World War III - Houman Seyyedi at the Stockholm International Film Festival
Heavy in drama but stripped of melodramatic tendencies World War III brings forth many problems of contemporary Iranian society.
Director Houman Seyyedi is not as well-known as countrymen like Asghar Farhadi, but his work follows in the same vein as the Oscar winning director. His affecting film World War III has several classic elements of Iranian cinema of the latest decade: a story heavy in drama but stripped of melodramatic tendencies that brings forth many problems of contemporary Iranian society. The class perspective is prevalent. Tension builds, a rising disaster the viewer can do nothing but witness as it unfolds, accompanied by an atmosphere of despair almost as if the characters were cursed. The well-meaning protagonists have the walls closing in on them. Intense misunderstandings between different leads that limits the chances for a peaceful resolve. Things simply just keep getting worse. If Iranian cinema in the last 30 years took place in difficult circumstances, they would often give a ray of light. An example of this is Jafar Panahis Offside or The White Balloon by the same director in 1995. The 2010s have moved in the darker direction of worst-case scenario.
The story centres on Shakib, a day labourer trying to make ends meet. He has previously lost his wife and child to an earthquake—Iran being affected by them regularly. By accident he ends up with a day job on a movie set, doing odd jobs around the sound stage of 1940s concentration camps. A producer takes to him and decides to extend his day shift to a more permanent deal during the production. When the actor playing Hitler is removed due to illness, the director has his heart set on Shakib as a replacement. He gets access to a house that is used for the film and his deaf and mute girlfriend Ladan moves in in order to escape from people blackmailing her. Ladan is a prostitute and has ended up in serious trouble. World War III has many layers, both subtle and blunt ones. There’s a quiet desperation that flaps its wings around Shakib. The sort of desperation that makes the hero of the film err in many ways. In contrast we have the film making crew who largely fail to see Shakib as a human being. They move about with an arrogance that Shakib cannot comprehend. In one scene he saves some food to bring to Ladan in strict secrecy. When filmmakers see him walk away with it, they assume the food is for stray dogs in the area. So, they add some bone to the plate. Shakib must carry the humiliation, anger and dehumanizing of himself and his kind.
Seyyedi himself has done some heavy lifting on the film. Not only has he directed it, but also edited it, co-wrote the screenplay and produced it. One can sense that this is a very held together film with a clear vision of one person. The cinematography of Payman Shadmanfar stands out with a mixture of bleak and stark colours conveying emotions. One unusual thing for some may be the almost unabashed flaunting of Nazi-related props. Shakib casually moving around set dressed as Adolf Hitler. Flags with swastikas adorning walls in a house. Extras playing victims of the holocaust, getting into showers. This is natural in an Iranian context where the Second World War is more distant than it is in Europe.
The acting, also reminiscent of Farhadi pictures, is characterized by a very naturalistic method. The fighting may feel unrealistic when escalating but in a pressured society, such as the one in Iran, people will be on edge and Seyyedi depicts this very well. There is a sense of urgency and threat in nearly every shot of the film of the pending world war leaning in on Shakib and the rest of the cast and crew.
Edited by Rita Di Santo
© FIPRESCI 2022