"Hamoun" - Dariush Mehrjui (1990)

Hamoun, written and directed by one of the great Iranian filmmakers, Dariush Mehrjui, is a film that would probably affect Iranian and Western viewers in quite different ways. It tells the story of Hamid Hamoun, a thirty-ish intellectual of the Iranian upper middle class, who at the beginning of the film is shocked to learn that his wife is suing him for divorce and intends to acquire all their possessions. This sets off a downward-spiralling midlife crisis that we follow through the rest of the film, as we watch Hamid try to find a meaning for his existence. The film is usually described as a comedy, but just as I have remarked in connection with Secret Ballot, I do not consider the film to be a typical comedy, although it is riddled with absurd situations, satirical characterisations, and outlandish twists. In 1997 Iranian critics voted Hamoun to be the greatest Iranian film ever made, supplanting Mehrjui’s Gaav (The Cow, 1969) from the top position.

Hamoun has affinities with Mehrjui’s recent film, Ali Santouri (2007), since both focus on the descending circumstances of self-obsessed protagonists, and both extensively feature flashbacks back to happier times prior to the beginning of the film. These flashbacks serve both to focus on the inner reflections of the protagonist and to punctuate the generally unhappy narrative line with lighter moments. In addition to the flashbacks, however, Hamoun also features surreal, absurdist dream sequences (the film starts off with one), and these sequences are the most flamboyant and memorable aspects of the film.

The surrealistic elements provide clues to the main themes of the Hamoun. Hamid is an existentialist hero, well-versed with the major works of Western European existentialism from the 1950s and 60s. Although he is a middle manager of an import/export company, Hamid really wants to be an intellectual and is working on a PhD thesis concerning Abraham’s sacrifice that was depicted in the Bible and was the major theme of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. In fact Hamid is several times seen walking around his apartment with a copy of Fear and Trembling. References are also made to J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, as well as Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. These books are undoubtedly of interest to Mehrjui, since his 1995 film, Pari, is an unauthorised adaptation of Franny and Zooey, and one can presume that Hamoun contains elements of autobiographical self-parody (Mehrjui, himself, majored in philosophy at UCLA).

Post-war European culture featured a wide range of novels and films describing existentialist self-examination and doubt, such as Malle’s The Fire Within and Bergman’s works of this period. But by the early 1970s, there had appeared a number of “revisionist” works that satirised the tendencies towards self-indulgence and self-pity that were lurking in those earlier works. In fiction writing there was the work of Saul Bellow (Herzog) and J. P. Dunleavy. In cinema not only do we have Godard’s work, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), 8-½ (1963), and Giulietta degli Spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965), but there are also Woody Allen’s films, notably Manhattan (1979), in which a failed, self-pitying writer, also faces divorce, consults psychiatrists, and grapples with the meaninglessness of his life. This is the revisionist genre to which Hamoun belongs, and one could say that some of the dream sequences appear to be almost explicit homages to Fellini. But Hamoun carries this self-criticism to even more absurd extremes. Hamid’s self-obsession leads him continually to forget what his immediate intentions are, even when they are bent on self-destruction; he is constantly distracted by some new observation that leads him to cease what he was doing and reflect on his lost innocence. There are times when he intends to murder his wife with a rifle, and other times when he wishes to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff, burying himself in a grave, or drowning himself in the ocean. In all of these pursuits, he seems impulsive and distracted, more driven by frustration than conscious plan. This is the general context in which a Western educated viewer would see Hamoun, but Iranian nuances might be lost.

