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Kurdish-Iranian poet Sahel has just been released from a thirty-year prison sentence in Iran. Now the one thing keeping him going is the thought of finding his wife, who thinks him dead for over twenty years.
Different film from Iran, offering some new insights in how it is to live there nowadays
I saw this film at the Ghent filmfestival 2012. An introduction by the film maker was very enlightening. His prime motivation was that the so-called 8-year war between Iran and Irak seems forgotten, regardless of still having a noticeable impact on Iranian life nowadays. A second motivation was his desire to show a young, open-minded, well educated country with 15 million inhabitants. This feature film is his first one. Before he considered himself a documentary maker.
He further talks about Iranian cinema, which he says has always been vital and productive. A new generation of film makers has developed their own form of producing narrative films. He tells us that he hates Hollywood products, centering too much around people's entertainment. He also tries to convince us that there is no censorship in Iran (he mentions a "surveillance department", without explaining why that is different). He considers self-censorship the worst that can happen to film makers, leading to a "safety first" attitude and holding them back from exploring (and crossing) boundaries.
Our main character (Arash) is a university professor who has lived and worked for 22 years in Europe. The film starts with a taxi ride, ending with him taken prisoner (so it seems, but we have to wait until the end for an explanation). Following that we have a few flashbacks, showing some of the experiences he went through in Iran. He has to deal with bureaucracy when trying to obtain his passport, because of a missing document, and has to wait in line several times without getting much done. Also we see that one of his lectures about the Iran's history is deemed "unsuitable", even to the extent that the literature he has distributed as home work, is confiscated afterwards. All this sets the tone for pointing out some important differences between Europe and Iran.
Later on we see that obtaining his passport proves to be no problem when his nephew jumps in and promises to "arrange" something. This is one of several hints that corruption is a integral way of life in Iran. Another hint along the same line is that the solicitor who is dealing with a savings account to which he and his mother are entitled after the death of his father, suddenly becomes the victim of a gas leak in his home, followed by a close down of his office and a seizure of his archives. We'll understand later on that others are heavily "interested" in said savings account, and have their way of dealing with obstacles.
Pity that the main story line was not clear to me, at least not until it all came together at the end of the film. Especially the family relations, yet crucial in the plot, were confusing. I certainly did not pay attention enough, and missed how important these were in this story. Such unclarity may have its reasons in a thriller. But for a film like this, dramatic developments and interactions between participants are the essence. The dubious roles that his half brother and nephew play, regardless of various hints to that effect, remained hidden for me until the very end. However, I don't think it is all my fault.
All in all, this film brought me some fresh insights in Iranian cinema, much different from other Iranian films I saw before today, where censorship was shown to be a heavy burden to carry. Intended or not, an impression remains that we are very lucky living in the so-called Western world, where we have a reasonable expectation that laws are adhered to, without having to rely on corruption or other ways to "arrange" things. For Arash, our main character, his return to Iran works out as a culture shock, which he undergoes in a passive way, in other words being surprised and not offering resistance.
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