Special screening of award-winning film Ghesse-ha (Tales) and Q&A with the director Rakhshan Bani-E’temad at Ciné Lumiére as part of London Iranian Film Festival
Words: Yeganeh Ameri, Subeditor: Lauren Burgess
Ghesse-ha (Tales) ★★★★★★★★★★
There’s a sense of pride and excitement that I feel when a Persian movie is screened out of Iran or wins an award. Since the revolution in 1979, Persian cinema has been hidden behind closed curtains. New rules and regulations were set for directors and producers which made it fairly difficult to pursue a career in film. Rakhshan Bani-E’temad is a clear example of how you can still produce art even when so many restrictions are set.
Bani-E’temad is known as “First Lady of Iranian Cinema” due to her impeccable work in both film and documentaries. Since the revolution, she has filmed many award-winning movies that highlight the economical and social issues of the people of Iran. You can imagine my excitement when I heard Ciné Lumiére was screening her most recent movie.
Before entering the screening room, I was greeted by the Iranian Film Festival team who handed out flyers and programmes. If it wasn’t for this organisation that started out in 2010, Persian cinema would still be hiding in the shadows. Hopefully, they can bring more awareness and viewers to the talented film makers in Iran. The room was hardly packed even though the film was due to start in 2 minutes. Of course, Persian film means Persian timings which means you should never expect punctuality. Once the room had filled, I looked around and saw hardly any young adults. The majority of the audience were middle-aged. Was this because everyone was getting ready to party for Halloween or are Bani-E’temad’s films not appealing to the younger generation?
Before the film started the director, who is also the producer, came up onstage and thanked everyone; “the greatest achievement for a film maker is to see a full cinema. I hope you all stay ’til the end.” The movie began and people were immediately silenced.
Just as the film title ‘Tales’ suggests, this was a movie about the stories of different characters. However, the originality of this film is that all, except for two of the characters, are from Bani-E’temad’s previous films. Her characters intervene in each other’s lives and if you’re a fan of Persian cinema and her previous works, it’s something you notice during the first 10 minutes of the film. Continuing with her usual theme, the stories reflect the social and economical struggles that are still [coherent] in Iran now. The film starts with a man filming the streets of Tehran and we are shown the footage through his camera. The tales begin from here. We meet an elderly lady who’s worked many years at a factory that has now shut down and won’t pay her for her hard work for the past four to five months. This character, referred to as Ms Touba is joined by many other angry workers who are struggling to support their families. Within this group, we are shown the living conditions of Abbas who is living off of his wife’s limited income and hasn’t been able to pay the rent for the past four months. In Persian culture, it’s seen as a blow to his masculinity if a husband cannot provide for his family and you can hear the empathic remarks as the audience are shown his home. With the theme of tragedy running throughout the whole film, there are some sparks of hope. One of these sparks comes in the form of a letter to Abbas’s family which reveals that his wife’s former lover has left them a home in his will.
The characters range from young adults to elderly women such as Ms Touba. What’s striking is the depth of tragedy we are exposed to. Particularly in the case of a young woman called Maryam, who’s helping out in a rehab facility for drug addicts similar to her age. We view her as a role model for dedicating her time to this facility and she is presented as a symbol of hope. Towards the end of the film, Maryam is in a taxi with a patient who recently attempted suicide and the facility’s driver. The driver expresses his feelings for Maryam and she rejects them. Soon we learn that she rejected her feelings for him due to her being HIV positive. However, she is still our symbol of hope. With cases of drug abuse increasing rapidly every day in Iran, young people like Maryam are crying out for help in silence. As an audience, we can either try to take away something from this film and help others, or we can passively watch it and move on with our day-to-day activities.
The ending of the film joins the dots back to the beginning. The film starts with the young film maker and his camera and it ends with the same film maker talking on the phone about how any footage ever made, is shown and revealed one day, just like the stories of these characters. There is a sigh relief as the credits appear on the screen and the lights turn on. Tales did not only make me cry, laugh, gasp, and cover my body in goosebumps, it also left me feeling grateful, blessed and inspired.
Rakhshan Bani-E’temad walked onstage with her translator Suzanne Babai, who begins the Q&A with a couple of questions that grabbed her own attention. One of these questions refers to the young film maker at the beginning of ‘Tales’ who is asked why he’s filming the streets of Tehran, to which he replies “this is how I see the world.”
Babai: “You used this concept of a film within a film. You’re the film maker and we see the film maker who follows all your stories from the beginning to the end. I wonder if you can talk about this a little bit. How do you see the world?”
Bani-E’temad: “Yes. The sentence he uses is in fact words of my own. This is how I view the world. This is how I view cinema. For me, cinema is a way to view society. This is what I have learnt about filming. Maybe another reason could be because I started my career with documentaries and I still see myself as documentarian.”
In many ways this is exactly the feeling we get when watching ‘Tales’. We feel as though we’re watching a documentary rather than a movie. This effect allows audiences to build a stronger rapport with the characters whilst taking us through different levels of emotions with them. I was keen to ask a question too and once the conversation was open to the audience, I quickly grabbed the opportunity.
“Thank you for your beautiful film. I wanted to know, what do you see for the future of Persian cinema?”
Bani-E’temad: “I’m not a negative person and I hope there is some reality to my positiveness. I am hopeful that with the energy amongst young film makers, they can uphold the quality of Persian cinema. But unfortunately, there is a lot of problems and issues in the way of this success.”
The Q&A continued for about 30 minutes. One member of the audience questioned how Bani-E’temad came up with the idea of intertwining characters from her previous films all into one. To which she described that she “self-censored” her career for the six years that Ahmadinejad was the president of Iran due to the ridiculous regulations he had set on film makers. Producers and directors were put under a lot of pressure from the government for the content they wished to produce and she did not want to have these limitations set on her by members of the government. Therefore, she spent those six years creating small stories for these characters and then combining them into one. This issue is still a huge factor for the entertainment industry in Iran.
The night ended with photos and small talk with Rakhshan Bani-E’temad and she kindly took photos with members of the audience. It was an honour meeting someone as talented as her and to hear her words was truly inspiring. Not only was the film cleverly scripted, but it also portrayed how the struggles from her previous characters, still reflect in society today. She managed to link the past and present together whilst also maintaining her iconic theme throughout the film. It deserved more than 10 stars. Everything from the camera angles and the storyline to the actors and actresses performances was beautifully executed. Thank you to the Iranian Film Festival for allowing us to show the world how underrated Persian cinema is but to also inspire young film makers to continue what they’re doing even under strict restrictions.