Politics, journalism and love intersect in Iranian director Saman Moghaddam’s Party, a tense emotional thriller which could be seen as a companion piece to his earlier film Siavash. Siavash also deals with the politically explosive issue of the fallout of the Iran-Iraq war on the current generation of Iranians.
Every country guards its history jealously, especially an event that was so cataclysmic as Iran’s war with Iraq. When Amin Haghi (played by Ali Mosaffa, he who was so wonderful as the husband in Leila – my review here), a journalist with one of Tehran’s liberal newspapers, decides to serialize his brother’s war journals (his brother had been “martyred” in the war with Iraq), the full force of the State comes crashing down on him.
Filled with three-dimensional characters, dialogue both humorous and passionate (ie: human), and pulsing themes of equality and free speech, Party is an excellent movie that lets us enter the world of the characters through the characters. The acting is terrific, and the combination of the love they have for one another and the lies they are forced to tell brings the emotions of the film to a fever pitch. But not melodramatic. It is dramatic, end-stop. The stakes are high. People’s lives hang in the balance. Because the characters are so well-drawn, and because there is no overt villain (other than the culture as a whole), the helplessness we feel as audience members is acute. We care about these people. What is happening to them sucks.
Party was filmed in 1999, a year of tremendous upheaval in Iran, the 20th anniversary of the Revolution that ousted the Shah and brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. In 1997, Mohammad Khatami was elected the fifth president of Iran. He had run on a reform ticket, capturing an astonishing 70% of the vote. He promised more freedom of the press. He encouraged foreign investment, he met with foreign leaders. He had a tumultuous time in office (he served two terms, leaving office in 2005), being hounded by conservative critics and, finally, his own now-disillusioned followers. In Iran’s government, the President is outranked by the Supreme Leader, the religious authority of the land, which meant that often Khatami’s reform agenda was canceled out by the conservative agenda of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Khatami was often powerless – literally. In 1999, two years after he took office, the press, which had been more and more rambunctious as the censorship lifted, experienced the first of many crackdowns. One liberal newspaper (Salam) was closed down in July (July is always a dangerous month in Iran) and protests broke out in Tehran as a response. The Speaker of the Parliament declared, “The press is a gateway for cultural invasion, so we must take measures to stop it. Some people, under the pretext of press freedom, are plotting against the system.” When Salam was closed down, other newspapers went on strike to show their solidarity. Student protests erupted. Dorms were raided, protesters were arrested. Ayatollah Khamenei blamed the entire thing on the United States (must be nice, to have an enemy so that your own internal problems need never be faced. One thinks of Trotsky). The protests were crushed, and new laws were passed, making any criticism of the state illegal. The editors of Salam were forbidden to practice journalism for a number of years. Other newspapers were closed. The Iranian press has yet to fully recover from the crackdowns of 1999. (And Khatami never regained the faith his followers had had in him.) [Source: The Last Great Revolution, by Robin Wright.]
Party was made in 1999, and the theme of freedom of the press is its heartbeat. Party is “ripped-from-the-headlines” in every sense of the word. The story of the truth-telling journalist can be seen as a metaphor for the truth-telling director and screenwriter, unwilling to compromise his sense of the truth, the story, even amidst the threat of losing his livelihood. Seen in this context, it is not hard to understand why Party was almost banned altogether by the regime.
There’s a complicated plot in Party, like most thrillers, with a love interest and family problems and an uncle running for political office and scared journalists trying to keep things going as their editor is harassed and jailed, but, like any good thriller, all of these competing elements are kept in the air at the same time. Party is so effective as a thriller that at one moment a note, left in a doorway, is unseen by the person it is meant for, and when I first watched the film I gasped in fright, wanting to shout out, “THE NOTE. THE NOTE.”
The film is unflinching in its depiction of what happens in a newspaper office, something that has always been problematic to the theocracy of the country (but has also been problematic in free countries as well: America has a long history of journalist/newspaper thrillers for this reason). Party is also powerful in its portrayal of a woman on completely equal footing in the man’s world she navigates. To Western eyes it may look like your average work-place romance subplot. It is that, but one level down, Moghaddam pokes gentle fun at those who say women should stay at home, and cook, and clean. The traditional role of women is nowhere in evidence in Party, showing that on the ground life is lived very differently from what the mullahs try to enforce from Qom.
The film opens with a shot of Negar Aryani (played by Hedye Tehrani) sitting at a desk, composing a note. The second shot is of Amin, a blindfolded man in closeup, with a voice offcamera saying, “I’m the law, the judge, the lawyer”, before knocking Amin to the ground. The two shots, obviously taken in different locations, bind the two characters together within the first 10 seconds of the film.
