Mother Courage

in 9th Dhaka International Film Festival

by Ali Ahmed

After its formal opening on January 17, 2006, the 9th Dhaka International Film Festival, 2006, came to a successful conclusion on January 25, with the presentation of awards. The Iranian – French co-production Café Transit was given the International Critics Prize and the Best Film award of the festival. The film, in my opinion, rightly deserved this recognition.

Iran, in recent years, has shot into prominence as a country producing very high quality films, with the now famous world class filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Mazid Mazidi and Zafar Panahi. Some of these very talented filmmakers have already won world-wide recognition by winning not only the most coveted prizes in major international film festivals and rave reviews, but also attracting millions of enchanted viewers in different continents cutting across cultural and other divides. And this, too, at a period when the socio-political ambience of the country does not appear, at least to an outsider like me, particularly suitable to provide the necessary background for a spurt in intellectual creativity. An in-depth study might reveal the underlying factors behind this apparently irreconcilable situation.

Cafe Transit, directed by a relatively unknown director called Kambozya Partovi, tells of Reyhan (Fershth Sader Orafe), the just-widowed wife of a restaurateur of very modest means, faced with the unsavoury but customary prospect of moving in with her deceased husband’s brother, Nasser (Parviz Prasto), as his second wife, which the latter doggedly insists on. But Reyhan opts to live a life of dignity and independence by running the restaurant left behind by her husband. Naturally, a very grim struggle for survival ensues. Her dead husband’s assistant in the restaurant, fortunately, prove as loyal as ever, and with him in the front to serve customers, Reyhan began her do-or-die struggle for survival with dignity working in the kitchen with her children assisting. The exceptionally good quality of her cooking with its delicious varieties soon makes the place a swarming centre of attraction for truckers and commuters from home and abroad as the restaurant is located at a vantage point beside a highway connecting Iran with Turkey and the rest of Europe. As sales continue to climb causing a flurry of activity in the kitchen with Reyhan and the children, especially the elder son, putting in more and more efforts to cope with the situation, her brother-in-law Nasser’s restaurant, by contrast, witnesses a steady decline in business causing him to redouble his efforts to woo Reyhan to his house as the second wife. But Reyhan, as usual, very politely turns the offer down. Lesser directors would perhaps have made something theatrical out of it. Yet Kambozya Partovi proves too mature for that and underplays it.

The brother-in-law suitor Nasser, although boiling with anger, has apparently not done anything indecent to Reyhan, always displaying a modicum of respect for her. But his impatience causes him to send his man to physically assault one of Reyhan’s regular customers. A Greek trucker called Zakhario, attracted first by the quality of cooking in the restaurant, befriends the children and proposes to Reyhan. And Reyhan, although touched by his overtures of friendliness to her children, refuses to accept his offer.

But she is no super woman, but very modestly carries on her unrelenting struggle to survive and live a life of dignity in an otherwise hostile environment. Women, in general, and their compatriots in the East, in particular, face various types of expressed and unexpressed discrimination. This discrimination would, I think, rise a notch or two higher in a society like Iran. We soon witness this in the Religious Court, when a case is bought against Reyhan by her jealous suitor brother-in-law, that the wife of a deceased, according the Islamic law of inheritance, would get only one-eighth of any property left behind by the husband. The scriptwriter-director Kambozya Partovi desists from making Reyhan or anybody else utter a single word of protest against this apparently unjust law, but makes it hang like a big question mark before the conscience of right-thinking audiences. The director here has displayed a rare strain of courage in a fundamentalist society.

The episode of the Russian girl, while shedding light on the kindheartedness of Reyhan providing shelter and protection from human monsters, unveils another aspect of society. Women, whether in fundamentalist Iran or in free Russia, are equally disadvantaged and subject to exploitation.

The film, however, ends in the Greek driver’s taking leave, Nasser’s offer of marriage steadfastly refused, and, the law of inheritance being what it is, the Café Transit is locked up by the government, with police standing by, and Reyhan, her two youngest children and the loyal shop assistant waiting outside with nowhere to go, and nothing whatsoever for them to fall back upon for survival. But Reyhan doesn’t surrender, which reminds me of a famous line from Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea where the protagonist mutters that ‘Man may be destroyed but not defeated’. Here Reyhan has been socio-economically destroyed, but she never accepts defeat and dishonour. A great movie, indeed! We wish it all success.