Captain America: Civil War and the Weight of Violence

In a post-911 landscape, the American blockbuster has become a place to reframe and relive the trauma of seeing the twin towers fall. Film after film depicts the rancid destruction of skyscrapers, but in a way that often felt part of pure entertainment spectacle with no people leaping to their deaths or bodies strewn in the streets. Continue reading Captain America: Civil War and the Weight of Violence

Violence in Jafar Panahi’s Taxi

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is not a violent film. No acts of violence are depicted in the film, but violence permeates and informs the film. Conversations and off-screen acts paint a portrait of how violence intrudes into Jafar Panahi’s sheltered world as a cab driver. As he drives around Tehran, Jafar finds his passengers bring in the baggage of violence.

Take the first passenger, a man who goes off about how a relative recently had his tires stolen. He says a couple of thieves should be hung as an example to the others. A woman who rides as another passenger in the back seat takes offense at this suggestion and tells the young man that Iran is second only to China as the country with the most executions. Jafar seems content to let the two hash out the argument.

Jafar isn’t quite as passive with the next set of passengers. He pulls up next to a motorcycle accident and the victim and his weeping wife. Panicked that he might be dying, the victim asks to be recorded as he gives his last will which leaves his house to his wife, worried that his brothers will take it otherwise.

Later on his route, two older women insist Jafar drive them to a spring, saying their lives depend on it. They bring with them two fish in a glass fishbowl. When Jafar brakes abruptly at one point, the bowl shatters and the fish are left gasping for air. The fish are unseen until Jafar scoops them up and places them in a sack of water he retrieves from the trunk.

Jafar’s next passenger is his young niece that he picks up from school. She goes on about how she needs to make a film for a class, but how it must adhere to certain rules, complaining that she doesn’t understand one rule about making a film which contains gross realism. His niece also talks about footage she captured of a suitor being beat up by the brothers of his beloved because they find out he’s an Afghan.

Their conversation about filmmaking is interrupted when Jafar meets an old friend. This friend hands him a tablet which contains violent footage of a crime he was a victim of. The friend is still shaken by the event, but does not want to report the crime because he knows the people involved and doesn’t want them to be punished.

All these moments relate to violence in some way and build together a tapestry of social unrest in Tehran. The woman against execution, the victim of a random accident willing his house to his wife, the unseen footage of a suitor being beaten up for being another race, and the footgate of an unreported crime all show various social pressures at work in the country.

Through it all, Jafar’s taxi becomes a sort of safe space for its passengers. Jafar often aids them or is simply content to let the circumstances play out with a smile on his face. Once in the car, a safe space is gained to think and talk about the outside world, one with no condemnation or criticism, Jafar as a director/actor positions himself first and foremost as a listener, even as his passivity infuriates some of his passengers. Jafar may be the driver, but he’s quick to leave his passengers to come to their own conclusions instead of leading them into his way of thinking.

The image left is less than flattering, especially when taken with the interesting final moments of the film. The social ills of Iran are lain bear, positioning the film quite nicely into Jafar’s body of work. Social issues are depicted through unseen violence that make the film deceptively silent, but secretly rioting against the ills of Jafar’s home country.

© 2016 James Blake Ewing

A Moment of Innocence (1996)

In some ways akin to Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema, A Moment of Innocence is as much about the process behind making a film as much as a film itself. This metatextual layer is not quite as strong as Salaam Cinema, but it does make for an interesting story about how these men reflect on their lives and try to represent themselves.

The film chronicles Makhmalbaf’s attempt to recreate a scene from his youth when he stabbed a policeman during a protest rally. He does this by enlisting the policeman (Mirhadi Tayebi) he stabbed to help him direct the film. While the policeman directs a younger version of himself (Ali Bakhsi), Makhmalbaf hires and directs a young version of himself (Ammar Tafti) as well.

Of the two, the policeman’s story is the more interesting one. Hearing him talk about his days as a policeman and the time he spent pining after a woman who kept asking him questions every day shows this gentle, sweet side to the man that makes him an affectionate dreamer, a man pining after his youth and what it could have been.

He’s also so sincere about the way he directs that it ends up being quite funny. As he teaches the youthful version of himself how to stand, walk, and salute like a police officer, the results are often hilarious. The film isn’t making fun of him as much as it just finds the situations humorous and exaggerates them for comedic effect.

It’s a disappointment that Makhmalbaf’s scenes with the younger version of himself are not as engaging. This is in part because Makhmalbaf comes off as a far more distant, cold figure. He’s often on the other side of the camera and only heard, making him less of a human force in the film. There is one scene where he opens up a bit and it’s by far the best moment of his half of the film.

However, it is interesting how the younger versions of the two men are picked. For the policeman, Makhmalbaf insists on a young man who looks more like the policeman while the policeman insists that they pick a more photogenic young man. In contrast, Makhmalbaf picks the young man who plays himself when he declares that his goal is to save the world. The policeman must look the part while the director must have the heart.

This all builds to a compelling final act where things don’t quite go as plan. What that reveals about the characters and the attempt to capture the event makes for a compelling capstone to the entire affair. Reality and cinema blend into something extraordinarily beautiful and sincere.

Even then, that doesn’t quite make up for the weaker moments with Makhmalbaf. His cold distance doesn’t give us enough vulnerability to make him work as well as the scenes with the police officer. There’s still a strong film here, but it fails to live up to its full potential.

© 2016 James Blake Ewing

Fireworks Wednesday (2006)

Dramatically explosive and slow-building, Fireworks Wednesday is a biting drama. From the strong sound design to the use of simple objects to build conflict, the film makes for a slow-moving, nail-biting look at a marriage gone horribly wrong. It’s a shame then that the film’s device for exploring the film proves to be one of its weakest points. Continue reading Fireworks Wednesday (2006)