The Missing Millions of Tomans; Observations from the CineIran 2017 Festival

I have watched five Iranian films in the past thirty hours. And these are strictly Iranian films, as in not films in which an outsider narrates what “could have happened” in Iran. I have spent about eight hours, between 7pm Friday and right before midnight Saturday, watching films that are made in Iran. The five films in reference not only tell a story about Iran, but also, and more importantly, the films that I watched are exactly what is screened in Iran in cinemas, and they make sense to the average Iranian and are in fact produced to address them. In other words, “Ferrari” is not another “The Stoning of Soraya M”, and “Blockage” is categorically different from “Tehran Taboo”. And that makes the line-up of CineIran 2017 Festival even more valuable.

In addition to “Ferrari” and “Blockage”, I also watched “Boarding Pass”, “Yellow”, and “Sara and Darya”. In short, the word “Million Tomans” appears to be a key component in every contemporary Iranian story. That is of course if “Billion Tomans” is not occupying the spotlight.

The girl in “Ferrari” has travelled from a village in the North to Tehran in search of a Ferrari that is owned by the rich and exuberant Sajjad. While she seems to be fascinated by the beauty of the Red Ferrari, she in fact repeatedly insists that the car is worth eight billion Tomans. The viewer is of course reminded that her subject of affection may in fact materialize in Sajjad, whom may actually be the physical manifestation of an intersubjective reality that is determined by the size of one’s bank account.

In “Blockage” affection is towards the truck that the protagonist of the film is trying to obtain. Having had a history of drunk driving and while he does not even have the appropriate driver’s license for the truck, he has an earful for anyone slightly interested that the truck will provide for him and the love of his life an stable income that they have lacked during a decade of marriage. In his push towards getting his hands on the protection of metal against the brutality of life, the main character in “Blockage” risks everything and the viewer is left with the hope that he is salvaged through cashing in on someone else’s property. The sad part is that the spectator in fact sympathizes with the necessity of stealing from the invisible other in order to protect what is within one’s perimeter in contemporary Iran.

“Boarding Pass” is an explicit dive into the core of desperation, wherein the female character of the film is turning paler by the minute as small packages in her stomach leak cocaine. She is accompanied in her trip to death in the streets of Tehran by her male co-conspirator, where the duo watch videos of each other’s children and share personal stories. The protagonist of “Boarding Pass” dies on the seat of a modern bus during the dawn of a gray sun over cleanly washed streets of Tehran.

If the female character of “Boarding Pass” had in fact chosen, under distress and with no other viable option, to utilize her body as her boarding pass to a better life in Turkey, the fate of the male character in “Yellow” is dictated by his liver, and of his bank account. After a severe complication, the man is dying in the hospital and the only available liver belongs to a brain-dead man whose son demands a hundred million Tomans for signing the papers that allow the transplantation. The money is eventually collected, for four million Tomans of which it is implied that the man’s wife provides sexual favors to a peeping neighbour, and for six million Tomans of which she calls on a rival lover of her husband and pretends to be his sister. Nevertheless, the transfer of the money does not result in the transfer of the liver. It turns out that the collector of the fortune cannot in fact legally authorize the extraction of the liver and the man in distress dies on his bed with a trace of his wife’s lipstick on his right cheek.

Having watched four films, all of which in one way or another magnified the role of financial affluence, or in fact lack thereof, in the life of the average Iranian, it was not a surprise for me that “Sara and Darya” concerned debt accumulated by a son, who has since escaped the country, and his sister’s attempts to save herself and her mother from the creditors.

Why is there so much sorrow in these five films? Why is everyone missing a few hundreds of millions of Tomans? Why is everyone under so much stress that when the film ends I am left with the guilty, yet happy, thought that I am in fact luckier and happier than a large number of Iranians in Iran? And maybe that is in fact the main point?

One can trace the chaotic and abusive situation of contemporary Iran to either “The Mullahs” or western and foreign hostility and the sanctions. To my understanding, either argument holds a good amount of water. Independent of the culprit, or culprits, however, I am left with the thought that the current situation in Iran in fact conditions the inhabitants of that land with feelings of insecurity and a heightened sense of being in danger. This might in fact explain the Iranian psyche, not only within the geographical borders of Iran, but also at the diaspora, and more particularly in Toronto.

