Three Films About Exile

in Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, Montréal 2021

by Jérôme Michaud

When Leaving His Own Country Is Not Only a Question of Choice

As usual, first features were numerous at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, and Iran offered two of the most compelling films in that category. Coincidentally, they both revolve around the same subject: the desire for exile. That says a lot about how these new directors perceive the social situation in their own country. The films have obvious connections with their predecessors’ works. It will not surprise anyone for Hit The Road (Jaddeh Khaki, 2021) since its director, Panah Panahi, is none other than Jafar Panahi’s son.

In that film, the aridity of the landscapes made of sandy mountains and a huge parched lake contrasts with the vitality of a family on the verge of splitting up. The eldest son is about to leave the country illegally and wants to settle abroad. In the process, the family had to get rid of their home. Panahi captures a pivotal moment of transition that marks a breaking point for the whole family. None of them will ever truly go back home. Brilliant in its framing, the filmmaker gives life to an unstable relational dynamic in the family car, which acts as a temporary home and whose movement marvelously denotes the uprooting experience protagonists are living.

Although the situation is deeply tragic, Panahi treats it with a comical lightness mainly conveyed by a humorous father (Hassan Majooni) and a cutely naive young son (Rayan Sarlak is absolutely brilliant in his role). By doing so, he manages to make a luminous and poetic statement that resists the rigidity of the Iranian state, which the film judiciously leaves out of the frame. Even if walking in his father’s footsteps, Panahi already affirms a unique vision that will hopefully carry on to his next films.

Using an entirely different approach, District Terminal (Mantagheye payani, 2021) by Ehsan Mirhosseini and Bardia Yadegari dares to portray an Iranian authority figure. Peyman, a sympathetic, partially functional heroin addict, has to deal with the censorship of his poetic work that he wishes he could publish. Even if the idea of exile runs through the entire film, it is not that the characters truly desire to leave their country, but it seems to be the only solution for fully existing. In the end, Peyman and his friends are dreamers who fantasize a different Iran, a more open one. They would like (as the filmmakers) to experience freedom in Iran, not elsewhere.

In an intelligently deployed dystopian drama, the filmmakers present with cold lucidity a future that is definitely uncertain, probably blocked. They propose a sensible mise en scene that gives a lively presence to the protagonists. It helps to hint that the filmmakers are not talking so much about another remote world, but about present-day Iran, in a roundabout manner. District Terminal is a bomb which, despite the dark horizon it traces, is a burning gesture of freedom that stands out beautifully in the landscape of Iranian cinema.

Damascus Dreams (2021), Emilie Serrie’s first feature film, also focuses on exile. First of all, her own exile from Syria, with her father, when she was still very young, but also one of Syrian refugees who are now living in Canada. Interweaving her personal story with one of the other expatriates, she delivers a creative and poignant documentary filled with humanity and resilience. The war in Syria has left an indelible mark on those who lived it, and it is when the filmmaker keeps moments in her interviews that were not supposed to be kept that it appears the most. The untellable of war, Damascus Dreams powerfully traces its contours.

If the broken memory theme is at the center of the film, Serrie was able to make her shooting an event capable of bringing out new memorable moments for the Syrians who took part in it. In the second part of the film, the interviewees are grouped together and become participants of certain scenes. That passage from the past to the present and that desire to stimulate the spirit of community give to Damascus Dreams an empathetic value not that many films on that subject achieve.

Jérôme Michaud
Edited by Justine Smith