Filmistaan [2013)

I consider it an auspicious sign that my survey of Indian cinema begins in earnest with the masterpiece Filmistaan.

Do not mistake this piece of cinema for a half-baked idea.

Do not even attempt to lower it by calling it a comedy.

And not least, do not think only of India.

I wanted to come up with a catchy pigeonhole.

Indian Subcontinent.

The Subcontinent.

But I have too much respect for the great traditions of Bollywood (and Lollywood) to do such a thing.

And so this is very much an Indian film.

India.

And it is very much a comedy.

So funny!

But it is touching in a way to which few films can ever aspire.

Filmistaan, like Roberto Benigni’s magnum opus La vita è bella, takes on a very serious subject with the best weapon of all:  humor.

But instead of the Holocaust, we get the Partition.

And yet, Filmistaan is not some laborious period piece.

[leave that to the artless Spielbergs]

No, our film addresses the tension between India and Pakistan in the most deft, feather-light manner imaginable.

And for this we have to thank a new auteur on the world stage:  Nitin Kakkar.

I say “new” because Mr. Kakkar has not been graced with the honor of his own Wikipedia page in English yet.

Well, he is wholly deserving of that honor (based on Filmistaan alone).

But Mr. Kakkar had to have magical actors to pull this off.

Luckily for him, he did!

Sharib Hashmi is undoubtedly the star of this picture.

His performance as Sunny goes from the highest highs of emotion to the lowest lows.

It is truly remarkable.

Mr. Hashmi is about one month older than me.

40 years old.

Perhaps that’s why I identified with his youthful optimism and passionate devotion to cinema.

But to understand our film, we must first locate Rajasthan on a map.

It is the biggest state in India.

It is northwest.

And it borders Pakistan.

To understand Rajasthan, we must comprehend the Thar Desert.

Most of the Thar Desert is in Rajasthan, but it extends somewhat into Pakistan.

These are all important details in understanding our film.

Rajasthan is arid.

Like the American Southwest, it’s a good place to get lost…or kidnapped.

But friends are to be found in the most unlikely places.

And the friendship of shared interest, such as two cinema devotees, knows no borders.

For Mr. Hashmi, the brilliance of his performance depends on the artful support he receives from fellow-actor Inaamulhaq.

But let’s examine the divide between India and Pakistan for a moment.

It is a fact that a man from Peshawar (if he speaks Urdu) can communicate with a man from Delhi (if he speaks Hindi).

Peshawar, of course, is in Pakistan.

Indeed, it’s so far into Pakistan that it’s almost in Afghanistan.

Delhi, of course, is in India.

It is in the north-central part of the country.

It is, further, not essential that the two talkers hypothesized above be men.

The salient detail is that Hindi and Urdu are essentially the same language (in their spoken forms).

This is vital to understanding Filmistaan.

But continuing, the two languages could not look more different once they are written down.

[Which is to say, the two hypothesized men might be at loggerheads were they forced to communicate with pen and paper]

Urdu looks similar to its written forebear Farsi (the language of Iran) [which is itself a descendent of Arabic script].

To put it quite simply, a neophyte like myself would probably have a difficult time telling the difference between Urdu, Persian (Farsi), and Arabic.

Hindi is in the wholly different Devanagari script.

You will not confuse written Urdu and Hindi.

It’s at least as obvious as Picasso to Pollock (if not Warhol to Rembrandt).

But enough analogies.

Why should you watch Filmistaan?

Well, for one…it’s currently on Netflix.

Yes, ever since I have joined the streaming service, I have ventured to be a more “worthwhile” film critic by giving you relatively-spoiler-free reviews of current titles to be found on the U.S. version of the site.

But that’s only the beginning.

Yes, there are wonderful performances from Kumud Mishra and Gopal Dutt (as well as a plethora of fine supporting actors).

But the real reason is that Filmistaan expresses the sublime.

The context is terrorism.

The context is border tension.

Indeed, on the Indian Subcontinent, the context is two nuclear states.

Pakistan and India.

But the context goes back.

To Jinnah and Nehru.

And the threads bind.

Cricket.  Cinema.  Music.

There is an excellent example in Filmistaan which illustrates the situation.

Dilip Kumar.

Now 94 years old.

Like my hypothetical man from earlier, born in Peshawar.

Then a part of “Pre-Independence India”.

Now a part of Pakistan.

Bordering Afghanistan.

In Filmistaan, Inaamulhaq knows him as Sir Yusuf.

Sunny knows him as Dilip.

