A film that prefers feelings to finesse

Up close on Iran
Up close on Iran // Creative Commons

Darkness — flip.

Unknown — flip.

Fear — flip.

With each slight flick of the wrist, a studious Yalie reveals the Farsi equivalents to each tragic term. Displayed in the moments before Monday’s Iranian Studies Initiative-hosted screening of “Iranian Taboo” began, those flashcards conveyed a melancholic flavor that was all too fitting. The film, the latest documentary by Dutch-Iranian director Reza Allamehzadeh, depicts the experience of the minority Baha’i community in Iran. It is an experience of prejudice, injustice and, above all else, silence (that is, the titular “taboo”).

The documentary opens with the clumsy cinematography of a home video. Seconds later, a woman stands before the camera and explains, “I am having my daughter film this for future generations.” She wants the daughter to document why their family chose to flee from their homeland.

She puts her hand to her face, looks away and cries.

In the opening moments before the film, Yale history professor Abbas Amanat echoed her sentiment: The act of documentation in itself has some healing power. In a booming voice and with a slight accent, he praised Allamehzadeh’s work for its focus on a largely ignored community, seemingly more impressed with its substance than its style. But is a well-chosen topic enough to make a documentary succeed? Allamehzadeh seems to think so. “Iranian Taboo” exposes Iran’s tragic treatment of the Baha’i with appropriate anguish, but the director stops short of any more nuanced reflection.

The film traces the migration of one Baha’i woman’s family to Turkey, with the grief of her 14-year-old daughter as its driving force. The woman broadly alludes to the horrors of the discrimination her people face, and Allamehzadeh highlights telling examples: the exclusion of the Baha’i from higher education, the forced disclosure of religious affiliation on job forms and the government’s accusation that all Baha’i are Israeli spies (not the best rep in Ahmadinejad’s Iran). These stories are often told by Baha’i voices: A villager says he was asked to divorce his wife on religious grounds; a bright Baha’i student complains of being denied entrance to college. And there’s the unforgettable story of Dr. Berjis, a prominent philanthropist and convert to the Baha’i faith. Islamic fundamentalists came to believe that Berjis was a Zionist spy — and so they conspired to attack him. He was stabbed over 80 times. And Allamehzadeh doesn’t leave any part of that brutal murder to the imagination.

Allamehzadeh’s directorial strategy is defined by an effective, if basic, appeal to pathos. This narrow focus sacrifices any exploration of deeper questions: What are the roots of intolerance towards the Baha’i? Is there a solution? The film somewhat surprisingly excludes any mention of the religious differences between the Baha’i and the form of Shiite Islam prevalent in Iran, granting more screentime to sentimentality than to factuality.

But if nothing else, the director’s penchant for near-sensationalism ensures that he avoids trivializing an issue of great human rights importance. An appreciation for Allamehzadeh’s investigative commitment must temper any criticism of his style. His film is especially impressive given the logistical difficulty of shooting in Iran. Allamehzadeh exploits the power of raw footage, interspersing it with mobile videos of “underground” universities and fuzzy footage labeled “amateur video.” While he primarily drew from interviews with Baha’i Iranians, Allamehzadeh also includes figures important on the Iranian political scene, like former President Abulhassan Banisadr and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.

Allamehzadeh makes his own appearances throughout the film, at turns the grandfatherly narrator and the pushy investigative journalist. He does not shy away from the activism inherent to most documentaries. He has an agenda — albeit a humanitarian one — and rejects any polite BBC objectivity in favor of Michael Moore-esque “gotcha” questions.

Regardless of its emotional predictability, “Iranian Taboo” does strike a chord with viewers. The simplicity of the experience and the dismissal of more complex political questions give the film a raw power and accessibility. As the ending credits appear and the lights flick on, I glance at the flashcard held up front of me: “Silence,” it reads. A word Allamehzadeh easily, and thankfully, forgets.

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