Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Reflections in the "Mirror": The Work of Ebrahim Golestan

Paper Abstract:

In May 2007, legendary Iranian filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan came to Chicago for a retrospective of his work, which included short non-fiction films and features. It was the first time one feature, The Brick and the Mirror, was shown for an audience in over thirty years. Golestan was present at that screening and others to engage in discourse with the audience. Now over eighty years old, Golestan is still sharp and totally charming. The four short documentaries are described and critiqued as vividly as possible because the reader will probably never get to see them. Additionally, there is a detailed discussion of The Brick and the Mirror (also unfortunately unavailable to the public), a feature-length fiction film released in 1965 about a taxi driver who must care for a baby that has been left in his car. It is funny, tragic, ultimately poignant, and a great work of social commentary. Golestan’s own comments about his films are intertwined with the analysis.

Paper Excerpts:

After showing his film The Brick and the Mirror to the public for the first time in over thirty-five years, Ebrahim Golestan, a distinguished-looking man of over eighty with a shock of white hair, slowly approaches a podium. As a microphone is attached, the Chicago audience applauds. Finally, he says, simply and humbly, “Thank you.” After that, he asks, with a wry smile on his face, “Is there anything I can do?” The audience laughs, and this establishes his demeanor – easy-going, direct, and witty, something very rare in filmmakers today. Golestan, the legendary Iranian filmmaker, has traveled to Chicago for a retrospective of some of his rarest and most significant works. After viewing four short documentaries and one feature-length fiction film, a distinct style emerges – honest and confrontational, funny and often heart-breaking, and deeply, personally human. He proves that even when working on commission, he could create works of art. With his four short documentaries and The Brick and the Mirror, Ebrahim Golestan definitively secured his place in world cinema, and these works still resonate and provoke discussion today.

At the screening of his early documentaries, the first film shown was The Wave, Coral and Rock, a film actually commissioned by the Iranian Oil Company, presented in dazzling Technicolor. Watching the beginning of it, it recalls a show entitled Planet Earth that is very popular today, a series that searches the globe for beautiful and often previously unseen places. There is definitely a nature show feel about this documentary, but it is much more lyrical and almost epic. The camera explores the depths of the water in the Persian Gulf and the stunning aquatic life, “oblivious of the torments of thought.” Throughout the entire film, and actually all of the documentaries, the camera is sweeping, penetrating, and constantly moving, which further emphasizes the poetic nature of his work. In the midst of this natural splendor, an oil field is being built, and the focus shifts to that process.

As Golestan himself made clear after the screening, this film was not made as a condemnation of industry. He said that when he made it, that was not “fashionable.” Yet the film does seem to be a comment on nature versus technology, but more about nature’s ability to survive in spite of technology. It is actually a hopeful message. This film also very closely resembles Fernand Léger’s 1924 film about the beauty of machinery called Ballet Mécanique. There is a very musical, rhythmic quality to the pacing, fluidity, and choice of shots in Golestan’s film. He makes something inherently ugly beautiful. Golestan’s narration completely elevates the film above a traditional industrial documentary. At one time, it is said about the machinery that the “metallic branches are in bloom,” a stunning metaphor.

At the same time, his visuals are just as meticulous and gorgeous. He also maintains a heavy sense of irony, which makes it difficult to believe that he had no subversive intentions whatsoever, although one would certainly never argue with the director. At one point, sheep relax under the shade of pipes ready to be laid for the gigantic pipeline. It is a powerful image, but it also emphasizes his assertion that he did not have any ulterior motive when making this film. The sheep look totally happy; in fact, they are probably much happier under the pipes than before. Where else could they find that sort of respite from the hot sun? Industry does not always destroy nature, and sometimes it is possible for the two to work in harmony. This massive undertaking took over one million days to build. The last shot shows the pristine, sparkling sea once again, unchanged and unphased by the weight of the pipes passing through it.

Of all the four documentaries screened, The Iranian Crown Jewels is by far the most controversial. It was commissioned by the national bank in order to glorify Iran’s wealth. Unlike the other films, this was blatantly and intentionally subversive. He utilized the commission to denounce the practices of past rulers. Basically, all of the jewels were taken violently or through other unjust means. As Golestan says, “There is no glory in that.” So his film was butchered to make it more acceptable. What suffered the most was his narration, which he provided in its entirety to the audience at the screening. It reads like an epic poem, but it is highly confrontational. He insists that “majesty and magnificence do not derive from dazzling ornaments. They come from the core of being alive. And to be dazzled by décor is the beginning and the key to decadence.” The film begins by showing images of people living extremely simply, not unhappy but clearly very poor, which makes the presentation of the jewels even more striking and heavily ironic and denunciatory. After all, what good is the wealth of a country when it cannot aid its inhabitants?

