Film Preview: Middle Eastern Film Festival 2009, 31 January – 19 February, Filmhouse Cinema, Edinburgh

28 Jan

Tehran Has No Pomegranates!

With only a few days to go until Edinburgh’s Filmhouse unveils the sixth Middle Eastern Film Festival, I’ve had a look over a few of the films on show to get a flavour of what will be going on from Saturday until Thursday 19 February.

While I like to think I’ve seen a good variety of films in my time, Middle Eastern output has never really been on my radar. It’s not a conscious decision, but, to state the obvious, the typical British multiplex simply isn’t geared up for such an unknown quantity.

This year the Festival aims to map the changing and evolving character of Iranian cinema, screening a number of examples of output from the last 20 years.

Sixteen films will be shown in total, so there’s much to choose from – I selected three at random to see what sort of thing will be on offer.

The opening film is 2008’s As Simple as That (Saturday 31 January) a look at a typical day in the life of Tahreh, an ordinary Iranian housewife who starts to wonder exactly what her place is in the home and the world.

Many scenes wouldn’t be out of place in a British drama, with scenes of Tahreh cooking or looking after her children recognisable to most Westerners.

Where the film differs from most of our experiences is in the depiction of the standards set for Iranian women by society.

One scene of Tahreh watching her daughter playing in the bedroom with her friends, her clothes and music quite different from her mother’s is particularly affecting, hitting home to both the character and the audience that her life is not what is could be.

Graceful and thoughtful, this is a worthy choice to launch the Festival, the appearance of director Seyyed Reza Mir-Karimi at the screening an added bonus.

One of the most accessible of the Festival, and probably one of the most satirical, is the “musical, historical, comedy, docu-drama, love story, experimental film”, Tehran Has No More Pomegranates! (Sunday 8 February)

Only made last year, director Massoud Bakhshi takes a wide-ranging look at the city he calls home. Opening with a montage of 1960s Tehran, then cutting to the hustle and bustle of a growing city, the film tells us that there are somewhere between 5 and 15 million people in Tehran, “over 94% are poets, the remainder are filmmakers”.

Bakhshi and his fellow filmmakers move through the history of the city, noting that it doesn’t have a proper history as most of it is written by foreigners. One line in the subtitles states that one local bazaar “sells everything from mans soul to chickens milk”.

The director plays with both archive footage and present day filmed vox pops, repeating soundbites – such as one stating that the city is beautiful – and interspersing them with shots that contradict the voiceovers to produce a bitingly sarcastic commentary on life in Tehran today.

For those looking for something a bit more traditional there’s Seyfi Teoman’s 2008 drama, Summer Book, (Wednesday 18 February) in which young Ali is given a book to read during his summer break from school, only to lose it, a problem he tries to solve during the course of the film.

The relaxed pace of life in Ali’s small Turkish village is soon shaken when first his older brother returns from the army to announce to his father he is leaving the military.

Events may unfold at a less than rushed pace, but the film is never slow. Ali’s mother’s suffering as her life is thrown into uncertainty following her husband’s health problems are sensitively handled, the camera never getting so close to her that we feel we’re being manipulated.

The opening and closing scenes are simple yet memorable, Teoman unafraid to linger on shots that other directors might gloss over. Summer Book is a gentle film that will hopefully get a wider audience.

Final thoughts

An overemphasis on religion and politics in the press are usually cited as a barrier to our greater understanding of what’s taking place in various areas of the Middle East, their supposed complexity leading many of us to simply switch channels.

These films all highlight the fact that in many cases if we just take time to get a little closer to the real people, we’ll see they’re not really that different to us, even if their surroundings are.

Humour and emotion are prominent, particularly in No More Pomegranates, helping otherwise heavy subjects become much more accessible.

I’m not quite what else is waiting to be discovered, but I’d be interested to delve a little deeper into the programme to find out.

Full details can be found on the Filmhouse website.

Thanks to the Filmhouse for helping in the preparation of this review.

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