The film A Respectable Family, which opens at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival tonight, is a poignant look at the culture and country of Iran as well as a universal tale of human venality.
A drop in the ocean of Iranian stories
Evil lurks behind warm smiles and familiar faces in the powerful Iranian thriller A Respectable Family, which arrives at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival on a wave of acclaim from Cannes and other festivals.
This debut drama from the young documentary maker Massoud Bakhshi stars Babak Hamidian as Arash, an expat academic who returns to Iran after 22 years in exile in Europe. Trying to resolve a minor family financial issue before flying back to France, Arash finds himself entangled in a Kafkaesque web of official bureaucracy concealing a murky pan-generational history of violence, financial corruption and even kidnapping.
Born in 1972, Bakhshi came of age during the Iran-Iraq war, the longest conventional military conflict of the 20th century, which lasted eight years and claimed more than one million lives. The war and its martyrs figure heavily in A Respectable Family, which alternates between contemporary times and the 1980s. Iranians are naturally peaceful and friendly people, the director insists, but having been repeatedly invaded by outsiders throughout their nation's 3,000-year history has created a deep sense of defensive victimhood.
"No Iranian can say he was not affected by the war, but there were some people who paid more, by losing a member of the family," Bakhshi says. "To me, as a child, it was really touching because this is something we have grown up with. But more touching to me in the 1990s was finding out nobody outside Iran was aware of this war. This question always stayed with me: why was the longest war of the last century never talked about outside Iran? It was really heartbreaking to me talking to young people in Europe, and seeing how they confused this war with the Gulf War."
Bakhshi insists A Respectable Family is a universal morality tale, a modern-day reworking of the Cain and Abel story. In truth, the film performs a clever balancing act - while critics of the current regime in Tehran might easily detect a potent political and social subtext, on the surface this is a contemporary film noir chiefly concerned with human venality and family conflict.
"For me, the themes of the film are really universal; greed and immorality, especially," the director explains. "Of course you can say my film is a highly critical social drama, but I think this is the responsibility of the artist, just like a physician, to find the sickness of the body and pose questions for finding the solution. But this does not mean the country, the culture, is not alive. Iran is a country of 50 million young people and they are all thirsty for culture and for knowledge."
Like his main character in A Respectable Family, Bakhshi is an educated cosmopolitan who has lived and studied in Europe. But unlike Arash, the director chooses to remain based in Iran despite the political pressures routinely faced by his fellow filmmakers, most dramatically the long jail sentences and work bans currently afflicting Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof.
"There is no censorship in Iran, it is called surveillance," Bakhshi says with a wry smile. "They have certain lines that filmmakers should respect, which is normal in every society, according to customs and traditions. As an Iranian, I am comfortable with that. But as an artist, I struggle with it. This is the responsibility of artists, not to content himself, always to pose questions.
"There are more difficult periods of time to be in Iran, of course, but my stories are really inspired by my own culture. The advantage I have in Iran is I don't need to invent stories. Iran is an ocean of interesting subjects and stories which deserve to be told."
• A Respectable Family screens tonight, 7pm, at Marina Mall's Vox 6 Cinema, and on Wednesday, 4.30pm, again at Vox 6.
Follow Arts & Life on Twitter to keep up with all the latest news and events @LifeNationalUAE