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Tag Archives: Bahman Ghobadi

48th Chicago International Film Festival Preview, Pt. 2

Part two of my preview of the 48th Chicago International Film Festival is, for reasons entirely coincidental, focused exclusively on movies made by filmmakers from the Middle East. I was fortunate to recently catch previews of three very strong entries in the CIFF lineup: the feature debut of a promising Iranian director and Kiarostami protege (Adel Yaraghi’s Meeting Leila), the Turkish-set film of an acclaimed Iranian/Kurdish director-in-exile (Bahman Ghobadi’s Rhino Season), and a highly poetic, “fair use” VHS mash-up/tribute to a legendary Egyptian actress made by a Lebanese director (Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni). All are good examples of CIFF’s admirable commitment to promoting the work of Middle Eastern filmmakers. Even more examples can be found in the festival’s “Spotlight Middle East” sidebar.

Again, any of my students who attend any CIFF screenings (and staple their ticket stubs to a one to two page screening report) will receive extra credit. Refer to the extra credit page of your course website for more information.

For the complete line-up, as well as ticket info, showtimes and directions to festival venues, visit: www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Meeting Leila (Adel Yaraghi, Iran)
Rating: 8.2

This supremely confident feature debut by Adel Yaraghi, based on a script he co-wrote with his mentor Abbas Kiarostami, features an irresistible comic premise: Nader (Yaraghi) is an “ideas man” for an advertising agency who considers smoking cigarettes integral to his creative process. His sensitive fiance, Leila (the great Leila Hatami, best known to American audiences for her performance as Simin in A Separation), works as a perfume tester and has demanded that he quit smoking before their wedding day. The problems that ensue are emblematic of the universal obstacles and compromises that all couples in serious relationships must face. What finally makes this film so satisfying though, in addition to the winning performances of the leads, is Yaraghi’s uncommon command of form; humor slyly arises from compositions and editing – Yaraghi cuts from a shot of Nader reading a poem directly into the camera to the most priceless “reaction shot” I’ve seen in years (which I won’t give away here), as well as deftly worked out gags involving careful considerations of space (two men in a hospital sharing a cigarette underneath the locked door between them) and time (an impressive long take that nearly literalizes the phrase “bull in a china shop”). I also greatly appreciated what Yaraghi does with primary colors, the weather, and Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’s rendition of “In a Sentimental Mood.” This is a director to watch.

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Rania Stephan, Lebanon/Egypt)
Rating: 7.7

I saw a DVD screener of this terrific experimental documentary by chance only after the cancellation of a press screening of Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love and in many ways it was the most pleasant surprise of all the CIFF films I previewed. In spite of the fact that I was completely unfamiliar with the subject, one of Egypt’s most famous and beloved movie actresses, I was held in thrall for all 70 minutes of this extended highlight reel. Director Rania Stephan shows that Soad Hosni was a great actress, a rare beauty and a symbol for the newly liberated Egpytian woman following the 1952 revolution in a tribute that unfolds entirely as a series of VHS-sourced clips from Hosni’s films (with no voice-over narration, interviews or explanatory intertitles added). Beginning with a fast-paced montage of Hosni running accompanied by the audio of male co-stars reciting her characters’ names and continuing through many more thematically linked episodes (marriage, crying, physical abuse), the clips have been mix-mastered, Godard-like, into an almost astonishingly coherent metaphor for Hosni’s life (and a comment on the nature of female representation in the cinema besides). Even the poor VHS quality, with its splotchy colors, “tracking problems” and overall degraded image, serves as a poignant reminder of the ephemeral nature of film.

Rhino Season (Bahman Ghobadi, Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey)
Rating: 6.8

Bahman Ghobadi (Turtles Can Fly) tackles Iran’s repressive theocratic regime in telling the story of Sahel, a humanist poet unjustly incarcerated for “treason” after the Islamic revolution. The story begins in 2010, when Sahel is released after serving a 27 year sentence, then flashes back to show how he was denounced by his wife’s chauffeur in a stunning act of jealousy and betrayal. Once free, Sahel attempts to reconnect with his wife (Monica Bellucci, convincing as a Persian woman) who now lives in Turkey with her two grown children and has been led to believe her husband died years earlier. This is full of poetry, both literally recited on the soundtrack and in the stunning widescreen images of Turkish land and seascapes, which, at their best recall last year’s majestic Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (whose director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, receives special thanks here). Ghobadi’s reach may sometimes exceed his grasp and some of his aesthetic ideas, unlike those of Ceylan, verge on the pretentious. But there’s no denying his sincerity or ambition: this is an occasionally disturbing, occasionally beautiful and always bracing reminder of how intolerable and anachronistic the persecution of artists can still be in the twenty-first century. That this is being presented by Martin Scorsese, and the presence of Bellucci in the cast, virtually guarantees it will return to Chicago at some point.

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An Iranian Cinema Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of my list of essential titles from Iran’s diverse and impressive national filmmaking scene. This part of the list encompasses movies released from 1997, when Abbas Kiarostami made history by becoming the first Iranian director to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festial, through the present.

Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this great film about a middle-class, middle-aged man who traverses the Iranian countryside in a Range Rover trying to find someone who will assist him in committing suicide. Each of the three prospects he “interviews” for the job are far apart in age and profession (a young soldier, a middle-aged seminarian and an elderly taxidermist), a set-up that allows Kiarostami to offer a wide-ranging philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and death in the modern world. The film’s unexpected and controversial coda, shot on video and scored to Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary Blues,” is hauntingly, ineffably right.