While the first four films are short non-fiction works, The Brick and the Mirror, released in 1965, is a feature-length work of fiction. Golestan produced, wrote, edited, and directed the film, proving his incomparable versatility and skill as a filmmaker. The film, at times very funny and at other times very tragic, takes place over the course of a day (most of it takes place overnight) and tells the story of a taxi driver named Hashem who discovers that a woman has left her baby girl in the back of his car. He then must examine his conscience and decide what to do, aided by his girlfriend, Taji. Hashem leaves the baby at an orphanage, causing an irreparable rift with Taji. She desperately needs something in her life that will give it meaning. As Golestan posed after the screening, “Do we have a need for a savior? Who is the savior? Is a savior sent to us by some higher authority?” After she lambastes him for his cowardice at not keeping the baby, he is forced to grapple with his decision, wandering the streets in his car alone.

After Taji yells at Hashem, she visits the orphanage, and it is one of the most devastating and poignant sequences in film history, a scene that brings tears of joy and pain to the viewer’s eyes. She goes there to try and find the little girl she has lost, but when she enters, she discovers hundreds of children, all alone and needy. In one room, about a dozen little boys eagerly await visitors. When they see her, they light up and start to bounce around, coming closer to her. It is truly adorable, and Taji laughs and plays with them. However, the sad realization sinks in at the same time for both the audience and Taji. This heartwarming scene suddenly transforms into a moment of sheer horror. These precious children have no one to care for them. She cannot possibly take all of them home. It is so desperately sad that these children, no disrespect intended, act like wounded shelter animals performing tricks to try and get someone to accept them. This seems like something they do all the time. When she has to leave the room, they scatter, another possibility lost. They are used to the disappointment.

Without a doubt, the silence in the building is not the fault of the orphanage. They are doing the best they can with an impossible situation. Golestan explains, “She went into the orphanage to find the factor that she thought was the savior, and then she realizes that all of those babies could be that.” Taji leaves the main room with all the children and leans against the wall in the hallway for support, emitting a few quick sobs, but otherwise too shaken to even cry. The camera pulls away from her slowly, tracking backwards down the long, empty hallway, a move that Golestan feels emphasizes her loneliness. The fact that this is a real orphanage makes the film even more upsetting. Golestan’s bravery in exposing this grave social problem is inspirational, and he approaches the issue with the utmost sensitivity. Near the end of the film, Hashem stops in front of some televisions on display in a store window and watches a program on the sets. The man on television says something to the effect that remaining silent in the face of injustice is a crime. This is what Golestan believes, and what everyone should believe.

All in all, Ebrahim Golestan, even though he has been removed from his audience for so long, remains one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking, and influential filmmakers, certainly in Iranian cinema, but in the history of cinema in general. Whether making industrial documentaries or narrative features, he possesses a poetic visual style, grace, and a sense of humor, all rare qualities today. What really makes him so special is his ability to speak the truth. His message may be blunt or harsh for some people, but it is honest: “Life goes on, and things happen.” He explained that life, as mentioned in The Brick and the Mirror, is like the lottery – sometimes you win, and sometimes you do not. Golestan also understands that real change has to start within. When talking about the theme of The Brick and the Mirror, he insisted, “I know that it is me, a human being, who is responsible for his own life.” A member of the audience asked him if he thought the ending of The Brick and the Mirror was hopeful or hopeless, and he said that it was neither, and that it did not matter. After living a difficult life, he still manages to remain wryly optimistic, “You can always have hope. I have hope now, even at the very end of a desperate situation.” Basically, he knows that a filmmaker cannot tell someone whether or not to believe in hope; they need to find that in themselves, like he did. When he started the discussion, he asked the audience if there was anything he could do. He has already done more for the world than he can ever realize.

1 comment:

Parviz said...

Hi Lisa,

I found your blog by chance and I like your reading of Golestan's films. He is a remarkable filmmaker and writer and the forerunner of the New Wave Iranian Cinema. I've done an in-depth interview with him for the first time in 30 years which has been published in Iran in 2005 and made a splash: Writing with the Camera.

Parviz Jahed