There are gaps in our history, lost episodes in our collective memory caused not by forgetfulness, but by the deliberate policy of governments and politicians. There are also courageous individuals who fight to bring such material back into the public light. Khosrow Sinai is one such individual.
Author of "In the Alleys of Love", “The Inner Monster”, and “Bride of Fire”, Khosrow Sinai is internationally famous for over a hundred short films, documentaries and features. One of his works, “The Lost Requiem”, has never been publicly released. Sidelined and ignored for over a quarter of a century, its content has been deemed too politically sensitive to be shown. Now, at last, its official obscurity is coming to an end, and the film is being hailed as a priceless Iranian and Polish historical document.
“The Lost Requiem” tells the story of the war-time exodus to Iran of hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens released from the Soviet labour camps of Siberia. During the two months of April and August 1942, leaking ships crammed with emaciated, men, women and children began arriving at the Caspian port of Anzali (then called Pahlevi). Their condition was desperate. Within days of their arrival, thousands had died from malnutrition and typhus. Of those who survived, the men travelled onwards to join the armies of the Allied Forces in Syria and Lebanon. The remainder (mostly women and children) remained in Iranian refugee camps for up to three years, their lives totally transformed in the process.
Twenty five years after those dramatic events, Khosrow Sinai began to seek out those who had chosen to remain behind in Iran. Among them was a doctor who had fought at the battle of Monte Cassino, the widow of an Iranian policeman who had been a student in Warsaw before the war, and many many more. He travelled half way across the world to find some of the 700 Polish orphans sent to New Zealand from Iranian refugee camps. Their reminiscences, together with the many graves left behind in Tehran, Anzali and Ahvaz, bear testimony to a chapter of history almost erased from the public memory.
When I talked with Khosrow Sinai recently, I asked,
What made you want to produce a documentary about the Polish exodus to Iran?
I happened to be in the Dulab cemetery in Tehran in 1970. I was there because the father of a Christian friend had died, and I saw the rows of polish gravestones, and became curious. As far as I remember, it was a priest in the graveyard who first told me about the polish refugees, and it became the starting point of my research.
The film took twelve years to make and took you as far as New Zealand to interview survivors. What was it that kept you motivated all those years? Was there anything in this story that had special meaning or poignancy for you, personally?
What can be more poignant than destiny of a people who are thrown out from their homeland through the cruel plans of the world powers and politicians? The story has nothing to do with my personal life, except that for more than 12 years long I lived with it and could not complete it because of the political situation before (and after) the Iranian Revolution.
During that time, was there any one person (or event) that stood out for you above all the others?
I met many polish people who had married Iranians, or had chosen to stay and live in Iran. But two persons were most interesting for me: Anna Borkowska - because she was such a natural born artist - (today she is 93 years old) and doctor Filipowicz, whose father worked as a physician for about 40 years in Iran (Ghazvin). He himself was also for many decades a very well known physician in that city. The event which really shocked me, however, was the sudden death of the 26-year-old son of Anna Borkowska, who in my film seemed to be so indifferent about his mother's harsh destiny. His sudden death (through a heart attack), caused a radical change to the ending of my film.
During the Communist era, no mention of the events related in the film was allowed in Poland. In the West, the subject was similarly “buried”, as it touched upon the sensitive matters of Katyn, the Teheran and Yalta Conferences, Soviet-Nazi cooperation (and, of course, the Anglo-American betrayal of Poland to Stalin). Did any of these matters have any bearing on why the “The Lost Requiem” was never released in Iran?
I really don't know why this film hasn’t been shown for many long years in Iran or in other countries. Of course it has been shown at two festivals over the years, once in Iran, and the other in Sweden in 1986 (Immigrants Film festival). I think the reason that the film hasn’t been distributed around the world is because of the carelessness and ignorance of people who should have known better and could have done it. But after years of waiting without a result, I have decided to do what I can to save this important Document of Polish and Iranian History!
You were in Poland recently, where you met the Polish director Andziej Wajda. His new film “Katyn” tells the story of the mass murder of 15000 Polish officers by the Soviets in 1940 (buried in mass graves in Katyn Forest and elsewhere). It is a very different film in style from yours. But in many ways they complement each another, exploring twin sides of a single story. Did you find you had much to talk about?
Ever since I was a film student in Vienna during 1960s, I have been very fond of modern Polish films. So I was very glad to meet Mr. Wajda. He was very kind to me, and we agreed how important filmmaking can be to preserve History. I am glad that after 25 years, my film has found its way to the people for whom and about whom it was made.
There are many who might say: “The past is dead. You can’t change it. Stop obsessing about it. Leave it alone and concentrate on the present.” How would you answer these critics?
Please tell my critics this wise saying (of a polish philosopher whose name I can’t remember!): “that human tragedies repeat themselves because people prefer to forget the tragedies of the past!” That is the main reason for my making "The Lost Requiem".
The Polish premiere of “The Lost Requiem” took place on the 26th September 2007 in Poznan (the home of Polish cinema). Shortly afterwards, a documentary by Dorota Latour about the Iranian director’s life and work was screened on public television by TVP Polonia.
Khosrow Sinai was born in Sari, northern Iran, in 1940. He studied film directing and screenwriting at the Academy of the Dramatic Arts in Vienna and music theory at the Vienna Conservatoire. His most recent work, “Talking with a Shadow”, is a film about the celebrated Iranian writer Sadegh Hedayat.
Ryszard Antolak is a writer and teacher based in the UK.
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