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Mohammad Reza Aslani’s extraordinary 1976 Iranian feature Chess of the Wind “isn’t just a rediscovery, it’s a revelation”

Chess of the Wind (1976) screens in the BFI London Film Festival for free 10-13 October 2020 on BFI Player.

The world has changed in 2020, and Il Cinema Ritrovato – Bologna’s annual celebration of archive cinema – has changed too. Having been postponed in June, the 34th edition took place at the end of August, which at least meant we didn’t face last year’s obstacle of temperatures hitting 40°C. The festival was shorter, running for just under a week, and a couple of the planned strands have been held back until next year.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

But Il Cinema Ritrovato has expanded in other ways, hosting regular screenings in the opulent Teatro Comunale and Manzoni auditoriums, adding extra outdoor presentations in BarcArena and Arena Puccini, and taking up one of the screens in the charming Odeon cinema, which usually hosts new releases. The muffled sound of Tenet (2020) booming away in the adjacent screen thankfully didn’t spoil the experience of watching John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or Fort Apache (1948) in this beautiful space.

Other changes were enforced by the questions that have become central to all our lives this year: social distancing and safety. The festival introduced a new ticketing system that cut down on queues and crowding; the capacity of each screen was reduced with alternate seats blocked out; access to the nightly outdoor screening in Piazza Maggiore was strictly controlled; and, of course, hand-washing and mask-wearing was mandatory across all venues. There was even an online version of the festival provided for anyone unable or unwilling to attend, streaming a selection of films and masterclasses for home viewing. Festival directors and cinema owners around the world who are struggling to figure out the best way to proceed in the age of COVID-19 could do a lot worse than look at this event for guidance.

Yuzo Kawashima

Despite all these changes, there was a reassuring sense of familiarity as I flicked through the programme and began to plot my path through its various sections. Even in a reduced year, the usual overabundance of enticing fare ensured I would leave Bologna with a nagging sense of frustration at my failure to see anything in the Marco Ferreri, Konrad Wolf or Gösta Werner retrospectives.

Instead, the director I chose to follow during my week in Bologna was Yuzo Kawashima, and while the time I spent with him was nowhere near sufficient to make a dent in his body of work (he completed 51 features before dying at the age of 45), the films shown offered a good overview of his style and preoccupations, and marked him as a filmmaker worthy of further study.

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Burden of Love (Ai No Onimotsu, 1955)

“He had an extremely distorted way of looking at the world. He abhorred and mocked exaggeration at all times. He was always rebelling against authority and striving to eliminate hypocrisy.” This was how Shohei Imamura described his onetime mentor, and the films support that view, as Kawashima took a wry and satirical approach to examining everyday Japanese life.

Burden of Love (Ai No Onimotsu, 1955) focuses on a health minister in the midst of Japan’s postwar baby boom, who is placed in charge of promoting population control methods but ends up dealing with several unexpected pregnancies within his own family. Burden of Love is an extremely funny crowd-pleaser that displays Kawashima’s gift for fluid ensemble work and constantly shifting perspectives, but what’s most arresting about the film is how frank and incisive it is when tackling issues like premarital sex, birth control, prostitution and abortion.

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Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (Kinou To Asu No Aida, 1954)

Such pressing social issues were frequently at the core of Kawashima’s filmmaking, as he charted the changing face of Japan in the 1950s. Our Chief, Our Doctor (Tonkatsu Taisho, 1952) looked at inequality and class, as a wealthy woman’s hospital expansion threatened the inhabitants of a poor tenement, while Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (Kinou To Asu No Aida, 1954) is an empathetic take on the role of women in Japanese society.

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Tales of Ginza (Ginza Nijuyoncho, 1955)

Perhaps the most fascinating of these social studies was the one I found least satisfying dramatically. Tales of Ginza (Ginza Nijuyoncho, 1955) felt a little slack and clunky in comparison to the director’s best work, but the film’s depiction of an increasingly prevalent Western influence in cosmopolitan Japanese cities – with baseball games and smatterings of French dropped into dialogue – is extremely illuminating. The festival programme described Kawashima as Japanese cinema’s ‘missing link’, connecting the classical era with the new wave, and his films also capture the country at a turning point, with new and old ways of living existing side-by-side.

Early women directors in the Soviet Union

Careers as prolific as Kawashima’s can be daunting to tackle, but other filmmakers highlighted in this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato left us wanting more. A strand focusing on early female directors in the Soviet Union was replete with discoveries, particularly the work of Margarita Barskaja, whose Torn Boots (Rvanye Bašmaki, 1933) and Father and Son (Otec i Syn, 1936) were borne from her desire to develop a production studio dedicated to children’s films.

