There is ample unhappiness documented in the fifth High Museum series devoted to contemporary Iranian cinema, a series defined by individuals swimming against the social current.
The movies in Iranian Film Today depict a country that refuses to accept difference and makes itself cruelly inhospitable to those who don't play by the rules, whether it's a rebellious teenager in The Girl in the Sneakers or an Afghan immigrant hoping for a scrap of happiness in Djomeh.
Director Rassul Sadr Ameli's The Girl in the Sneakers (Sept. 14) is an astoundingly dark tour through modern Iran as seen through the eyes of 15-year-old middle-class schoolgirl Tadayi (Pegah Ahangarani). Dragged into a police station for socializing with a boy she has met in a city park, Tadayi is subjected to even fiercer discipline at home for her transgression. Fueled by a sense of injustice, and also by desire for the boy, Tadayi runs away from school and begins a journey through the streets of Tehran.
Sullen, defiant Tadayi is a character who inspires divided emotions. She has the maddening self-centered tunnel vision of any teenager and also the pitiful aspects of a child who is seeing the true nature of the world for the first time. Like Jafar Panahi's 2000 The Circle, which also focused on the grim lot of women living in modern Iran, Girl peels back society's veneer to reveal a den of corruption where the same women supposedly "protected" by men are exploited by them.
While riding a bus filled with women, Tadayi overhears conversations about men who prey upon women who must rely on male help to perform the most basic daily tasks. When Tadayi strikes up a conversation with a middle-aged man on the street, she is lured back to his apartment where he clearly has seduction, or even rape, on his mind. On the city's outskirts, even grimmer realities await in a slum populated by Iran's ultimate Others, where children are "rented" out by their families and poverty has thoroughly shaken moral compasses.
The exquisitely sad Djomeh (Sept. 21), which also paints a grim portrait of rejected outsiders, is filled with heartache and a sense of dread at what lies in store for its hero. Djomeh (Jalil Nazari) has little hope of ever belonging in Iran where he labors. Cast out of his native Afghanistan by poverty and a family scandal, Djomeh works at a rural dairy where he is taunted by the local children and insulted by the adults who lord their own "godliness" above this "heathen" foreigner. Despite such cruelty, Djomeh remains painfully optimistic and sweet, finding good even in his boss's dismissive treatment.
Gripped by loneliness and with no one else to talk to, Djomeh confides in his boss on their daily rides into the village, telling him about his past and also about his love for a local girl. A winner of the Camera d'Or at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, Djomeh is a heartbreaking but wonderfully compassionate film directed by Hassan Yektapanah, a former protege of famed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami.
The same society that ostracizes foreigners takes an equally dismissive view of strangers in its midst: the silent, obedient women draped in chadors who are the phantom gender in this patriarchy. The implication in The Hidden Half (Sept. 20) is that by valorizing female chastity and goodness, Iranian men also envision women as lesser beings -- more abstraction that human.
When her husband of 17 years, a high-ranking judge, prepares to sentence a woman who is facing execution, his wife Fereshteh (Niki Karimi) is inspired to finally reveal the truth of her own past as a politically active Marxist student following the tumultuous Islamic Revolution.
Though The Hidden Half has the sudsy trappings of an Iranian "All My Children," its message about the intense, rich lives that women live (and which their society denies) makes for a subversive message beneath the histrionics. That radical message came at a great cost when the film's director, Tahmineh Milani, was imprisoned for making the movie, an indication that though Iranian cinema can suggest a remarkably liberated view, such expressions do carry real consequences.