Thursday, October 20, 2011

The steep price of art in Iran

When I went to see a little Iranian movie with Australian funding in a little arthouse theater in Tasmania over Christmas 2009, I never expected to hear much about it again.

In fact, I hadn't much wanted to see this particular film, called My Tehran for Sale, in the first place. My mother-in-law knew that my wife and I were movie buffs, and wanted to take us to a theater she loved. That theater was also playing some films that interested me -- I think one of them was A Serious Man -- and I was much more interested in catching something that I thought would have clear relevance to readers of my year-end list of movie rankings. But the time for this one worked out, and my mother-in-law pushed us toward this film in that subtle way that is as close to imposing her will on us as someone as agreeable as her would ever get.

I'm glad I did see it. My Tehran for Sale wasn't my favorite film of the year by any means -- in fact, I ranked it 78th out of the 113 films I saw in time for my deadline. But I was glad to provide a couple dollars of support toward it -- the movie that day was my treat -- because it's a very small film made under very difficult circumstances. By actually filming in Tehran, the filmmakers were breaking any number of Iranian laws. It's hard to believe they came up with something as well-made and compelling as they did, considering the guerrilla methods they must have used to get their footage.

And there was a price, as I learned last week -- a price that made me even more glad I saw it.

Marzieh Vafamehr, the star of the movie (pictured in the poster above), was sentenced to 90 lashes and a year in jail for her involvement in making the film.

You can read all about it here.

And I thought I'd do something I don't usually do today -- re-post my own review of the movie, which I wrote in early 2010 as one of my paid reviewing assignments. I can't say I didn't predict it:

The mere existence of My Tehran for Sale is cause for celebration, especially if you're a champion of free speech and artistic expression. Given an Iranian government that's hostile to both those things, it's amazing writer-director Granaz Moussavi was even able to make her movie, which involved a filming-on-the-sly approach that could have gotten her and her cast arrested. Unfortunately, degree of difficulty is not the only factor on which we judge films, and My Tehran for Sale may leave a viewer wanting in the story department. In fairness, Moussavi has chosen a good character through whom to view the ills of modern-day Tehran, a semi-autobiographical actress/dancer seeking refuge in Australia by any means necessary. The title refers to the sacrifices Marzieh (Marzieh Vafamehr) must make while trying to buy passage -- legal or otherwise -- out of the country, including selling an assortment of her personal items at a fraction of their sentimental value. Moussavi also shrewdly identifies the various ironies of contemporary Iran, with its modern architecture and backward attitudes, its marketing of 21st century video units to children, while denying adults that same freedom to record moving images. Moussavi's mistake is framing Marzieh's story through a device in which she recounts her story to Australian immigration officials. This choice disorients the viewer initially; then, once the narrative has revealed how Marzieh reached this point in her journey, it sheds doubt on whether that was the most relevant way to convey the plot. Still, part of what's unsatisfying about My Tehran for Sale is surely intentional. If Marzieh's story doesn't resemble the traditional narrative arc Western audiences are expecting, it's probably because the repeated disappointments are far too commonplace to seem operatically tragic to people like Marzieh, nor are they likely to culminate in a distinct moment of catharsis.

Back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

For a number of years now I have struggled with the strange series of contradictions that is modern-day Iran. If you think that it's a bombed-out mess like neighboring Iraq, you couldn't be farther off. A former boss of mine was Iranian; he left the country ages ago, maybe in the late 1960s or early 1970s. One day he showed me a slide show on his computer of pictures from Tehran and around the country, and they were some of the most beautiful images I'd ever sen. The city is full of modern architecture, much of it quite outside the box, and it has a thoroughly modern buzz about it. It is landscaped beautifully and feels every bit the first-world western city. I was surprised to see images of people skiing on nearby mountain slopes. This was the country that was supposed to be so backward, such an enemy of personal liberties?

Yep. So tightly does the country control the behavioral pursuits of its people -- like, making movies and drinking alcohol -- that you can be punished severely for doing either. Like poor Marzieh Vafamehr, who only wanted to express herself in the same way as her doomed character.

The article above goes on to discuss other Iranian filmmakers who had been recently arrested, one on his way to the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as a director who was recently arrested, sentenced to six years in prison and banned from speaking to the press for the next two decades.

I'm not really interested in writing a blog post that decries censorship in other parts of the world -- I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir. And I don't think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going to be reading my blog anytime soon.

However, I do want to tell you that if you think you know Tehran, the city, maybe you don't. There's beauty bursting to get out of there, ready to show itself to the rest of the world, only it can't.

And with sentences like the one levied against Marzieh Vafamehr, it's doubtful other artists will want to risk bringing that beauty to the rest of the world anytime soon.

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