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Torn Boots (Rvanye Bašmaki, 1933)

Barskaja built her films around children, using low angles to make us share their perspective, and through improvisatory methods that were controversial at the time, she drew incredibly natural performances from them. Torn Boots seems to fall halfway between the worlds of Jean Vigo and Sergei Eisenstein, following children of various ages as they move from charming playground games to being radicalised in support of their fathers’ strike action. Father and Son’s exploration of strained familial relationships is extremely nuanced and affecting, even if its sense of authenticity riled the Soviet authorities for providing a grim view of Russian life.

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Buba (1930)

It was also a privilege to experience the work of Nutsa Gogoberidze, whose films had never been previously screened outside of Georgia. Buba (1930) is a wonderfully dramatic and evocative documentary, observing life among a remote community in the Ratcha mountain region that maintains “a middle ages way of life”. The bucolic light captured by her camera bears comparison with two other Soviet films from that year – Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) and Mikhail Kalatozov’s Salt for Svanetia (1930) – and she fills Buba with one gorgeous shot after another as she follows her subjects through a series of communal activities and hardships.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Gogoberidze’s rich visual imagination came during the second half of her double-bill, when the English subtitles failed during Užmuri (1934), forcing us to piece together the narrative from the images alone; I was so wrapped up in her masterful compositions and potent use of close-ups I hardly cared.

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Užmuri (1934)

I left these screenings wondering why I’d never heard of such remarkable talents before, and desperate to see more of Barskaja and Gogoberidze’s work, but the films shown here are all we have. Despite the support of fellow filmmakers, including Eisenstein and Dovzhenko, Užmuri was banned and Gogoberidze was subsequently exiled for a decade having been found guilty of being “a relative of an enemy of the people”. She spent her remaining years working in a university and never talking about her filmmaking past.

Barskaja’s career followed a similar trajectory. After running into severe censorship trouble with Father and Son (the print we saw bears the scars) and refusing to denounce her collaborator Karl Radek, Barskaja was sent to a gulag and she killed herself in 1939. Two lives and careers of boundless potential snuffed out by the state.

Chess of the Wind

The thrill of discovery in Bologna is frequently underscored by a sense of sadness, when you hear the stories of how many films were suppressed and almost vanished from our lives forever.

Chess of the Wind (1976)
Chess of the Wind (1976)

This year’s greatest tale of resurrection surely belongs to the extraordinary Iranian feature Chess of the Wind (Shatranj-e Baad, 1976). Mohammad Reza Aslani’s film barely survived its Tehran Film Festival premiere, which was apparently sabotaged following a feud between Aslani and the festival director, and following the Islamic Revolution in 1979 it was banned having never achieved a theatrical release. In the subsequent decades the film has only existed in the form of a censored and poor-quality VHS tape, until a set of negatives reportedly discovered in a Tehran flea market in 2015 led to this restoration by the World Cinema Foundation.

The film isn’t just a rediscovery, it’s a revelation. A haunting chamber piece about the conflict between the potential heirs to a dead matriarch’s fortune, this is a film that draws you completely into its world; its style and mood is reminiscent of films such as Cries and Whispers (1972) or India Song (1975). Aslani’s direction is elegant and precise, and cinematographer Houshang Baharlou’s painterly use of light produces some stunning effects, particularly towards the end of the film when the mysteries and tensions that have been slowly simmering come to a head.

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Chess of the Wind (Shatranj-e Baad, 1976)

Chess of the Wind is clearly an essential film in the history of Iranian cinema, and one that fully deserves its second chance at finding an audience. At times during this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato I wondered if the reduced capacity in the cinemas had sapped some screenings of atmosphere, but during this screening you could feel the audience holding its breath, entirely captivated.

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Before many of these screenings the festival’s trailer was played, prominently featuring the following quote from Jean-Pierre Melville, whose Le Cercle Rouge (1970) was screening in a restored version: “I don’t know what will be left of me 50 years from now. I suspect that all films will have aged terribly and that the cinema probably won’t even exist any more. My guess is that the final disappearance of cinemas will take place around the year 2020, so in 50 years’ time, there will be nothing but television.”

The viability of the cinema experience has been brought into question many times during the course of this cursed year, but at least the continued success of Il Cinema Ritrovato has gone some way to disproving Melville’s bleak prophecy.

Originally published: 22 September 2020