An Iranian (and remember that Iranian critics revere this film) would see additional aspects, such as the fact that Hamid is clean-shaven and operates in upper-class, Westernised circles -- seen as particularly elitist, if not downright decadent, in conservative, post-revolutionary Iran. He doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the likely separation from his 5-year-old son, but is more troubled by his inability to complete his PhD. He takes for granted his almost absolute right in an Islamic society to deny his wife a divorce. His mysterious and only occasionally seen (in flashbacks) spiritual master, Ali, represents something of a dream of spiritual tranquillity, perhaps of Sufism, that is always out of reach and perhaps impossible to define. Is this further satirising of elitest, intellectual spiritulality in Iran? All of these things would be seen in the Iranian context, which would highlight Hamid’s separation from the concerns of the real world and make him appear even more ridiculous. There are also occasional remarks in the film about society that would resonate with audiences. When Hamid’s wife Mahshid complains to her psychiatrist that Hamid bullies her, the psychiatrist dismisses her by remarking that it is common to all Iranian men to tyrannise their wives. Mahshid, by the way, though married to the self-obsessed Hamid, is not a character with whom one sympathises. She is shown to be even more of an egotist than Hamid. In fact because of her extravagant foolishness and fatuous artistic endeavours (at least as seen through the subjective eye of Hamid), one tends to sympathise more with Hamid’s plight than with hers. Perhaps this situation provides an insight as to why Mehrjui's later Ali Santouri is ultimately more successful than Hamoun. In Hamoun, Hamid is perpetually vicitimised by unsympathetic outsiders and exists inside an emotional vacuum; he has no truly meaningful relationships. The one possibly interesting relationship, with his guru Ali, is perhaps more imaginary than real and may be ultimately solipsistic. There is no emotional give-and-take across character relationships in the film, and we are left only with Hamid's intellectual emptiness ('hamoun' means 'desert' in English) and longing for fullfilment. In Ali Santouri, on the other hand, the relationship between the two principals sets off sparks and is believably seductive. Moreover, Ali Santouri's music, which is brilliantly compelling and integrally a part of the narrative, is superior to that of Hamoun.

A few remarks are in order about Mehrjui’s cinematic style. The film is shot with many short-duration shots, which gives it a nervous, energetic dynamic. Many of the shots, as with Ali Santouri, are hand-held, and there are numerous zoom shots. In addition, there are a number of jarring jump-cuts, which detract somewhat from one's engagement with the film. Overall, the brisk pace of the action affords a large number of episodes, which must have entailed an astonishing number of camera setups. As with some of Fellini’s films, many of these episodes add to the general effect, but are not uniquely essential to the story – they could have been omitted, and others added, without the viewer noticing much difference. The soundtrack background is often quite dead and lacks the ambient noise that gives one a sense of presence. In addition, the soundtrack is overlayed with modern organ music (said to be inspired by Bach). The combination of the soundtrack music and the lack of ambient sounds tends to alienate the viewer from the reality of the situation, which though it may have been the intention of Mehjui, is, I think, detrimental to the viewing experience.

At the end of the film, astonishingly, just as Hamid is finally about to succeed in killing himself by drowning, Ali, his elusive spiritual master, appears out of nowhere, has him pulled out of the water, and saves him. It is an epiphany! Hamid, as he was drowning, had been dreaming of an imaginary fantasy world in which all his dreams come true. Instead, he has been brought back to the real world (with all its problems) and rescued from a "sea of confusion". Maybe this time he can engage it authentically. Despite all the despair in the film, there is this final hopeful image of Hamid coming back to life. Or is that last scene just another dream?

"Children of Heaven" - Majid Majidi (1997)

Children of Heaven (Bacheha-ye-Aseman), Majid Majidi’s exquisite third film, was released in 1997, right after his second film, Father (Pedar), and it became the first Iranian film to be nominated for an Oscar. Shot on a budget of about US$ 180,000, the film subsequently grossed about a US$ 1 million and propelled both Majidi and Iranian cinema in general to much greater international attention. Since the narrative of this film, like a number of other Iranian films, such as Where Is My Friend’s Home? and The White Balloon, is centred around children, it has frequently been compared by critics to those other films (see the commentary about children-centred themes in Iranian films in my review of Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror). But since Children of Heaven is quite distinct from those other Iranian films and stands head-and-shoulders above them, it is worth reflecting on the particular merits of this film and how they were achieved.

