I had no idea that I would be driven (pardon the pun) to review a film so early into the new year. More so by a foreign documentary, focusing more on the subtitles to stay up to speed. However when it came to Taxi Tehran (2015) watched at a time when protests in Iran have gone on for nearly a week now after promises of reform have not gone away in the memories of the voters who brought Supreme leader Khamenei, who will do anything to suppress the public from having a voice. It was the voice of a single director in 2010 was given a 6 year jail sentence and a 20 year film-making ban that includes distribution, promotion even a travel ban unless of religious grounds. In the eyes of the West this was against all that it means to be a filmmaker, the agency to express oneself creatively, in the case of Jafar Panahi cinematically. He has since made a few films under the ban that have been made in very unorthodox yet still very creative, first releasing This is Not a Film (2011) on a memory stick to Cannes before making, an extended home video of him under house arrest, at times jumpy and confusing, Panahi is owning the camera on this film set and prison. Before moving onto Closed Curtain (2013) a brief return to conventional film.
That same year Taxi Tehran was released, filmed from a number of camera positioned in a taxi he drove around. Documenting the passengers and the lives that they bring with them to the car. The aim to help expose the suppression of Iranian film censorship tries to cover up the realities of life in the country. I could give an overview of the film but I feel that would not really do it justice at all. Even at its short length we seem to spend at lot of time some passengers. We’re thrown in the deep in with two very different passengers, a man and a woman from different parts of society, the man very vocal on capital punishment for most offences whilst the teachers in the back is willing to listen to the criminal in order to understand them, looking at the root causes. Coming from a profession that nurtures and listens before passing judgement. Whilst the man, who we learn is a mugger – or so he says, sees that as fair and just to kill thieves. These two passengers set up the clear differences that are in Iran, opening out eyes to those living in the country, who aren’t representative of the oppressive government.
With the arrival of a smaller passenger, a DVD bootlegger who in the West we wouldn’t think about encouraging his crimes of piracy. However Panahi has another take on it all. The bootlegger doesn’t take before he blows the drivers cover, talking opening about his “business” to the director who does nothing to stop him. What he sees and we learn is that the bootlegger is bringing in culture, films that are otherwise banned, ideas and images that would have to be censored if they came in through official channels. For a while the two “work” together to help the distribution of Western culture reach the masses. Interrupted by the wife who hopes that her injured husband doesn’t die. In tears he records his last will and testament to ensure his wife gets everything, not left homeless. For a few moments I wonder if the gentlemen has died in that backseat, has he ensured his wife security. I have to reminded myself none of this is scripted, only the end credits come close to that.
Things lighten up with in the form of two elderly ladies and a bowl of goldfish. They must reach their destination of a spring before noon, they lives literally depend on the fish making it to the water. They are delightful to listen to as they bicker and worry over a superstition. Even in Iran you can find dotty old ladies, showing wherever you are in the world, somethings are universal. They soon leave us to spend time with the drivers niece, a very precocious young lady who knows her own mind and is not afraid to tell everyone. She wants to talk to her uncle, who she clearly admires, yet doesn’t understand his situation. Her class has been given a month to make a movie. I thought he was going to give the same advice he gave to the bootleggers film student customer – not much except to find his own material. Instead we have this wonderful perception of what film is, the film censorship that she clearly doesn’t understand (blames it on her teacher). Wanting not to end up like her uncle her direction with the camera is more inline with government policy, without understand it’s origins or meanings. We learn how contradictory they are, ties for bad men, not depicting reality, it’s all about smoke and mirrors, depicting a fantasy that escapes everyday life, instead of responding to it. Now I know why Panahi was banned.
He takes time out to talk to a man whom he grew up with, who hopes will be able to assist him. It’s disturbing how close people are in this part of Iran. It’s not so easy to send people you know to a possible death sentence. It reminded me of how quick justice can be dealt with as we saw in A Separation (2011) that sees a man almost wrongly convicted of murder, when all the facts are stacked against him. All he wants to do is look out for his family. His next passenger is a flower-lady, a soon to be disbarred lawyer, whose as open-minded as our driver, they share each others pain. Both know what is going on the country, they are more than aware of what goes on behind closed doors. I wish we could’ve spend more time with her. Instead picking with the niece whose eyes are slowly opening to the complexities of life in her country.
