So much of the information about Iran in North America is purely political in nature; it is useful and heartening then to be reminded that actual people live there, people who write poetry and make films and smoke cigarettes and have regular, boring lives that, despite everything, are not defined by the stupid, anti-human dictates of their government. Those who wish to learn more about this, however, are advised to go avoid Facets's new DVD, The Mirror of the Soul. A collection of three short documentaries on the late, legendary Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad - The Green Cold, The Mirror of the Soul and The Summit of the Wave - these films are so unfocused and poorly made that I fear they would discourage anyone who might be interested in modern Iranian culture or Persian literature.
The worst of the bunch is the first entry, The Green Cold, which has so many problems that one doesn't even know where to begin. Let's start at the most elementary level, then. Unless you're a Persian speaker - I'm not - you may have a difficult time following this film's narrative thread, as The Green Cold boasts some of the crummiest subtitles I've encountered. Not only are there spelling and grammar mistakes, but the ratio of subtitles-to-speech is alarmingly lopsided: a talking head - Farrokhzad's mother, or one of her friends in the Iranian intelligentsia - will speak for minutes at a time, only to have their monologue boiled down to one brief sentence that's often both succinct and vague, an accomplishment of sorts. As if that wasn't bad enough, the visual presentation suffers in other ways, most painfully in the transitions between shots, which occur only as quick fades to black, not straight cuts. This may seem like something that only anal retentive cinema-gearheads could care about, but this adds up in an unpleasant way, giving the whole thing a very choppy, amateurish feel.
Its not as though the content of this episode is so grand as to merit a deluxe presentation. Focusing on the details of her life and premature death, The Green Cold is satisfied to offer a few facts here and there, mostly without the benefit of any historical context that might give them meaning. There are some interesting details here and there concerning Farrokhzad's youth, but without any idea of the social or political circumstances - to say nothing of the prevailing standards of the contemporary literary scene - statements such as "she always considered herself a leftist" (said of her by her brother Amir) mean very little.
This might not have been such a problem had Facets not placed The Green Cold first in the sequence of films. Nothing, however, could save this film from its own shoddy production - in addition to the problems I mentioned above, we're treated to wretched music, awful editing and clichéd, meaningless shots of Tehran taken from a moving car. Just a few seconds short of an hour, The Green Cold drags by, refusing to end the misery and just finish already.
The second film, The Mirror of the Soul, at least gives some context to the aimless biographical musing of previous entry. Here the focus is on Farrokhzad's writings, which is presumably what anyone likely to pick this up is most interested in. The Mirror makes an adequate effort at demonstrating how Farrokhzad saw herself as a poet working in a specifically Iranian context but who yet felt herself to be a part of the global literary scene. Various surviving friends, relatives and co-workers - many of them repeats from The Green Cold - give their insights and assessments of her work; while most of them speak about her general worldview, some of them actually have specific things to say about her poems, a refreshing change of pace from the usual vagaries that pass for literary criticism in popular culture. Through these interviews, the film does raise some interesting points about the status of women - particularly women artists - in Iran. As M. Azad, a poet and colleague of Farrokhzad, puts it, "In our society to be a woman and do cultural work, even in total purity, does not give reason [for] others to be quiet, and does not prevent their maltreatment..."
Azad seems to be referring to the various hassles that Farrokhzad suffered through as a result of her work. While nothing she went through compares to what many Iranian writers suffered - the Shah's government was as paranoid and irrational as the one that succeeded it, and often dealt out the harshest punishments for criticism of any kind - she was "excommunicated" by some local bluenosed religious authority for some of her early work, and she was nagged by rumors of an affair between her and a male friend. Historical context such as this was largely absent from The Green Cold, and it is to the credit of the second film that it at least attempts to give a sense of the bigger picture.
That said, The Mirror is still hobbled by the same stylistic issues that bothered me so much in the first film: quick fades, a crummy shot-on-video look, wretched editing, too-frequent breaks for canned music, found footage that is cut in between interviews for no discernable reason. This last point is even more frustrating in The Mirror of the Soul than in its predecessor, as the interviews are punctuated by news footage of violent (and seemingly recent) events - the aftermath of a police riot, dead children piled up on the sidewalk and so forth. Perhaps these images may be more evocative for contemporary Iranian viewers, but, without any explanation offered by the film itself, I was left to wonder what exactly the film was alluding to.
