Tehran Backyard

August 15, 2007 at 12:42 am (FILM REVIEW)


This film directing debut by Edinburgh-based artist Roxana Pope (pictured above on location) is a charming portrait of the life of a cleaner in a poor neighbourhood of Tehran. Shot beautifully, by Ian Dodds, the 30-minute film focuses on Pari, a 65-year-old who tells us she has worked for fifty years yet still does not think twice about supporting her husband, who is blind, and her family, on her meagre wages. Tehran Backyard is a vivid and impressive portrait of working class life in the Islamic Republic, devoid of the plaudit-seeking posturing that dogs much of Iran’s film output, while carrying, a subtle and touching women’s punch. Pope will be taking part in a Q&A on Sunday with writer Kamin Mohammadi at The Frontline Club in London following a screening of the film on a double-bill with Tehran Generation by Sara Bavar.

Londoners can catch both at:

The Frontlineclub
13 Norfolk Place
London, W2 1QJ

Tube: Paddington

Sunday 19 August at 4.00pm

Tickets: £5

Phone: +44 (0)20 7479 8950

Photo: Hoora Haeri


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Taste of censorship

July 6, 2007 at 12:28 pm (FILM REVIEW)


Ten years ago the Islamic Republic of Iran, in what many regarded as a charade, ‘mulled’ barring director Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry from the Cannes film festival. The film went on to become co-winner of the Palme d’Or, arguably buoyed by the publicity Iran’s threatened withdrawal generated.

Ten years on and another Iranian film, this time funded by French money, is co-winner at Cannes of the Jury prize – France ignored the mullahs’ protests and the film was allowed to take part.

The 2007 Bangkok international film festival, which kicks off this month, however, was not so bold. Last month, in a coup for Iran’s Islamist censor, Thai authorities agreed to withdraw Persepolis, the film version of Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, from the festival.

“[The filmmakers] tried to make Iranian people sad and upset with the Islamic revolution, which is not true,” a spokesman for the Iranian embassy in Bangkok told AFP last week. (Charmingly, he identified himself only as ‘Mohammed’.)

He added: “We appreciate that the Thai organisers understand, and now we are trying to introduce other good award-winning Iranian films.”

This last statement is worth note because it confirms the fact that the Islamic Republic believes in the PR value of its film output, even if Iranian directors are reluctant to accept they might be acting as facilitators in this regard.

Most are long-dogged by the complaint that they fail to use the high profile afforded by the international festival circuit, to talk about the elephant in the living room of atrocities under the Islamic Republic. Their stock response is that art operates above, or separately from, politics.

But while that’s academic, one thing is clear: Iran’s directors have signed no letter to any newspaper in Marjane Satrapi’s (and co-director Vincent Paronnaud’s) defence, condemning the decision to ban Persepolis in Bangkok.

They must be asked, is the plight of Satrapi’s film a political issue they cannot touch or a simply matter of cinema, the medium they so often, in romantic terms, claim to adore. (“Oh, the lights! How I used, as a boy, to cherish Uncle Hasan projecting Murnau’s Nosferatu onto the side of our house in Tehran for all our neighbours to see. Even Ali the butcher was enthralled by the magic of the lights! Oh, cinema!”)

Satrapi is important because she is one of few Iranian artists operating outside the Persian language sphere, who is scathing about the Islamic Republic and the US government in equal measure, while offering a sophisticated window on the culture of her homeland.

It is still not too late for Iranian film-makers to shoot off a few letters to the press in her defence and get the Thai authorities to overturn the decision to bar the film on the grounds of what the mullahs claim is the ‘Islamophobic’ thrust of its narrative.

I believe the international film community should boycott the Bangkok film festival and that Iran’s acclaimed directors should speak out for Satrapi and Paronnaud. Otherwise we can expect more festivals to follow Bangkok’s example and toe the Islamic Republic’s line.

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June 18, 2007 at 11:04 am (FILM REVIEW)

Written and directed by Deepa Mehta, Water is a film that will leave you thirsty for a script. It, at best, is a shoddy waste of time if a worthy addition to the con-artist cinema of the Orient. The story centres the chubby-cheeked eight-year-old Chuyia, whose father wakes her up:

“Do you remember getting married?” he says.

“No,” she replies.

“Your husband died. You’re a widow now.”

“For how long?” she asks.

Remarkably, the child claims not to remember having been married, even though her husband will have attacked her on their wedding night. Her head shaved, Chuyia is dumped into the hands of a refuge for widows.

(Oddly, one elderly widow there seems only to remember her wedding night, and the sweets she received then.)

The refuge is controlled by a matriarch-cum-brothel madam, who forces a fair-skinned, beautiful, European-looking woman called Kalya into sex work. Kalya befriends Chuyia, introducing her to her puppy – which she is allowed to keep along with her long hair.

When Chuyia goes running after her dog, she bumps into Narayan a liberal young Brahmin, who is more 1990s Islington yuppy than 1930s Indian nationalist. The upper caste/outcast love story that emerges is so clinical, shallow and unmoving that divulging what happens next will detract nothing from the film.

Narayan finds out that his father is one of his wife-to-be’s clients (a great twist had any of the characters depth – “You disgust me” he tells papa). Still, he decides he still wants her.

Only too late, Kalyani kills herself. (All this against the lusciously shot backdrop of a mystical India filled with wailing, sitars, and, for a welcome dose of realism, men scrubbing their armpits in rivers.) The evil matriarch sends little Chuyia to be one of Kalyani’s clients who is an Anglophile as well as a paedophile.

Chuyia is helped off a boat, back from her ordeal, by the film’s third female heroin Shakuntula. Audience sympathy is, by this point, fast running out. So what do you do to retain it? Wheel out Gandhi of course. Yes, folks, the last scene of this film shows the Mahatma making a – surprise, surprise – weakly scripted speech to a wooden audience in a train station.

He boards the train, which Shakuntula, who takes it upon herself to deliver the deflated Chuyia the great man, chases. Conveniently she spots Narayan to whom she manages to hand the child with the instruction, get her to Gandhi! Poor old Gandhi not only liberated India, but also the director of this charlatan of a film from having to think of a proper ending.

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