Iranian cinema now: ancient mythologies in a modern medium

A season of recent Iranian films emphasises poetry over politics, foregrounding the lyrical and universal strengths of work by a new generation of filmmakers.

Ben Nicholson

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Mani Haghighi’s A Dragon Arrives! ‘uses surreality, abstraction and formal ingenuity to explore south Iran’s connection to a mystical, mythical past’

Mani Haghighi’s A Dragon Arrives! ‘uses surreality, abstraction and formal ingenuity to explore south Iran’s connection to a mystical, mythical past’

“I’d rather die deceived by dreams than give
My heart to home and trade and never live.”

— Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

There is a tendency in cinephilia to categorise. In the search for intertextuality and the desire to listen to the dialogues between films, we ascribe to them the defined parameters of a genre, an era, a movement, a particular national cinema. This last category can be difficult to untangle from wider international affairs, and films coming from countries with turbulent political landscapes often struggle not to be seen through that lens – even in instances when they do not directly engage with such issues.

In the introduction to a zine accompanying a new season at the Barbican, Poetry in Motion: Contemporary Iranian Cinema, co-curator Elhum Shakerifar describes this exact phenomenon. She speaks about a “narrative of political posturing, so dominant that it crushes all other understanding of Iran in its wake.” Many western cinemagoers have spent recent years restricted to an Iranian diet of Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi and this has fed into a wider preoccupation with Iranian art in a political context. This season seeks to display work by a new generation of filmmakers that complements those aforementioned masters while seeking to expand audiences’ understanding of modern Iranian cinema through poetry, lyricism and storytelling.

In that written introduction to the season, Shakerifar also quotes filmmaker Mani Haghighi from a Berlinale press conference for his latest film, Pig (2018). “I can’t tell you how extremely annoying it is to be asked political questions all the time,” he says. “We’ve made a piece of art… let’s not forget that art is supposed to be some kind of universal language to overcome barriers that separate us.”

A Dragon Arrives! (2016)

A Dragon Arrives! (2016)

Haghighi’s previous film, 2016’s A Dragon Arrives!, is the opening night film of Poetry in Motion and is one of two films in particular from the programme that use surreality, abstraction and formal ingenuity to explore the psychogeography of south Iran and the land’s connection to a mystical, mythical past that is rarely seen on our cinema screens.

“From yonder starry lights, and through those curtain-awnings darkly blue
Mysterious figures float in view, all strange and secret things display.”

— Rumi, Departure

A Dragon Arrives! is a perfect choice to kick off the season. It begins as though it might be a noirish political thriller set the day after the assassination of Prime inister Hassan Ali Mansur in 1965. A young investigator for the secret police, Babak Hafizi (Amir Jadidi), is being interrogated by a superior (Kamaran Safamanesh). Hafizi relates, and the film shows through flashback, how he travelled to the island of Qeshm after the apparent suicide of a political exile. However, as if designed for the express purposes of this season, from there the film takes a dramatic left turn, abandoning political trappings to become a medley of folklore, fantasy, puzzler and pseudo-documentary.

It is the introduction of the ‘documentary’ angle that first hints at the film’s playful relationship with reality and its twisting construction. After a stylish opening, the narrative is interrupted by the assertion that what we are watching is a true story. A series of talking heads, including the director himself, begin to frame the journey of Hafizi and two other men as a true unsolved mystery. It is effectively suggested that we are watching a documentary, heavy in reconstruction. Hafizi, accompanied by a geologist (Homayoung Ghanizadeh) and a sound recordist (Ehsan Goudarzi) who supposedly worked for Haghighi’s own grandfather Ebrahim Golestan, discover the hull of a shipwreck sitting in a desert cemetery where unexplained earthquakes routinely accompany burials. Perhaps the eponymous creature lurks beneath the sand.