Dilip Kumar was born Muhammad Yusuf Khan in Peshawar in 1922.

Sir Yusuf.

Dilip Kumar.

Same person.

It’s like the World Wars.

fenêtre in French

das Fenster in German

window.

/\

fenêtre /\ Fenster

But when you look through a window (or a border), everything can look backwards.

You’re so close, in reality.

But you’re reading the word as if in a mirror.

Nitin Kakkar directed a masterpiece with Filmistaan because he put his heart and soul into evoking peace.

There are no winners in a nuclear war.

And peace is a rare commodity on the world stage.

Geopolitics…

But we must reach out that hand.

And shake it.

I congratulate Nitin Kakkar and Sharib Hashmi for their dedication.

It is evident.

Though I speak neither Hindi nor Urdu, I was able to watch.

And understand.

I needed the subtitles.

But sublime emotions may be mutually intelligible across cultures.

What a film!

-PD

India: Matri Bhumi [1959)

This is a hard film to title.

India.

मातृ भूमि.

Matri Bhumi.

The Devanagari (मातृ भूमि) translates to “homeland”.

And this brings us full-circle to a subject which has preoccupied us off and on for a month or so.

But we shan’t get too far into that excursus.

Nay, ’tis better to attempt a bit of writing regarding the film at hand.

First, we are thankful.

That Roberto Rossellini made a film about India.

Now, why would he go and do something like that?

Well, we must remember that he was only married to Ingrid Bergman from 1950-1957.

In 1957, he married Sonali DasGupta.  They were married until Rossellini’s death.

Without getting too lurid or tabloid, let’s just say that Jawaharlal Nehru invited Rossellini to India to help with the country’s film activities.  It was then that he met Sonali.

The rest is beyond the scope of this review.

But what is germane is the screenwriter Fereydoon Hoveyda.

Mr. Hoveyda, an Iranian diplomat and author, helped stage this documentary in much the same way that a Robert Flaherty film might be put together.

Think Tabu:  A Story of the South Seas (1931) on which F.W. Murnau collaborated with Flaherty.  Or even Louisiana Story (1948) which was a Flaherty propaganda film for Standard Oil of New Jersey.

Hoveyda, being the Iranian Ambassador to the U.N., was ostensibly in New York when the Revolution happened in 1979.  I’m guessing he stayed in America.  Probably a pretty smart choice.

And he was a smart guy.

Indeed, some of the books he wrote seem very timely indeed:

-What do Arabs want? (in French) [Hoveyda assumedly being Persian, not Arab]

-The Hidden Meaning of Mass Communications (2000) [sounds like a particularly interesting application of linguistics and/or semiotics to ends similar to the agenda-setting theory]

-The Broken Crescent: The Threat of Militant Islamic Fundamentalism (2002) [a rather suspicious title released at a potentially opportunist time]

and finally

-The Shah and the Ayatollah: Islamic Revolution and Iranian Mythology (2003) [the year the US was steamrolling Iraq…perhaps with salivating neocons looking to quickly expand into Iran]

I wouldn’t be so suspicious, but I noticed where Mr. Hoveyda passed away:  Clifton, Virginia.

Fairfax County.  Vienna.  Herndon.  Definitely some DoD in there.

Furthermore, it is home to the CIA (yay!), the NGA, the NRO, and the DNI’s office.

So my guess is that Mr. Hoveyda probably worked for the US intelligence community.

This would probably be a good time to tell you that I am pro-Islam.

I am pro-CIA.

I’m pro-Palestine.

I’m pro-immigration.

Pro-Mexico.  Pro-Russia.

But most of all I’m pro-America.

I hold no other citizenships.

Some of these revelations will be old hat.

Some new.

All probably confusing for one reason or another.

I’m pro-NSA.  I’m pro 25 AF.

I’m even pro-FBI.  [pro-DIA, pro-ONI, etc.]

Yes, I’m a 9/11 “truther”.

I want to know the truth.

Do I think Saudi Arabia did it?

It was impossible for any group to pull it off without state logistical support.

So it still points very much to an inside job.

The guilty state being the USA.

But maybe I’m wrong.

I do know one thing.

Mr. Trump has rightly noted that the WTC towers did not fall down by themselves.

Nor did they sustain enough damage to fall at near-freefall speeds.

So there was a team (a gargantuan effort) which wired those buildings to explode.

Who was that team?

What was their allegiance?

There were several big pieces to the attacks which needed substantial protection and handling once inside the U.S.

