Monday, September 12, 2016

TIFF ’16: Window Horses

Poetry is highly valued in both Persian and Chinese cultures. Yet, tragically, both the current Iranian and Chinese governments frequently curtail free expression. Rosie Ming, a half-Chinese, half-Persian Canadian poet will discover just how complex the world is when she accepts an invitation to an Iranian poetry festival in Ann Marie Fleming’s Window Horses: The Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Ever since she was seven, Ming was raised by her supportive grandparents. She turned out okay, despite harboring deep resentments towards her absent Persian father. It was always Paris Ming dreamed of visiting, but when she self-published a book of verse, it is Shiraz that comes calling.

Obviously, Ming cannot resist such an adventure, but she is not prepared for the realities of Iranian life or the competitiveness of the festival. She is also shocked to find so many people who seem to know the father she assumed absconded shortly before her mother’s accidental death. She will also learn lessons in poetry (which of course can be applied to life) from Mehrnaz Filsoof, a professor and senior advisor to the festival, who becomes a mentor figure for Ming, and Didi, a Chinese poet, who became a dissident in exile following the Tiananmen Square massacre.

While Window Horses does not have the heft and punch of Satrapi & Paronnaud’s Persepolis (an obvious comparison film), it is clearly intended for a younger teen-ish audience. It is a sweet, plucky film, but it directly and forthrightly addresses issues of censorship and repression, in Iran and China. Viewers do get a sense of what Ming’s father Mehran went through after the Islamic Revolution. Yet, it will also resonate as the story of a “New adult” woman trying to find her voice and come to terms with her thorny family history.

Fleming’s animation is simpler and more expressionistic than in her widely screened short I was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, but its style is somewhat akin, rather fittingly, to Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues. She evokes Eastern mysticism through colorful abstract backgrounds, yet manages to convey considerable emotion through the minimal use of line (as in the case of Ming, based on Fleming’s “Stick Girl” character). The film also boasts some very impressive voice talent, most notably including the great Shohreh Aghdashloo as Filsoof and the legendary Nancy Kwan (The Suzie Wong) as Ming’s mother, Gloria. Sandra Oh convincingly plays a generation or two younger as Rosie Ming and prominent Iranian-American actor Navid Negahban (another Stoning of Soraya M. alumnus) lends his commanding voice to Mehran.

Window Horses is a charming film for adults, but its target teen demo should keenly identify with Ming on a very personal level. It calls out censorship and intolerance, while keeping the mood light and the narrative accessible to mature pre-teens. Smart and endearing, Window Horses is very highly recommended when it screens again this Wednesday (9/13), as part of TIFF 2016.