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Cinema: Iran: Voices of the Unheard

by DAN GEIST in New York

16 Jul 2010 00:32Comments

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"If I sit silently, I have sinned." With these words of Mohammad Mosaddegh's, presented as a small, solitary epigraph against an otherwise uniformly black screen, Iran: Voices of the Unheard begins.

"God awakens those who dream of America." With these words of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's, emblazoned in gargantuan characters on a Tehran building above his portrait, five stories tall, the film nears its end.

Shot secretly in Iran between October and December 2008 by filmmaker Davoud Geramifard, the documentary -- which had its U.S. premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in June -- tells three stories.

The first primarily concerns Hadi, who was jailed for eight years for revolutionary activities against the Pahlavi regime, including a raid on the Central Bank of Iran. Released from prison after the 1979 Revolution, he became a public school teacher. Officially retired, he returns to school regularly by student demand to lecture on philosophy as it relates to the topics he sees as crucial to the country's future: democracy and human rights.

A family of Ghashghai shepherds, living amid the arid Zagros mountains of southwestern Iran, is the focus of the film's second part. They describe their increasingly difficult efforts to maintain their traditional way of life in a society that would as soon see them disappear. As one family member explains, "What the whites did to Native Americans, the state did to us."

The protagonist of the final section is Babak, a 29-year-old employee of the Tehran Office of Arts and Culture. On his own time, he writes poetry, reads recondite critical theory, decries the stultifying culture produced by the theocrats, and parties with his friends like the next morning will be just another chapter in an awful dream.

All we hear of their stories are in their own words. There is no narrator. Except for one night scene that features a woman lit spectrally by a campfire, the shepherds speak offscreen. But Hadi and Babak address the camera unguardedly. After a recent screening, Geramifard described how much of his preparatory work involved finding subjects willing to do so. Given the possibility of reprisals -- considering his job, Babak is particularly vulnerable -- the film's public circulation is restricted to festivals.

Given that limited scope of distribution, the filmmaker's stated objective of fostering greater support in the West for the Iranian democracy movement, and his current residency in Toronto (born in Shiraz, he left Iran in 2006), it would be unsurprising if the film's sensibility was predominantly Western. In fact, the film makes no evident concessions to its intended audience. While it does not demand knowledge of Iranian history or current affairs to be appreciated, no special effort is made to explain its subjects' many political and cultural references.

There is also something characteristically Iranian in its devotion to and treatment of the physical world: as simultaneously bearing sublime, mysterious beauty and mundane challenges without end. (In this regard, Werner Herzog is the most Iranian of Western directors.) This is most immediately evident in the segment concerning the nomadic Ghashghai and the tremendous landscape amid which they live and labor. But Geramifard also finds this fine ambivalence in locations that would, in most others hands, be nondescript: the motorways of Tehran, the semirural suburban settings where much of the first section takes place. For those viewers who tune into them, these pictures -- which often have no apparent relation to the voices heard over them -- are worth a thousand tracts.

Above all, the film is a distinctively personal creation. Most documentaries are close kin to works of journalism, if not precisely that. Whether displaying greater or lesser craft, few are relevant to the realm of cinematic art. Iran: Voice of the Unheard is an exception. It is a work of portraiture, akin to that form as it is found in both painting and literature. What we learn through each of its subjects far surpasses what they have to say. Call it a trilogy of poetic portraits with a mission that fires but does not interfere with its art.

The most disturbing scene in the film involves a gathering of Babak and his friends. They trade stories of oppression, economic disaster, horror. This man, jailed on a minor offense, was beaten day after day by prison guards. That family died of cold because the natural gas supply was disrupted. And as they share these dismal tales, the friends laugh and laugh.

After the recent screening, a viewer expressed her confusion and distress at the scene. "They are laughing about torture, they are laughing about death," Geramifard acknowledged. "You become -- not indifferent -- but you start laughing at miseries, but in a very different way [from ordinary laughter]. You try to keep going, without going insane. Brutality has become so desensitized, because you see so much of it."

The most poignant moment is Babak's alone. He describes how the work of celebrated Western sages such as Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, and Umberto Eco are translated and readily available to Tehrani readers of his intellectual stripe. He is proud, aware that this may come as a surprise to many of the film's viewers. And he is inconsolable. "Everything I know is of torment to me," he says, "because there is no use for them here." One wants to reassure him that Derrida, Baudrillard, and Eco are of questionable utility anywhere, but that is hardly the point. At least in a free society, it's not quite so painful to dream.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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