Ok, that’s about as open-minded as I can get regarding 9/11.

I just had to get that off my chest.

My assessments are fallible.

But I’ve seen an optimism in America in these past few days.

It’s not unlike the optimism which Rossellini captures in India:  Matri Bhumi.

Buzzards always circling.

And you’ve let me write about film.

And haven’t begrudged my politics.

So this is for my friends.  From many countries.

And every day I sit and try to think of the right thing to do.

Some things I know.

But there are many things I don’t know.

Many truths which are likely a combination of half-truths I never considered gluing together.

I wish all of you a happy day or night.

This is probably the worst review I ever wrote.

Because I’m better at insulting things.

I’m better at guessing.

But maybe I haven’t connected the dots?

It’s not my job.

But it’s been on my conscience since 9/11.

Who can we trust?

Why are there so many internally-incriminating anomalies?

And so many indications of a cover-up?

I welcome the Saudi lawsuits if only for the opportunity to learn who the REAL culprits were.

The Saudis were middlemen (if that).

They were central casting.

Until the remote flight plans took over.

God, what a daft war…

Based on nothing…and stirring up a continued mix of real and fake.

Impossible to discern anymore.

Maybe Trump has the guts to get some truth.

Obama squandered eight years without even a hint of curiosity.

Buzzards circling.

-PD

کلوزآپ ، نمای نزدیک‎‎ [1990)

[CLOSE-UP (1990)]

In the name of Allah…

We enter the courtroom of the world.

Cinema.

To be judged on our veracity.

But also to be judged for our passion.

Hossain Sabzian had passion.

Here.

And his story is so similar to mine.

Maybe you feel it too?

Dear cinema friend.

Because I will have to invent a new category for this movie.

Loneliness.

Hardship.

Woody Guthrie woe.

Hossain Sabzian plays himself in this story.

It is the truth.

At least as truthful as the novels of Henry Miller.

Real life.

کلوزآپ ، نمای نزدیک‎‎

The world is under the microscope.

How would Debord start his bible about the spectacle?

With that quote from Feuerbach.

A preface as preface.

From Das Wesen des Christentums.

It deserves to be repeated in its entirety.

“But certainly for THE PRESENT AGE, which PREFERS THE SIGN to the thing signified, the COPY to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence…ILLUSION ONLY IS SACRED, TRUTH PROFANE.  Nay, sacredness is be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that [*] the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness. [*]”

Those are my notes.

My copy.

My marginalia.

I could autograph it for you.

But the words are by Ludwig Feuerbach.

Having gone through translation from German to English by Donald Nicholson-Smith.

So what?

I haven’t even named the film yet.

Or the director.

Rather, I haven’t named the film in English.

Substance has been subjected to style.

Style has no translation.

Close-Up.

By Abbas Kiarostami.

One of the few geniuses in the world.

You will find on my site the review for طعم گيلاس

Who’s reading?

Taste of Cherry.

I thought that surely no film by this auteur could top that, but I was wrong.

The depth of Close-Up completely defies what I thought was possible with cinema.

It is a shock.

I am at a loss for words regarding how much this film affected me.

It is as beautiful as a bus stop.

As poor as a paper bag.

The roses from the leaf pile are a good start.

All over the world.

We play “kick the can”.

Don’t ever let people lie to you about Iran.

What is the truth?

The truth is that there is a genius there who speaks directly to my heart…like no other.

That genius is Abbas Kiarostami.

But we must mention Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

He is perfect.

It is unbelievable.

Do you know how I would feel to meet Jean-Luc Godard?

Hossain Sabzian knows.

To meet the person who gave us hope…who depicted our suffering.

Bicycleran.

بايسيكلران

Or the blessed marriage promised long ago.

We, are on the outside looking in.

Farsi mocks us.

With its beauty.

There is a lump in my throat like a piece of coal.

Do we really care about Oriana Fallaci?

Or rather Peter Bogdanovich?

Interesting that you should ask.

At first we see Haj Ali Reza Ahmadi annoyed, but later we see him as remarkably humane.

This is the Iranian legal system.

We are told it is a civil law system.

In the name of Allah.

How does a country produce such beauty?

Hossain Farazmand.

Everyone wants to be on TV.

It must be difficult to read my writing.

Who cares if you listen?

Now that IS a quote (or misquote).

Milton Babbitt.

Twelve-tone prose.

My beloved concision.

Fighting my windbag tendencies.

It is supposed to be funny.