Within this line of thinking, there should be no surprise that a first step for the Iranian petit bourgeois in Toronto is to obtain a heavy mortgage and to land on a house in the farthest outskirts of the GTA. The observation that the average Iranian is a real estate agent, unless she is not, is no inexplicable matter either. The average Iranian in Canada has experienced financial difficulty in the homeland and seeks some sense of security in a foreign land. In fact, her primary reason for taking upon herself the cumbersome path of immigrating to the other side of the planet might have been more economical than else. As a bookseller slash physician in “Boarding Pass” suggests in passing, one needs to have a functioning economy in order to elevate societal norms. Whether or not this statement is correct, many Iranian expats may have taken it at face value and might have made the most important decision in their life based on it.

Tehran Taboo: The Taboo of Speaking about Tehran in Toronto

The drama surrounding Tehran Taboo started for me even before it was screened in the International Diaspora Film Festival (IDFF) in Toronto on Thursday.

A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Montreal, in order to let my brain ease off some of the stress that it had endured recently due to work and other engagements. There, while drinking great wine on my friend’s balcony, in the presence of old friends and newly found friends, all of whom were Iranian, I heard of a film named Tehran Taboo that had stirred some controversy. Some individuals in the audience had watched the film before and were, albeit cautiously, referring to it as a “must-see film”.

The trip concluded with a last minute visit to the SAQ, in order to obtain multiple bottles of a rare, yet not overly priced, $18-a-bottle California wine that LCBO does not carry and I practically forgot Tehran Taboo until I purchased the pass to IDFF and noticed that the first film on the row is Tehran Taboo.

On Thursday, a small group of us convened at the amazingly old-smelling Carlton cinema on Carlton street in Toronto. The cinema has become, in recent years, a meeting place for the section of the Iranian diaspora in Toronto that is interested in Iranian affairs. For one, IDFF has been held in that cinema in the past few years. Additionally, the same group of people gathers up, as if driven by an inaudible, yet bold, call, every first Wednesday of the month, in order to watch the latest installment of the Docunight series. On this particular night, however, we had a special guest, and I assume that her presence, at a symbolic level, manifested a big portion of “what is wrong” with Tehran Taboo.

At seven thirty we were seated in the small theater. To my right was a long-term Iranian friend, who has gone through rounds of immigration and diasporic experiences. A new arrival in Canada, he has endured the many gates, and holding centers, that taking refuge in Europe involves passing through and staying in. To my left, however, sat a person who had experienced Iran only a few weeks before. This individual, having been born into a non-Iranian family in the prairies, had, most probably, the weakest connecting bonds with Iran, and yet, she had spent two weeks touring Iran and visiting a few Bazaars and a Zoorkhaneh, where she was wondering if one should clap to the rhythm of the “music”. Further to my left, and in front of me, and behind me, were the members of the Iranian diaspora in Toronto.

No one was expecting this film, and very much so this festival, to be a fun-ride in some imaginary version of Iran in which “everything is calm, and I wonder why so lucky I am”, as a cheesy Persian pop song suggests. Nevertheless, when the film ended, one could clearly hear the grumbles coming from around the cinema. To my right, my great friend, who is most critical of not only the Iranian political establishment, but also the Iranian culture and psyche, was turning around in fury in his seat. “This is nonsense, a compilation of everything that is wrong with that society, condensed to the extreme, and beyond, so that the director can sell tickets.”

As we stepped out of the cinema and into the main lobby, groups of Iranians had gathered in circles, and you could hear, and even notice from the postures, that the film had divided people into two camps. The majority had found at least one thing that was totally wrong with the film, assuming that they did not call it the most irrelevant rubbish, as I heard one person say. One friend compared the film to the 1991 torments of Betty Mahmoody and her eventual escape from Iran in Not Without My Daughter. Another compared it to Zack Snyder’s 300. Both films are regarded as anti-Iran cheap propaganda in many Iranian circles.

A few nights later, at a great friend’s party, the seismic waves that Tehran Taboo had created were still evident. In between chatting and drinking wine and devouring exquisite Persian dishes, we found time to discuss the film, and the general opinion was that the film is rubbish, although rubbish that is worth spending and hour and half on.

Whether or not many of the members of the audience liked the film, or even if they hated it all the way through, Tehran Taboo is an opportunity for the diasporic community to go through a journey of self-reflection. That’s why we seized the moment and scheduled an event, in a local bar in Tehranto, to discuss the film. “The unlikeable Tehran Taboo”, as it is called, is scheduled for the Thursday after the next, and going through the list of participants on the Facebook page of the event, one can guarantee that the discussion will be lively and multi-faceted.

This post will have a sequel.