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Cinema | 'Flowers of Evil': Love and Violence in the Kaleidoscope

by ARTS CORRESPONDENT in New York

17 May 2011 21:54Comments

[ review ] New Yorkers recently celebrated the tenth Tribeca Film Festival. Established in 2001, soon after the attacks of September 11, the festival promotes New York as a major filmmaking center. Features and shorts, documentaries and experimental films from around the world reach large festival audiences in the city each spring.

Among the films that competed in this year's festival was the French production Flowers of Evil (Fleurs du mal), directed by Hungarian-born David Dusa, 31, who now resides in Paris. The film's title derives from the renowned volume of poetry by Charles Baudelaire, who drew on social decadence, moral failure, physical pain, and spiritual suffering for inspiration. Through the alchemic art of poetry, he transformed this base material into gold, his vision reflecting the paradoxical beauty of evil.

Dusa's project was parallel: both fascinated and horrified by the online videos of the protests that took place in Iran during June and July 2009, following the presidential elections, he conceived a movie that would not only incorporate those images but also extract their beauty, their power to move all of us, whether Iranian or not.

Those videos, shot by civilians in the streets with cameras or cellphones, bear lasting witness to the scenes of violence in Tehran and other Iranian cities, the result of the government's unexpectedly savage reaction to the protests. They depict confrontations between students and security forces, the destruction of dormitories at the University of Tehran, police brutality, injured demonstrators.

The origin of my movie comes from Iranian videos online. These have inspired my film. Once we decided, I and my collaborators, that we would write a fiction in which we would integrate these videos, we decide that the fiction's goal, once finished, was to make these videos intimates to the spectator, in particular if one knew nothing about Iran's politics.

Dusa was born in 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution. He left Hungary when he was a child and has spent the rest of his life in other countries, giving him a deep understanding of what Iranians in exile go through. He always felt a strong connection with Iranians in the diaspora whom he encountered in the various places he lived -- South Africa, Sweden, France.

Flowers of Evil depicts a romance between two young adults who come from different countries, cultures, and social classes. Anahita is an Iranian student sent by her family to Paris to avoid the postelection violence. There she meets Rachid, a French man of North African descent. Passionate about parkour and breakdancing, he works in a hotel.

These young characters share a mutually obsessive connection to the web. Much of their life experience involves online surfing, video streaming, and instant messaging. While Rachid posts his dance moves on YouTube and watches them repeatedly, Anahita follows the events in Iran. As she walks in the street, she carries her laptop and scrolls through the latest videos. She chats online with her friends, and the words of her virtual conversations appear in the foreground, as if the movie itself has become a computer screen.

The film incorporates a wide variety of video material, variously sourced from YouTube, shot on iPhone, and artfully composed to create almost abstract visual sequences. This heterogeneity engenders a fragmented cinematic vision that mirrors our perception of the world now, formed by our vast array of new media tools.

With my cinematographer, we started thinking of another cinematographic language, a visual language that would incorporate these videos into the fiction. And we reached the conclusion that the best thing to do was to create a multiple language. Actually, the online videos I chose have been shot by 40 different persons, which means that the Iranian demonstrations have been perceived from multiple points of views. Since my story happens in Paris, we decided to create a narrative that would also base itself on such multiple points of view. In addition, this option is also an artistic choice. It corresponds to my vision of contemporary urban life.

Rachid lives just outside of Paris, and the view from his window is of a highway that is constantly choked. One morning, he types the word "traffic" in Google Image. Looking at the pictures that appear, he discovers Tehran's traffic jams. And so, from the Porte de Bagnolet, he travels to an unknown metropolis where the traffic is even worse. The sequence may sound insignificant but, located at the beginning of the film, it in fact announces the movie's true subject, which is how our new modes of experience impact on our lives.

Rachid meets Anahita a few days after her arrival. Continuing to wear both sunglasses and veil, she seems traumatized. Discovering that she is Iranian, Rachid indicates his familiarity with the traffic jams of Tehran. He also gives her his online pseudonym: Gecko. Nothing physical transpires between them during this first encounter, and the few words they exchange are all linked to the online universe.

Anahita is haunted by the events in Iran and worries for her friends Marjane and Arash. However, she remembers Rachid's pseudonym and finally contacts him on Facebook. The nature of their online chat, the familiarity of the language they use, differs strongly and surprisingly from the manner of both their first and second meetings in the real world.

I wanted to create a contrast between the audacity of a Facebook chat and the absolute shyness that emerges in reality. Just before they meet, spectators follow their Facebook chat as it is printed on screen; both characters are very frank and direct, and we have the feeling that they will keep this conversation going once they meet for real. In fact, nothing of the sort happens when they meet the second time -- they hesitate like two absolute beginners. There is also something that I find very moving in Muslim culture, in the North African one in particular, which I know much better than the Iranian one, which is this huge sense of modesty. So I wanted to add this cultural decency to this meeting, and the whole situation became extremely tender and touching.

The characters barely reference their histories -- whatever happens to them occurs in the present. As for the events in Iran, whether they are depicted online, described by Anahita's family over the phone, or imagined by her or Rachid, they can not be taken for granted. Dusa offers a kaleidoscopic present in which all these perspectives cohabitate simultaneously. The narrative is structured around multiple ruptures of space and time. In one sequence, while Rachid quickly eats his lunch during a short work break, he reads the Wikipedia article on Iran. Then there is a cut to Anahita talking to her mother in Iran. The mother, offscreen, tells her that everything is fine and that she shouldn't worry about her friends. Cut again, and we see videos of violence and repression on Tehran's streets. The Wikipedia article, the mother's lies, the daughter's perception, the YouTube videos -- their combination in one sequence evokes how our perception of reality has become a patchwork of different narrations, while our own inner voices are overwhelmed by countless, unceasing streams of data.

There is something amazing about our current reality: an event that happens in the world can be found in the media five minutes later. And people talk about it and make comments without taking the time to analyze it. This was unthinkable 20 years ago. Not only do we have a simultaneous vision of an event all around the globe, but we can be in different places at the same time. As I am talking to you now, I can also follow events in Egypt, Syria, or Libya with my iPhone. Of course, this matter deeply impacts on our relation to time. This is what gave me the idea of simultaneity, or a free association between different situations in this film.

Flowers of Evil is one of the most intelligent films about Iran that has been made by a foreign director. Dusa's deep understanding of Iranians' pain and their complex relationships with their homeland is evident throughout. For Iranians living abroad, following the demonstrations and the violent crackdown on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube was an agonizing experience. Far from home, their video-driven sense of what was happening there took on another dimension. They had the feeling that the entire country was at war. Anahita is hardly an exception: Iranians around the world were haunted night and day. Some of them couldn't focus on their own lives anymore, even as the situation in Iran, real and virtual, became too much to bear.

I witnessed their desperation firsthand. They were being asked to live in their present reality, but how could they? Spending countless hours watching images of the violence at least gave them something to do, some measure of involvement. And I guess this was what was most difficult for many Iranians living abroad: deep feelings of impotence and guilt inspired by a rebellion that they wanted to share in but could not.

Anahita cannot forget Iran either. Whatever she does in Paris, her memories, now refracted through online videos, keep pulling her back to events at home. Her and Rachid's failure to understand each other stems from this very point: One is obsessed with rebellion against dictatorship and dreams of freedom; the other is absolutely free, without roots or obligations. While one wishes for a better future, the other thinks only of an eternal present. Divided at the level of perception itself, they are at the same time united via the omnipresent web, which allows them to create a realm without boundaries, lies, and violence.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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