Sunday, March 20, 2011

Canadian Front ’11: The Neighbor

The tragic events still unfolding in Japan even had repercussions at a screening of a Farsi-language feature at a Canadian film festival here in New York City. The producer Amir Naderi, who emigrated from Iran after several of his films were banned by the Islamist government, was in Japan working on his next project when the earthquake and tsunami hit. Clearly, he was on the mind of his former editor Naghmeh Shirkhan last night, despite the justly enthusiast reception for her directorial debut, The Neighbor (trailer here), at MoMA’s 2011 Canadian Front.

Though of somewhat middle-aged years, Shirin is still a strikingly beautiful woman. She is not particularly interested in men though, particularly the one she has been reluctantly seeing. In truth, there are not a lot of eligible men in Vancouver’s Iranian community. There are not a lot of men, period. There is a very real phenomenon causing this demographic state. Frequently, Iranian men working abroad who are called back on business or personal matters have trouble returning—or so they say. Such is the case for Leila, the attractive young woman who just moved in across the hall from Shirin with her little girl Parisa.

At first, Leila wants nothing to do with the older woman. In time though, she starts exploiting Shirin as an emergency babysitter, much to her concern. It is not that Shirin does not enjoy spending time with Parisa—quite the contrary—but Leila’s erratic parenting is obviously not healthy for her little girl.

As Shirkhan observed during her post-screening remarks, Neighbor could never play in Iran while the current regime clings to power. By American standards, it would probably be rated PG, at most. However, Leila’s implied post-coital scene would be unthinkable under Iran’s rigid censorship. Dancing is a definite no-no too, and there is quite a bit of it in Neighbor. Indeed, it is Shirin’s outlet, professionally, artistically, and socially. Her traditional Persian dance classes are popular with Vancouver’s Iranian ladies of means, but on her own time Shirin attends her tango club functions. Featuring close contact between couples and a smoldering sexuality, the tango would definitely be a non-starter in the Revolutionary Republic.

Of course, most average Iranians would love the tango and they would probably appreciate Neighbor too. Though geopolitical issues surely factor into the characters’ back-stories (the circumstances surrounding Leila’s absent husband are particularly murky), Shirkhan focuses laser-like on the two women’s intimate dramas.

In her first acting role, Azita Sahebjam is a remarkably assured presence on screen. Her thoughtful nuance and mature sexuality quietly but surely pull viewers into her life. She is also quite a dancer. Evidently, the tango was new to her, but as the director of the Vancouver Pars National Ballet, she is one of the world’s leading performers of Persian dance. (She was also formerly affiliated with the precursor Pars National Ballet in Iran, before the Islamist government prohibited such sinful practices.) As Leila, Sahebjam’s real life daughter Tara Nazemi is also rather effective in an often less than sympathetic role. Undeniably attractive, she has a far more interesting “look” than that of the current crop of bland Hollywood starlets.

Though always deliberately restrained, The Neighbor is markedly astute in its observation of humanity. Shirkhan displays a sensitive touch, deftly guiding her novice cast through material that must have hit somewhat close to home for them. It is a very good film, highly recommended when it screens again today (3/20) at MoMA as part of Canadian Front. One hopes Naderi will be able to enjoy its continued success and the Japanese people will quickly recover from this disaster. (FYI, our President is so concerned, he is currently on a Bossa nova fact-finding mission in Brazil. Since it is clearly up to private citizens, you can support the Japan Society’s relief efforts here.)