May 6, 2006

Iranian films bring comedy, music to NY festival

By Claudia Parsons

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A witty Iranian film about four men
who try to topple a big rock has audiences wondering about
political allegory and hidden messages at a time of growing
tension between Washington and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But the director of "Men at Work," Tehran-based Mani
Haghighi, says sometimes a story is just a story, so don't hold
him responsible for whatever message you might read into it.

The film, which was showing at the Tribeca Film Festival
this week, is a comedy about four middle-class, middle-aged men
on a ski trip who happen across a pillar of rock by the side of
the road above a lake. They decide to push it over, but that
turns out to be more difficult than they think.

"When I was in Berlin, the radical political opposition
there came up to me and said, 'Really good work, that was the
Islamic republic and those guys finally toppled it,"' Haghighi
told the audience after a New York screening this week.

"Back in Iran, the people from the Ministry of Islamic
Guidance came to me and said, 'Really good work, the will of
God vs. the weakness of man,"' he said, declining to answer
questions about what the message of the film was for him.

Haghighi said it was a cultural characteristic of Iranians
to speak in a roundabout fashion, with poetic language that
often has layers of meaning.

He said the natural opacity of the Farsi language was often
compounded by a desire by artists not to incur censorship that
has been a constant factor in Iranian cinema since the 1979
Iranian revolution, and even before that.

"There's this tendency whenever you encounter any kind of
cultural artifact to look for hidden layers, which makes it
difficult for people like me who are just trying to tell a
simple, straight story," Haghighi said.


Even as a straight story, the film shows a side of Iranian
life that is very different from the stereotypical images of
Iran often seen in Western media of women in headscarves, poor
children or clerics calling for the destruction of America.

Peter Scarlet, executive director of the festival, said he
chose several films that show unexpected sides of life in Iran
to help Americans understand more about a country that
President George W. Bush has dubbed part of an "axis of evil."

"I felt it was important even before the headlines got
bigger and blacker and more ominous," Scarlet told Reuters.
"Clearly this is a place that Americans or Westerners in
general don't know enough about."

Iran and the United States have been involved in diplomatic
saber-rattling in recent months over Tehran's nuclear program,
which Iran says is purely peaceful but which the United States
suspects is aimed at developing nuclear weapons.

Scarlet said "Men at Work" offered a sense of the middle
class in Iran unrepresented in most Iranian cinema, while two
other films on the program, "Inside Out" and "Siah Bazi: The
Joy Makers," were about, respectively, transsexuals and a
troupe of political satirists in a traveling theater.

Amir Hamz, the director of "Sounds of Silence" about the
underground music scene in Iran, which features hip-hop and
rock artists who distribute their music on the Internet, said
his aim was to show an unknown side of his country of origin.

"You wouldn't expect it from Iran due to the biased media
coverage in the West," said Hamz, who grew up in Germany.

"It annoys me that the media always shows this side of Iran
that pretty much matches the current situation with the nuclear
plans, but not the contemporary side that there are people just
like you and me doing this sort of thing," he said.