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Sidewalk Screening of Santouri
By Jinoos Taghizadeh
May 2008
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The city sidewalk today is were most cinema fans acquire their flicks. With the illegal release of a controversial Iranian film, which was banned from screening by officials at the Ministry of Culture, the sidewalk has also become a space where the general public can have access to films they would otherwise be deprived of seeing.

Ali Santouri -- or simply Santouri as it became known later -- is the latest film of the veteran director {Dariush Mehrjui}, who out of 29 films to his credit 10 have been of utmost importance in Iranian cinema. The director's station is such that the issues surrounding Santouri have become important. Officials of the FAJR Film Festival this year refused to show it in one screenings and it failed to win any prizes. For a while, there was talk of its unofficial and respectful ban. An emergency session of the General Office of Supervision and Evaluation of the Film Department of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, made the film's screening contingent upon the deletion of some scenes and the removal of the voice of {Mohsen Chavoshi}, a pop singer whose songs have become bootlegged sidewalk items. The resemblance of Chavoshi's voice to an LA Iranian singer, {Siavash Qomeishi}, has been cited as the reason for the banning of his albums by the Ministry of Culture. This explanation rings true since there is nothing in Chavoshi's songs that may be considered subversive. In fact, his songs are very much like many pop songs that we hear every day. Even after Chavoshi's voice was replaced by that of {Bahram Radan}, the film's lead actor, the screening problems didn't get resolved. {Saffar Harandi}, the Minister of Culture, famously said in an interview that Santouri will never be permitted to show in the Islamic Republic. Filmmaker {Javad Shamaqdari}, adviser to president Ahmadinejad, said that the film could only be screened “over my dead body.” [1] These inflammatory remarks brought further publicity for a film that had two celebrities in lead roles.

The banning of films with socio-political themes is nothing new in Iran. After the 1979 Revolution, such films as The Nights of Zayandehrud and Time for Love by {Mohsen Makhmalbaf} and Purple in Color by {Ebrahim Hatamikia} were also been dealt the same cards. Some filmmakers don't even expect their films to be shown -- like films of {Abolfazl Jalili} or {Jafar Panahi}. What makes Santouri's case special, however, is that Dariush Mehrjui has always found an intelligent way around the censors, which makes him unique among filmmakers of his own generation like {Bahram Beyzaei} and {Naser Taqvai}. Nevertheless, he has also had his brushes with the cultural audits. Prior to the Revolution, Gaav (“The Cow,” 1969), the only film that {Ayatollah Khomeini} ever praised, had screening problem, although it won the Sepass Prize that year. The Ministry of Culture and Art seized the film under the pretext that it showed poverty and misery, casting a dark light on the progresses made by the country. The Cow was granted permission only after this statement was added in the beginning: “The events of this film refer to the period before the Reforms of Shah and the People.” Mehrjui's screening problems continued with Dayereh-ye Mina (“The Cycle,” 1975), whose subject was the illegal trade in blood donations against the backdrop poverty and life in shanty-towns on the periphery of the city. The government, doctors and officials objected to Mehrjui's naked portrayal of the medical system. The film's screening three years after its production was instrumental in the establishment of the Blood Transfusion Organization of Iran. The 1980 The School We Went To was Mehrjui's first film after the Revolution. It was refused permission to screen because of its symbolic portrayal of school, the principal, and the educational environment. The Fajr Film Festival of 1991 stopped Baanoo (“The Lady”) on the night of its screening, and it was six years later that people were allowed to glimpse at what went on behind the screen.

In most of his released film, Mehrjui has been successful in painting a realistic picture of the social, political and cultural landscape of his time, from Agha-ye Hallou (“Mr. Naive,” 1972), which was a critical look at village life and the dream of an imposed modernity, to Ejareh Nesheenha (“The Tenants,” 1986), as a sarcastic commentary on urban life and its problems. The Tenants told the story of residents of an apartment building in a way that reflected the situation of the country as a whole.[2] Hamoun (1990) was an authentic portray of the post-revolutionary intellectual class, disillusion and disenchanted, futilely seeking a way out through philosophy and mysticism. It was popular enough to be called “the “film cult of Iranian cinema.” The character of Hamid Hamoun was so believable two decades after its release, director {Mani Haqiqi} has made a documentary based on it called Hamoun Buffs.

But where does Santouri stand in the director's brilliant career? Is it a no-nonsense criticism of the state society in -- drug addiction, the plight of a younger generation, issues surrounding social and religious freedoms? O its popularity is due to the controversy surrounding it screening and release?

Most screenplays of Mehrjui films are based on literary works of renowned writers.[3] In fact, the director's strength lies in offering a new reading of literary works and his success is in creating characters drawn with a fine brush.

