"Protest" - Masoud Kimiai (2000)

Writer-director Masoud Kimiai has been an important Iranian filmmaker over a fifty-year career that spans both the pre- and post-revolutionary periods.  However, his most influential films – Gheisar (1969), Dash Akol (1971), and The Deer (Gavaznha, 1974) – came early on, before the 1979 revolution.  But despite the vast changes in the Iranian social climate that have occurred since then, he has generally maintained his usual  focus on two main themes:
  • loyalty, honor, and revenge 
  • the disastrous effects of drug addiction. 
Of his more recent (i.e. post-revolutionary) films, though, one of the more interesting has been Protest (Eteraz, 2000), because it presents a more subtle and ambiguous picture of the normally crowd-pleasing themes of revenge and honor.  In fact the film presents the narratives of two men who go through an existential examination of just who they are and how they identify with and relate to the traditional socioculturally-defined themes of dignity and honor. 

The film starts by telling how Amir Farmanzad (played by Dariush Arjmand) vengefully murdered the unfaithful wife of his younger brother Reza (Mohammad Reza Forutan) in order to preserve his family’s dignity and self-respect.  He willingly and pridefully confessed to the crime and was immediately sent to prison.  When he learned that the woman he killed was pregnant with the unborn child of her paramour, Ahmed, Amir, rather than feeling any remorse, felt that his victim was even more guilty and more worthy of being murdered.  In short, Amir is a quintessential example of a man for whom dignity and family honor are the highest values.  He is willing to give up his own life in his efforts to maintain these tribal values.

In fact Amir had sacrificed his own career opportunities in order to work and earn money that could support younger brother Reza’s education.  But Reza’s college education evidently exposes him to higher, more humanistic, values than those of his brother.

The scene shifts forward twelve years, when Amir is released from prison.  Before he departs, his fellow prisoners, in particular a powerful gangster named Mohsen Darbandi (Mehdi Fat'hi), celebrate Amir for his heroic act of honor killing.  Just before his release, Mohsen gives Amir a valuable ring and urges him to look after his woman, Majdi (Bita Farahi).

When Amir gets out of prison, he is met by his family and learns that they have been shielding him from some awful news.  His father has died; his mother has become blind; and his opium-addicted brother-in-law’s mismanagement has led to the family’s financial ruin.  When Reza has a chance to talk with Amir alone, he tells him that they all now live in a different world, where revenge and concern for selfish dignity are no longer the highest values.  Instead, the world (in Iran) has embraced the higher, more rational and universally benevolent, values.  They have the following exchange on this matter:
Reza: “The days of such [vengeful] reactions have passed.”

Amir
: “So what about dignity?  [Things may have changed,] but is conscience not there
             any more?  Honor and dignity can’t be taken away.”
Reza:  “I was talking about today’s sense of reason, a progressive society."
Although Reza humbly acknowledges the sacrifice that Amir made, he tells him that what he did was wrong and even led to the ruination of their own family.  And even Ahmed, his dead wife’s lover, has lost his mind with grief.

Thus there are two ways of looking at the world that have been identified:
  • The Tribal 
    This focusses on dignity, honor, and loyalty.  Resentment is harbored, and revenge is the primary operation of justice.  Amir is associated with this view.
     
  • The Rational Humanistic 
    This focuses on human reason, human rights, and universal values promoting the common good.  Although Reza has been exposed to both moral regimes, he is now ready to embrace the one he has more recently learned – that of Rational Humanism.
Note that I have on several occasions commented on how mistaken is the notion that dignity can have objective validity and on the even more absurd idea that dignity can be so objectively identified that it should be recognized as a universal human right (see, for example, my reviews of The Last Command (1928) and Bicycle Thieves (1948)).  Dignity is a subjectively perceived posture, like pride, that is usually only internally assumed.  In this connection I have cited two references that shed further light on this topic [1,2].

Thus the Tribal moral regime, at the root of which is an obsession for dignity, is a false perspective founded in resentment.  Unfortunately, in the world today we are faced with a rising tide of what is referred to as “populism”, but which is really a return to tribalism under another name.  There is little in the way of policy that connects the various political figures who are currently regarded as populists, such as Bernie Sanders, Norendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Donald Trump.  What these  populist figures do have in common are calls for a restoration of lost dignity which has allegedly been damaged by shadowy elites.  Their popularity is fuelled by the  resentment invoked by their clarion calls for an authoritarian leader to suppress and punish these ill-defined elites who have attacked our dignity [3].  

To counter this rising support of authoritarian populism (which is another form of Tribalism) among the wider population, I have proposed a more compact and easy to remember formulation of the basics of sociopolitical Rational Humanism, using the acronym RMDL, in order to make it easier to conceptualize and discuss in wider forums [4]. RMDL stands for four basic pillars of sociopolitical Rational Humanism:
  • Human Rights.  These include freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to watch and listen, freedom from torture, etc.
     
  • Open Markets.  There needs to be regulated markets that allow for the open exchange of goods and services across society.  This includes necessarily ensuring there is sufficient wealth equity across society so that there can be widespread, fair exchange.
     
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving universally inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place.
       
  • Rule of Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed by actions of the democratically-elected government.
In the context of the film Protest under discussion here, we could say that these two social themes of Tribalism and Rational Humanism offer a conceptual background for our two protagonists, Amir and Reza, as they separately struggle to come to grips with who they are.  The rest of the film now follows two parallel and largely separate narrative threads showing their contrasting worlds.