Amin is the editor of a newspaper who has gotten into trouble for publishing his brother’s war journals in serial form in his newspaper. The brother, who was martyred in the war with Iraq, expresses things in his journals that do not line up with the establishment’s approved Narrative. Amin must be stopped from publishing the essays in book-form. Hence, his kidnapping and torture/interrogation.
Meanwhile, his girlfriend Negar (a journalist and editor at the same newspaper) waits at home, comforting Amin’s nephew, Azad (Soroosh Goodarzi), who is staying with Amin in Tehran while he goes to university and sees specialists about his heart problem. The script does not burden us with exposition, and for the most part we are left to figure out on our own the relationships present between these characters. Amin’s sister has let Amin and Azad (her son) stay in her luxurious home in Tehran, and Amin takes his responsibilities towards Azad very seriously. When we first see Azad, he is throwing up into the toilet, splashing water on his face, popping pills. He peers out of the Venetian blinds, a nod to the nighttime paranoid film noir feeling of much of Party.
Negar and Ali, a fellow colleague, played beautifully by Mehdi Khayyami (he also was in Siavash as Siavash’s best friend), go over to wait it out with Azad. We have already seen Negar in the newspaper office, stepping easily into Amin’s shoes in his absence, reassuring her colleagues that he will be back, and forging his signature so that the Saturday edition can go to print. Two of the journalists at the paper saw Amin get into a white car with two other men outside the office the day before. He has not been seen since. “Did you see the license plate?” asks Negar, a journalist even when her boyfriend is missing.
When Amin returns, he is even more determined to publish his brother’s journals. “They have an image of a martyr in their minds,” he tells Negar, and thinks that the truth is better than the myth. His brother died for Iran. Shouldn’t the truth be told about what happened and how these “martyrs” felt about it?
Negar and Amin are dating (as well as they can in an Islamic society). Amin says to her, “Look, I know that our unofficial relationship is bothering both of us,” but Negar is frustrated not because she is impatient to get married. She wants to be taken seriously, telling Amin, “I don’t want people to think we’re just a boy and his girlfriend, that’s all.” He offers to drive her home the night he returns from his kidnapping ordeal, and she says, “We could get arrested.” He shrugs. When he pulls up outside the house, he looks at her, with the cuts and bruises all over his face, and says, “Have you ever had a proposal of marriage from someone who looks so awful? Will you marry me?” Negar says gently, “No” and gets out of the car. Hedye Tehrani, known for playing cold depressive types, here is warm and sweet, funny and open. Ali Mossaffa plays a character very different here from the one he played in Leila, although it would be difficult to imagine him playing a villain, or someone cold and distant. He exudes warmth and humor, as well as passion and held-back anger. He’s a classic leading man.
The noose tightens. Publicity surrounding Amin’s stories make headlines, even the nightly news, and Amin finds himself a cause celebre. A reporter from the BBC calls the house to ask him about his brother. Amin knows the ban against being interviewed by foreigners, and tries to hang up but then is goaded into shouting a defense of what he is doing into the phone, even though Negar and Ali shoot alarm-bells of “Stop!” at him with their eyes.
The government refuses to believe that Amin’s brother’s writings are real, and so they accuse him of forgery. There is an incredibly angry shot of an empty courtroom, with two massive portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khameini hanging on the wall, and a voiceover reads the accusation as the camera slowly pans towards the front of the court room. Of all of the controversy surrounding Party, this is the most shocking shot, the most overtly political, and I am surprised (but glad) it was allowed to remain. There are no people in the courtroom, nothing to distract from the accusatory gaze of the camera.
Negar and Amin get engaged, and while their happy engagement party at the newspaper office is interrupted by someone throwing a rock through the window, evidence of the hatred out there towards Amin and his work, they continue on with their plans. The marriage scenes are hilarious, the two of them getting blood tests and having a conversation as they both get pricked with needles, and then meeting with a mullah, rolling their eyes at each other behind the poor serious dude’s back. Amin looks at her at one point and says, “Don’t you want to know what asshole you are going to spend the rest of your life with?” She teases, “You are praising yourself too much.” It’s a good match. Both of them are wiseasses.
Amin is finally brought to court amidst a storm of publicity and he is imprisoned while awaiting his sentence.
The bail is exorbitant and Negar, Azad and Ali brainstorm about how to raise the money. Azad then comes up with a daring plan: People with beautiful houses in Tehran often lease them out for parties as a way to make extra money. The practice is illegal but times are tough, and people do it anyway. Negar and Ali are not so hot on the plan, and keeping it a secret from Amin will be difficult. No one can know. Azad assures them both that he will take care of everything, he will make sure the house is put back in order after the parties. He wants to give back to his uncle Amin. Secretively, they move forward with the plan, packing up the house and putting everything in storage.
The parties then begin.