There is an awful lot going on in this increasingly absurd spectacle, which will leave audiences who attempt to unravel its myriad strands scratching their heads, or banging them against the table in frustration. This, though, feels like an outcome that would please Haghighi. His film intends to question the nature of truth, to blur the lines between what is real and what is not, to lose the viewer down a rabbit hole. There is actually a scene in which a labourer is sucked under the ground in the cemetery: he returns to the surface babbling incoherently. Haghighi offers the promise of a true story, but then layers narratives and perspectives on top of one another until perfunctory plot details have lost all meaning and questions of political, cultural or religious upheaval are mired in magical realism. It could be frustrating, but submitting to the madness – as the characters arguably do – ultimately becomes liberating.

What is also interesting, and equally opaque, about A Dragon Arrives! are its connections through time with Iran’s past. The present-day ‘documentary’ forges a connection to the past of 50 years ago, but Hafizi and his compatriots seem to engage with something much older. The cemetery they are in has fallen into disuse and houses potentially ancient ghosts, but the land itself, and whatever it is beneath the soil causing the earthquakes, seem to link them to a deeper history. It perhaps also taps into the geography of a region in which older traditions are closer to the surface and in which, by submitting to the landscape, characters are able to shrug off the shackles of modernity.

Similar concerns are entwined in Mina Bozorghmehr and Hadi Kamali Moghadam’s hybrid documentary Janbal (2017). Like A Dragon Arrives! it blends modes of storytelling, combining mythological fantasy into several nonfiction modalities including ethnography, observation and performance. Where Haghighi’s film spins a yarn about outsiders coming to the rural south of Iran and discovering something elemental in the wilds, Janbal is an intentional attempt to do the same thing by the filmmakers, as they explain in the accompanying zine: “The making of Janbal was an attempt to enact this process of trying to make sense of the island through storytelling, mythology and fiction.”

Mina Bozorghmehr and Hadi Kamali Moghadam’s Janbal combines mythological fantasy ‘into nonfiction modalities including ethnography, observation and performance’

Mina Bozorghmehr and Hadi Kamali Moghadam’s Janbal combines mythological fantasy ‘into nonfiction modalities including ethnography, observation and performance’

The island in question is Hormuz, which lies just 20km north-east of Qeshm. It an arid landscape, covered in volcanic rock and beaches of distinctly coloured sand, “as if God and his angels have sprayed on the land every colour left from creation”. Here Bozorghmehr and Moghadam see a place where the ‘island-natives’ have been forgotten and hide in the depths of the sea. They turn their focus on an artist, musician and poet named Musa who remains connected to these spirits. The film both observes his artistic practices – the playing of the jahleh and the making of tableaux from items of old clothing, left in piles in the surf as offerings to the Sea-Mother – and incorporates his poetry and creative inner life into a dream-like love story between himself and a fairy.

The island makes the perfect location to capture such enigmatic ideas and much like Haghighi’s use of the cemetery in A Dragon Arrives!, the unusual properties of the landscape make for arresting visual compositions. Musa incorporates the different-coloured sand into the foundations of his tableaux and the filmmakers do the same, using the hues to denote different fragments of a whole yearning to come together.

This is explicit in the film’s structure, which in its latter half has three sections titled ‘ع’ (Ain), ‘ش’ (Shin), and ‘ق’ (Ghaf). These characters combine to form the word for love, ‘عشق’, echoing what the filmmakers describe as a preoccupation of mystic poetry, “a continuous stage-to-stage quest for love”. Through this lens, Janbal examines our relationship with the stories of the past and how they seep into the present, not least in the vox-pop interviews that top and tail the film, in which local people describe djinns coming in the night when the sun is down. Playing in these liminal spaces, both Janbal and A Dragon Awakes! seem to transport us to an Iran we don’t often get to see on screen.

“With a sweet string at hand, play a sweet song, my friend
so we can clap and sing a song and lose our heads in dancing.”

— Hafiz, Ghani-Qazvini, No. 374

Janbal trailer

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