Danse Macabre with Camera: Fish and Cat by Shahram Mokri, a Second Perspective

in 28th Festival International de Films de Fribourg

by Elham Tahmasebi Hamid

Fribourg International Film Festival (FIFF) gives filmmakers across three different continents (Asia, South America and Africa), the opportunity to show their films without any constraint in terms of theme or genre, creativity and talent being the only decisive factor. This Festival, through this broad and open strategy of its director Thierry Jobin, has built a considerable reputation and holds a special place among other film festivals. This year, the parallel section of the festival, titled “History of Iranian Cinema by its Creators” offered a retrospective on Iranian cinema, showcasing 27 of the most unforgettable films made in Iran.

In addition, two Iranian films were screened among twelve others in the main competition section: Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Dast-neveshtehaa nemisoosand), based on a true story and offering a fresh perspective on the history of censorship, and Fish and Cat (Gorbeh va Mahi). Fish and Cat is emblematic of a new generation of Iranian experimentalism, an altogether different beast from Iranian traditional cinema. Fish and Cat is the second feature of the Iranian young filmmaker Shahram Mokri and is the product of an audacious single shot lasting two hours and ten minutes. “Circle Limit”, the vertiginous painting by Maurits C. Escher, profoundly inspires the film’s narrative structure. The experimental structure of the film is based on a carving up and rearranging of time according to a patterned sequence: a circular sequence to be precise; frames revolve around each other in such a way that time is transformed into the representation of infinity. As Escher’s painting consists of imbricated circles, the story in this film is narrated alternately from different points of view. The non-linear narrative of the film is as such driven by the continuous and circular motion of the camera. A 40 minute story is displayed in 130 minutes without any cut or montage. A new perspective of time is formed, time as mapped on a spatial plane, a perspective which sometimes enhances and is sometimes detrimental to the story.

While the physical time of the frames of the film moves forward via the choreographic motions of the camera, the time of the narrative functions in reverse through the continuous recourse to flashback. The film is based on a shocking true story, widely reported in the media, of the use of human flesh by two chefs. Some college students are camping in a remote forest and are flying kites. Beside their camp, there is an old restaurant whose chefs hunt human flesh to use in their dishes. The camera begins from the perspective of a wide and long shot while gradually approaching the characters. Without any break it then continues to follows some of them. The mise-en-scene is framed in terms of the entrance and exit of characters and the movements of the camera. At the end of the film the camera moves away from the characters, reversing the opening sequence of the film, ending with a long wide shot.

During the camera’s entrance into the camp, the conventions of the horror movie genre are used to create a surreal and tense atmosphere, through which we are led to believe that the young students are in danger at every moment. The director continues to inject further apprehension step by step by focusing our attention on elements such as bags of bloods and butcher’s knives, rendering the atmosphere ever more fearful and ambiguous. The feeling of insecurity and the insinuation of a murder, which might take place at any momment, convey suspense, ambiguity and fear even without the presence of any murder scene.

By way of criticism, one might say that sometimes the overly extravagant use of music obscures rather than highlights, and the director insists a little too obsessively on structure at the expense of narration and story. It often appears as if he chose the form then decided to shape the story around it. The lack of a perfect match between this pre-formed structure and the different fragmented sequences of the story is, however, at times betrayed. Beyond the structural component and the horror script of the movie, finally, we can at times detect an implicit social commentary. The director symbolically portrays a society where the younger generation (represented by the students) is threatened by an older and entrenched generation because of their lifestyle and insistence on freedom. This is a threat which in the film is heightened at every moment, a shadow which hangs unremittingly over the young students unable to escape this collective wrath.

Edited by Alissa Simon