Fifi Howls From Happiness

in 16th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Jorge Morales Farias

Though unknown in the West, the work of painter and sculptor Bahman Mohasses had an important place in the history of Iranian art. But his lack of a clear political stance regarding the Shah’s regime, and later on his rejection of the Islamic society installed by the Ayatollah Khomeini in the late 70s, cast a shadow on his legacy. With time, what began as “timid” censorship of his work practically resulted in its complete destruction. On top of that, he destroyed a large number of his paintings and sculptures himself before fleeing the country, in a gesture charged with both political rebellion and rejection of the cynical merchandization of art. This turned Bahman Mohasses into a legend; an enigmatic figure, unknown and ignored for over 30 years.

Filmmaker Mitra Farahani went out looking for Mohasses, but as she announces at the beginning of Fifi Howls From Happiness (Fifi az khoshhali zooze mikeshad), she had no intention of explaining how she managed to find him in the hotel in Rome where he now lives in anonymity. Her intention was to discover the principles of his art, his particular gaze on the world and, if possible, to film him at work on a new creation.

Several of Farahani’s formal decisions are conventional, such as the chapter-structure, but she quickly goes a step beyond classic editing and turns Mohasses into an accomplice, allowing him to act as a sort of co-director. When the strong-tempered artist starts giving out instructions, Farahani lets him choose a phrase or an image to illustrate each segment of the film, describing his artistic stature or his iconoclastic opinions on everything. This way, the relationship becomes much more horizontal, empathetic and familiar, as if Farahani took her father by the hand and went out for a walk. The documentary evolves from the portrait of a great rebel artist and misanthrope, secluded in a hotel room for years, to the portrait of a fragile, caring and even docile human being who starts breaking his confinement, but keeps the roughness of an old retired boxer. A tough guy that life has treated so badly that now, even if he has lowered his guard and left room for affection, still tries to keep a combat position.

Mitra Farahani manages to get a pair of wealthy artist brothers to commission a new work from Mohasses, so she has the chance to see him at work. This allows her to film something more than the birth and development of a painting (which in any case he never paints). It shows Mohasses rejuvenated, excited about the new friendship that he is building up with these two young colleagues, about feeling admired and valued (even in economic terms, considering the money they are willing to pay for his work, revealing a series of contradictions in his position regarding the art market), and about starting to work once again after so many years. But as the exercise becomes an injection of life, energy and enthusiasm, it also fills him with doubt, as if this could challenge the expectations founded on his aura. It’s not the artist’s angst before the white canvas. It’s the angst of not living up to his myth.

There is certainly something dangerous in films about great artists: the risk that the filmmaker’s admiration for the character transforms it into condescending homage. This is not the case with Mitra Farahani. Although she does not expose any elements that could cast a shadow on Mohasses, she does not intend to worship him either. The Iranian filmmaker wants to find a way to decipher his mystery, why he hid for so many years, why he destroyed his work, and so on. However, not only does she not find clear and precise answers, but she ends up “betraying” her character, forcing him out of his voluntary confinement and exposing him: exactly what he avoided for so many years. This cannibalization process, so typical and inevitable in cinema (otherwise, many films would not even exist), is especially clear in the careful but nevertheless morbid scene that anticipates Mohasses’s “death”, of which we only hear the sound (of him vomiting blood). Although Farahani avoids turning the painter’s agony or death into something “epic”, her skillful and sober mise-en-scène seems too well calculated, like someone crying out “fire!” and running away, but still sharing the excitement and the adrenalin of being in the middle of a fire.

Mohasses was homosexual and he used to say that he didn’t understand why LGBT organizations tried so hard to be accepted and visible, when part of the charm of their lifestyle was precisely to live their sexuality in secret, as if forbidden. It’s the same charm that he must have felt after hiding for so many years and then seeing that the grandeur of his work (censored, hidden, destroyed by others and by himself) grew and became a myth in its mystery. It is a charm that is broken by this passionate and lucidly constructed documentary (even in its least honest aspects). Otherwise, we would never have found out it existed.

Edited by Alison Frank