[A] fter writing my last piece on Asghar Farhadi’s The Past – which is a French production – I happened to see two Iranian films which confirmed some of my earlier conjectures, suggesting that there are contrary pulls upon Iranian cinema which might have some bearing on the trajectory of the ‘third world’ art film.
The first of the two films was Farhadi’s own About Elly (2009), a film he made before he attained fame with A Separation (2011) and the second was Pouran Derakhshandeh’s Hush… Girls Don’t Scream (2013), which has being doing the rounds at various film festivals this year. In About Elly a group of friends travel to the shores of the Caspian Sea on a three-day vacation. They are former classmates and there are three couples: Sepideh and her husband Amir, who have a young daughter, two other couples with children and a single man. The trip is planned by Sepideh, who brings along her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Elly, in order to introduce her to Ahmad, a divorced friend, visiting from Germany. Since the group does not find accommodation for the three days they propose to spend by the seaside, Sepideh quietly indicates to the old woman in charge that Elly and Ahmad have just been wed, and this sees them getting special treatment – a cottage by the seaside. Elly and Ahmad are later brought briefly together and they seem to hit it off but Elly insists she will be leaving the very next day instead of staying on.
Everyone is in high spirits the next morning and Elly is asked to mind the children as the men play beach volleyball. The last we see of Elly is her excitement over a kite that the children are flying. Sometime later the men are stopped at volleyball by two bawling children. It emerges that one of the boys has fallen into the sea and has now drifted away. The men are frantic but after concerted efforts, manage to rescue the child. They ask each other how the accident could have happened, whether someone was not minding the children and they abruptly recollect Elly, who is absent. They quickly gather that she has fallen into the sea as well and begin searching but Elly is not to be found. Since her travel bag is not in sight, could she have left for Teheran without telling them? But Sepideh reveals that she hid Elly’s bag so she would not be able to leave. Amir now finds Elly’s phone in Sepideh’s bag and this too, it turns out, was a ruse on Sepideh’s part. It is now that the group begins to ask questions and information comes out gradually. Sepideh has engaged in some devious plotting to bring Elly and Ahmad together but there are now other difficulties ahead.
Asghar Farhadi is making a film as social commentary but he holds back information as the director of a thriller might instead of revealing everything upfront. Little by little – after several false leads – it emerges that Elly was actually engaged to marry another man but had been trying to break it off. Sepideh was facilitating this by introducing her to Ahmad.
But Elly agreeing to join the group at Sepideh’s behest was inappropriate because women already pledged to other men are not permitted to participate in mixed gender outings. The man to whom Elly was engaged is now located and the news of her death is broken to him. This comes as a blow but he is more distraught that Elly consented to go with the group when she was engaged to marry him. Information about her association with Ahmad makes him even violent in his response.
The strategy of concealing a key fact pertaining to an accepted social practice – until the crisis caused by its violation breaks out – is employed by Asghar Farhadi in A Separation as well. In that film social practices such as a nurse not being allowed to clean a sick old man and a woman needing to obtain her husband’s approval before taking up employment are revealed slowly in order to heighten the impact of the crisis caused. The question that needs to be asked here is whether Iranians would not have been aware of the social practice in question as customary. If they are aware, what would be the point of springing it as a surprise? If they would not be, can the crisis created by its violation be typical enough to be social commentary?
As we reflect over Farhadi’s strategy, it does begin to seem that it is being used specifically for non-Iranian audiences, in order to present Iranian social practices as eccentric. A distinction is being made here between a social practice/ convention and an ‘ill’ because Farhadi is not dealing with ills which deserve eradication. It can be argued that social conventions evolve in societies over generations for historical reasons and a culture sniping at the practices of another is not justified, regardless of how inconvenient the same practices might be in one’s own society. One could, for instance, imagine non-Indians sneering at the arranged marriage in India but this practice is not an ‘ill’ although others associated with it – like dowry – are so. What Asghar Farhadi seems to be doing, therefore, is to adopt an alien viewpoint to covertly deride conventions in his own society, and one may attribute this to his targeted audiences being outside Iran.
Asghar Farhadi is an extremely elegant narrator but his strategies often have us dissatisfied, which is hardly the case with Pouran Derakhshandeh’s Hush…. Girls Don’t Scream, which packs a real wallop. This film is focused on a young woman accused of murder on the eve of her wedding because she bludgeoned a stranger to death. She has no defense and steadfastly refuses to speak out even at her trial. It emerges that she concealed several facts from her fiancé and this sees her losing his sympathy as well. It is only after she has been found guilty that Shirin consents to tell her story although this is almost too late. Shirin, we learn, was sexually abused as a girl of eight by the family driver who also took pictures of her and used them to keep her silent. When she grew to adulthood the man followed her to her new address and continued to trouble her. This led to the breaking off of her first engagement and her attempting suicide later on. The pedophile is traced with some difficulty and he confesses to having molested over twenty children besides Shirin. The public prosecutor tries to have the man punished but the problem is that the parents of the victims prefer not to bring charges for fear of ruining their family reputations. Shirin killed a man she did not know because she saw him trying to molest another little girl and she could not help herself. The sentence she faces now is death and the regrettable fact is that her victim had no family to whom blood money can be paid to secure her release. Without the possibility of blood money being paid, Shirin is certain to be hanged.
Censorship is severe in Iran and one gets a sense of the scriptwriting strategies involved before the film saw the light of day. In the first place, everyone inhabiting the judicial system from investigator to prosecutor to judge is portrayed as someone deeply committed to justice. This may sound politically hesitant but what it implies is that even the most considerate of judicial officers is helpless in the face of a less than reasonable law, the letter of which must be obeyed at all times. Instead of openly castigating the law, the film simply devises situations in which its contradictions are exposed. There is no more telling illustration of this than the episode in which the pedophile is sentenced to death – because 27 victims are far too many to brush under the carpet. When the father of one of the abused children is told that the man who molested his little daughter has been sentenced to death, rather than exulting that justice has finally been done, the father exclaims that the officers of the law have not done their work: so reluctant is he to admit that his daughter has been molested.
When the perpetrator is due to be hanged, the father of the child he has molested is even prepared to put up his blood money! The judicial process portrayed in any film is emblematic of a nation-state and its authority. Individual films therefore rarely go as far as Hush… Girls Don’t Scream to bring out the law’s inadequacies – it would be perceived as deeply subversive. It is easy to conclude that the Iranian state is more blameworthy than most, but all national systems have their failings. If this is conceded, can one recall a film from a democratic set up like India or the US which describes the contradictions of its own system – which must surely exist – as powerfully as this film does? Censorship apparently creates the need for filmmakers to be ingenious because censorship, as Jorge Luis Borges proposed, is the origin of metaphor.
Hush…Girls Don’t Scream is dramatic in its content but the way it is enacted is subdued. Tannaz Tabatabayi is incredibly believable as Shirin, as are the other actors and bit players. The pedophile Morad is nearly twenty years older when Shirin is due to be married and he is now not presented as the frightening person he was to the child but as someone exhausted and bent by a wicked life. Apart from this, the film is taut and keeps us guessing till the very end as to how it will turn out. One proposes without hesitation that Pouran Derakhshandeh’s film points out a more valid direction for Indian art cinema than most other films one has seen at Indian film festivals in the past few years. That is largely because it is preoccupied with intelligently addressing local issues for a local audience rather than with reporting on the ways of its own society for a public located in Cannes, Venice or Berlin.