The story concerns a 9-year-old boy, Ali, and his 7-year-old sister, Zahra, who live with their parents in a meagre one-room flat in south Tehran. At the outset, Ali has been sent to have his sister’s shoes repaired, but on the way home the repaired shoes are mistakenly taken away by a city ragpicker while Ali is dutifully shopping for some potatoes that his mother needs. This establishes the “problem” that drives the rest of the action. Ali is mortified by having lost the shoes, knowing that his family cannot afford to replace them and that he will be severely punished for his error. He and his sister take the only option that appears: since they attend school at different times, they must share Ali’s sneakers, without telling their parents. In the morning Zahra will wear the sneakers to school and then rush to pass them to Ali for his afternoon school. But this is not easy. Zahra must duck out of school early each day to give the sneakers to Ali, who then must sprint to his own school, where he inevitably arrives after the bell. This is not a sustainable arrangement, and we know that something will have to give.

There are other episodes that crop up and play into this narrative. Zahra spies from a distance another schoolmate who is now wearing her lost shoes. Now she has to figure out how to get them back, but her plans are ultimately abandoned when she learns that the father of the new shoe owner is blind and in even worse economic circumstances than her own family. So the basic problem is still not solved. Ali, for his part, accompanies his father to the wealthy neighbourhoods up the elevated slopes of north Tehran, where his father hopes to land some gardening work. Thanks to a bit of luck and Ali’s pluck, they do finally land a gardening job, and it appears that some extra income might actually enable new shoes to be purchased. But, again, hopes are quashed by misfortune. The father, riding the bike with Ali aboard on the way home, loses control on the steep downward-sloping streets towards south Tehran, crashes the bike, and suffers some minor but debilitating injuries.

Finally, another opportunity arises. There will be city-wide cross-country (4-kilometre) race for 9 and 10-year-olds, and the third place finisher is to be awarded a pair of new sneakers. Ali tells Zahra that he will somehow finish in third place and then give her the awarded sneakers. This leads to a highly dramatic climax, as Ali barely manages to qualify for the race and, as the race ensues, work his way towards the front of the pack. Can he reach the front, and, even more problematically, can he finish in third place? At the finish line, there is a wild lunge by several boys at the front, including Ali, to cross it, and Ali ultimately learns from the smiling, excited school officials that he has finished first! He has won a prize, but not the right prise, and, alas, the new sneakers remain out of reach. The end of the film shows Ali taking off his now completely worn out and ruined sneakers and disconsolately soaking his blistered feet in the housing compound goldfish pond. Now, finally, he and his sister don’t even have one pair of shoes, and ruin awaits them.

Comparing this film and its story to those other contemporary Iranian child-films, there are some striking differences. Children of Heaven has a much more structured and dramatic plot, with a heart-thumping finish, whereas the other films, though they have an initial “problem” to be solved and a quest, have an almost aimless set of events that wander in and out of the action at a slow pace. In addition, the cinematography and editorial pacing of Children of Heaven takes advantage of the full range of cinematic story-telling techniques, with tracking shots, pans, a wide range of camera framings, camera reversals, and point-of-view shots – very much in contrast to the minimalist and static, fixed-camera settings of Kiarostami and, to a certain extent, Panahi. It is remarkable how cinematic the film is, given what must be considerably demanding circumstances for shooting films in Iran. In a 1999 interview Majidi described though an interpreter (interestingly, Majidi, at least as of 1999, does not speak English) some of the conditions set for making a film in Iran:
“The government has a monopoly on film stock and equipment. So every filmmaker has to go to them to rent these items. The government issues screening permits for the films, which means they can ban a film or demand changes in it. They also rate them on artistic and cultural merits. They reward A-grade films with rights to advertise on the government controlled media and screenings at the best theaters. While C-grade filmmakers can be kept from making films for a year.”
In an effort to get more real-life performances, Majidi also employed hidden cameras, which must have made the shooting quite a bit more complicated. Nevertheless, with limited budgeting, external constraints, and hidden cameras, Majidi managed to produce a smooth and artistically told story in an urban setting. This seems to have led some of the postmodernist critics concerned with supposed “authenticity” in filmmaking to criticise Children of Heaven for being “manipulative” and not true to life. But I would argue that it captures and presents the very real, dramatic experience of children better than almost any film. All films are, to a certain extent, “manipulative”, but Children of Heaven is far more true to life concerning the emotional ups and downs of a child. It compares favourably to two other monumental achievements in cinematic storytelling about children, Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette, 1948) and Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955).

