Babak Payami's Silence Between Two Thoughts: A Miracle in Tromso

in 14th Tromsø International Film Festival

by Neil Young

Babak Payami’s third feature, Silence Between Two Thoughts, was in retrospect a brave film to program at 8.30pm on a Friday night in downtown Tromso, this most “party-minded” of Norwegian cities. As the title indicates, this is a cerebral, challenging, ambitious film which an impatient viewer could misinterpret as pretentious, its careful pace laying Payami open to accusations of “slowness” and “ponderousness” – hence the numerous walk-outs, which certainly didn’t aid the film-watching experience of those who chose to remain in their seats.

But the hasty folk who headed out into the chilly air for the more raucous delights of “Blue Rock Cafe” may now ‘repent at leisure’. Certainly the audience for the 11.30am showing the next morning – of whom only two exited prematurely – would be quick to point out the strengths within Payami’s film, which, although demanding, amply rewards whatever work the viewer is willing to expend.

Payami takes an ambitiously oblique approach to narrative, purposefully and persistently withholding information, and with many of the key events taking place just outside the edge of the frame. With the air of a universal fable, the film unfolds in an unspecified, semi-desert landscape (born in Tehran, Payami grew up in Afghanistan, and shot this film very near to the ill-fated Iranian city of Bam).

The narrative is simple, and a brutal editor could no doubt condense the plot to less than a third of the film’s 95-minute running-time: a young soldier working for Haji, a charismatic tribal leader, executes two men. But just as he is aiming his Kalashnikov at the third condemned person, a stay of execution is imposed by Haji. It turns out that the “criminal” is a virgin woman, and to kill her would send her soul to heaven instead of hell. Haji’s interpretation of scriptural law comes up with a cruel solution: the executioner must marry his “victim” – who he would then, presumably, have to execute following the consummation of their union. But Haji’s plan is imperilled by the encroachment of wider forces, and also by the resistance from the unwilling “happy couple”.

Payami takes an original, idiosyncratic approach to some issues which can seldom have been more pressing: religious dogmatism is his main target, and his rigorous, austere approach is unwavering in its treatment of injustice and exploitation. The dialogue is as sparse as the drought-ravaged landscape, but Payami invests each word with enormous meaning and power. His control of images and sound – and their interaction – is no less economic, his camera often tracking with painstaking care over indoor and outdoor environments (the stunning opening shot audaciously clocks in at over ten minutes), at other times remaining fixed on certain tableaux until the viewer gradually deciphers the various symbolic elements, and/or penetrates into the deeper levels of meaning behind the seemingly barren surfaces.

The crucial importance of these images wasn’t helped by the fact that Tromso had to screen a print converted from 35mm to DVD – the result of the film having been banned by Iran’s authorities, and the best prints having been confiscated. As Payami himself remarked before the second screening, being able to present Silence Between Two Thoughts at all was “a miracle” in itself: its success in Tromso with both the public and the critics indicates that this is a “miracle” whose conclusion has yet to be reached.