The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami, 1999)

Three men who may or may not be part of a documentary film crew travel from Tehran to a remote, rural village to observe the funeral of an elderly woman who is reportedly on her death-bed. Only the woman refuses to oblige them and doesn’t die, thus keeping the men stranded there indefinitely. This gorgeously shot, cosmic and comic vision of the conflict between different ways of life in contemporary Iran is in some ways director Kiarostami’s magnum opus. Indeed, he virtually turned his back on narrative filmmaking for a decade until triumphantly returning with Certified Copy in 2010.

The Circle (Panahi, 2000)

A quantum leap forward for director Jafar Panahi, best known previously for his acclaimed but lightweight The White Balloon, this tough-as-nails feminist film dramatizes the plight of various women (prison inmates, a prostitute, a pregnant woman who incurs the wrath of her in-laws by not giving birth to a boy) in a repressive, theocratic society. The film’s title refers to its overall structure, several key camera movements and the idea of misogyny as a vicious cycle. Unsurprisingly, this was banned in Iran but rightfully won acclaim practically everywhere else it played.

The Day I Became a Woman (Meshkini, 2000)

Marzieh Meshkini, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s wife, wrote and directed this delightful trio of interconnected stories about female protagonists at different stages of life: a nine year old girl who is told she is now a “woman” and can no longer play with boys, a young woman who defies her domineering husband by participating in a bicycle race, and an elderly woman who unexpectedly inherits money and finds herself independent for the first time in her life. This unusually accomplished debut film is infused with a gentle, intoxicating surrealism.

20 Fingers (Akbari, 2004)

Mania Akbari, the talented actress who appeared in every scene of Kiarostami’s Ten, takes a page from the master’s book in crafting her first film as writer/director: seven vignettes in which the same actor (Bijan Daneshmand) and actress (Akbari) play a different couple facing a universal problem. Every segment is dramatically compelling and well acted but, as filmmaking, this shot-on-video feature is absolutely thrilling; practically every scene unfolds in a moving vehicle in a single long take and, one in particular (involving the characters interacting between a car and a motorcycle), is an astonishing piece of cinematic choreography.

Turtles Can Fly (Ghobadi, 2004)

A gut-wrenching and eye-opening drama about children living in a refugee camp in Kurdistan near the Iraq/Turkey border in the days leading up to “Gulf War 2.” Moments of lyrical beauty somewhat leaven the otherwise disturbing brew and the cast of non-professional child actors is indelible, especially Soran Ebrahim as “Satellite”. A bracing reminder of how innocent victims are the tragic byproduct of every war, Bahman Ghobadi’s third feature confirmed his place as Iran’s best young filmmaker.

Iron Island (Rasoulof, 2005)

Director Mohammad Rasoulof is most famous for being sentenced to six years in prison, along with Jafar Panahi, for allegedly planning to make a film that would have incited anti-government protests. As this fascinating and poetic movie proves, he is also a very talented filmmaker. The title refers to the central location – a rusted, abandoned oil tanker floating in the Persian Gulf that functions as a makeshift city for the film’s large cast of mostly Arab characters. This includes an idealistic schoolteacher, a pair of forbidden young lovers, a man who perpetually watches the horizon for nothing in particular and the Svengali-like “Captain” who presides over everyone. A potent portrait of an isolated, self-contained community, this deserves to be more widely known.

Half Moon (Ghobadi, 2006)

Bahman Ghobadi’s mesmerizing road movie about an elderly Kurdish pop star who travels from Iran to Iraqi Kurdistan to perform one final concert after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Accompanying him are a dozen of his “children” (in the Colossal Youth sense) on a rickety bus that encounters increasingly perilous obstacles along the way. What starts off as a comedy gradually darkens over an hour and a half until the film takes an unexpected left turn into the realm of the purely metaphorical in its haunting final act. The soundtrack of Kurdish music is phenomenal.

Offside (Panahi, 2006)

Jafar Panahi has become increasingly known as a political activist (both in movies and in life) but this incredible comedy reminds us how a great artist can skillfully and seamlessly integrate ideological points into the most entertaining stories imaginable. Since the Islamic Revolution, women have been banned from attending men’s sporting events. So what are a bunch of female soccer fans to do except disguise themselves as men and attempt to sneak into the local stadium? An ideal point of entry for anyone looking to understand Iranian cinema and culture, this hopeful and humane film is one of my favorites from any country in the past decade.

About Elly (Farhadi, 2009)

Like an Iranian L’avventura, this sure-handed, impeccably constructed chamber piece tells the story of a woman, the Elly of the title, who disappears while vacationing with a group of friends by the sea. The attempts her companions make to locate her exacerbates tensions that already exist between various members of the group, to the point where Elly’s fate becomes almost irrelevant in the grand scheme of the movie. A wonderful “psychological” journey that doesn’t seek only that which it can explain.

Bonus Track:

Untitled (For Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof) (Anonymous Iranian Filmmaker, 2011)

Just as this list began with a short, so too does it end with a short – an experimental movie recently made by an anonymous Iranian director in protest of the unjust prison sentence (six years) and even lengthier filmmaking ban (20 years) handed down to Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof for allegedly treasonous acts. Untitled uses visual quotes from the work of both directors, which are triumphantly repurposed into an allegorical rendering of the filmmakers’ arrest, incarceration and future release. A scene from Offside, in which the image of a girl walking down the street holding sparklers while throngs of people around her celebrate a victory by Iran’s national soccer team, is conceivably even more resoundingly triumphant here than in its original context. Viewable online courtesy of the good folks at Cine Foundation International:

Untitled (‘For Jafar Panahi & Mohammad Rasoulof’) – Protest Film by (anonymous) Iranian Filmmaker from Cine Foundation International on Vimeo.


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