Black Tape (2002); Dir. Fariborz Kamkari

The film opens with a black screen, white letters appearing across the top, as though being scrawled across a piece of paper: A Tehrani Diary. The Videotape Fariborz Kamkari Found In the Garbage.

With this Blair Witch beginning, director Fariborz Kamkari sets up the device for his ruthless film Black Tape. Banned in Iran, Black Tape won the Maverick Spirit Award at the Cinequest San Jose Film Festival in 2003, and was in competition at the Venice Film Festival, among others, but it doesn’t look like it received distribution in the States and was barely reviewed at all. It takes on some of the hottest topics facing Iran today. Explosive issues. Things unsayable. It pulls no punches. Kamkari is a Kurd, which gives him a perspective on things that many Iranians do not want to hear. Black Tape was his first feature, although he is also a writer and had written scripts for other directors prior to Black Tape. I would love to have a look at the script for Black Tape because, due to the “found footage” device, much of it feels improvisational. I believe there is more structure in it than just “okay, let’s just see what happens”, because events unfold with a growing crescendo, which has to be engineered to some degree.

Iranian directors, due to censorship issues, make their points through innuendo and suggestion (the lesbian relationship in Daughters of the Sun for example). Here, Kamkari appears to have not concerned himself with that at all. He made the film he wanted to make, probably knowing it would never “pass” and that no one would see it, at least not through legitimate channels. It’s a fascinating uncensored document, and makes me think of Western directors today, free to take on whatever topic they should choose. Yes, they may not get funding, and nobody may go to see it, which is a heartwrenching situation for the artist involved, but the freedom to create is already there in the culture. It’s a given. This is mental freedom, the most important kind. The recent imprisonment of Jafar Panahi shows what directors in Iran have to deal with, and upon his release, one of the things that Panahi said that tore at my heart was, “Now I am forced to make films in my dreams.” That comment made me see red, but as long as I can continue to support Iranian film, wherever I find it, I feel I can do my small part at discussing this important national film industry, and supporting the artists who are working under unthinkably harsh conditions. I have said it before: the mere act of making a film is courageous in Iran. Yes, it takes courage elsewhere, it is a huge collaborative undertaking, but directors in America don’t risk imprisonment and death from saying what they want to say. I talked about this a bit in my essay about A Thousand Women Like Me, another brutally honest film, unafraid to say what it means. These are actors and cameramen and crew working for the love of it, and working knowing that they will probably “get in trouble”, and nobody in their own country will have a chance to see the film, outside of bootleg DVDs. That kind of passion and drive reads, and even in imperfect films you can feel the dedication behind the process, giving it a spark unlike any other.

Black Tape, told in fragmentary found footage, with handheld cameras that make the Blair Witch cinematography look like Steadicam, is the story of 18 year old Goli (Shilan Rhamani), who is given a camcorder for her 18th birthday by her husband, Parviz (Parviz Moass), a much older man. We see him buying the camcorder in a crowded chaotic video store. The clerk, behind the camera, points it at Parviz and shows him how to zoom, the camera jerkily zooming in and out. Then there is a jump cut, and we are at Goli’s birthday party. None of these relationships are spelled out. It took me some time to put everyone straight. Because of the subjective filmmaking, we only know what the characters choose to tell us. Black Tape is a film worth watching more than once. My second time through, I didn’t spend so much time trying to piece it all together and I saw much much more. Because these are home movies, people “perform” for the camera. There are times when they put on their social face, and smile and laugh, when later you realize what it is they were hiding.

Despite the handheld jerkiness, there is a lot of shot composition here, an awareness of framing and placing of images. Turaj Aslani did the cinematography, and his job is so seamless that I honestly forgot that it wasn’t the characters holding that camera. There are shots from the back of a motorcycle, on a crowded bus (with beautiful snatched images of an entire bus full of burqa-ed women), and, repeatedly, in Goli and Parviz’s penthouse apartment, a place we get to know quite well. In one crucial moment, when Goli wanders through her own home, holding the camera, she puts the camera into a dangling crystal chandelier, the cut-glass pieces refracting the sunlight and distorting the view out the windows. It’s a beautiful and psychological shot.

Parviz explains to his friends that Goli is “moody”, and that is an understatement when you finally realize who she is and where she has come from. She is a Kurd. Her father was the head of a band of Kurdish rebels, fighting the Iranian army in the mountains. Turns out that Parviz was a commander in the army, and one of his proudest moments was helping to crush the rebellion, and crush the Kurds. The war with the Kurds was 10 years before, although it continues still, and Goli was a 9 year old girl at the time, caught up in the ravages of war. Parviz, back then, raped her, and then brought her back to Tehran with him, to live with him and be his sex slave (this is made quite explicit). 10 years have passed. The film opens with Goli turning 18, now married to Parviz, and he wonders why she is “moody”. She has not seen her family in 10 years. Many of them are scattered in refugee camps throughout the country. Her life goal is to track them down. Secretly, when Parviz is gone, she sends out feelers, she makes contacts, she finds out where her father is, and manages to get him medicine, food. She secretly is trying to learn English, and hides her books from her husband, because he is threatened by anything she does.

Although her beginnings with Parviz were obviously horrible, there is a comfortable banter between them at times, both of them turning the camera on the other one, and laughing and joking. It makes the scenes of abuse even worse. Goli, who has never known another life, has submitted to Parviz, a man with a lot of power, in the hopes that her scattered family can have a better life, that maybe she can help them. There is also, perhaps, a certain level of Stockholm Syndrome going on. Goli was captured by Parviz when she was 9. She has been living with this man for 10 years, a prisoner. He limits her contact with the outside world, a situation that gets more intense as the film moves on, with Parviz removing the television, the computer, the phone, from their apartment. Goli’s search for her family threatens Parviz. He doesn’t want her to have anything to do with them.

It becomes apparent that Parviz has also bought the camcorder to spy on his wife. We see him setting it up in a corner of the room, looking into the camera, and then leaving the apartment, and then we see Goli wandering around, smoking. There’s a chilling moment later in the film, when Goli has become pregnant, and she wanders through the yard, with Parviz filming her from the balcony, calling down to her to move here, go there, sit down … she obeys, laughing up at him, and at one point, he casually says, “Goli, do you smoke?” You see her startled close-up face, an uncertain moment where she lowers her head, and then looks up at the camera and says, “No.”

There are horrible jagged scenes of him beating her, where you cannot see what is going on, the camera being on the floor, or on its side. Then, jump-cut to a scene of the two of them walking through a video arcade, him filming her, her tired of being filmed. This is a twisted relationship of abuse and submission. There is one scene, breathless in its honesty (I’ve never seen anything quite like it in an Iranian film), where you see her disembodied hand, against a dark blue night-time window, and you can see that he is tying her hand to something. All we see is the hand. And we hear her chanting, in English, “One, two, three, four, shut the door”, a panicked response to what is happening, and we hear him whisper, “What is it, dear? We’ve done it this way before.”

Jumpcut to next scene.

Horrifying and explicit. When Goli becomes pregnant, the walls close in on her. She runs away a couple of times, but always flees back to her prison. She is afraid. Her husband has enough power that he has ordered the disbursement of the key refugee camp (a bit of a bossy plot-point, in my opinion), and there are scenes of her running through the vacant lot where the refugees used to be, screaming out for her father. She finds her cousin (played by Farzin Sabooni), a young man she grew up with, back in the mountains, and there is an extraordinary confrontation scene between them in a junk-car lot, a scene worthy to be compared with the best of Cassavetes. It shivers with reality, unpredictability, raw emotion, and then sudden bursts of humor (an old Kurdish man comes by, and suddenly her cousin and the old man start dancing together, an old Kurdish dance, as Goli laughs hysterically, while filming them). It is a scene where ALL is included, nothing is excluded as “not part of it”. She begs her cousin to tell her where her family is. He resists. He can barely look at her. He knows she is a ruined woman, sold into sex slavery at the age of 9. But what can he do? Life is tough all around. They are Kurds. She says to him, “I waited for you to come rescue me. I waited for 10 years for you to come through that door and find me.” Sabooni explodes. His anger and rage (not just at what was done to his cousin, but at what was done to all of them, the Kurds) are not just palpable, but it’s one of those moments when acting becomes not acting, not make-believe, but a real experience. It happens rarely. Here, Sabooni (a wonderful actor) screams at her, but what he is really screaming about is his own life, how broken he is. She fantasizes about going “back home”, and he screams, in tears, “There is nothing back there but poverty. I am ruined. We are ruined! You think you have it so much worse than anyone else?” It is a howl of pain, nearly unwatchable in its reality. This is what real grief looks like. This is what helplessness looks like.

Filmed in 2002, there is a scene in Black Tape where Goli, imprisoned in her apartment, calls out to a neighbor up on the roof across the way. He is someone she knows. He is fiddling with his satellite dish. She is desperate for cigarettes, for conversation. He calls over to her, “Has he imprisoned you?” She calls back, “Yes!” He says, “I thought that would all end when he married you.” She begs him to go buy her cigarettes. Meanwhile, as he looks at the satellite dish, he calls out to her, casually, pointing at the satellite, “They’ve attacked America, planes have attacked America, and today of all days this isn’t working.” Fascinating. What is her response? There is a brief pause, and then she calls out, again, “Can’t you go get me some cigarettes?” Goli, without television, has no idea that America has been attacked, but you can see how, on the ground-level, such a world cataclysm has little import, if you are trapped in a cage by the man who raped you when you were 9 years old.

The handheld camera serves the story, for the most part, although there are a couple of scenes where it doesn’t make sense. If you walk up to a strange person on the street and start talking to them, and you are filming them, more often than not, the person will say, “Why are you filming me?” or “What is that camera for?” There are scenes in Black Tape that do not deal with that reality (one, in particular, where she hitches a ride on the back of a motorcycle). But, in general, the pieced-together jump-cut nature of the film adds to the sense that you are looking at something real, you are seeing the inner workings of this particular couple. You get to know their rhythms, their boredom, what they do when they think no one is watching.

Black Tape is a tough film to take. It’s emotionally raw and violent. It points the finger at the Iranian regime, and its prejudice against the Kurds (Parviz thinks all of the Kurds are “rubbish”), and it points at the culture as a whole, willing to sell and dominate their women, in order to protect male privilege. It is a sick sick world shown in Black Tape. Parviz is a pedophile, and Goli is his wife. She has a moment, late at night, when Parviz is gone, and she films herself sitting at the kitchen table. She is hugely pregnant, and smoking, an act of rebellion. She speaks to the camera, in a restless manic manner, so different from who she is when she is in the presence of others. She says:

My name is Galevije Salary. It has been years since I have spoken my language. Nobody has called me by my real name. I wanted to choose my own destiny. The destiny of the homeless girls who were sold. The girls who were smuggled. Girls who don’t speak in their own language. Girls who don’t live in their homelands. Even their history doesn’t belong to them. I have been imprisoned in this cage for years. I have no connection with the outer world.

Both lead actors are extraordinary. Shilan Rhamani has to completely disintegrate over the course of the movie. As her pregnancy gets more and more advanced, her psychological state deteriorates. She has one scene where she hides under the table, after learning that her refugee family have been evicted (by her husband), and he, singing a little song to himself, places a bowl of beans underneath the table for her. As though she is a dog. Parviz Moass has just the right combination of bravado and humor (he is a true extrovert, always joking) and potential for danger. And I have already mentioned Farzin Sabooni, who really only has that one scene, but makes such an impression that for the rest of the film I kept waiting for him to reappear. Young, hearty, strong, a culture should be proud to claim such a man, but here, a Kurd in Iran, he has been crushed. It is not fair. Some people have sneered at me on my site when I have said things like, “It is not fair” about this or that horrible world event. They say, “Look, human beings have always warred with one another.” They condescend, as though I’m an idiot who needs to be schooled, “It’s the way of the world.” That is undeniably true, but I feel that when we lose our ability to say, “You know what? That’s UNFAIR”, we lose so much. Perhaps what we lose is hope.

So Goli’s continued fighting back, her insistence on trying to find her family, her rage at what was done to her as a little girl … all of that is evidence of her spirit. She has not been broken. She can say, “This is UNFAIR.” Yes. It is.

I have gone to a couple of Iranian protests here in New York over the last couple of years, especially after their contested election in 2009 followed by a giant crackdown (of which Jafar Panahi’s arrest was part). Many of the protesters wear black and white tape over their mouths, a symbol of disenfranchisement and being denied their right to speak. The title of Black Tape has a twofold meaning then: the video tape “found in the garbage”, and also the tape of protest, the tape symbolizing rage, the tape saying, “This is unfair.”

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10 Responses to Black Tape (2002); Dir. Fariborz Kamkari

  1. george says:


    Thanks for your continuing posts on Iranian movies and the political subplots of the making of them.

    I had commented, in one of the previous posts, that I had known of these only tangentially but that was enough to have sparked a curiosity that I will eventually get around to entertaining.

    By the way, my tangential knowledge (movies and news) of Iran hasn’t kept me from coming to this central conclusion – Persian women are among the handsomest women on earth.

  2. sheila says:

    George – I look forward to hearing your thoughts when you eventually see some of these. They really are “onto something” over there, with their cinema – it’s a nationalistic enterprise, which is why the directors are so often persecuted. It should be something to be PROUD of, not run out of town on a rail.

    And I agree: Beautiful beautiful women. The men aren’t too bad either!

  3. nightfly says:

    These posts are the work of the angels, Sheila.

  4. sheila says:

    Nighfly – while I appreciate the sentiment, I hope it also inspires you to go out and see some of these films I write about.

    I don’t do this for political reasons. I do it to support the artists. I suppose that is political, the situation being what it is, but this is fine cinema, and I really enjoy the movies of Iran.

  5. Kate P says:

    Wow. So much insight into the culture and how it informs filmaking.

  6. Kate P says:

    Yeah, I can spell. Filmmaking, I meant.

  7. sheila says:

    For example, I am dying to see Kiarostami’s latest (Certified Copy), which I have been hearing about, in snippets, for about a year now. The whole thing sounds like a crazy experiment, a riff on movies and storytelling – and audience-response – something I am very curious to see. I have sometimes found Kiarostami’s stuff a bit distant (not a criticism – just something I have noticed – he seems to me to be a very intellectual filmmaker), but always interesting. This one, in particular, with Juliette Binoche, I’m dying to see. I applied to go to Cannes this year (where Certified Copy premiered) but didn’t get accepted, oh well! So far there isn’t a release date for the movie in the States, although it should be sometime in the next couple of months.

  8. alli says:

    Your little aside on fairness is spot on. Being able to point out (and gripe about) unfairness is vital to maintaining hope for change. I wish more people got that.

    I hope you continue doing these. Somehow you take something I’m only loosely interested in and turn it into something I MUST know more about. Don’t stop.

  9. Ernst Bitterman says:

    …when I have said things like, “It is not fair” about this or that horrible world event. They say, “Look, human beings have always warred with one another.” They condescend, as though I’m an idiot who needs to be schooled….

    I can’t remember the name of the logical fallicy at work here, something like appeal to tradition. “Hey, people have always done horrid, asinine things, therefore they must always continue to do horrid, asinine things.” This is the sort of position that ensures an end to all progress, and is mainly an excuse to not think about troubling things too deeply. Carry on crying out against it, as any thinking person must, and perhaps one day we’ll find our way to Utopia.

    All of which might be distilled down to “Gosh, your blog sure is keen!”

  10. I am also fan of iranian cinema.

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