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A moving movie love story from the Western edge of Iran.

Byline: Jim Quilty

Summary: The opening sequence of Mehdi Torfi's documentary "Azadi Cinema" is a monochrome shot of a funeral. The keffiyyehs and thobes of the mourners, the snippets of dialogue and the dirge echoing in the background, suggest the solemnities are taking place somewhere in the Arab world.


TEHRAN: The opening sequence of Mehdi Torfi's documentary "Azadi Cinema" is a monochrome shot of a funeral. The keffiyyehs and thobes of the mourners, the snippets of dialogue and the dirge echoing in the background, suggest the solemnities are taking place somewhere in the Arab world.

"Memories," declares the Arabic voiceover, "die long after people." The camera assesses the name above the grave - Sayyid Talib Naqib Alsadat (1942-2005) - then resolves upon a tank retooled as a memorial and, next to it, a billboard-sized painting dedicated to the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War.

"This is Susangerd," the narrator informs you, "One of the cities of Khuzestan."

Khuzestan is a largely Arabic-speaking province on the Iran-Iraq border, a region that has made a rich contribution to the region's cultural heritage. It's said to have been the ancient birthplace of the earliest Persian monarchies and, many centuries later, it was the first toehold of Arab Islam in what was then Sassanid Persia.

More recently, Khuzestan was the site of Iran's first oil finds, making it an area of great interest to British oil companies and their retainers at Whitehall. Geographically speaking, Khuzestan is to Iraq what Czech Sudetenland was to Germany on the eve of World War II and, like that region, it bore the brunt of its western neighbor's expansionist vainglory.

Torfi's invocation of Khuzestan seems to set the meaning of the film's opening funeral, and the trajectory of the film as a whole, as somehow connected with the Iran-Iraq War.

In fact it doesn't. Though that prototype "Gulf War" does provide one episode in the story of "Azadi Cinema," the death preoccupying Torfi's film is that of one man, Sayyid Talib Naqib Alsadat, which he treats as a synecdoche for the cultural life of Khuzestan, indeed Iran.

Alsadat was the owner of Azadi Cinema, which he founded in 1968 and operated for 37 years. Today his theater lies derelict, and rumored to be haunted. You eventually realize the first-person narration Torfi uses to tell the theater operator's story is meant to be that of Alsadat himself, as if returned from the grave.

This may sound cheesy, but in practice the device works surprisingly well to bring lyricism to a story that might otherwise be dismissed as mundane and parochial. "Cinema tickets were licenses to a dream hall," the voice says. "My house was atop a condensed pile of dreams."

Alsadat's "narration" provides the narrative backbone of the movie, set against footage of the now-abandoned cinema, or else black-and-white recreations of film screenings in the cinema. These range from Chaplin's silent movies, to Egyptian musicals starring Abdul Halim and Farid Atrash, to "The Godfather," Massoud Kimiai's "The Journey of the Stone" (credited with prophesying the Iranian Revolution) to pop cinema gore-fests inspired by the Iran-Iraq War.

"Azadi Cinema" also makes use of more conventional methods, interviewing residents from around Susangerd who used to go to the cinema and knew Alsadat - like his projectionist, Zayyer Ghasem.

Cinema Azadi was among the cinemas burnt down in the early days of the Iranian Revolution, which saw Alsadat imprisoned. When he was released, he found Khuzestan occupied by the Iraqi Army. When the Iraqis evacuated, it's said, they sacked the cinema a second time and stole its projector.

Though he rebuilt his cinema, it never played the same role in popular culture that it did before the Iran-Iraq War. Alsadat tried to sell it but nobody wanted to buy it, ensuring that the building remained an effigy of what it once was.

One of the final images of the film is a grainy VHS shot of Alsadat himself, wobbling through a funeral dance to mark the closure of his cinema - which shut for good in 2002.

Torfi's documentary laments the decline of popular cinema in Khuzestan, and Iran as a whole. According to Torfi's colleague (and fellow Khuzestani) Habib Navi Sajed, the early arrival of Western oil interests in the region meant that the projection of Anglo-American film there dates back to the first half of the 20th century.

It was largely because of this history that, according to Torfi's research, Khuzestan had some 36 movie theaters in the 1950s, while nowadays there are nine. In Iran as a whole, the number of cinemas has dropped from 480 to 280.

His camera notes the link between declining cinema attendance and the rise of DVD culture - the frame shifts from an empty cinema to shots of pirated DVDs on sale at the local souq. It's clear, however, that he blames the decline on filmmakers' forgetting that popular audiences saw the cinema as a place to dream and escape, not be reminded of the violence in their lives.

Alsadat evidently doubted his decision to rebuild his theater in the wake of the Iraqi withdrawal, asking, "But where went our dreams? ... The war made graves for every family."

He notes that many of the movies that circulated in the aftermath of the war "were made about war and resistance and killing and violence. But the people had seen far worse violence in their lives."

In conversation, the 23-year-old Torfi has said his principal aim in making "Azadi Cinema" was to make a movie that speaks to the people of Susangerd, where he grew up. In this he has succeeded.

There's something admirable in Torfi's decision to tell this particular story, about a region whose narrative - when told in the West at all - has been subsumed by its geopolitical proximity to (Baathi, then US-occupied) Iraq. It's unfortunate that Khuzestan's glorious back-story weren't better known. Given the region's current precarious status, it would make this film all the more moving.

Copyright 2008, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Nov 15, 2008
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