A Force for Peace: Getting to Know Iran Through Film

by Joe Scarry

I often refer to how important the films of Iran have been in helping me open my mind to the possibilities of a peaceful relationship with that country.  I have been fortunate to be able to go see some of the best films from Iran every year at the wonderful Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago. The will be another Festival of Films From Iran showing there in February, 2014.

Below are some of the milestones in my own relationship with the films of Iran.

Letters in the Wind

This film was set in an Iranian army training camp during the era of the Iran-Iraq war. This was a very formative part of my antiwar formation. So much of militarism depends on selling the public on a vision of the other side’s troops as terrifying; these poor guys were anything but!

Ridiculous, pathetic, infuriating: it was a reminder that conditions that people are subjected to in the military are the same the world over.

In particular, I loved the portrayal of the one soldier who wins a contest and gets a day of “liberty” – he prepares for his big adventure in the city by recording messages from all his buddies to their loved ones on his cheap (contraband) tape recorder. Once outside the confines of camp, he occupies a phone booth with a pocketful of coins, dialing person after person: “Is this so-and-so? Okay, hold the line, I have a message from such-and-such” and then he plays the recording for them.

If the guys in the Iranian army are just a bunch of poor schlubs like us — what does that mean for all the talk of confrontation between our two countries?

The Lizard

I thought this was REALLY funny — and I couldn’t get over how irreverent it was.

The conceit of the film is that an imprisoned thief — the elusive “Lizard” — is taken to the hospital for treatment. He seizes his moment when he is able to steal the clothes of another patient — a mullah!  He makes his getaway, but is soon mistaken for a newly arriving mullah in a local community.  Constantly looking over his shoulder for the arrival of the authorities who are chasing him, he slips into his new role — with surprising success! The members of congregation remark on how wise this “new mullah” is.  And it is clear that “The Lizard” is confounded by the irony of his new-found calling.

We are always led to believe that Iran is dogmatic and deadly serious all the time.  But clearly some people there are willing to laugh at themselves.

Half Moon

I fell in love with this film immediately because of the proposition that a beloved musician was heading toward the border areas for an important performance, and, in the face of what was both an epic opportunity and profound cultural duty, an assortment of accompanists felt they had no choice to stop what they were doing and head out with him.

The film gives a picture of the riskiness of the border areas — the Kurdish areas — and gets into how serious the issue of Kurdish identity and separatism is.

There is a particularly haunting scene of a mountainside village filled with keening women. I have retained only a vague memory of what it was suggesting — something about the way in which women and/or dissidents and/or Kurds and/or artists/musicians were exiled.

The Song of Sparrows

I wasn’t sure how realistic this film was intended to be, but it felt to me like a reasonable depiction of somebody with a family and a place to live and variety of employments, but one who is barely holding together.

What I remember about this was the scenes in the protagonist’s home/compound — an open living room, opening onto a courtyard where a lot of the action takes place.  When it’s hot, they go up on the roof.  When it rained, the roof leaked.

I remember his temper. (An Iranian trait? Or just human?)

And I remember his dependency on his one piece of capital equipment – his motorcycle.

A Tale of Two Soldiers

This is a very profound documentary, and relates to the film Letters in the Winddescribed above. Two former soldiers meet up in Canada, and they realize that they were on different sides in the Iran-Iraq war, and that the one had actually saved the life of the other.  (One was wounded when he was captured, and the other got him medical care — instead of letting him die, or killing him.)

To my mind, this film should be screened by anti-war groups everywhere.

Women Without Men

Women Without Men is a recent movie by the artist Shirin Neshat, based on the novel by Shahrnush Parsipur.. The first time I saw it, at the end I walked straight to the ticket window and bought another ticket and walked right back in and watched it again.

The film contains haunting scene after haunting scene, and it makes it clear that Iran is a place where people are able to ask questions about patriarchy and about what it is going to take to overcome it.

A Separation

Even many people who don’t see many films from Iran know and love the 2012 Best Foreign Picture Oscar winner, A Separation.

If ever there was a film to show that the challenges that married couples face are the same the world over, this is it.

It was moving to see the acceptance speech by director Asghar Farhadi at the Oscar ceremony.  At a moment when the U.S. was making daily-increasing threats against Iran, he said as he received the award, “At this time many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or a filmmaker, but because at the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture.”

I’m looking forward to the next Festival of Films From Iran showing at the Siskel Film Center in February, 2014!

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