By this point in the film, the sense of impending doom is almost unbearable. The montage sequence of the parties, interspersed with footage of Azad depositing wads of cash at the bank, is filmed in long horizontal pans, one leading seamlessly into the other, a funeral procession morphing into a wedding reception, the camera panning by Negar and Ali, anxiously watching the parties, and then moving to closeups of Azad pushing the cash across the counter at the teller. Bahram Badakshani’s cinematography is elegant and eloquent, weaving together all of the complicated actions of the story. In one three-way conversation between Negar, Ali, and Azad, each character is shown in closeup, but the camera moves slightly within each closeup, pulling away to the side from each face, giving the scene a greater sense of urgency , and also drawing the three closeups together. The characters are not isolated within their closeups. The camera pulls each one towards the other. Subtle filmmaking tricks, manipulating the images, mashing them together in cuts, helps give Party its tension, the action stretching as taut as a wire. Karen Homayunfar’s original score is portentous and thrumming, adding an insistently ominous energy, pouring from one scene into the next. (He also composed the music for Siavash, a film that was, in many ways, about music.)
During the Month of Parties, Azad runs into a friend at his health club who wants to rent the house out for a 3-day dance party taking place over one weekend. Weddings and funerals are one thing, but … a rave? With Western music? And, possibly, alcohol? They all could be arrested for such things. But Azad is desperate, and so he negotiates with his corrupt friend: no women allowed at the party, and no alcohol. Sure, sure, no problem, the friend assures him.
During all of this, Negar periodically goes to visit Amin in prison. I loved the detail of her running towards the prison office, wrapping herself in the more traditional chador, in full view of the prison guards and officials. It was so duplicitous, I loved it. In all other scenes, she just wears a simple headscarf, but going to visit her imprisoned boyfriend, she knows it probably would be best to “dress up”. But she doesn’t dress up at home, in private, she slaps the chador on AS she runs towards the prison, a clear sign of individuality and freedom, thumbing her nose at conventions. “Fine, I know you think I should be wearing this, so here I am, putting it on. You happy now?”
The scenes of the couple talking to one another in prison are beautifully shot, using reflections of both actors in the glass separating them, reminiscent of that great scene in Paris, Texas. The first time she goes to visit him, they pick up the phones to talk to each other, and Amin says, “Sorry, lady, wrong number”, and they both laugh. Love relationships are difficult to depict in Iran, due to all the bans of what can be shown, which is why so many Iranian filmmakers avoid it altogether. Here, Tehrani and Moussafa never touch each other, not even casually, never kiss, never say “I love you”, but it just goes to show you how much can be shown with just a look, a glance, a smile. We get their entire relationship in that “Sorry, lady, wrong number” line of dialogue and her cracking of a smile. They love each other, sure, but they also like each other. As the month of parties heats up, Negar is obviously hiding something from him during her visits, and he tries to get her to confide in him. She refuses, telling him that soon they will have the bail for him, and he should not ask how they got it. You can see the troubling doubts arise on his face. Up until now, they have told one another everything.
The 3-day dance party (all male) is an astonishing sequence, the quiet house turned into a discotheque, with whirling colored lights and manic strobe lights, with men breakdancing and gyrating about in one heaving mass. The music changes. The Beastie Boys “You Gotta Fight For Your Right to Party” blares, as the bodies writhe, and while you always get the sense that at any minute the cops will show up and everyone is going to be in big trouble, it is, admittedly, exhilarating to hear that song played in that place at that time. The Beastie Boys are snarky brilliant brats and the rage in that song has to do with bucking against your square mom and dad and their hypocrisy (dad tells you not to smoke, yet he smokes two packs a day) and your teachers and having to go to school and having your mom criticize what you wear. In that privileged context, “fighting for your right to party” is an adolescent call to freedom, and the stakes aren’t high at all, which is what makes the song so funny, and why teenagers love it so much. But lift that song up out of America, and put it into an illegal rave in Iran, and it sounds very very different. It’s a magnificent choice, perhaps obvious on the face of it, but when you get right down to it, what these Iranian boys are doing is having fun, breakdancing for each other, and letting off some steam. It’s the same shit as in America, only these boys could be jailed, and they know it.
Add to that the fact that Negar and Azad are risking their own lives by hosting such a party, and also risking their relationship to Amin, who knows nothing about it, the images of flashing, heaving, gyrating, fist-pumping guys are fraught with danger. The joy is not infectious. Everyone is at risk. It’s a devastating critique.
Amin has an outburst at one point during the film, and he slaps his nephew Azad across the face during an argument. Azad, a tender young man, dissolves into tears, and Negar scolds Amin, saying, “In our writing, we reject violence and advocate patience. But we don’t behave that way in real life.”
A more brutally honest condemnation of the ways a cruel society can infiltrate its finest kindest members to their core could not be imagined.
Party is a fine film, one that left me wrung dry by the end of it.