Monday, March 16, 2015

SR ’15: The Unclean (short)

Incidents of Muslim cab drivers refusing service to blind passengers with guide dogs made headlines in Minneapolis and Saskatchewan, but the resulting hand-wringing would have baffled Iran’s theocrats. Dog ownership is forbidden in Iran (under pain of 74 lashes), because canines are considered “unclean” accordingly to Islamist teachings. However, it is not as if dogs no longer exist in Iran. Sadly, when a decent henpecked Iranian husband accidentally hits a stray with his car, it causes a moral dilemma he is powerless to resolve in Bahram & Bahman Ark’s short film, The Unclean (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Socially Relevant Film Festival.

Naser probably never had a hope of seeing the poor dog as he was driving home through Tehran’s poorly illuminated streets, but he sure felt the sickening bump. Not the type to hit-and-run, Naser bundles up the bloodied animal and somehow manages to get him to a veterinary clinic. Unfortunately, it has no in-patient facilities, leaving Nasr two choices. He can either have the dog put down or he can have him treated, but he would have to find a safe place for him to recuperate. Obviously, his gossip-sensitive wife will never allow an unclean animal in the house. Nor will his anyone else in his limited circle of acquaintances.

As his namesake, Naser Hashemi’s performance is absolutely devastating, in a quiet, unassuming sort of way. He straightforwardly and viscerally conveys the anguish of an everyman who tries to act humanely, but is undermined by ideology and circumstance, yet will carry the resulting sense of guilt nonetheless. Frankly, this film is a tragedy for both man and dog.

Unclean might sound relatively small in scope, but it makes a powerful statement. The film’s low-fi nocturnal look also rather appropriately fits Naser’s long dark night of the soul, giving viewers a sense of how menacing the streets of Tehran can feel during the late night hours. It is the sort of film that hits you on a gut level, but it might be too much for sensitive dog people to take.

There is also quite of bit of harrowing imagery in the festival’s other Iranian short, but Yahya Gobadi’s animated Tears largely decontextualizes the time and place, making it more of a timeless fable. Nevertheless, it depicts the traumas of war quite vividly through the eyes of a child (who gets little help from the surviving adults around her after her parents are killed in a bombing raid).

Stylistically, the animation of Tears is somewhat akin to the more grounded passages of The Wall. Visually, it is distinctive, but Unclean is a far more personal and directly immediate film. Highly recommended, Unclean screens Sunday afternoon (3/22) at the Quad Cinema and the well-meaning Tears screens this Friday (3/20) at the Tribeca Cinemas, as part of short film programs at the Socially Relevant Film Festival.