woman standing on a an empty barrel with rope around her neck waiting for the execution order to come from the Ayatollah in the VIP section. An eerie and spine-chilling silence takes over the stadium for a few seconds.
Suddenly camera moves fast over the crowd’s heads, everything moves fast and out of focus and then the camera zooms into the Ayatollah’s right hand. A thumb down by the Ayatollah, authorizing the executions, the crowd roars like a thunder and women scream, the stadium trembles and masked soldiers fully dressed in black, kick the empty barrels away from underneath of the convicts’ feet, and the three bodies fall and suspend into the air with their hands tied behind their back and their eyes blindfolded. They fight vehemently for the very last breath while their necks crush and suddenly no more movement in their bodies and life is terminated. The tumultuous crowd roars loudly Alaho akbar, Alaho Akbar, Alaho Akbar, ‘god is great’ and the Ayatollah waves at the crowd with a white handkerchief and a fading smile.
The crowd is silent, the camera’s view moves towards the sky which is covered with dark clouds and then a soft drizzles starts and people begin leaving the stadium before the heavy rain comes .…the bodies are still hanging in the air and the documentary ends…