Throughout the film, the two child leads, in particular Amir Farrokh Hashemian, who plays Ali, experience and express fears, expectations, and concerns that dominate their worlds. There is the fear of punishment, the desperate need for approval from adults, and the concern for following and living up to the all-powerful laws that have been set up for them by adults. And, of course, there is the feeling of loyalty and comradery among their siblings and peers. We can talk about these ideas abstractly, but they come back to our recollections powerfully when we see them portrayed so well by the players in Children of Heaven. On numerous occasions Ali is unable to give satisfactory account for his actions to the demanding adults around him and is driven to the point of tears. We feel his desperation and share his dreams.

Thoughout much of the film, Ali and Zahra are shown sprinting through the alleys of their neighborhood in utter desperation. This is not fun; it is, for them, almost a matter of life-and-death. The cinematography here is excellent, capturing the breakneck speed that must be adhered to in order to keep their secret for another day. And no matter how fast they run, it not quite good enough. When we get to the final cross-country race, it is a continuation of this desperate and exhausting search for salvation. This is what youth often is much of the time – a world of impossible demands and an unending sequence of somewhat scary encounters with intolerant adults. We adults have forgotten this, but the interior reality of this experience all comes back when we watch this film.

The bittersweet ending of the film is important, but seems to have been misunderstood by many commentators. Ali has failed in his quest to win the shoes and save his sister (and himself) from further suffering. He sees himself as a failure. It is not a feel-good story; it's a story of frustrated dreams. We observers know, however, what Ali doesn’t: that his father has, in the meantime, already bought replacement shoes for both himself and for his sister, Zahra. We want to comfort him and praise him for being so good – for loving his sister, for helping his parents, and for being everything that a parent would want a child to be. Tomorrow we know this particular drama will turn for the better, but the dramatic life of a child, with all its never-ending anxieties, will go on. This is the essence of childhood, captured on film.

"The Mirror" - Jafar Panahi (1997)

Jafar Panahi was born in 1960 and began making his own amateur films as a teenager. In 1994, he was the assistant director on Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, and the following year he released his debut directorial effort, The White Balloon, which was scripted by Kiarostami. The Mirror (Ayneh) is Panahi’s second film and was released in 1997.

In order to appreciate The Mirror, it is useful to reflect on certain conditions of the Iranian film scene. Films about children have a universal appeal, but with the social restrictions in place since the 1979 Iranian revolution, making movies about children in Iran has a number of practical advantages. Children are always credited with more innocence than adults and can be allowed to display a wide range of emotions without suspicion -- and filming them on the street is easier, too. And, further, the more limited spatial horizons of a child enable the resource-constricted filmmaker to present a plausible story context with children that does not seem artificially reduced in scope. Not surprisingly, there have been many films made in Iran depicting a child’s point of view, with Kiarostami’s 1987 film, Khane-ye Doust Kodjast? (Where Is My Friend’s Home?), being a popular early example. Panahi’s first film, the Kiarostami-scripted White Balloon, was another offering in this genre and depicted a seven-year-old girl’s afternoon-long efforts in the city streets to buy a goldfish in preparation for the Iranian new year festivities. Notwithstanding The White Balloon’s undeniable charm, there are limits to how many times this kind of thing can be represented successfully on the screen without becoming tedious. So when Panahi set out to make another child-focussed film, he was working in a field that had already been richly mined.

The Mirror begins in a fashion similar to other child-focussed films: as school lets out, a young girl, again about seven years old, is seen waiting for her mother to come and pick her up. As it turns out, the mother doesn’t arrive at the appointed time, and the entire plot is simply about the girl’s efforts to get home. So it looks like another White Balloon, and in fact the lead in this film, Mina Mohammad Khani, is the younger sister of the girl in White Balloon, Ayda Mohammad Khani. But as I will discuss here, The Mirror is significantly different and innovative, not only from that previous film but also from Kiarostami’s well-known style of filmmaking.