Like Mauricio Kagel.  Or Francis Poulenc.  Or Conlon Nancarrow.

Must I mention Satie?

Yes, I must.

In the name of Hossain Sabzian.

détournement

Making the job of the DGSE almost impossible.

Ever since the Place de la Contrescarpe.

Les moineaux?  Chez Moineaux?

Trouble makers.

Like the glorious Kiarostami.

But he left us this document.

And he lives at the young age of 75.

Yet, the Situationist is Hossain Sabzian.

Like Arthur Cravan.

But more like Erik Satie.

Life?

Life is hard.

Is it like Film International?

Or like Massoud Mehrabi?

I don’t know.

But I know someone was on the same page mentally.

Because F for Fake (my second most favorite film of all time).

That is the language of cinephiles.

We’ve lost the sound.

Fifteen years ago.

-PD

.سنگسار ثريا م‎‎ [2008)

[THE STONING OF SORAYA M. (2008)]

Every time I write a political post I take my life in my own hands.

Because I let everyone have it.

Out into the ether.

An equal opportunity whistle-blower.

And so I must let you know that this is almost a great movie.

Yet, I’m not even sure if it’s a good movie.

Let me explain.

The Stoning of Soraya M. was released at a very suspicious time.

By a very suspicious (and talented) director.

All through the George W. Bush presidency there was a pervasive itch…a green tide of bile just waiting to drown the country of Iran.

First we reduced one of the poorest countries on Earth (Afghanistan) to rubble.  It was mostly rubble to begin with.

Our military had trouble finding high-value targets to hit.  There were none.

Then our trumped-up intelligence hit the big stage:  the U.N. General Assembly.

Colin Powell knowingly lied.  The U.S. intelligence community was used as a pawn.

The intel was being propped beneath a faulty case like a gratis jack beneath a compact car.

Remember?  The Downing Street memo?

And so we knocked off another country.  Iraq.  The neo-con wargasm really kicked in.  No doubt the poet Ed Sanders was unsurprised.  He coined the phrase wargasm and had been documenting the demented drive of American bloodlust for decades.

And then the steamroller sputtered.

Iran was always next.

Always.  Always.  Next month.  This fall.  Imminent.

Praise be to God that the neo-con luck ran out.  Like the serial killers they are, their ability to trick and deceive abated.

And what the hell does any of this have to do with the film I’m reviewing?

Quite simply, the film I’m reviewing is perfect propaganda to bomb the hell out of Iran.

It was premiered in the final months of the Bush junta.

Perhaps the director and producers had dragged their heels a bit.

Perhaps they realized they were being used?

Perhaps…

But the story goes deeper.

Director Cyrus Nowrasteh is best known for directing a two-part ABC miniseries called The Path to 9/11.  It is “controversial”…which is to say, it is critical of the U.S. government…but only in the most kid-gloves, “oh they should have killed more Muslims” kind of way.  To reframe my argument, Cyrus Nowrasteh was already a propagandist whether he knew it or not.

And that’s where this film comes in.

Let me start by saying that the acting in this film is fantastic.  The direction is stellar (yes, the guy I was just insulting has world-class talent).

What we must ask ourselves is this:  was this film merely meant to pull on the heartstrings like a flippant Laura Bush quote about the Taliban or was Nowrasteh sincere in this unfortunately-timed release?

I believe the director was sincere.

In fact, I believe the director is the parallel of the character Ebrahim in this film.

Ebrahim is the mayor of a small town in Iran.

Ebrahim wants to do the right thing, but he is tricked.

Even so, Ebrahim is a victim of dogma.  Ebrahim’s a dumb-ass.

And yet, we respect him somewhat.

The same goes for Nowrasteh.

If my reading of The Path to 9/11 is correct, then Nowrasteh has never considered the possibility that the United States attacked itself on 9/11.  Adding further color to that false-flag would be the involvement of Israel.

One thing is certain:  it seems that Nowrasteh showed a shocking lack of curiosity when making The Path to 9/11.

Fool me once, Cyrus…shame on…

And so then Nowrasteh gets to direct this piece of cinema.  It is cinema.  But how much can we invest our hearts in a story told by a facilitator of untruths?

It pains me to discount the amazing acting of Mozhan Marnò.

And I do not discount it.

She is one of the most talented actresses I have witnessed in a long time.

The same goes for Shohreh Aghdashloo.  Tremendous thespian skills!

And Nowrasteh (whom I’ve spent “paragraphs” berating)…what a talent!

