Saturday, October 19, 2013

Noor ’13: From Tehran to London

It is not precisely finished, but it makes a cogent and compelling statement.  Mania Akbari started shooting an intensely personal Cassavetes-style examination of a disintegrating marriage, but halted the production mid-way through when the Iranian government started arresting many of her prominent filmmaking colleagues.  Relocating perhaps indefinitely to the UK, Akbari reshaped her footage into a more experimental feeling long short film or short feature.  There are rough edges to the resulting From Tehran to London (trailer here), but they were both a choice and a necessity.  A fascinating work on multiple levels, Akbari’s film screens during the 2013 Noor Iranian Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Ava is a poet and an artist who feels unfulfilled in her marriage to the well-heeled Ashkan.  However, the way they bicker and grouse like a prematurely old couple suggests there must have been some feeling there originally.  They certainly know each other very well, but neither suspects the other harbors deeper feelings for their trusted house servant, Maryam.

Eventually, scandal will shake their household, but viewers will not see it.  Instead, Akbari resorts to straight out telling us what would have happened.  Obviously, there are all kinds of abrupt tonal shifts and sudden temporal jumps.  Akbari hardly had the luxury of returning for pick-up transitionals.  Yet, her kit-bashing techniques speak volumes regarding the wider circumstances.

Frankly, from what viewers can tell, the story of Ava and Ashkan could only be considered political around the margins.  Certainly, it would have (and does) address issues of gender roles and sexuality in contemporary Iran, but the Albee-like marriage is the centerpiece.  In fact, the initial scenes of the couple sparring are surprisingly grabby.  There is real bite to the chemistry shared by Neda Amiri and Bijan Daneshmand.  Through the moody lightning and suggestive sound of rain outside, Akbari and her crew create a sense of foreboding that is unusually eerie.

Although quite accomplished as a director, Akbari is still probably best known as the nearly unseen driver in Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten. In front of the camera, she is quite convincing as Ava’s more conventional worrywart sister, Roya. She also deserves tremendous credit for her commitment to free expression, starting the film with a dedication to: “all those filmmakers in Iran, who have served a prison sentence and the ones who are still in prison.”  That alone is worth seeing on the big screen.

At just over forty five minutes, Tehran easily pulls viewers in and leaves them wondering “what if?” Yet, it should be considered definitive, as the very particular product of its time and place.  Challenging, intriguing, and maddening, From Tehran to London is a significant film that deserves greater attention.  Highly recommended, it screens this coming Tuesday (10/22) as part of the Noor Iranian Film Festival.