Since there are so many movies at BIFF, I usually spend the first day or two just figuring out what I want to see. I always try to do as much research as possible before arriving Thursday afternoon, and because I am a guest the press office allows me to reserve seats for almost any public screening I want to see. At first, I always took this privilege seriously, and tried to get as many screenings booked as possible so as to save time during the festival itself, but after a few years I found this to be a bad idea. Without pre-reservations of films that are not being screened specifically for the press (and even for those that are, since the press and industry screenings are fixed and thus sometimes overlap with other things I want to do or see) you have to wait in line at one of the ticketing venues early in the morning so as to make sure you get a seat, since you are competing not only with other guests and journalists, but also with the public, who are quite keen about BIFF. Still, the movies I pre-reserve tend to be those I already knew something about or whose directors I’ve seen before, but after a day or two at the festival you hear about other movies through word-of-mouth and want to see those. So I started cutting down on the number of pre-reservation ticket requests and just kept my ears open and my mind free. Of course, often I couldn’t get tickets due to scheduling or availability, and in such cases I would go to the video room and watch the movie on VOD (if, in fact, it was made available on VOD by the distributor or producer). Because, in the end, those kinds of surprises—finding a new director, for instance—are what film festivals should be about.
Since I’m not there this year, there’s no face-to-face interactions and thus fewer opportunities to pick up the skinny on what’s good and what isn’t, but a friend who knows one of the programmers told me that the New Current section was especially strong this year. New directors are mainly showcased in the New Currents section, the only group of films for which BIFF itself sets up a dedicated picture competition. The films in the section are supposed to be the first or second feature of the connected director, and thus there’s little pre-festival buzz accompanying them, but once the fest starts most of the journalists who are serious about film try to see all the movies in the section, because one will win a prize. Festival competitions, after all, are carried out to generate publicity. Most directors I’ve met say they hate them. But in the case of New Currents, the end result—more exposure not only for the winner, but all the directors in the section—is effective, and invariably they were the movies I heard most about at parties and casual run-ins with friends and acquaintances.
I’ve never seen all the movies in the section in a given year, and this year is no exception, but yesterday I watched the two Iranian entries, which offered perhaps the starkest example of the polar differences in what Iranian cinema has to offer these days. Asteroid, the debut feature of veteran film and TV editor Mehdi Hoseinivand Aalipour, is almost a throwback to the formative days of Iranian cinema when children were used to deliver themes that couldn’t be handled easily with adult stories, since censorship was more severe. Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House is the most representative example, but Asteroid doesn’t have to carry that kind of burden. In the production notes, the director says he was inspired by an experience working on a film shoot in the desert where he saw a village boy who knew nothing “about life except working.” But rather than be appalled by the boy’s circumstances he found his attitude almost saintly and immediately tried to write a script about someone like him. As a result, the movie is more of a portrait than a story, though Aalipour does an effective job of filling in the environment without making any editorial judgements about how that environment shapes the boy’s character.
Ebrahim is one of six siblings living with their single mother, whose husband and oldest son left one day to work far away and never came back. No explanation is given for their disappearance though at one point Ebrahim’s mother wonders if they weren’t waylaid in a foreign country. Though not yet an adolescent, Ebrahim becomes the de facto breadwinner of the family, and works any job thrown his way, from date orchard worker to stable boy to B&B runner to housemaid for a well-to-do widower. Except for one incident where he actually loses a bunch of foreign tourists in the desert while they’re seeing the sights, he never causes trouble and is always considerate and subservient to a fault. He has accepted his lot with humility, even when his best friend, another young boy who works at the date orchard, tries to enlist him to come to the city and join him in a delivery venture. Ebrahim’s work ethic has a purpose: to help his mother and siblings not just survive, but be happy, which is why he tends to spend the money he earns on presents for them, a penchant his mother finds both endearing and frustrating. Aalipour is not interested in plumbing Ebrahim’s soul or charting his emotional landscape. At one point his mother apologizes that he has to work so much, saying he should be in school, but Ebrahim doesn’t really seem put out by his lack of educational opportunity, and, in truth, I wanted to know more about the socioeconomic situation in this remote part of Iran. The only inkling we get is when the mother consults with a local official about finally getting national IDs for her family, which involves paying for DNA tests since her kids don’t have birth certificates. As it stands, the IDs are necessary for her to take out a loan to finish building her house, so it’s not as if the family is destitute. A scene involving Ebrahim making a pizza for the family from scratch shows that resourcefulness can trump material lack in most cases. And when Ebrahim and his older siblings are invited to the rich family’s weekend getaway it’s presented as the nice time it is, though the hosts still treat Ebrahim as a kind of servant. Which is to say that Aalipour wants to celebrate a kid like Ebrahim, not analyze him, and that makes Asteroid (whose title isn’t clarified, though there’s lots of talk about the sky and the stars) an unusual entry in the New Currents section, which when addressing movies about children usually go for something more dramatic or distressing. Ebrahim is to be admired, not pitied.
Whereas Asteroid is mostly devoid of drama and incident, the other Iranian entry in the New Current section, The Absent Director, is saturated with both. Director Arvand Dashtaray is a noted theater operator/director in Tehran whose first feature film this is, and, of course, it’s about theater people. In fact, everyone, including Dashtaray, seems to be using their own name, though I assume the “characters” they play are not themselves. Dashtaray is a theater director who has come up with a novel take on Macbeth that he wants to stage at the Edinburgh Theater Festival, but first he has to record a scene from the play and send it to the festival before he can be invited. Such a task proves to be more difficult than it sounds. Owing to material and financial limitations, not to mention implied legal restrictions, Dashtaray’s house is used for rehearsals, and on the day of the recording, all the actors and crew, most of whom are amateurs or students and have other things to do, are a mess of conflicting schedules and interpersonal resentments. Even worse, Dashtaray himself is, for some reason, in Paris, from where he directs the rehearsal online and upsets everybody with his harsh criticism. Dashtaray’s wife, Marene (Marene Van Holk), a foreign national who will be playing one of the Lady Macbeths, shows up late to the rehearsal in a very foul mood and almost immediately quits.
Though the fast pacing and intimate blocking make for a vivid viewing experience, they also drain much of the black comedy that seems to be central to Dashtaray’s purposes. However, the reason the story remains resolutely intense is a gimmick: Dashtaray films the entire movie in one continuous take; or, at least, he makes the viewer believe that it’s one continuous take. He even moves back and forth in time while doing so, explaining the reason for Dashtaray’s supposed sojourn to Paris, Marene’s rage, and the internecine fighting among certain members of the company. It’s all meticulously presented and seamless, and while the intensity is often exhilirating it tends to point up the film’s dependence on the kind of dramatic cliches that Dashtaray tries to lampoon. I wanted less information about the director’s infidelities, which, of course, are directly linked to his self-image as an artist, and more about his relationship with his backer and the authorities, which are only hinted at. Some mysteries are more compelling than others.