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burning issue

visions of lives constrained

dan edwards: granaz moussavi’s my tehran for sale

Marzieh Vafamehr, My Tehran for Sale Marzieh Vafamehr, My Tehran for Sale

Nor has there been much reflection on the fact that the film failed to get a local release, despite playing at numerous festivals around the globe and winning the 2009 IF Independent Spirit Award. Although local distributors have remained indifferent, My Tehran for Sale is one of the most complex, engrossing works made in Australia for some time. It not only provides a quietly dramatic insight into what it’s like to live under the constraints of a theocratic regime—it also holds up a mirror to our own inhumanity in the face of those escaping repression in Iran and other countries.

The film’s Iranian director Granaz Moussavi comes from a Tehran family with deep roots in the Iranian film world and she continued to pursue her own passion for cinema after moving to Australia in 1997. Filmed entirely on the streets of Tehran with Australian financing (including support from the Adelaide Film Festival, see RT102), My Tehran for Sale is an attempt to reclaim a city and an artistic tradition that has been systematically smothered by Iran’s theocracy—a love letter to a capital, shot through with mourning, melancholy and loss.

a subterranean world

My Tehran for Sale opens with two illicit gatherings—one out of the past, one stridently modern. The camera slowly pans from a gas lamp across the faces of children and teenagers sitting in a circle around a middle-aged man playing songs in a traditional style. Suddenly we cut to the frenetic bass-heavy beats of a rave, the children of Iran’s revolution dancing to a forbidden tune. Marzieh—played by the actress of the same name—is outside the dance party with her new boyfriend when the police descend. First they break up the acoustic sing-along, accusing the youths of being illegal Afghan immigrants, then they burst into the rave in the adjacent building, denouncing the brazen display of “immoral” behavior and arresting all those present. Marzieh hides as her friends are taken away in a bus, a position we shall see is symptomatic of a life lived in the shadows. In a scene unhappily presaging the actress’ own sentencing, the ravers are later flogged.

The focus of My Tehran for Sale is not the cruelties of the Iranian regime, however, but the vitality of life and artistic expression throbbing beneath Tehran’s surface. When she’s not attending raves or underground concerts, Marzieh is a member of an underground theatre troupe, rehearsing performances behind closed doors and dreaming of one day reaching an audience. At private parties her friends smoke and recite poetry, all the while conscious of the stranglehold the authorities have over their city’s public life.

The emotional core of the film revolves around Marzieh’s budding relationship with Saman (played by the director’s husband Amir Chegini), an Iranian-born Australian who has returned to his homeland looking for business opportunities and perhaps someone to save. Although Saman potentially offers a way out of Iran, Marzieh is torn between her love for her culture and a desire to escape the crushing weight that hangs over her existence.

At a party, Marzieh asks a stoned Saman what Australia is like. “Can you perform there and does it get recognised?” she asks plaintively, the naivety of her question painfully obvious to an Australian audience. Saman paints an idyllic picture of a nation bathed in light and replete with material wealth, but lacking depth. “Australia is like paradise. A paradise made of coloured paper,” he says dreamily. Describing his arrival in Australia at age 14, he recalls, “You get on a plane, you cross seas, oceans. You arrive in a big city full of light. Just like a fairytale. But after a couple of weeks, the effect is gone. And you start to wonder, who are these people, what is this place?” The monologue deftly evokes the conflicted emotions of the forced emigré caught between memories of a lost homeland and the reality of life in an alien culture.

As it turns out, Marzieh’s entry into Australia is considerably less smooth than Saman’s. Throughout the film the actress’ subterranean life in Tehran is intercut with snippets of interviews between her and an unsympathetic immigration official in an Australian detention centre. Apart from dramatic tension—how did Marzieh end up in this place?—the cross-cutting creates disturbing parallels and repetitions between the two settings.

Repression here is not something that can be comfortably ascribed to the ‘other,’ as we watch from the West, confident of our own freedoms. My Tehran for Sale subtly affirms that arbitrary state power also ruins lives right here in Australia, through policies supported by many and enforced by our own public servants. It’s this skillful movement between time zones and places that makes Moussavi’s film such a rich, evocative portrayal of individual lives caught in the constricting binds of others’ fear and ignorance—whether it’s the religiously-inspired intolerance of the Iranian government or the suffocating bureaucratic stonewalling of Australia’s refugee processing system.

a community under a cloud

Marzieh Vafamehr, Asha Mehrab, My Tehran for Sale Marzieh Vafamehr, Asha Mehrab, My Tehran for Sale
Life depressingly imitated art in July this year, when actress Marzieh Vafamehr was arrested in Iran for her role in My Tehran for Sale. In early October she was sentenced to 90 lashes and a year in jail. The charges related to scenes in which she appears without hijab, although previously this had been permitted in Iranian cinema when a woman’s head was shaved, as Vafamehr’s is in the film. In fact director Granaz Moussavi stated in an ABC interview on October 11, “I didn’t do anything wrong in the film according to the rules and regulations of filmmaking in Iran.” In any case, the film was never intended for the Iranian market. Pirate DVD copies gradually seeped into the country, however, and it also became available on various websites. By mid-2011 it seems the Iranian authorities felt compelled to respond.

Vafamehr’s sentence provoked widespread international criticism and was appealed by her lawyers. On October 28 it was reported that the actress’ punishment had been reduced to three months imprisonment, with no corporal punishment. As Vafamehr had already been detained for four months, she was immediately released.

Jafar Panahi, This Is Not a Film Jafar Panahi, This Is Not a Film
Unfortunately Vafamehr’s case is part of a wider campaign to intimidate film and media workers. In September six Iranian documentary makers were arrested for supplying material to the BBC. Two have since been released, while the fate of the other four remains unknown. In October, the acclaimed director Jafar Panahi (best known in Australia for The Circle, 2000) lost his appeal against a sentence of six years in prison and a ban on all filmmaking, international travel and contact with the press for 20 years. Panahi was initially arrested in July 2009 for his vocal support of protesters killed following Iran’s disputed presidential election. Soon released, he was rearrested in February 2010. His colleague, director Mohammad Rasoulof, was arrested at the same time and also sentenced to six years in prison, recently reduced to one. Jafar Panahi’s documentary This Is Not a Film, smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick after being shot by the director on a mobile phone while under house arrest, is currently screening in most capitals around Australia.

This litany of arrests shows that while Marzieh Vafamehr has thankfully been released, a very dark cloud continues to hang over Iran’s celebrated filmmaking community. Even Abbas Kiarostami, widely regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of contemporary times, feels he can no longer work in his home country. His most recent film was made in Italy, and his next production is planned for Japan. On German radio he recently stated Iranian filmmakers face a “very, very bad situation.” In the case of director Granaz Moussavi, Iran’s loss has been Australia’s gain. Let’s hope local indifference doesn’t stifle a voice that the Iranian authorities have attempted to cow through more coercive means.

My Tehran for Sale is available on DVD from Vendetta Film;

My Tehran for Sale, writer, director Granaz Moussavi, producers Julie Ryan and Kate Croser, actors Marzieh Vafamehr, Amir Chegini, Asha Mehrabi, Cyan Films, Australia-Iran, 2009

Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film will be reviewed in RT107

This article first appeared in the online e-dition Nov 22

RealTime issue #106 Dec-Jan 2011 pg. web

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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