The division between the official creators and the dissidents, between supporters and opponents of the authorities in Iran marks everyone, who tries to get to know this country
The Iranian evening at the festival of Middle Eastern cinema „Menar” in Sofia presented Reza Mir-Karimi’s movie “The Castle of Dreams” before the Bulgarian public. And provoked a lot of thoughts in me – both as an Iranologist and as a man.
It was not the first projection in Sofia of a work by the famous Iranian director. Years ago one of his early films was screened – “Under the Moonlight”. It tells the story of a theology student, who had his doubts whether the career of a cleric is what he really wants. The youngster accidentally comes across people, rejected by society, who live under one of the bridges of Tehran, and gets to know the dark side of life – of the homeless people, drug addicts and prostitutes. It is a painful passing of the main character from the cozy incubator of student life into the brutal real life, which is filled with so much suffering. And the rapid growing-up, which is provoked by this passing, helps him become convinced that he can be useful for society as mullah.
I don’t remember which was the year, when I watched “Under the Moonlight”. I was a student and it looked like I associated myself with the Iranian youngster from the middle class, who was looking for his true identity. He managed “to find himself”, to discover his strength after a series of crises and shocks.
I lived a minishock at that time – in a chat talk with an acquaintance from Iran. My interlocutor sincerely got indignated, when I spoke good words about Reza Mir-Karimi’s movie. The Iranian interlocutor was furious that the Islamic Republic grows official film directors, who make art on demand, which is beneficial to the authorities in Tehran. A part of his indignation was directed at me – that I was naive and didn’t understand what are the stakes, related to Iranian cinema and Iranian society. Wasn’t I a secret or uncovered supporter of the ayatollahs’ regime?
Of course, I felt inconvenient. I didn’t want to break the feeling for justice of my interlocutor. He himself knew very well the Iranian and international cinema. He thought that Iranian culture is made for the simple people, who dominate in society and who are the target group of the official film directors. It looked like I have given in to the propaganda…
But I wasn’t sure if there is propaganda at all. It was difficult to find any trace of ideology in the movie “Under the Moonlight”. The same can be said about all the classic movies of the Bulgairan cinema before 1989. They are realistic and don’t show demonstratively who is right and who is wrong, unlike many of the movies, made after 1989. I remember that there was even criticism against the mullahs in “Under the Moonlight”. For example, during his soul searching, the youngster started a talk in the metro with a middle aged cleric, who is presented as completely subordinated to his wife and who cries out that his life was a failure.
I suppose that my interlocutor blamed the directors, which he didn’t like, not so much for the fact that they propagate the official order in Iran, but for the fact that they don’t reject it categorically enough. The whole world knows about Jafar Panahi and about the limits, which were imposed on him, because he dares to be critical. Reza Mir-Karimi doesn’t have the fame of a dissident. But should we judge the movies in accordance with their director’s political charge? Isn’t it important that a movie be simply a good film, be it an official or a dissident one?
I was thinking about these questions before watching “The Castle of Dreams” – the second film of Mir-Karimi, which I watch. There were Iranians at the film screening in “The House of Cinema”, but few students or candidates for doctorate from the Iranian Studies department of Sofia University were present. There was an exhibition with photos from Iran in the lobby. The screening hall was almost full.
“The Castle of Dreams” tells the story of a family tragedy – the mother in a family dies. The film traces how the father, who had been living until then separately from his wife, tries to take both children to a relative in the country. The lover of the father travels for some time in the car too. It turns out that the father had been imprisoned for some time, because he killed a man in a road accident. The father doesn’t show much sensitivity or tenderness, he is aggressive, he tells the children that their mother lied to them and in an outburst of jealousy he hits an older man, who was close to the mother. That is how the spectator understands that the film is not only a story about a family tragedy, but also a story about the failure of a father to be a parent and a head of a family.
The father’s role is not completely one-dimensional. In some moments he listens to his lover’s advice or the children’s words and tends to control his outbursts. But in general he is devoid of restraint, he tries to bribe a road policeman, and on top of all, there is a scene in which other men, who knew his wife, beat him, because they accuse him for what has happened with her.
We learn that the mother seems to have been the opposite of the father, without ever seeing her on screen. She seems to have been smart, sensitive and balanced. She said to the children that their father had “a castle of dreams”. At the end of the movie the father admits before his children that he has no castle of dreams. He doesn’t have even a car – he drives the car of his wife. He sold her heart after her death. At the end, the father drives over a fox on the road. His first reaction is to say that he hit a stone. But his son insists that the father get out of the car and see what he bumped into. That is how the film reaches its end.
After this movie, after I lived through the tragedy of the two kids, who have been left with this father and without mother, after I sense the tragedy of the father, who destroys everything along his road, I couldn’t help wanting to be an exemplary, loving, caring member of society. The parallels with the Bulgarian results came easily. Was there something gloomier and more painful than being hated and rejected by everyone? Even the main character’s lover, who seemed to love him in the beginning felt guilty for trusting him. And abandoned him.
I shared that I watched “The Castle of Dreams” with a Bulgarian fan of Iranian cinema. This time I was abandoned. It happened because the fan said bluntly: ”I don’t love Mir-Karimi! He is not like Panahi! He doesn’t put forward any great problems”.
The discussions were unnecessary. There was no appreciation for the Islamic order in Iran in the movie. There was nothing religious. The movie told a story from life, without ideologising anything. But the film had its effects – it made the people gather around the concept that they must be responsible parents and citizens. The movie didn’t put forward a choice “pro” and “anti” power. Instead, in my view, it showed what failure means and what success means in life. The criterion seemed to be the community and the degree to which one is useful or exploits it for his/her egoistic goals.
My experience with Mir-Karimi’s movies and the attitude towards them in Iran and Bulgaria, which I got to know, made me think why so many Iranians insist on saying that they don’t have anything in common with the government of their country and don’t support it, when acquainting themselves with people from Europe. The division line between official creators and dissidents seems to me clearly defined. But it is difficult to understand why it seems like with regard to Iran there are only two camps – ”pro” or ”anti” the authorities. Why is it difficult for a movie to be regarded as simply one movie, why an article is not perceived as simply one article and why a talk in a cafe is not just a talk in cafe? Why things which don’t have anything ideologic in themselves and are very small and banal, suddenly position us in a geopolitical and ideological dispute “in support” or “against” one or another absolute truth? Why the extremities are so strong and where is the middle ground, where dialogue of different poles takes place? Are the people, who don’t want to enter and be caught in the eternal conflict “for” or “against” the power in Iran stupid, naive or incompassionate?
Probably everyone will find his/her answer to these questions. I don’t exclude the possibility that the extremities are something like a test for everyone, who wants to deal with Iran. Is there a truth about Iran, which doesn’t serve the war and the fight for domination? It would be interesting if iranologists search for such a truth of peace, instead of remaining caught in the trap of the warmongering absolute truths. One word, one article or one film can never say everything, which needs to be known about us or about who we are. Whatever taste we have about Iranian cinema and its directors, art is a mirror, in which we see ourselves. This article is a reflection of the reflection, which Mir-Karimi’s movies offer.
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