We see that even in the space of just over an hour, life in Iran is rich and diverse. Filled with laughter, joy, great pain and sorrow, as it is in any other part of the world. Panahi is shining a light on that world that his country would otherwise not like us to see. It’s an eye-opener, yet at times not surprising. After seeing Ai Weiwei’s show at the Royal Academy a few years ago I was left speechless at times. Himself fighting the suppression of his own government that wont allow him to speak. Both artists are fighting their own wars on the different fronts. Maybe the protests might one day lead to the directors ban being overturned. He’s clearly loved by all that know him as he once against risks it all for his passion and believe in breaking with censorship that only inhibits him to make films. It’s a refreshing film that doesn’t shy away for a minute from the truth, something his government shy’s away from.
Another foreign film that I have been aware off but wasn’t in a rush to watch, waiting for a TV airing instead, which surprisingly paid off. I remember hearing good things about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), a Iranian horror, with a rare female focus which is honestly very refreshing. You could easily say this is a feminist horror. With a female protagonist whose the titular girl who we follow. Beginning of a false footing with a quietly macho guy Arash (Arash Marandi) who we see loitering around a fence, before climbing over to rescue a cat, his cat. The opposite to what Marlon Brando would do (not rescue a cat), more likely o kick in the fence, venting his pent-up anger. Arash is not your typical male hero, if anything he’s the opposite of that in Bad City and fictional Iranian ghost town where the film’s based.
We see that Arash’s walked all over by his father (Marshall Manesh) drug dealer/Pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains) coming for more money that his heroin addicted father owes. His son is doing his best to look after him, who has clearly turned to drugs in the wake of his wife’s death. It’s unusual to see the son living at home and looking after his father on the screen. Of course this a more contemporary situation that Hollywood would never depict, instead it would be the daughter, looking after her father. It reminded me of Westerns, the unmarried daughter staying at home with her elderly father – sometimes blind or very ill and/cranky. This is the way I read the film after some time. A thread that I will pick up on later.
We’ve not even seen the titular girl, or so I thought we had when Saeed meets the first woman, Atti (Mozhan Marnò) in the film, who turns out to be one of his prostitutes who just wants her cut before we finally see the girl (Sheila Vand), dressed in a Hijab, not unusual in itself, but the lone figure in the dark scaring plays upon our inbuilt fears of the Islam and turning it on itself. The fear of the unknown figure within its environment inciting fear to other Iranians. At this point we are held at a distance, unsure of what real danger she poses. Interrupted at a forced sex act, fear is all the figure conveys at this stage.
Following the girl home to her basement flat, seeing her next as just a normal girl, whose shy and reclusive yet beautifully innocent features, how could this be the same girl under the hijab? We have an outsider who enjoys indie music on vinyl and seems to enjoy her own time. It’s the next few scenes that unveil her true identity and power as she lures Saeed to his demise at the hands of a female vampire. This I really didn’t see coming. I took the title too literally here which if anything has surprised me The lone stranger who walks the streets is the one you least suspect, a young woman, a vampire that to some extent is a lone gunfighter prowling the streets at night.
It’s a clever premise, playing on our fears of Islamic extremism and building on that in one of the countries whose dominant religion is Islam. Writing this review after such a horrific week, I feel this film is more relevant. We need to remember the power of fear and what it can do those who it’s inflicted upon. This fear has been confronted to an extent in A Girl Walks Home… instead if fearing the hijab for no reason other than that of extremism, we are actually given something to fear, the supernatural, a being who has take human form, nothing to do with Islam, merely the form of the vampire takes.
I’m reminded of Bone Tomahawk (2015) which played on similar fears, using the Native American and really going far out and giving the characters something to really fear and the audience too. Which leads me nicely back to the Western comparison which started with the role reversal placing Arash in the classic female role that falls for the stranger, the gunfighter, who ultimately tames him and they ride off into the sunset, or leaves her with her father. He falls for the strange girl, whose startled by the emotion that he brings out in her, she like any gunfighter is not used to such attention and the thoughts and feelings that they experience. Fighting against her natural urges and actions, doing what a vampire does best. Placing all this action in Iran is even braver.
A female lead, who plays on the fears of Islamic extremism in the guise of a horror. Does that make a female lead more acceptable, or get under the radar of censorship? Either way it’s playing against type completely for not just the horror genre but for cinema as a whole. Placing a woman in the protagonist role, the bad guy who has to be either killed or tamed. I couldn’t see a way to her demise happening. Could Arash have seen beyond her perceived innocence to see the truth? That’s the question we are left with, after all the violence she has caused, for good or bad she has done her bit to clean up Bad City the only way she knows how. As a gunfighter can only use his guns – using violence to bring peace to the town/city they are in.