Further problems abound. We are treated to more lengthy shots of Tehran city streets, this time set to music, the lyrics of which are helpfully translated. Did Farrokhzad have a hand in writing the songs? We are never told, although the inclusion would seem superfluous if that wasn't the case. But with these films you never can tell. Another moment of toe-clenching embarrassment comes when, part-way through, an off-screen narrator appears and assumes the voice of Farrokhzad herself, explaining incidents of her life and work as we go along. Again, I would normally assume that a diary or memoir was being quoted here, but we are never told one way or the other. The source of the words is ultimately not that important anyway - the narration adds very little, feeling just like so much padding for time. The only real stylistic flair here occurs a few minutes in, when, after one of the talking heads laments the fact that Farrokhzad's reputation in modern Iran is not what it ought to be, the film moves outdoors, conducting a series of brief man-on-the-street interviews in which the subjects are asked their opinions of her work and respond with, variously, bewilderment, enthusiasm or indifference. It yields refreshingly spontaneous moments, the sort that are simply nonexistent in the rest of the film, which otherwise plays like something meant for use in an educational setting.
Things continue to improve (somewhat) with The Summit of the Wave, the third film in the set. The shortest at 30 minutes, it feels the least flabby, and corrects many of the stylistic flaws of the other two: subjects are allowed to speak for longer periods, cuts replace fades, the lame library music is replaced by a suitably dramatic bit of Chopin.
That The Summit of the Wave is the best of the three is no huge surprise, as it addresses Farrokhzad's work in cinema; accordingly, the documentary is fleshed out with many fascinating and tantalizing clips of her work. Farrokhzad started out as an editor; through her friendship with producer Ebrahim Golestan she was able to try her hand at acting, producing and directing. She was never terribly prolific in any of her work, film least of all - she wound up leaving her mark on only a handful of films. Her most widely known work is The House is Black, a documentary about a leper colony in the wilderness of Iran.
Most of The Summit is devoted to this film, and the clips that appear are intriguing enough that I began to wonder why Facets didn't simply release The House is Black rather than the three documentaries featured here. If nothing else, it would have been a swell bonus feature. Iranian cinema has been somewhat trendy on the festival circuit for about a decade now, yet much of it is woefully underrepresented on (Region 1) DVD. I must confess that it stings a bit to realize that the only Iranian films available in this country are devoted to telling you about the really good stuff that you could be watching.
Nevertheless, if the mission of The Summit is to get you excited about Farrokhzad's work in cinema, than it has succeeded. This is the only one of the three films on this disc that I would recommend, and even then only slightly, as it will only leave you wishing you had watched The House is Dark instead.
All three of the films on this disc were shot on video; as you might expect, the DVD does a fine job of capturing that image, offering an adequate if (necessarily, given the format) unspectacular look. The only variations in the image quality occur when older footage appears (often aged, degraded video or, in The Summit of the Wave, film), which is more a reflection of the poor quality of the materials. English subtitles are burned into the image and are non-removable.
The stereo soundtrack is slightly muddy, probably owing to poor recording quality. Everything - or most everything - said by the interviewees is subtitled, so the audio was not much of an issue. I must say, though, that the soundtrack really does come alive on the too-few occasions when archival recordings of Farrokhzad reading her own poems are played. As I said before, I do not understand Persian, but the very sound of her words and her voice are mesmerizing. Farrokhzad was a true artist, one who deserves more attention; its a shame that the films on this disc were not up to that task.
There are no extras on the disc.
I am greatly interested in Iranian cinema and literature, and was very much looking forward to this disc. I had heard of Farrokhzad before, but I wasn't familiar with her work; I thought the films on this disc might give me an understanding, appreciation or even just a point of entry into her work. Unfortunately, the three films on this disc are a bust on almost every level. Not only do the films manage to make an inherently interesting subject kind of dull, they botch the execution completely, presenting us with a group of documentaries that look like student films (I'll except The Summit of the Wave from this criticism, as it actually has a vaguely professional look to it). I would like very much to encourage people to learn more about Iranian arts and letters, but I simply can't recommend The Mirror of the Soul for that purpose. I would recommend a trip to the library, however - Marjane Satrapi's critically acclaimed Persepolis books and the recent anthology Strange Times, My Dear should be easy to find, and will give you a very informative, rich and deep look into contemporary Iran. The Mirror of the Soul? Skip it.