A film review. Really.
July 23, 2007
In his film Salam Cinema, Mohsen Makhmalbaf reveals how artfully a director can manipulate non-professional actors into fake states of mind appropriate to his designs. For example the director may ask his actress how long ago she quit smoking. "Three years ago," she may say to the camera. The off camera question the audience hears could be, "How long ago did your mother die?" The sense of proud accomplishment in the original answer projects a sinister complexity in the mother-daughter relationship that is likely outside the range of even the best professional actors.
The prison interrogator who directed Haleh Esfanidari's "confession" video -- we will call him Evinpour -- does not have Makhmalbaf's skills. His attempts at realism fail at the levels of set design and editing. Evinpour has succeeded, however, in manipulating Esfandiari into believing she is speaking to a friendly listener.
In the video aired on Iranian TV, Esfanidari sits in a couch, comfortable and relaxed, surrounded by the earth tones of the furniture. As our minds cooperate with the director to suspend disbelief, the small refrigerator intruding clumsily into the frame suggests that Evinpour himself has been unable to shake off the prison aura. If this prop is meant as an association with food and therefore good treatment, a basket of fruit on the coffee table would have harmonized much better with the intended scheme.
In the context of a detainee however, the glaringly sterile white of the refrigerator and its cubic shape draws the mind not to food but to claustrophobia, and stories of trapped children suffocating in old refrigerators. In Farsi the word "yakhchaal" and "siaahchaal" share an ominous syllable meaning "pit", and even in English, the word "cooler" is a slang for jail.
Critically, the set lacks windows, or other backgrounds to suggest a sense of the spacious outside. The indoor house plants sit imprisoned in pots. Check out the nighttime cityscape background to the American late night shows. These create a feeling connection with the rest of the world, and a sense of time of day, the absence of which in Evinpour's film strongly creates a mood of confinement. Here's a feeble director whose sense of illusion is on a par with a child practicing his first coin trick.
To properly edit a film in the confession genre, it has to be made with as few cuts as possible. The audience must be made to believe they are reading into the mind of an ideologically repentant character, not puzzling over a collage of different clippings like glued newspaper typefaces in a Hollywood ransom note. Evinpour's sometimes unnecessary editing cuts work against this purpose. For example, Esfandiari talks about a UCLA sponsored conference which regularly invites 150 Middle Easterners. She says the participants are encouraged not to discuss the proceedings with outsiders. Then there is a cut to a different camera, where she continues to say that naturally a communication network establishes itself between the participants. Is she talking about same conference? We can't be sure because of the cut.
We can't even be sure of the order of Esfandiari's statements because there are too many editing cuts. Sequence of questions and answers is hugely important in a fake documentary. Folding with a pair of aces, then realizing the opponent held nothing is sad in a poker game. Realizing the opponent has nothing then folding with a pair of aces is stupid.
In his primitive work the director has not created an illusory time sense for us to judge motives and actions in proper order. There is no amber glass of tea slowly yielding to dainty sips, no classic cartoon on TV, making ironic fun of the confessor, no window into the progress of the day. Is Evinpour underestimating the intelligence of his audience, or is his own intelligence below an awareness of insult?
Certainly not the latter. As a film director Evinpour is an Ed Wood but as an interrogator he is a Haans Scharpff.
Allied World War II airmen are still grateful to the affable Luftwaffe interrogator Hanns Scharpff for never even raising his voice, and never letting them know what it was they were revealing to him.
Scharpff: "Your forces must be running low on supplies because we've seen that the color of your tracers from plane guns has changed from red to white."
Detainee:[probably trying to discourage the enemy and humiliate his intelligence gathering] "No, the change in color just means they [the plane guns] are getting to the end of the [ammunition] spool."
Now German fighter planes knew which allied bombers in the formation are ripe for a kill because they have to take time out to reload.
Sharpff, who later became an interrogation consultant to the US Airforce, never let his subjects know what information he was after. He was a brilliantly creative practitioner of modern interrogation techniques (the use of torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo is a manifestation of post 9-11 anti-Muslim vengefulness; it has little to do with information gathering).
The interrogator, Evinpour, is after a way to discredit dissenters of the Ahmadinejad faction by showing they are gullible participants in a repeat of the rebellion orchestrated by the CIA against Mossadegh. A rebellion now being restaged worldwide, beginning in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union states. The scholar, Esfandiari, on the other hand seems to have been led to believe that Evinpour, like a charming young grad student, is impressed with the "importance" of her position in the Wilson center. He just wants to know how his mentor is defending Iran's civilization against violent US action.
In a statement that is noticeably left out of the transcript of the interview (scroll down), Esfandiari says that efforts to change some elements of Iranian policy making could influence American decision makers.
To a sympathetic ear that sounds like Dr. Esfandiari's motive has been to use her academic position in the United States to save Iran from the fate of Iraq.
The incomplete written transcript could end up on the desk of the Islamic judges during Esfandiari's trial. Why was Esfandiari's crucially patriotic statement not edited out of the video? Evinpour is a master interrogator, but when it comes to filmmaking, he is a careless hack. Comment