Amir’s world is the lower-class, crime-tinctured milieu of the urban jungle, which is a favourite setting for writer-director Kimiai.  Amir goes to look for a job by visiting Mohsen’s agent, Fathollah, who operates a cockfighting pit for unsavoury gamblers.  When Amir asks Fathollah for a job but only making “clean money”, Fathollah reminds him that no money is clean.  Corruption is a part of everything.  The dark world Amir inhabits is also hinted at by showing a shadowy figure who watches him ominously from the background during one of Fathollah’s cockfights.  This turns out to be the embittered Ahmed, the lover of Reza’s murdered wife.

Amir, himself, is shown to be tough, but he comes across as an essentially good-hearted and well-meaning person.  The crime he committed was an act of self-sacrifice for his family’s honor and not one motivated by greed.  When he visits Ms. Majdi, who turns out to be gangster Mohsen’s sister, he sees that she is a hard-working seamstress and finds himself motivated to protect her when she is bothered by a street tough. 

Meanwhile Reza is shown socializing at a restaurant with his former university classmates and discussing their favourite topic: Reformist Iranian politics.  Even among Reformists, though, there are disagreements and lively discussions.  They talk about the difficulties President Mohammad Khatami is having getting the Reformist agenda implemented, and a key issue discussed is whether the priority should be placed on opening up the economy or emphasizing freedom and human rights (i.e. whether RMDL dimension ‘R’ or ‘M’ should be prioritized).  This policy divide existed even within a single Reformist party, which is here loosely referred to as the “Kargozaran party”.  This was actually the Executive Construction Party, whose official news outlet was the Kargozaran newspaper.  The party’s two leaders, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Gholamhossein Karbaschi, differingly championed the M and R issues, respectively.

One of the friends at these discussions is Ladan, Reza’s new fiancé, who was recently attacked while peacefully distributing leaflets at a demonstration and now sports a black eye.  Reza also has another close friend, Ghasem, who shares Reza’s lower-class status and who suffers from opium addiction. Ghasem warns Reza that Ladan’s educated, higher-class family background means that she is not a good marriage match for him. 

All of these discussions make Reza stressfully wonder who he is and where he is going in life.  He has embraced new humanist values, but he feels himself unworthy of his brother Amir’s devoted (even though wrongful) sacrifice.  The only job he has been able to find after all of Amir’s sacrifices to fund his education is the humiliatingly low position of a pizza delivery boy. 

Further self-doubts presumably affect both Reza and Amir when they visit their younger brother Yousef, who suffered a brain injury when he was beaten while participating in a peaceful demonstration at his university.  Yousef is a sensitive and innocent young musician who harbors no resentment and now smiles at everything he sees. 

All of their separate encounters weigh on both Amir and Reza.  Amir, who had dreamed of marrying the seamstress Majdi, finally decides that the murder he committed has permanently polluted him and has made him unworthy of her.  He terminates his relationship with her and renounces further association with Mohsen’s gangster family.  Similarly, Reza, feeling that he and Ladan belong to two different worlds, terminates his relationship with his fiance, too.

The final fates of Amir and Reza offer a striking contrast.  After watching another cockfight and seeing Ahmed there, Amir steps outside and fatalistically invites the murderously intentioned man to finish him off.  The vengeful Ahmed goes ahead and fatally knifes Amir and then runs away in the night.

Reza’s ending is different.  At his work he is assigned to deliver a stack of pizzas to an upscale party and is shocked to discover when he gets there that the party is for Ladan’s wedding to a mutual friend of theirs.  Ladan and Reza momentarily exchange painful eye contact before Reza returns to his pizza café.  There he meets some of his old-college friends returning from Ladan’s party, who backhandedly console him by reminding him how filthy-rich Ladan’s family is and how she belongs to a different world from theirs. 

But then Ladan, still in her wedding dress, unexpectedly shows up at the café.  She has apparently had a last-minute change of heart.  She has renounced her Tribalistic arranged marriage and come to Reza to embrace the higher and universal feeling of boundless human love.


Kimiai’s other films often deal with honor and revenge in ordinary Iranian society, but Protest offers a more subtle treatment of these themes.  It gets the viewer inside the heads of its two main characters and presents these people grappling with changing social values. 

Admittedly, though, the film has some significant limitations.  The storyline is fragmented, and the film consists mostly of conversations shown in relentless back-and-forth closeups, which is a difficult cinematic rhythm to employ at length.  Another serious flaw is the treatment of the vengeful figure of Ahmed lurking in the shadows.  This is not well identified and signalled visually, and it represents a botched narrative opportunity for Kimiai.

Nevertheless, Protest probably deserves more appreciation than it has received.  It offers a thoughtful picture of Iranian society in disruption and of people trying to come to terms with it.
★★★  

Notes:
  1. Steven Pinker, “The Stupidity of Dignity, Conservative Bioethics' Latest, Most Dangerous Ploy,” The New Republic, (28 May 2008).    
  2. Samuel Moyn, “Dignity’s Due”, (2013), The Nation, (4 November 2013).    
  3. George Weigel, “Democracy and Its Discontents”, National Affairs, number 35, (Spring 2018).   
  4. For further reflections on RMDL, see my reviews of 

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