Amidst talk of bombs and wars, a small Iranian film sweeps up the highest honors in western cinema. Its unassuming director goes up on stage, faces Hollywood aristocracy and his voice, soft and humble flows across the airways reaching millions dedicating his golden statue to the good people of his ancient land.
The following day various sites hailed the event as an example of cultural camaraderie ignoring the threats of imminent strikes and annihilation red lines; and you tubes of Iranian families sitting spellbound in front of their satellite TVs, holding their breath to be ushered into the hall of fame by their archenemy, spiraled throughout the internet. Once again it was clear -- people will ignore the rantings of their politicians to come together in celebration of all that their humanity has in common while embracing diversity.
The Iranian PR machine predictably declared the whole thing to be a triumph over Israel – since the “Zionist Nation” was also competing in the same category. Well thank goodness for small nothings. That’s what I love about movies. It can be all things to all people -- and come Kodak day, those who lose can snub the whole thing as a meaningless self-congratulation exercise, while winners graciously fumble for words in front of a blank teleprompter basking in their two minutes of sun in front of Hollywood royalty. As for the peanut gallery, they can thank whomever they want.
I had heard volumes about the movie. As it picked up awards from Berlin to France, Canada and the Golden Globes, I went to see it. I found myself in a familiar place. A place of my childhood. A place where I remembered so well that I felt I knew all the characters in their multiple layers with their emotional subtexts – It is every day Middle East where millions of lives negotiate the burdens of cultural obligations, economic hardships, faith, politics and thousands of years of complex history which has equipped them, above all, with the unique art of nuance – a multilayered capacity to cope, to reinvent, to thrive, even as they try to maintain a sense of integrity and social cohesion.
The story is set against the backdrop of an old man suffering from Alzheimer – like his native country sunken in a sense of oblivion, the old man meanders in the background, disoriented, helpless or asleep while the young Termeh, the future, convulses in the conflict between two poles -- one who wants to leave, wishing for change – and another who wants to stay -- out of duty, out of choice or simply, out of love because even if his father may no longer recognize him, that he nevertheless knows he is his father, knows this is where he belongs.
Our helpless background hero is entrusted to a devout religious caretaker who is going through her own crisis – financial and personal. A series of encounters pits characters against each other, testing the limits of truth, faith and duty in anticipation of a final verdict – will Termeh choose to go, or will she stay behind – like her country, caught in turmoil, the answer is hard to come by. As the credits crawl by, the audience is no closer to a resolution. The future remains uncertain.
Like any good story, the parallels between fiction and reality are skillfully crafted even getting a pass from the Iranian authorities who failed to put a finger on anything which could be construed as overtly political. But of course it was. How could one be from the Middle East and not be touched by politics. Hidden in between the crevasses of the personal stories, a larger story looms in layered subtext.
The triumph of the film was its brilliant ability to portray the multiple layers of conflict and heartbreak without commentary, without judgment – and despite the lies, deceptions – even a murder charge – no villain – just a complex set of personal predicaments juxtaposed on a larger canvas, crafted with details of human interdependence that at the end leaves the audience with a profound sense of compassion for each character.
The couple are estranged not because they reject one other, but for individual choices; the accused intervenes on behalf of his accuser; the prosecutor listens with concern and the devout character is taken beyond the current caricatures in the media to reveal a deep sense of morality, unable to swear on the Koran even if it could bring her personal gain. Throughout the story, a quest for truth runs like a silent witness, reassuring and ever present.
These days, when talk of war and binary choices seeks only to dominate and vilify, rather than approach and understand, the world is presented as a struggle between good and evil, each narrator posing as the custodian of truth – indivisible and uncompromising – as if competing to keep from understanding the other. The success of “separation” could be a nod to the humanity in all of us, which longs to bridge and empathize.
If only we could stop playing the polarizing roles we are so used to.
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