A look at the Iranian programme at the Bulgaria-based Menar Film Fest
The Iranian movies were probably the most attractive feature at the online Middle Eastern Film Festival “Menar”, which took place in Bulgaria between 15 January and 7 February 2021. Iranian cinema has been known for sophistication, for good cinematography, for messages that sound universal, even though they come usually from a strictly Iranian social context. The organisers reported great interest towards the festival with 4 Iranian movies being in top 10 of the most watched ones (Just 6,5, The Badger, Dance with me, A Hairy Tale).
Upon request of the Persian Bridge of Friendship blog the organizers from the Pozor company shared information about the percentual number of screening for each of the Iranian movies, which were altogether 9 out of 30. Overall, 31,45% of all the festival movies screenings were the Iranian ones. Here are the respective data:
Just 6.5 – 5.56%
The Badger – 3.87%
Dance with Me – 3.57%
A Hairy Tale – 3.50%
The Warden – 3.35%
When the Moon Was Full – 3.14%
Numbness – 2.97%
My Second Year in College – 2.95%
47 – 2.54%
Now that the emotions are settled, it is worthy to revisit the contribution from Iran to the Menar Film Fest. Cinema has been an art that matters a lot to Iranian creative people, to the public and the state. It is a means to communicate complex ideas, which we may guess are representative of the complexity of the Iranian society and people today. So what image of Iran and Iranians can one construct from the movies at the festival?
After having watched all the short films and most of the long ones (without The Warden and the Badger) I think I have a few purely subjective takeaways. First of all, the movies, which I used to watch some 5-10 years ago tended to present idyllic countryside life without any plot or to deal with difficult existential dilemmas that show the heaviness of life. What I saw this year suggests changes of the focus.
In “Dance with me” there is a main character – Jahangir, who faces forthcoming death. He seems to consider happiness and joy as the sense of life, but has negative emotions, because he feels he has loved and has been loved insufficiently. His friends are also looking for happiness with everybody having a very personal and subjective way of aiming for it, which sometimes leads to conflicts and tensions with the other ones. It looks like there is no plot in the movie – it represents life as it is – something “usual” for Iranian movies, but this time the characters have features of urban denizens – one of them sings rap, another sings opera, third people seem to have been falling in and out of love, they have educated and urbanite souls, etc. So that is one hint at changes in Iranian society: it is becoming more sophisticated but also probably more hedonistic.
Another movie – “Numbness”, is branded as a comedy, but in fact it is a reflection on the human soul, traumas, inabilities and the difficulty of relationships. The main characters seem to be common folk – people who don’t have an important position in business or state administration, who don’t have a lot of money, but have more time and they seem to wonder what to do with this free time. There is a feeling that they don’t think at all about establishing some kind of organisations or communities, about civic or political activity. They don’t aim to change the world. They seem to look for ways to escape from the burden of having to choose what to do – through love, through talks with strangers, gambling, etc. But they don’t seem to have the idea that life could be about “doing the right thing”, choosing yourself or the other, fighting for the Truth – it is rather about having a nice time if you are able to do that, and maybe also about the inability to reach lasting happiness.
What is not seen in “Numbness” is the upper layer of society – its managers or its people who impose and sustain the order. A way to look at them, as well as to penetrate through the social divisions and inequality in Iran is the movie “Just 6,5”. It is about the life of two police investigators who battle drug distribution. They form a peculiar triangle with a high-ranking drug dealer, who lives in enormous wealth, but is caught and passes the procedure that leads to his capital punishment. In the course of this uneven and contradictory process, we learn that everyone in this segment of society – investigators, drug dealers, homeless people, children, fights alone and stands alone before the law. It is a tough life, which can be supported only by people with strong spirit.
“My second year in College” shows another interesting face of life in Iran – how it looks from the perspective of a young female undergraduate. The main character has a friend, who seems to be unstable mentally, taking some pills, but also belonging to a rich family. Upon a university excursion to Isfahan, the rich friend suffers a crisis and the main character leaves the role that has been prescribed to her by parents and society. She doesn’t return to Tehran, saying that she needs to remain with her friend in hospital and that leads to conflict with her professor and group guide. After that the undergraduate befriends the boyfriend of her suffering mate. And she gets a glimpse of another life, in which men seem to have a larger access to money and somewhat more liberated attitude towards women. Before knowing her friend’s boyfriend the main character used to date her cousin, who was recommended by the family. At the end, we see the heroine of the story detached from her university colleagues and mates, who have remained in their social roles, while she has traversed them…. we guess for the better.
