I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
It may be a bit sacrilegious to say this, but I’ve never managed to take wholeheartedly to the examples of Iranian cinema I’ve encountered in the UK. I can see why rural dramas with minimal dialogue and breathtaking landscapes are beautiful and impressive, but they’ve never engaged me on a gut level. I’ve also seen several Tehran-based social dramas, which again I could see were interesting and well-made films, but… but….
(There may also be the problem that one of the most recent I’ve seen had a bizarre plot to do with an ostrich farm. I’ve not been able to take ostriches seriously for about twenty years, ever since my friend Zoe told me about her friend D’s summer job on an ostrich farm in southern Israel. As I remember the story, this pre-university employment consisted of several months masturbating male ostriches in the middle of the desert. Apparently ostrich sperm is impossible to wash out… All part of life’s rich tapestry. Perhaps).
However, there are a number of Iranian movies on at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh at the moment, as part of its festival of Middle Eastern film (because of overlaps between other festivals going on in the city, this year it’s a split between Palestinian/Israeli and Iranian screenings). Tonight’s was Kissing the Moon-Like Face, described thus:
Ehterem and Forugh are best friends and neighbours who both lost sons in the bloody Iran-Iraq conflict of the eighties. Twenty years after Ehterem’s son disappeared, his remains are found and identified, but Ehterem, through her misguided sense of friendship and loyalty, tells her terminally ill friend, Forugh, that it is her son. The repercussions of this distortion are tragic, unexpected and far-reaching.
At first, I was worried that this was going to be profoundly depressing. Then, after a brief intro by a staff member from the Filmhouse, who described it as a ‘light melodrama’, I was worried that this was going to be something clunky, plot-driven and implausible. Actually, it is a really lovely, tender, sad film with many things to say beyond the initial outline.
The two main characters – Ehterem, played by the amazing Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, and Forugh – are a wonderful example of a warm, respectful, un-soppy portrait of older women. There is humour in their surreptitious nargileh-smoking and covert reminiscences to a Ehterem’s grand-daughter about their girlhood romances, but it never descends into mockery. Likewise, there is pathos on the portrayal of how the world has moved on around them – the local shop is slated for demolition for a new road; Ehterem plays old tapes while her grand-daughter has a fancy mobile phone and laptop. But they never become victims. They may be plagued by aches and pains and the threat of fatal illness, but they are both still strong, independent women and Ehterem maintains a forceful role in her large family.
The main thrust of the film is, however, the women’s long wait to hear the fate of their sons, both of whom were listing as missing in the horrifically wasteful 8-year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. It is here that the impact of time’s passing is felt most strongly; the office which they visit every month to see if there is news of Ehterem’s Hussain and Forugh’s Mohammed is being refurbished, and Ehterem’s visits must take place through a maze of stepladders and buckets. The officials they are used to dealing with, who knew their stories and understood their situations, have all retired, and the young men who have taken their places seem almost too young to grasp the significance of their jobs.
The limbo in which families are left is graphically represented by a woman who is still there every time Ehterem visits; her husband is also listed as missing and the officials insist that both legally and religiously she is free to move on, but her uncle/father-in-law will not believe that his son is dead, and therefore will not countenance her marrying and building a new life. The world has moved on: in the offices and outside in the city building work and bureaucratisation are pushing forward, imposing a faceless world which is sweeping away a sense of community and humanity. An act of supreme friendship and generosity from Ehterem, with help from a retired official, almost manages to overcome this apparently incontestable movement, but even this is an equivocal flicker of human warmth and – as the Filmhouse blurb suggests – the results are mixed. There will be no implausibly happy tying-up of loose ends here.