When he does write the script himself, however, what happens is what has happened to Santouri. The film tells the story of Ali, a young pop singer who despite popularity is unable to get permission to release his albums. Ali, who comes from an elite religious family, meets a young pianist (Hanieh) and marries her. At some point he become addicted to heroin and his wife leaves him as he descends further into the abyss of addiction, until his father comes to rescue and takes him to a rehabilitation center, where he is able to recover through music.

Ali plays the santour (hammer dulcimer) at parties and in small-time concerts. His drug dealer is also his tonbak player. On the walls of his room we can see posters of Beatles, {John Lennon}, and {Santana}. He wears aba, the traditional cloak, at home and comes across as an intellectual.[4] His wife also wears a traditional, one-thousand-and-one-night dress at home and seamlessly plays classical music on piano. His rival in this film is a young, tie-wearing violin player. His mother is consumed in religious functions. His father is a wealthy industrialist who has come to money through political influence. Both have disavowed him because of his profession. All this is suppose to give us the impression that Ali is a social rebel with intellectual propensities who is rejected by the powers that be -- and not necessarily by the society. It is no clear, then, why the music that he produces is this low-grade pop music. Why is it that his cheesy tunes have captured the imagination of Hanieh? Finally, why is it that he is never recognized by anyone on the street when he turns into a tramp? Perhaps Mehrjui is trying to come up with a new character type, that he is pointing an accusatory finger at Power who forces a young musician to take that “vaccine that makes your pains go away”.[5] But the lead character is so distant from our society that he becomes a hard-to-believe character. The film brims with grievances that we see expressed everyday in taxi cabs. Didn't Mehrjui tell us the simplest of tales in a way that would make us think? Why then do we have such superficial take on societal ills?

What's more, these cursory look at social problems is in no way cinematic. The only sequence that appeals to our visual taste is the one where Ali is looking for a pencil in his parent's mansion to write down the address of a drug dealer but cannot find any. At least in this scene, the director is not giving us direct evangelical statements.

In Mehrjui's films, the role of food is always prominent. In Sara (1993) the camera moves in out of the kitchen. In Leila (1996), the woman shows her love to the man through cooking a Chinese dish and in Mehman-e Maman ("Guest of Mom") food and the activities surrounding the feast are central to the story. In Santouri too, the most touching scene is the one where a vagabond Ali cooks hot-dogs for shanty-town dwellers. This is the image of an indigent Christ who is dealing out bread and wine on his last supper.

It is also possible that my expectations of Mehrjui were simply too high. Whether I accepted his point of view or not, whether I liked his story or not, he was always able to win me over and come across clearly and matter-of-factly. Here too, I expected him to give me comic relief, the way he did in The Tenants, as the apartment building falls apart, or in Hamoun, where the intellectual is gripped in philosophical angst, or in Guests of Mom, with drug addiction and poverty in the background. In this way Mehrjui made a lasting impression of his audiences. But Santouri is void of such effect, perhaps because its director is so removed from society that he cannot connect with it. Or it could be that Mehrjui is only trying to record these useless collective nags somewhere without wanting to treat them artistically.

The main character of the movie resembles, more than anyone else, the director himself -- he also says nothing important in his music and he is banned from releasing his work.


[1] Shamaqdari made the presidential campaign film for the then candidate Ahmadinejad.
[2] The criticism was so bitting that a yet-to-be-reformed Mohsen Makhbalbaf wrote in an open to {Seyyed Mohammad Beheshti}, then head of the Department of Film of the Ministry of Culture, that he will happily embrace Mehrjui wearing a vest full of grenades ready to detonate.
The Cow was based on {Gholamhossein Sa'edi}'s Azadaran-e Bayal ("Mourners of Bayal"). The Cycle made use of another work of Sa'edi, Ashghalduni (“The Dump”), and the writer also collaborated on the film script. Mr. Naïve was based on a story of the same name by {Ali Nasirian}. The Postman (1971) was based on a story by {Georg Büc
hner}. When We Went to School was based on a story by {Fereydoun Dustdar}. The Lady was an adaptation of Viridiana by {Luis Buñuel}. Sara was based on A Doll's House of {Heinrik Ibsen}. Pari was an adaptation of Franny and Zooey by {J.D. Salinger}. Leila was based on a story by {Mahnaza Ansarian}. The Pear Tree was based on a story by {Goli Taraqqi}. And Guests of Mom was based on a story by {Houshang Moradi Kermani}. To this list one can add the short film Qanat which was written in collaboration with {Houshang Golshiri}. Hamoun was based on the life of Sø
ren Kierkegaard, the novel Herzog by {Saul Bellow} and The Blind Owl by{Sadeq Hedayat}
[4] Many of the intellectual type in Mehrjui films wear the cloak, just as he does.
[5] A line from
Guests of Mom, 2004.