20 March 2014

Under the Skin of the City

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's 'Under the Skin of the City' animates an essential question of political filmmaking: how to balance fidelity to social reality with the often more compelling and convincing dictates of dramatic fiction. In the opening scene of the film Tuba, a late-middle-aged woman, stares with bewilderment into the lens of a documentary crew's camera and is unable to answer their questions about an upcoming election. She and her fellow gray-haired, shawl-covered factory workers are too involved in the problems of their everyday lives to be concerned. She says that she hopes the politicians will address these issues. Her coworkers' voices join hers, creating a cacophony that seems to chase the image away as the screen fades to black. We continue to hear their voices while the opening titles roll. When the image returns, it is in the midst of a fictional world, or at least a world where the camera does not acknowledge its own presence.

The film chronicles the lives of Tuba (Golab Adineh) and her family, each of whom rather schematically represents a different economic and political position in Iranian society. Tuba's husband Mahmoud (Mohsen Ghazi Moradi) is a dissolute, ineffectual, politically jaded man. Injured in a student protest years ago, he is disabled and unable to work, leaving his financial and parental obligations to his wife. Abbas (Mohammad Reza Foroutan), the eldest son, does odd jobs and deliveries that allow him to move between Tehran's legitimate and underground business worlds. On the periphery of both, he dreams of getting a visa so that he can go to Japan for a while and earn some real money that will lift himself and his family out of their poverty. Abbas's brother Ali (Ebraheem Sheibani) is a student who has become involved in an anti-government student group. He no longer attends class regularly, devoting all of his time to debate and secret meetings. An elder daughter Hamideh (Homeira Riazi) has been married off to a brutal husband, whose family, allows him to regularly abuse her. The youngest, Mahboubeh (Baran Kowsari), is a schoolgirl, who talks about pop music with her best friend and next-door neighbor, Masoumeh (Mahraveh Sharifi-Nia).


The plot turns on Abbas's desire to leave Iran. He and his father have schemed behind Tuba's back to sell their house, the family's only valuable asset, in order to get the money for a fake passport and visa. Tuba is violently opposed to this plan, but Abbas is convinced that he can buy her four houses if he gets the chance to work abroad. As Abbas travels through the city running errands for his employer and making plans to get the visa, he encounters opposing opinions about his trip. A young friend who had worked in Japan for a few months before being deported as an illegal alien speaks of the country as a promised land. He practices his Japanese by wooing a poster of a Japanese flight attendant, much to Abbas' amusement and fascination. An older man who runs an architecture firm chastises Abbas, complaining about the brain drain caused by low Iranian wages, and asking Abbas if he has no feeling for his country. The impact of the Iranian government on the flight of intellectuals and professionals is notably missing from the scene and the discussion. Abbas stubbornly sticks to his plan and leads the family into ruin. When the people who promised Abbas a visa disappear with his money, the house is lost. Abbas makes a last desperate, futile attempt to earn the money back, and the film ends in tragedy.

The majority of screen time is spent on Abbas's exploits, but Tuba is at the core of the film. Although she is the force that holds the family together, and the main wage earner, she cannot stop her husband and son from selling the house. For all her hard work in sustaining the family, she has no legal or social standing inside or outside of it. Through her study of Tuba and her two daughters Mahboubeh and Hamideh, writer-director Bani-Etemad reveals their powerlessness and the compromised position of women in Iran. After a particularly cruel beating, Hamideh returns home, but is told immediately that she must go back to her husband, even though everyone in the family acknowledges that she is being mistreated. Masoumeh runs away after her drug-addicted brother beats her for going to a concert with Mahboubeh. After searching in vain for her friend for several weeks, Mahboubeh finally discovers that Masoumeh has become a prostitute who works in a park along with many other young runaways. We learn of this transformation through an accumulation of subtle details - a little too much eye shadow and cracked purple nail polish.

More interesting than the larger melodramatic situations in 'Under the Skin of the City' are Bani-Etemad's close observations that reveal how life can be bearable under a repressive government and in seemingly intolerable circumstances. Before Hamideh is returned to her husband, Tuba has a conversation with her daughter's mother-in-law. The two older women discuss the situation as they hang their laundry in a windy backyard. Avoiding direct confrontation, or accusations, Tuba cajoles and prods the other woman into saying that she will try to keep her son's behavior in check. Tuba's position forces her to work behind the scenes and through networks of other women. Early in the film, on payday, Abbas decides to take the family out for pizza. Seeing an Iranian family at a fast-food Pizza Hut-like restaurant is surprising to Western eyes, which are veiled by assumptions about Iranian isolation. Through Abbas's connections they get four pies for the price of three, but Tuba is still embarrassed by the extravagance of eating at this 'fancy restaurant.' The next day in the factory lunchroom, she shares the leftovers with her fellow workers, out of generosity, but also to keep her support network intact.

Through Abbas's dreams of wealth and his pursuit of a woman he can afford to marry only if he is able to work abroad, the film makes palpable its characters' longings and unfulfilled hopes, hampered by poverty and social and religious conventions. Ali's energetic political activity contrasts with his father's apathy and defeat, while Tuba's practicality stands out against Mahboubeh's passionate outrage. These juxtapositions and the sense of broken dreams paint a picture of a country where it is difficult to have faith in rhetoric and principles, and where optimism and despair exist side by side.


At the end of the film, when everything has fallen apart, Tuba addresses another film crew and pointedly asks about the purpose of making films when people are suffering and the films make no difference in their lives. Bani-Etemad seems divided on the question. An established filmmaker, having made documentary and fiction features, her film is passionately engaged with the politics of Iran, but it also betrays an uncertainty as to how such issues should be addressed on film. The self-reflexive opening and closing sequences of the film directly reference the mixed style of many recent Iranian films. But Tuba's annoyance and despair in these scenes betrays Bani-Etemad's ambivalent feelings towards this style and the movie craze in Iran - and perhaps about the political efficacy of cinema itself.

[This review was written by Rahul Hamid and was originally published in Cineaste (Fall 2003), pp. 50-51. 'Under the Skin of the City' was produced by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and Jahangir Kowsari and was directed by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, who also wrote the screenplay along with Farid Mestafavi. The film features cinematography by Hassein Jafarian, editing by Mastafa Kherghehpoush, production design by Omid Mohit, sound recording by Asghar Shahverdi, and sound design by Mohammad Reza Delpak. The second video clip above features Bani-Etemad speaking about her 2002 documentary 'Our Times.']

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