The Menar Film Fest also screened movies that somehow seem to be dealing with the contemporary Iranian state. “When the Moon was Full”, received the big award of the 37th Fajr Film Fest in Tehran, as it told based on real events the story of the Rigi brothers, who were at the core of the Jundullah terrorist organisation, responsible for bombings in Southeasern Iran, where the Balouchi Sunni minority lives. Everyone who watched the movie is deeply shattered by the grade of violence, which comes in what started as a purely amorous relationship between a Persian woman and one of the Rigi brothers.
It is an Iranian movie that condemns Islamic terrorism and narrow-minded interpretations of the Muslim faith which justify violence. The Iranian state is presented as the opponent to this tendency in the region – a message, which probably is aimed not only to the internal public in Iran, but also to the outside world.
In one of the short movies – “The Recess”, we witness the last school break before a young female student goes to a football match in violation of law, that prohibits women from doing that. Her classmates both support, warn and try to protect her. She seems to need very much this specific experience of being in the stadium and confronting the norms. In the final lines we learn about her dramatic plight in real life: she is arrested and after her meeting with the law enforcement institutions, she sets herself on fire, which has a tragic end.
The issue of women’s inequality is in the center of 47 – where practically each female character gets hit or screamed at at some moment of the story by her male companion. It is also a movie that hints at attempts for female solidarity in today’s Iranian society – as the main character, a nurse, helps an unknown woman to find shelter for the night, after being abused by her husband. The family in the center of the story – the nurse and her husband, have been discussing emigration for quite some time, an issue which can be observed also in order movies such as Dance with Me. So 47 tells a story that appears to cover some 24 hours, but in fact it is not an individual story, it is a very social movie – about class and about gender, and how problematic could they be for the weak parts in the relationships.
The last movie that I watched is probably the most artistic in terms of cinematography as the whole action unfolds in a hairdresser. It is called ”A hairy tale”. The monotonous life in the barber’s hides something monstrous in it… there is a killer among these three ordinary male hairdressers. And he appears to be the one that dreams of something more – who cherishes old cinema, aesthetic freedom and of a female partner on the scene of his imagination.
The film is very artistic – with constant references to the Casablanca movie and the vintage aesthetics of the old movies. It is not clear when the action takes place in terms of time. We don’t see female characters, only one fictional woman, who is the alter ego and the imaginary friend of the main character – the murderer. It is curious how the movie ends up with a certain degree of imaginary or real destruction and violence – with earthquake, shooting, etc., destroying the barber’s. My guess is that it is also a social movie – about the plight of those, who remain downtrodden and marginalised, with boring and monotonous everyday life, but who need something more.
As the viewers of the 2021 Menar Fest saw, Iranian movies have different faces and show different parts of today’s Iranian cultural identity. My guess is that Iranian society develops and possibly moves away from sacrifice and martyrdom, and towards life in the eternal present – something which we see in Bulgaria as well and is probably a general tendency in the world.
Iranian film directors and storytellers, as well as many of the characters seem to be very realistic in their understanding of themselves and of the others. It is a world where everyone lives and fights within the social territory and rules that are valid for him. It might sound surprising to say that but Bulgaria which passed the crisis of transition knows a lot of stories about people, who were breaking the social norms and transcending social layers – especially in their youth. In the Iranian movies from the Menar Fest 2021 I see that emotions and realities are settled and people don’t feel obligatory a deficit of power, which could push them to hard choices or abusive behaviour. All that makes me think that Iranian society has a level of maturity, which other societies might not have.
What I might be curious to see in Iranian movies is the presence of more foreigners, of more people who come from other cultures and undergo transformation or bring change as a result of their interactions with Iranians. There is an absence of foreigners as characters in those movies – possibly with the exception of “When the Moon was Full”, where a significant part of the plot takes place in Pakistan.
Could we guess that Iranians are eager to speak with the world? And that as long as the outsiders are not perceived as a threat, Iranians can contribute significantly to foreign teams and groups with their intellectual and ethical accumulations. The Iranian cinema has been proving for a number of years the Iranian potential.
Photo: A moment from the movie “My Second Year in College”, which brought the actress Soha Niasati the award for the best female role at the 41st Moscow International Film Fest in 2019 (source: MENAR)
Read in Romanian language!
Read in Bulgarian language!