By Alan Zilberman
January 28, 2019
Now that the partial government shutdown has passed the month mark, it is easier to take stock of its impact on our community. Obviously, the people hardest hit are the employees and contractors who are furloughed, or forced to work without a paycheck. While cultural film programming is hardly an important item—relatively speaking—the canceled screenings at our local museums offer a chance for us to reflect on what we take for granted.
Over the next month or so, the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural is partnering with the Freer and Sackler Galleries for its 23rd annual Iranian Film Festival. The films are an intriguing mix, since Iran’s film exports often come from directors who are either censored or blacklisted entirely. This year’s crop includes films made in secret, with the added poignancy that it’s difficult to see them in D.C., thanks to our fearless leader’s overwhelming incompetence.
If any of the below films pique your interest, then fear not! According to the Freer and Sackler’s film curator Tom Vick, who is currently furloughed, the galleries will reschedule the canceled screenings for later in February. The government shutdown should be over by then, right? Right?!?!
Directed by Kamal Tabrizi
Some foreign films translate better than others. It is easier to grasp a foreign drama or thriller, for example, since the stakes are universal—no matter the country of origin. Comedy is trickier not only because different countries have different ideas of what’s funny, but because in-jokes may be lost on audiences who do not experience the same minutiae of everyday life. This is the case with Sly, a comedy about a populist buffoon.
Played by Hamed Behdad, the main character in Sly is clearly based on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country’s former President (they look startlingly alike, for one thing, and have similar fashion sense). In this film, he is a yokel who would rather shame his countrymen than provide any leadership. He becomes an unlikely leader after he tries to interrupt a concert with a fake bomb threat, only to realize a real bomb was planted at the event. This propels him into the limelight, and yet he is wholly unprepared to comment on the issues of the day.
The dialogue in Sly is fast-moving, with the de facto Ahmadinejad talking over others like an entitled jerk. It can be hard to follow what everyone says, and some lines are clunky in translation. There are some inspired set-pieces and one-liners, like when the hero is called, “the candidate who will bring oil to your table.” But by the time director Kamal Tabrizi gets to the final humiliating scenes, Sly loses its sense of propulsive comic exaggeration.
Screens Tuesday, Jan. 29, 7:15 p.m. and Thursday, Jan. 31, 7:15 p.m., at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
Directed by Jafar Panahi
To many Western audiences, filmmaker Jafar Panahi might be better known for the Iranian government’s crackdown against his work. The country imposed a 20-year ban on him working, and yet Panahi still smuggles film in secret to worldwide acclaim. After being smuggled out of Iran, This Is Not a Film and Taxi became minimalist triumphs, and it is amazing what the director can accomplish with few resources. 3 Faces continues in that tradition, mixing documentary and narrative filmmaking with powerful results.
Panahi plays himself, and his co-star Behnaz Jafari plays herself. Together, they travel from Tehran to a remote village where they worry about the fate of a young woman: Jafari was sent footage that looks like her suicide, and she needs Panahi to chaperone the investigation. The film unfolds like a travelogue, with the characters learning about the uneasy balance between modernity and provincial life.
Many scenes in 3 Faces are understated, and we get the impression Panahi filmed himself interacting with actual locals in the village. Their dialogue is refreshing precisely because no one quite knows where it will end up: There are scenes of forgiveness, anger, and even bizarre comic vignettes, like an extended chat about foreskin.
Since 3 Faces has an affable low-key quality to it, it is easy to forget Panahi is one of the few filmmakers whose efforts could be described as heroic: Even as his country spurns him, his films stubbornly offer a balanced, empathetic look at modern Iran.
Screens Monday, Feb. 11, 7:15 p.m. and Wednesday, Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
Directed by Mostafa Sayari
Asghar Farhadi won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2017 for The Salesman, a film that includes a theater company putting on an Iranian version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It might be surprising to see Iran take Western literature seriously, at least until we pause to realize that the right work will resonate with audiences from any country. Such is the case with The Graveless, a film that’s loosely based on William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
You may recall that Faulkner’s novel is an adopter of the “stream of consciousness” style, with multiple narratives and viewpoints. Director Mostafa Sayari jettisons all that, instead focusing on the basic story of four adult children transporting their deceased father to a gravesite. The estranged siblings rehash family history, unearthing some dark history about their father and the village he used to call home.
More than any other film in this festival, Sayari resembles Farhadi’s work as a dramatist. The actors and situations are understated, with the dialogue peeling away at the truth until we finally have a new understanding of what really happened. Where Farhadi’s films unfold like thrillers, The Graveless’ scope is much more traditional. All the characters are flawed, and Sayari is careful in the way he develops sympathy for them. And since Iran’s draconian laws are the center of the bitterness among the characters and their father’s death, The Gravelesshas a biting political dimension that has a modern resonance more than Faulkner’s original novel.
Screens Tuesday, Feb. 19 at 7:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
Directed by Mani Haghighi
Many of Iran’s recent film exports are somber affairs, both in terms of setting and subject matter. Two of the films in this festival, The Graveless and 3 Faces, have such simple production values that their budgets must be miniscule (that is not to say, however, they are without merit). Pig, a dark satire from Mani Haghighi, is much more lavish and cosmopolitan. And given its subversive subject matter, it’s also a wonder it was even made. Hasan Majuni plays Hasan, a famous film director who sees his contemporaries murdered in a horrible fashion. They are decapitated, with the word “pig” written across their foreheads in blood. At first, Hasan is flabbergasted by the murders, then he becomes jealous that he is not a victim, either. Has he lost so much esteem as a filmmaker that he is not worthy of such violent mayhem? Schlubby and unkempt, Pig skewers Hasan’s constant, childish grievances, and yet its more subversive scene involve the patient, more mature women who comfort and placate him. Haghighi mixes sly satire with grotesque, broad physical comedy. The cumulative effect is delightful, albeit intended firmly in the macabre: You’ll never be quite sure how the next scene will end. Pig also follows Hasan’s uneasy interaction with the police, and the “director as target” metaphor carries extra meaning in a country where artists are routinely censored. By the time Pig reaches its frenzied conclusion, its comic exaggeration offers biting insight into what creative suppression must feel like.
Screens Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 7:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
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