Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 December 2005
Issue No. 772
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Theatre of war

The Iran-Iraq war forms the backdrop to two Iranian films at this year's CIFF, writes Hani Mustafa

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Reza Azumian's A Border for Life

Despite the vicissitudes of Iran's position in the sphere of world politics, Iranian cinema has for over a decade now staked out secure territory on the international film circuit as witnessed, for example, in the many film festivals at which Iranian films and directors have won much-coveted awards.

From the mid-1980s onwards Iranian filmmakers began to produce genres that were quite distinct from what had hitherto passed as a national film industry. They were defining their work against Iranian films that were not very different from the staple fare produced by Bollywood. Before the Islamic Revolution in 1979 Iranian cinemas were flooded with commercial films produced mostly in India, but with some made further East. The result was a local film industry that produced copies of these models, a situation that ended with the revolution when the state's grip, through the long arm of censorship, tightened around cinema as much as any of the other arts.

This new situation may have been what made for the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers who sought an alternative cinematic poetics, most prominent among them Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Majid Majidi. From the mid-1980s these, and other filmmakers, forged a cinematic practice that depended primarily on amateur actors, mostly found on location. Their experiment came a decade earlier than the movement Dogma 95 in Europe which likewise made it a central tenet of cinematic practice to rely on amateur actors. However, whereas Dogma 95 films often opted for melodrama the new Iranian cinema tended to underplay the dramatic element to concentrate instead on lyricism.

But Iranian films post-1979 were not confined to this genre: some directors continued to develop a more traditional drama. In particular they were drawn to one of the most powerful moments in their contemporary history, the Iran-Iraq War. Working on this event produced something of a genre in its own right, certainly in the hands of directors such as Ebrahim Hatamikia.

In the 29th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) Reza Azumian presents a film that focusses on the tragedy of the Iran-Iraq War. A Border for Life (2005) has affinities with the US production Hell in the Pacific (1968) , directed by John Boorman and starring American actor Lee Marven and Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. Just as Hell in the Pacific presented a drama almost devoid of dialogue, based on an encounter between an American and a Japanese soldier brought together on a distant island, A Border for Life opts for a similar dramatic premise, again with sparse dialogue. An Iraqi soldier who cannot walk because his feet have been injured by shrapnel from a bomb finds he has no one to turn to but an Iranian soldier whom injury has left blind and deaf.

This premise of an Iranian soldier who cannot see carrying an Iraqi soldier who cannot walk as they search for shelter from bombs as well as the food they need to stay alive may seem obvious to the point of crudeness. The director manages, to a large extent, to introduce subtlety into this simplistic scenario and the way in which he avoids naïve symbolism recalls, once again, Hell in the Pacific.

Violence comes to the fore in A Border for Life, and it is the Iraqi soldier who is the vehicle of this. Twice in the course of the film he tries to kill the Iranian who is shouldering him as a burden, and for much of the narrative attempts to direct the man carrying him towards the lines of the Iraqi front.

The cinematic language in A Border for Life stays close to realism. The director pays careful attention to aspects more closely associated with documentary and the soundtrack, replete with explosions as bomb and artillery fire detonate, provides the viewer with no respite from the theatre of war.

Like A Border for Life, Gilaneh (2005), co-directed by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and Mohsen Abdolvahab and also screened as part of CIFF, addresses the impact of war on those who take part in the fighting. But whereas A Border for Life details the daily experience of soldiers on the front and the struggle for survival that may bring enemies together, Gilaneh analyses the continuous state of anxiety experienced by one soldier's mother -- Gilaneh -- over the fate of her son, Ismail, who goes to the front in the latter part of the Iran-Iraq war. The film begins with Gilaneh's anxiety about the health of Naygol, her pregnant daughter, who dreams of her husband, Rahman, who works in Tehran while mother and daughter live in a mountainous village hundreds of kilometres from the capital.

The journey mother and daughter undertake to the city is used by the two directors to portray the tragic fate of the villages through which they pass that have been subjected to Iraqi bombing. The film is not free of propaganda -- clear in the focus on the damage wreaked by Iraq and the gas attack against the Iraqi Kurdish village Halabja which claimed hundreds of lives. And throughout the two women's bus journey to Tehran a soldier, accompanied by his family, has convulsions as he watches families fleeing their shelled villages.

We then move to 2003. The mother's psychological stress is compounded by physical deterioration after 15 years of looking after her son who returned from the war paralysed and epileptic. This tragic turn of events is not unexpected, and the viewer's sympathy is firmly directed towards the mother whose tasks, such as helping bathe her son and move him to the wheel-chair, are filmed in detail. The film ends with the mother's continued anxiety and her expectation that a female acquaintance (who remains rather mysterious in the film) will return to marry her son and help look after him.

The soundtrack here, in addition to the sound of shelling, includes the storms of winter. Both parts of the story are set at the time of the Persian new year, which takes place in March. But though Gilaneh is also full of documentary detail it is much closer to melodrama than A Border for Life.

While both films are realistic, neither approaches the power and lyricism of those Iranian films that have met with such success on the international festival circuit. They are not comparable, for example, to Abbas Kiarostami's The Taste of Cherries, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1997, Jafar Panahi's The Circle which won the Golden Lion Award at Venice in 2000, Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboard which won the Special Jury's Award at Cannes in 2000 or her Five in the Afternoon which won the same prize in 2003. That said, audiences should be grateful for the opportunity to see films that allow a glimpse into the range of work currently being produced in Iran.

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