Almost immediately, we can see an important difference from Kiarostami: the filmmaking style. While Kiarostami typically uses austere, long-duration static camera shots of people in close conversation, Panahi opens up this film with a spectacular three-and-half-minute panning shot that makes a full 360-degree circuit around a traffic circle. Later on, there are other carefully crafted, long-lasting shots showing the girl wandering in and out of closeup, sometimes disappearing in crowd scenes, and then reappearing, still in perfect frame. Contemporary Iranian films are sometimes likened to the Italian neo-realist period of the 1940s and 1950s, and that comparison perhaps conjures up images of rough-and-ready, documentary-style films seeking to capture more of the “real world” by disregarding professional narrative film craftsmanship. But if you look at those original Italian neo-realist films, they do use narrative filmmaking techniques quite skilfully. This, however, is not the case with the more clumsy offerings of Kiarostami or Makhmalbaf, who are sometimes critically celebrated as modern Iranian neo-realist equivalents. But Panahi is different; he does in fact display an admirable level of craftsmanship that must belie a considerable amount of planning and setup. You can be sure that the random conversations overheard in the background and on the buses of The Mirror are under his control. Yet the film is still thoroughly immersed in the noisy and intense hustle and bustle of modern Tehran, one of the most intense cities in the world. This is neo-realism with authorial control, not just random "reality TV".

But almost exactly halfway through The Mirror, just as one has gotten lulled into Panahi’s meandering narrative of the lost girl trying to find the right bus, something strange and unexpected happens. The young actress pulls off her costume, looks straight into the camera, and announces that she is not going to continue acting in this movie. The fourth wall has suddenly been shattered. When this happens the cinematography suddenly changes dramatically, too. Immediately, we are subjected to jerky, hand-held shots (the camera had been perfectly steady up to this point). The film stock looks grainy, the colour balance of the shots is off, and the shots are no longer framed and in focus. Now we are shown what a truly ad hoc style of filmmaking really does look like, and the contrast is striking. During these hand-held shots, Panahi, himself, is shown with his crew trying to coax Mina back into resuming her role (but she refuses). Since Mina still has her radio-controlled microphone clipped on, the film crew at this point attempts to keep the filmmaking process going and continue filming her (now “real”) journey home. As the film proceeds from here, it once again returns to the carefully crafted filmmaking and tracking shots of before. But this time the subject of that filmmaking is no longer cooperating, and the filmmakers struggle to keep her in view as she wanders down the street, often out of view and sometimes disappearing into random taxis. Many times Mina is now out-of-view, and all we see are random scenes of traffic congestion as the search for her in the crowd continues. Even the sound sometimes drops out as her clipped-on microphone is accidentally switched off at times.

How much of this actress’s rebellion and breakout is authentic, or is it staged? This has been debated by critics, but my guess is that the whole thing has been carefully contrived. But what does it all mean? For the second half of the film, there is now a tension between fiction and “reality”, and one struggles to find the boundaries between the two. The “real” Mina is not a first-grader, but is a second-grader; she is not lost, but now knows her way home (sort of). But the differences are not that great, and one can’t quite be sure what is true and what isn’t. Panahi seems to be playing with the narrative confines of the child-focussed neo-realist genre and perhaps reminding us to reflect on the true nature of the social cityscape that he is presenting. That Tehran “reality” is fascinating, and, in my view, authentic, even if crafted. We see a young romantic couple on a bus, who must occupy separate, gender-specific sections and can only shyly eye each other from a distance. We listen to an old woman complain about being neglected by her family; and we hear other women complain about their marital circumstances. For the men in the film, the primary interest and pleasure is listening vicariously to a radio broadcast of the Iranian soccer team playing South Korea. There are no villains here, though. We just have people trying to handle the vicissitudes of society in the big city.

What, actually, is meant by or supposed to represent the "mirror"? I’m not sure, but since the very nature of film expression has been called into question, perhaps the mirror is just the film, itself. But it's not really a just mirror; it's a picture that's even better than a mirror. Perhaps you will have some good suggestions here.

Overall, this film is fascinating, but not as brilliant as Panahi’s following film, The Circle. In general, stories and films that become self-reflective can offer intellectual challenges but can also have difficulty sustaining our interest over the full course of the narrative. The Mirror is nevertheless something of a cinematic tour de force and indicative of an important figure to watch on the Iranian film scene.