Human drama buried in politics

Luna Shad's "The Keys to My Home"


Human drama buried in politics
by Ari Siletz

An exiled Iranian journalist runs a finger across a map of Turkey to show how far he has to travel every time there’s refugee paperwork to be done. Somehow, instead of following the finger to the somber face of a Turkish official, my mind takes a southerly detour to the city of Konya where a Persian poet, also far from home, once wrote:

دلتنگم و دیدار تو درمان منست
بیرنگ رخت زمانه زندان منست
بر هیچ دلی مباد و بر هیچ تنی
آنچ از غم هجران تو بر جان منست

The imagery in this Rumi quatrain is actually enacted in a scene in Luna Shad’s documentary, Keys To My Home. The exiled journalist, Neema, shops for a gift for his friend and colleague, Delbar, whose red tape ordeal in Turkey is over and has now started a new phase of the refugee’s bureaucratic nightmare in Paris. “No, not that color, Delbar would never wear it,” says another refugee helping him shop as they sort through various colors on the rack. Colorless, the robe of fortune is my prison.

Usually it’s such unintended meanings sprinkled throughout a work of art that burrow the deepest into the soul, but in this case the emotional pivot of the film is nailed down in the scene where we see Delbar going through her belongings to help chronicle her journey for the camera. Suddenly there are the keys to her home in Iran. Her fingers pause their rummaging and begin to caress a small heart on the key ring. Delbar chokes up in tears. Shad insightfully picks this moment to title her film because despite the political subject she has chosen, the film explores the idea of home in the context of personal friendships and loyalties.

As they waited in Turkey for the outcome of their refugee status, Delbar and Neema quickly built a makeshift home for themselves out of their bond of friendship. There’s no indication of a romance between them, but everything they think of each other or do for each springs from an intense love of a poetic Iranian texture. They are a natural Rumi and Shams pair. If this was not a documentary and Luna Shad had gone talent hunting to cast a feature film, she could not have found better faces to tell her story.

Delbar borders on the handsome, but what makes her so engaging to watch and listen to is that while she voices her weariness in front of the camera, the audience recognizes something in her that she cannot see herself under the circumstances. We all know she will prevail!

Neema is less outwardly affected by his situation, though he has a realistically jaded outlook on the politics of the refugee program. “I became a journalist to experience the world,” he shrugs. “Well, here I am experiencing.” What else can a journalist ask for? I see a novelist in Neema’s future. His picture would look good on the back of a book cover with a bookshelf in the background. But whereas some writers deliberately go out to taste the bitter side of the world, Neema got a mouthful by accident. Perhaps Fate has done him a favor.

Later, Shad expands the number of characters in her film so that social and political overviews begin to emerge from the personal details. Specifically, expect some eyebrow raising issues to come to mind when we hear Persian accents from different parts of Iran.

In filming Keys To My Home, Shad used a hand-held camera. This was a suggestion from director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He pointed out that a tripod makes the subject self-conscious. What Makhmalbaf didn’t say is what the hand-held camera does for the cameraman: it becomes part of her body, a third eye. But this bit of advice had already come to Shad in her childhood from her photographer mom, “Click what your eyes see,” she said to her daughter. I suspect this is why Shad’s filmmaking mentor, Abbas Kiarostami, liked the camera work. Averse to explicitly political themed art, Kiarostami nevertheless appreciates Shad’s photography. He had encouraged her to get behind the camera and do her own films, guiding her with a master’s eye in technical and artistic matters. For example, it was Kiarostami who steered Shad to avoid narration and let the characters tell their own story. Perhaps Kiarostami also appreciates the absence of ceremonial polish in the film, a necessary characteristic of very small productions. In fact, the great director uses a sound engineering SNAFU to good humor in his own film Close up.

The technical mishaps that the substance-oriented Kiarostami would dismiss didn’t seem funny to Shad who fretted about them as we sat at a restaurant table discussing her marvelously artful documentary. Fortunately, also at the table sat a tireless human rights worker heavily involved with Iranian refugee journalists. Nazy Kaviani’s appreciative face told me what she was thinking: finally, someone has brought to light the human drama buried underneath all the complicated politics and arduous paperwork of Iran’s journalist refugees.

* If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, please join us at this event which is sponsored by ISAA (Iranian Student Alliance in America) at UC Berkeley. Saturday, February 11, 2012, 7:00 p.m., 60 Evans Hall, Berkeley, California. The film Director, Luna Shad, will be available for questions and answers after the film showing. English subtitled.

Also see Nazy Kaviani's blog ""Keys To My Home," a Luna Shad documentary"


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Ari Siletz

Thanks MPD

by Ari Siletz on

As you can tell, I too was quite touched by this film. Judging by the soul of the film and its artistic quality, the Iranian community of art lovers and human rights supporters will be moved to make sure this film gets wide exposure.

Multiple Personality Disorder

I watched it last night. It's an excellent short documentary.

by Multiple Personality Disorder on

Ari, your review of this short documentary film is a great one.  I don't know what else I can add to your review that you haven't mentioned already.  The film touched me on a personal emotional level.  It sometimes gave me teary eyes and at other times made me giggle.  It felt too real and too familiar.  The editing of the film was flawless.  Thank you for this great review.