I went to see my, rather overdue, first Iranian film today. It was Kimia at the Barbican as part of their War in Iranian Cinema series (on for a few more days). It set me thinking about films and how real I want them to be. If this analysis is not novel then I apologise, this is not my field of expertise and I can’t offer more than ardent, thinking amateurism but hopefully it might be of some value. Lee Siegel’s defence of Eyes Wide Shut (which I disliked when I first saw it and need to watch again) touches upon similar ideas.
Kimia is a good film with human characters and a compelling central dilemma. That dilemma is the heart of the film and the director does a good job of building the story of a man who has lost almost everything and yet, in order to do the right thing, has to give up all he has left.
Its treatment of the war itself portrays the Iraqis as something of an inhuman event rather than as people but that is probably their place in this kind of story. I’m not aware of a nuanced telling of the Iran-Iraq war and it is understandable that it is, perhaps, too soon to talk in an even handed manner about an event so destructive to both sides.
The acting is good although at times I felt a little left out and distracted by the clumsy translation job which left me having to work to ignore the dissonance between amusing translation error and screen heartache. It made me grateful for the superb job the people behind labels like Tartan, Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia do in bringing East Asian cinema to our screens.
However, the biggest reason the film was one I liked rather than really loved was a more fundamental disagreement with the stylistic choice; one I understand has been made by Iranian cinema in general. The hyper-realistic, documentary-like style of film making is one that is loved by large parts of the critical community but seems dry and less emotionally powerful to me. This is also the reason why I found Force of Evil, which I watched recently on Gracchi’s recommendation, interesting but distant.
I quite like film making to be beyond reality. This doesn’t mean I need fantasy in the traditional sense but I do need a film to do something for me beyond presenting a well acted and written story. I watch films because they can bring me something which, through not being real, can highlight some emotion or moral that reality struggles to illustrate clearly.
This does not mean that I want my films to be simplifications of reality. Some of my very favourite films are those like Children of Men or Crash which depict nuanced human natures and problems which cannot be reduced to simple matters of right and wrong. However, they do so through an implausible change to physical reality or through a style which tells a story broader than any human could really perceive respectively. Their departures from realism allow truths to be shown in a new light and appear to us as something remarkable.
This does not mean that I want my films to be sugar coated. Korean cinema is, to my mind, the most exciting national cinema around but is frequently absolutely gruesome. However, the horror is not used just as a worthy reminder of horrible events or, at least in my mind, as a source of rough entertainment, but to give immediacy to the moral choices made by characters and to ensure that it is understood, clear as day, that when they take a hard path its rockiness is clear.
Finally, this does not mean that I do not like films to directly address contemporary political questions. Dr. Strangelove is, in my opinion, the best film ever (although Children of Men makes me rethink this every time I watch it) and was a nuclear holocaust comedy at the height of the Cold War. I love it despite being in favour of maintaining a nuclear deterrent and therefore, I suspect, disagreeing with the film’s makers; I think that the right conclusion to take is that MAD’s limitations needed to be kept in mind rather than the doctrine of deterrence be abandoned. However, all sides of the debate should appreciate that the fantastic plot of the film allows us to think about the problems of nuclear deterrence in a new way. Everyone can see political reality if they care to look but an inspired film’s artifice can allow us to see that reality with new eyes.
The best looking films are fantastic. The most beautiful film ever is Kubrick’s spectacular Barry Lyndon, an unfortunate omission from any list of the best costume films, which isn’t strictly speaking fantastic but becomes so through so thoroughly recreating a lost world of the aristocracy. That film makes it pretty clear that the movie Kubrick was planning about Napoleon was an unparalleled loss to cinema. Other candidates for most beautiful film ever, Zhang Yimou or Sam Mendes’ creations spring to mind, tend to be works of visual imagination.
There is a place for realistic cinema, some stories just need to be told plain and unvarnished, but I do not think it stands up as a doctrine for film making in general. Film is truly great and at its best as a medium when it is able to transcend the reality of our everyday senses and touch something deeper in our emotional or moral fabric.