Oct. 10, 2006 - Issue #573: Ten Second Epic
Sometimes insightful, Salam Iran suffers split personality
The opening of Salam Iran drifts into a clinical, anthro-political investigation of a faraway land, with Lafond hesitating to let his images and subjects carry the film, preferring to pull back into intellectualizing exposition.
Lafond (best-known in English Canada as the husband of our current Governor-General) explains that he has been drawn to Iran by that man in the graveyard, Amir, who came to Quebec in 1983, after the Islamic Revolution had been exploited by Ayatollah Khameini. But Amir, who translates Quebec poet Gaston Miron into Farsi, must wait a little longer for a passport before returning.
So Lafond leaves without him, but the film is now two removes from any sort of Iranian “reality.” Lafond arrives during Muharram and films rituals on the Day of Ashura, the culmination of general mourning for the martyr-death of Husayn ibn Ali in 680 AD. Yet the scenes here aren’t given enough context and so remain oddly fascinating, a mix of the foreign and lurid. This failure to communicate the full weight and depth of another culture hangs over much of the film. Too often, Salam Iran: A Persian Letter seems like a well-meaning, overly definitive, pseudo-academic travelogue. An encounter with a young Iranian woman, who explains that “Young Iranians are always in-between,” as if on a see-saw that never levels out, is more revealing. A philosopher explains that he can’t trust some of his students aren’t police spies. He also points out that he’s lost faith in the clergy but not in Islam, and that the Revolution in 1979 failed because it was “theory-less,” a void filled by Khameini’s cult-of-personality, authoritarian leadership. Most interesting, perhaps, though still too simplistic, is American-turned-Iranian David Belfield’s (wanted by the CIA for killing a former Shah diplomat involved in a plot to kill Khameini) contention that the country’s authoritarian pattern was shaped by its feudal past.
Salam Iran works best when simply allowing Iranians to articulate the tensions between church and state, practice and faith, and government and the people, conflicts common to Quebec and the rest of North America, too—although Lafond keeps the parallels from his homeland out of the frame—yet given their own particular Persian twist. Could the vague talk of progress, of “trying to develop more,” as one woman puts it, explain current President Ahmadenijad’s threats to become a nuclear power?
When Amir finally arrives, the film wisps into a bittersweet homecoming, from the son’s heartrending reunion with his mother to a mixture of nostalgia and romance as the exile sees an Iran around him that is never quite the place that he holds dear.
Here is the film that would have been most interesting to watch, about a former political rebel who, 20 years in the past, had fought for an ideal future but now returns to a world where he can’t quite grasp the true, immediate present.
An intermittently insightful documentary, flawed in its split focus, Salam Iran: A Persian Letter ultimately pales beside the rich, complex immersions in the social, political and gender struggles within Iran that just a few recent films and memoirs—Panahi’s The Circle, Kiarostami’s Ten, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis I and II—have offered to outsiders. V
Sat, Oct 14, (7 pm)
Salam Iran: A Persian Letter
Directed by Jean-Daniel Lafond
Metro Cinema, $8
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