Always Searching, Always on the Run
It's just one more bitter irony: the immediate ban placed on Bahman Ghobadi's latest film in Iran has long been a necessary part of the process for any demanding, artistic Iranian film.
In these days of general political paranoia, when the regime feels threatened and undermined by foreign powers, the only avowedly Kurdish director in the country has been accused of inciting separatism.
The truth is that Ghobadi's Film "Half Moon" is only marginally political: It mainly tells the colorful story of Memo, an aged master musician who finds out that, after years of repression, the first Kurdish music festival is scheduled to take place in Iraq.
Driven on the outside, troubled on the inside
Similarly to his film "Marooned in Iraq," Bahman Ghobadi here once again packs a rickety old vehicle full of musicians, has the wizened Mamo pick up his aging sons en route, and sends them all off on a journey to the Iraqi border.
On the way they encounter the kinds of figures and anecdotes that make for a road movie, a genre that feeds on the movement of a vehicle through a landscape.
And movement dominates Kurdistan in several ways: always on the run, always searching for a place to stay – the outward drivenness echoes an inner agitation – meaning that most of the characters here are hotheads. There is plenty of ranting and raving, pouting, crying, and then they all continue on again – as if nothing had happened.
The wonderful world of magic and modernism
When in his fourth film Ghobadi oversteps the boundaries of social realism that he defined so carefully in his debut film, "A Time for Drunken Horses," the results is bizarre cinematic scenery verging on surrealism: men hung upside down in the trees, the dead coming back to life at a funeral; a long shot shows a village of 1,334 beautiful banned female musicians, and then one finds oneself looking up close through a handheld camera at a Shamanist séance.
This wonderful world is crossed by signs of modernism: now and again Mamo extracts a ringing cellphone from the pocket of his long grey coat, and at one point a laptop is produced and the wandering musicians' route checked on Google Maps via WLAN.
One son can only look up at the sky and prophesy an unfavorable journey ... a first tragic premonition that this will be the old maestro's last trip.
In a magical environment, technology comes up short: Memo's buddy Kako films the trip with a DV camera, only discovering when it's too late that he forgot to put in a cassette.
The sole light in Iran's cinematic firmament
Whimsical characters who master a life of deprivation with a great store of wit and dignity, never losing the ground beneath their feet – this is what helps people all over the world connect with Ghobadi's films, bringing a fresh breeze and glowing images onto our screens from what is otherwise an underexposed media region.
On the whole, however, Iranian films are few and far between at the major European film festivals. After being uncontested favorites for a long time, they seem to have been finally overtaken for good by Asian art-house cinema.
Perhaps this can be attributed to a certain exhaustion after so many years of censorship and isolation? Or to a self-chosen cultural "autism" standing in the way of self-renewal? This question is certainly justified.
What is true in any case is that Bahman Ghobadi has developed into a reliable Iranian constant on the world cinema scene. He has taken advantage of his collaboration with old masters Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf to develop his own cinematic vocabulary, without – like so many of his colleagues – becoming a mere imitator.
In stark contrast to the ascetics of Iranian film with their bare-bones formalism, the 36-year-old serves up a brightly colored cinematic potpourri:
Chicken fights and self-propelled coffins à la Kusturica, grandly composed pictorial tableaux reminiscent of Georgian master Paradjanov, plus political potshots on top of it all – against Iranian military forces and border guards, who insist on smashing the musicians' instruments.
This rollicking ride masks the fact that the story goes astray at some points or gets bogged down in details. And sometimes all the loudness, slapstick and folklore come at the cost of the kind of precision with which Ghobadi opened up new perspectives on Kurdish life in his acclaimed first feature film "A Time for Drunken Horses."
Nevertheless, the mix of music, mythology and metaphorical riches is visually tantalizing – sometimes in an entertaining, and sometimes in a moving way. A recurring motif is the prohibition on female solo singers in Iran, which Ghobadi already expanded on in his second film as a symbol for the silence to which Kurdistan is doomed.
To be an Iranian, to be a Kurd …
Two small, but central women's roles – the singer Hesho and the mysterious Niwemang ("Half Moon") – are played by Iranian stars. 36-year-old Hedieh Tehrani and Golshifteh Farahani, 13 years her junior, are celebrated role models for two generations of young Iranian women.
The reproach of separatism therefore seems ill-founded: to be an Iranian, to be a Kurd – this is not necessarily a contradiction, as the director, long resident in Tehran, proclaims.
When Ghobadi happens not to be working in Kurdistan, he zips around the globe – indefatigably driven by his desire to create a new image for his culture. His next shoot will be taking him elsewhere, however – right to the center of Baghdad.
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida