For the Iranian Film Blogathon: I take a look at Saman Moghaddam’s Siavash.
The Iran-Iraq War was the longest “conventional” war of the 20th century, dragging on for almost a decade. The slaughter was immense. An entire generation was wiped out. Children volunteered to be martyrs, cannon fodder. The Martyrs Cemetery (one of the largest graveyards in the world), south of Tehran, has a fountain that (to this day) runs with red water to show the blood that was shed. Every town has a cemetery like that one, except on a smaller scale. The war touched everyone. The war lasted from 1980 – 1988, and the younger generation – those born in the 80s – have no memory of it, yet it impacts their lives on every level. Everyone has lost a family member, or three or four. The 1979 revolution was solidified by the hostage crisis and then the war with Iraq.
But imagine if you were a kid born in 1987. You have no memory of the revolution. The sacrifices of your parents may seem rather meaningless, especially in light of the hard economic times and the brain-drain that Iran has experienced ever since the revolution. Like every country, there is a generation gap. The older generation wants the younger to appreciate how hard it was in the past. The younger generation wants to do its own thing, and not constantly have to live in a reverence for a past they did not participate in.
Siavash, the powerful and angry film directed by Saman Moghaddam, is all about that. It expresses things which cannot be expressed, easily, in a nation where censorship is still fierce. It asks questions about martyrdom and war, but it also shows that the younger generation – without a war to galvanize them – are left adrift. They want to “do something”. They want to show that they are somehow as tough as their parents. But how? Where?
Siavash (played by the beautiful and sensitive Ali Ghorbanzade), is a young man whose father was apparently killed in the war with Iraq (although his body was never found). Siavash is a musician, living aimlessly, trying to connect with a father he never knew. He is angry and introverted. As things start to break down for him over the course of the film, his aggression starts to come out unexpectedly. He, like the young Alexander Hamilton, wishes for a war to clarify his intentions, to fire him up, to make him relevant and a worthy man.
As the film opens, we see his band preparing for a series of concerts. He is late for a rehearsal because he has gone to visit his father’s grave. He kneels by the grave, and, in voiceover, we hear him ask for his father’s blessing. It becomes apparent that his mother has shacked up with another man (Siavash only refers to him as “that man”), and that she torments Siavash with how his dead father would disapprove of his bohemian lifestyle. Siavash knows he has chosen a different path from his father. There is no war for him to fight now. He wants his father to know that he is not a “punk”, and he wishes his father would give him a sign that he is proud of him.
At one of his concerts is a young photographer from a woman’s magazine, played by the gorgeous and wonderful Hedye Tehrani (she’s on my 20 favorite actresses list). She is there on assignment.
After the show, she gets into a confrontation on the sidewalk with a guy who is harassing her. He appears to know her. He is haranguing her about her behavior, and she screams back at him, “Why don’t you leave me alone? I am here for my job – this has nothing to do with you!”
Siavash, coming out from backstage, sees the confrontation happening and tries to help. I am sure the fact that Ms. Tehrani is so beautiful has a little bit to do with his knight-in-shining-armor impulses, but you also get the feeling that he’s basically a nice guy. Sweet. He steps in. “Why don’t you leave the lady alone?” A fight breaks out, and the harasser runs off into the night, leaving Siavash and the lady alone.
There is immediate chemistry. I love the first scene of their meeting. She obviously is not a shrinking violet (we just saw her shouting at a guy on the street), but she also has a gentleness to her, a sweetness. She senses something in Siavash: his need to protect, obviously, but she plays the scene with a clear understanding that she senses his attraction to her. Because this is Iran, these things cannot be spoken out loud. In a way, it makes such moments even more powerful, because it has to be done subtly, through behavior and pauses and body language. Not to condone censorship, but I am struck over and over again by how much Iranian filmmakers “get away with”, making their art, as they do, in a theocratic society.
Against the laws of the land, Siavash and his friend Ramin drive her home. (Her name in the film is also Hedye).
She sits in the back seat and they ask her what was that guy’s problem on the sidewalk. She regales them with stories of how she was in college with that guy, and he was obsessed with her. But instead of trying to court her like a normal man would, he reported her to the college authorities for not wearing proper “Islamic cover”. She got in trouble at school. In retaliation, the next day she showed up to class wearing a cardboard box over her head with two holes cut out for her eyes. Siavash and his friend start laughing. She still can’t see what is funny about it. Ramin says, “I’m in college myself. That is a funny joke.” The image of her showing up with a cardboard box over her head is delightfully subversive, really angry, actually – and it makes me love the character. She has gone on after college to become a reporter and photographer, and she would love to interview Siavash about his music. The paper she writes for is called The Women’s Weekly and Ramin jokes that he doesn’t want to be seen buying a copy of such a paper. She says she will send it to them.
The main focus of the scene is the unspoken attraction between Siavash and Hedye. But how, in such a country, do you ask for a girl’s phone number? You can’t date. You’d be arrested (which eventually happens in the latter half of the movie). She is still taken up with annoyance over her harasser, but she was touched by Siavash standing up for her.
Through a series of coincidences, they see each other again. She interviews him.
Siavash lives in an apartment by himself. The walls are a deep yellow and dark green. He has a fish tank. He sits on his bed playing his guitar, but you can tell his thoughts are elsewhere. On Hedye, on his father. The phone rings, but someone keeps hanging up. On the walls of his bedroom, he has a huge collage of gruesome photographs from the war with Iraq. It is a shrine,evidence of his obsession. In the middle of the photos of carnage, is a portrait of his mother, vibrant-looking beneath her head-scarf.
He believes that no one can really know him, unless they know his feelings about the war, his obsession with it, with his father.
His friend Ramin tries to talk him out of his depression, but it is not easy. Especially because Ramin knows something that Siavash does not know: The week before, a bunch of POWs were released from Iraq, and Siavash’s father, long-thought dead, was one of them. The POW foundation has contacted Siavash’s mother (who has now, of course, moved on and is living in sin with the same man she has been with for 13 years) but no one has told Siavash yet. Ramin is supposed to give the news to Siavash, but he is afraid for his friend’s state of mind.
The man we first saw harassing Hedye on the sidewalk was not just an excuse for an Iranian “meet-cute”. He becomes a truly menacing character in the film. Hedye said earlier to Siavash and Ramin, “This is what happens when you let the classes mix. We Iranians are not ready for all of that. We haven’t been brought up right,” a fascinating look at the class divide in Iran, and the issues the upper class feel when confronted with the more traditional (and radical and conservative) element in their midst. The guy from college just can’t deal with the fact that she has a life, that she has a job, that she does her own thing without bowing down before him, the male. He is in love with her, obviously, but he is so blunted and violent he can’t recognize the softness within him. There are more confrontations, and they get worse. And finally, he attacks her so violently he puts her in the hospital.
Interspersed with all of these dramatic scenes, is footage from the various concerts given by Siavash and his band. The music is amazing and I yearned for a soundtrack. Sometimes melancholy and sentimental, sometimes thrumming and drum beats (reminding me a bit of music to riverdance to), it is the kind of music that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Ali Ghorbanzade, playing Siavash, does not have an easy job as an actor in this role. He has to be sensitive and sweet, but not a drip. He has to spend the entire movie on the verge of tears. He has long shots where he sits in silence staring at his fish tank, holding his guitar. It could have been a parody of itself, the Brooding Young Man Iranian Style. But Ghorbanzade manages to suggest the deep fissures in this young man, the competing interests: the growing love for Hedye (the moment with the rosebuds in the restaurant literally made me catch my breath), his increasing bitterness towards his mother, his feeling of helplessness in the Post-War society he lives in – the feeling that his life means nothing compared to the former generation – and then the chaos of learning that his father is actually alive, and what will THAT mean for him? Ghorbanzade keeps all of these balls in the air with his quiet heartfelt performance.
There are moments when he is up onstage, at the keyboard, playing, and Hedye sits out in the audience, and he manages to show us that he is starting to play just for her. Just having her out there makes him start to feel like a man, it “stiffens the space between his shoulder blades” (thank you, Odets), and gives him pride in his work. These are sexy moments. The music hums and beats, and she stares up at him, a small smile playing across her lips.
She learns that Siavash’s father is now alive and she begs Siavash to go see his father. She doesn’t say, “I cannot be with a man who doesn’t resolve his family issues” – but you get the sense that that is her stance.
Hedye Tehrani has one of the most expressive faces in cinema. She’s beautiful in an almost distracting way, but she is so fascinating to watch, because her inner life – whatever it may be – is always playing across her features. She acts between the lines. To say she “acts” is almost incorrect. She lives – onscreen. Sometimes she smiles and there’s a beautiful mischief to her, and she’s got a temper, and a sense of outrage.
Here, she plays a woman you really like (and that’s a change for her, as an actress.) Tehrani, despite her beauty, can come off as rather dour, serious, even bleak. The parts she plays (Fireworks Wednesday – my review here, Half Moon, Hemlock) show her fearlessness as an actress. She is not interested in being liked. There is a depressive quality to her. She has played two suicidal women (that I am aware of, I haven’t seen all of her movies), and it really works. You get the sense that this woman goes deep, that she has known despair, she has known loss, and it has cost her. But here she does something quite different, showing her range. She is feisty, smart, kind, and persistent. If there is a woman out there who could deal with Siavash’s particular personality, it is this woman.
The last moment of the film, with its sudden burst of drum-heavy music, is startlingly angry and moving. The flags of Iran flutter in the background, blurry, and in the foreground, we see the flowers on the grave, the flickering candle, and Siavash and Hedye, walking off together. It is not a neat resolution. The Iranian consciousness will be dealing with the fallout from the war with Iraq for years to come. Their losses were acute. The younger generation has inherited a whole different set of problems, and what are they to do with it all? Where are they to go?
Siavash came out in 1998, a decade after the end of the Iran-Iraq war. In many ways, it is an anti-war film, although it also honors the dead and those who made the sacrifice. It looks at the unseen consequences of huge world events, and also the haunting that can occur in an entire culture in the wake of such a war.