But is that talent misdirected?  [no pun intended]

I’m not cowing to Iran.

I have nothing to gain.  I have everything to lose.

This film, on its own merits, is extremely remarkable.

But taken in the context of Hollywood propaganda, it becomes suspect.

The Mullah in the film is a scumbag.

The husband is a scumbag.

The town mayor is essentially a scumbag (dupe).

There are very few subtle shadings of character here.

We end up with an unfortunate equation.

Iran = bad.

Islam = bad.

Islamic men = bad.

Islamic women = good.

The equation is begging for some stealth bombers to fill the gap and vaporize those Muslim men.  “Liberate” those Muslim women.

Come on:  we’re pros at it!  Look at our resume!!  Afghanistan?  Check.  Iraq?  Check.  This is our line of work!

We’ll give it a snappy name like Enduring Freedom (how much of our “freedom” can they endure?) and it’ll be over in a few weeks.

We’ll be greeted as saviors.

Let me point out one final detail.

There are some sub-equations here.

Shah = good/bad.

Ayatollah = bad.

And so, mathematicians of ethics, how does the SAVAK compute?

What was Mosaddegh’s good/bad rating?

All we ask in cinema is for a real story.  If you don’t pimp yourself out to the bomb boys, then the Palme d’Or is yours.

Perhaps I am wrong.

I am willing to admit that I may be wrong.

If you can’t tell by the title of this film how it ends (don’t see Titanic), Soraya gets stoned.  As in murdered. As in disgusting.

But what is most disgusting?

Hypocrisy.  The film starts with a quote by Hafez.

The corrupt Mullah is no worse than the military-industrial director.

And for those of immense talent (like Nowrasteh), there is always redemption in the next film.

Tell the real story.  Read a book.

The path to 9/11 almost certainly started in Langley and Herzliya.

One or the other.

Perhaps both.

Or was it the old boys network of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Poppy Bush?

Somebody better get it straight or this world ain’t going nowhere good.

Help us out Cyrus!  The truth will free both our countries.

-PD

طعم گيلاس‎‎ [1997)

[TASTE OF CHERRY (1997)]

Don’t kill yourself, my friend.

I try to preserve the original language.

From France to Romania and now Iran.

It says Taste of Cherry.  And it is a film beyond perfection.  Directed by Abbas Kiarostami.

[if you are on a laptop or desktop it may appear to have no title…not very Farsi-friendly this WordPress]

Long ago I saw this quiet juggernaut.

If you’ve never seen an art film, you’ll know the genre when you see it.

Perhaps this was my first.

At an Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas.

How did I end up there?

More importantly, how did I end up here?

This (the latter) seems to be the vexing question which actor Homayoun Ershadi is asking himself while embodying the suicidal character Mr. Badii.

Never have I seen an actor say so much with such economy of means.

Driving around.  Driving around.

We are suffocated by the expressionless Mr. Badii.

It reaches a head (of sorts) in the quarry.  He’s had enough.

Our protagonist cannot even secure the most essential human contact.  He cannot find even a marginal friend.

We do not know his story.  It would be impossible for anyone to have complete empathy.

He is right.  Your pain is yours alone.

But maybe a miracle is waiting…

Enter Abdolrahman Bagheri.

I have never felt such emotion in a film.

It is real.  As Mr. Bagheri (his name in the film and real life) recounts his own suicide attempt we are brought into a rarefied talent for dialogue which I have only seen in Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel Voyage au bout de la nuit.  Hope in the midst of nihilism.  The deepest, darkest desperation pierced by humor…or humanity.

It places Kiarostami (at least in this film) as a forerunner of the Romanian New Wave.  The trappings are similar.

We see the most depressing back alleys of urban sprawl.  Gravel paths not yet claimed entirely from the grasp of the earth.

Earth.

This film is all about earth.  Dirt.  The dust of impressionism.  Concrete.

Rocks being broken up.

A man (Mr. Badii) whose only longing is, seemingly, to be dead.

Earthmovers, earthmovers everywhere…and not a load to spare.

I have never seen a film like this.

Yes, it fits into the art film genre, and yet…it forges ahead…a new path…take the fork to the right, please.

This film is a testament of hope for the Afghan people.

A testament of hope for the Kurds.

A testament of hope for the Azeris.

And, most of all, this eternal masterpiece is a testament to the genius of Iran.

May the future be as beautiful as the colors of the setting sun.

Even if that sun must piece the sadness of cranes and smog in Tehran.

I will look for the sun if you will…my dear friends.

-PD