Big Brother in Tehran

in 19th Cinefest – International Film Festival Miskolc

by Malik Berkati

Some films on a (very) small budget initially depict a local reality that gradually, like a camera lens, widens and encompasses the broader perspective of the universal. Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami’s Ayeh haye zamini (Terrestrial Verses), presented in the international competition section of Cinefest 2023, perfectly exemplifies this.

The terrestrial verses are an essential counterpart to dogmas that are either followed or endured, without the possibility of questioning them, as they draw their imperialism from the meta-empirical level of reality. Ali Asgari (Until Tomorrow,2022; Disappearance, 2017) and Alireza Khatami (Oblivion Verses, 2027) relentlessly bring down this super-eminent space by the absurd that induces a crude situational comedy by instilling in the film a sense of the absurd that induces a crude situational comedy, uncompromising and tragic in its consequences, while also remaining universal. Each short dramatic piece – there are nine of them in the film, along with an introduction and a conclusion – echoes mechanisms of abuse of power, social control, and bureaucratic submission that resonate with what many viewers may have experienced or witnessed in their life.

The constant scrutiny endured by the protagonists of Terrestrial Verses tragically reflects the uprising of the Iranian youth following the murder of Mahsa Amini by the morality police on September 16, 2022, which has since turned into a low-intensity revolt. It is true that in autocratic, dictatorial, and theocratic regimes, social control is the obvious and omnipresent hallmark of totalitarian tendencies, but let there be no mistake, no society is immune to it, and if it takes on different forms in democracies, the intentions remain close: to conform individuals to dominant norms, with the corollary of maintaining a form of economic and social power.

Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami illustrate the subject with an apparatus as simple and radical as it is effective: in front of the camera, a protagonist falls prey to an interlocutor, hors champs, who holds the lever of discussion and the potential fate of the person being questioned. The initial situations are realistic and concrete; their development verges on the naturalistic absurd, provoking opportunistic, caustic, and poignant humor in the despair it conveys. Injustice is ubiquitous, but the characters, from all spheres of Tehran society, from blue-collar workers to artists to pensioners, do not portray themselves as victims; on the contrary, they resist adversity in their own way, determined to wrest their meager share of freedom from the petty potentates they encounter, revealing in the process the hypocrisies and complexities that permeate this society. The simple representation of these situations exposes the macro-mechanisms of totalitarian powers that feed on fear to maintain their hegemony, through the micro-powers they establish at all levels of the social structure, micro-powers that manifest themselves in different forms, under a civil veneer (administration, institution, censorship), or in the same forms (sexual harassment, labor market, self-censorship) as it occurs in democratic societies. In this regard, the fact that we never see the interlocutors of the protagonists contributes to the effect of infinite interchangeability of those who oppress.

The terrestrial verses refers to an eponymous poem by the famous Iranian poetess Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967). The film opens with a wide shot of a city at dawn, a city that, seen from above, resembles any other city, with its pulsation of life reflected in its sounds, including the calls to prayer. The first scene of this social fresco begins with a man (Bahram Ark) who has just become a father. He tries to register his son’s name, but his choice is rejected as being too Western. The absurdity is heightened when, in the fourth sketch, a traffic inspector summons Sadaf (Sadaf Asgari) for a traffic violation: The inspector claims that she was not wearing her veil while driving. Is it her or not? This initial question transforms into an absurd discussion about the concept of private space, and the incongruity of requiring that a woman hide her hair even when it’s cut to a few millimeters. The eighth vignette reflects on Iranian cinema itself, with a director (Farzin Mohades) navigating through censorship, embodied by a voice that aims to be friendly but is in fact gaslighting, leaving little room for discussion: the screenplay is chopped up by the censor, the filmmaker finds himself forced to tear up whole parts of his story, rendering it nonsensical.

As evening falls on this Kafkaesque day, a nearly calcified centenarian faces us, and the distant murmurs of protests heard at the beginning of the film seem to have grown into a massive uproar as the city in the background trembles and collapses.

Individual freedom is achieved collectively, but also through these small acts of daily resistance that disseminate a spirit of struggle and revolt in the air. Shot in seven days with friends who are actors, and self-produced, Terrestrial Verses breathes, in a minimalist way, the desire to regain control of one’s life in the face of interference, harassment, zeal, and the perversity of bureaucrats, teachers, representatives of public authority, and employers who wield a tiny amount of power that contributes to the formation of the totalitarian magma.

Malik Berkati
Edited by Ela Bittencourt