In terms of horror it’s maybe not as scary as you hope, the ideas it explores and subvert make up for the lack of horror. When we do get it, it’s all about the build up, wondering how she will bite. Its the final attack that leaves you in awe as she rescues the damsel in distress. The moments which are slowed down create a sense of real awe and spectacle heightened by the black and white cinematography, be them horror or not. For me the real strength of the film is gender swapping of roles a Western in the guise of a horror, which for me is an added bonus. Ultimately it’s a refreshing film that takes our fears, placing them in a completely foreign country.
After being stuck in what seemed like the 1950’s for my film viewing recently, I needed to be pulled almost bang up-to-date with something that I had been finding the right time to watch, which this time was Argo (2012) this years Oscar winning film, after being snubbed in all the major categories bar the really important one – best picture, which is won. Somehow after getting up from it, I would have gone for Life of Pi (2012). I can see how it won however, the old Hollywood loving itself number which they pull out every-so-often. And it allowed actor/director Ben Affleck to still pick up one of those trophies. I could spend the review trying to argue why it shouldn’t have won, in place of Ang Lee‘s masterpiece of storytelling, but that argument has probably been had by now.
Instead I’ll focus on why it won beyond the point I just made which is blinding the obvious as C.I.A agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) is given the job of providing the best worst option of rescuing 6 hostages from Iran in the 1980 when Iranian and American relations were at their worst when America was offering asylum to one of their leaders. Add to that the coup they helped to pull off with the U.K. years before didn’t really help matters.
The idea that Mendez brings to the table is as crazy as it gets, to set up a fake movie, complete with crew as a cover-up in order to get the 6 U.S workers out of the country to safety. At first the idea is seen as a joke, the only joke that is serious enough to be given the green light. Allowing Mendez to fly off to Hollywood and set up this fake film. Which sounds odd when you think about it. (I could go on forever explaining the falseness of the film, when films are just illusions). Where he meets make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who finds the idea exciting, believing he will fit right in. Knowing that if they are to pull this off they need a fake crew and production company. All the back-story and material to make this all seem real. Even going as far as having a script reading at a convention. There is a clear counterbalance between the madness of the idea and the political tension that leans to madness in Iraq, needed to ease the situation. Turning then to find a producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) who would be mad enough to go along with it all. I’m not sure why Arkin was nominated for his supporting role which was more deserved by Bryan Cranston who had more screen-time and was with Mendez the whole way on the operation.
Once the plan is set-out and in motion in Hollywood, it’s time to head over to Iran to meet and train the hostages in order get them out with plausible stories, knowing their aliases inside-out and back to front. There’s a leap of trust that needs to be made by all of them, something that comes easier to some rather than others, especially Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy) who first persuaded them to leave the U.S. embassy when the riots began. his judgement is questioned when he fails to trust what is essentially their last hope to exit the country alive. If we didn’t have this tension the film would lose its attraction and become predictable. The rest of the hostages are more willing whilst still scared, especially when they go on a location scouting trip where things really heat up for the team.
The sense of danger is always there, even when we don’t see it, we feel it in the other scenes making all the more believable. The look of the film with the blend of new and archive footage is not that of seamless, instead an acknowledgement that this really took place, just being adapted slightly for the screen ratio. Whilst other footage is sewn more seamlessly to create the atmosphere of the time. Of course theirs a sense of nostalgia which goes with any film set in another period, mainly in the fashions and the set design. It all works perfectly.
Why did this win the best picture Oscar then? It was because Hollywood was part of a successful C.I.A mission and they wanted to celebrate that fact, It’s also a fun film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s not too flashy and not too dark. Even with Affleck in the lead role he doesn’t come across as he owns the picture and no one else can touch it It’s about the hostages and how there were saved, giving them ample time. Whilst its competitors which I saw had their strengths, Life of Pi in the art of story telling and the use of C.G.I, whilst Lincoln was a superb depiction of Abraham Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) to abolish slavery and end the civil war, it was too long and taxing on the audience with all the speeches which can overshadow the grand and classic performances. Whilst I never saw nor was interested by Zero Dark Thirty, the discussion of torture may have hindered any real prospect of getting that all important award. Leaving it between Argo and Life of Pi for me.