“You shouldn’t put off things in life,” Leon (Miralem Zupcevic) advises a young visitor. “If we’d crushed these bastards, this wouldn’t be happening.” The former communist mayor of a small town in Herzegovina, now feeling bitter in 1991, Leon might actually mean for Martin (Boris Ler) to get a move on, to fight—or maybe flee—the forces closing in on Serbia as they speak.
As Cirkus Columbia begins, Martin is reluctant to make a decision. In part this is because he’s young and careless—as the film opens, he’s waking on the couch where he sleeps outside, birds chirping and his mother Lucija (Mira Furlan) at the ready with breakfast—and in part, it’s because he’s recently been shaken by the return of his father after 20 years away. Now that the political situation is changing fast, Divko (Miki Manojlovic) has come home from Germany, with a pretty new girlfriend, Azra (Jelena Stupljanin). He’s also reclaimed his house—where Martin and Lucija have been living rent-free—as well as his reputation in the community. His utter lack of sensitivity and preparedness for anything he encounters makes Divko an obvious stand-in for what’s going wrong as the Yugoslav wars begin grinding in earnest.
Interweaving stories that are at once personal and political, historical and topical, comic and tragic, Danis Tanovic’s Cirkus Columbia is an apt film to open the Dialogue of Cultures International Film Festival. Screening 16 feature length movies, fiction and documentary, the DICFF begins 20 October and runs through the 27th at the Quad and the School of Visual Arts Theatre in New York City. Festival founder Boris Cherdabayev explains that it is also appropriate for this first festival to focus on the effects of globalization to begin in New York, “because it is here that you can see the greatest diversity of cultures living together side by side. In a sense, New York is the world’s biggest melting pot.” Next year, the Festival will be located in Paris, and in years following, other cities around the world.
The “melting pot” is close to boiling in Cirkus Columbia. No one in the film’s Herzegovina is quite open to change or ready to make a choice, though some individuals are feeling more pressured to tolerate it, if not welcome it. Divko’s family—so vividly broken and inclined to split into still more pieces when he returns—plainly represents the splintering of the newly democratic nation, affected by factions and traditions, beliefs and betrayals. He arrives in an expensive car, proud to show off Azra, and willfully ignorant of what’s transpired since his flight from communist rule.
Each individual’s perspective changes, and so do their complicated interrelationships. As Azra becomes increasingly disaffected by what she sees as Divko’s “real,” egocentric and frankly materialistic self, he becomes distracted by losses he’s only beginning to recognize. (Literally, he loses a cat he’s brought with him from Germany, but the metaphorical resonances aren’t hard to find.) While Martin (working at a gas station, of all places) finds various minor ways to get back at his father, Lucija imagines another life, away from the coming war, with a local At the same time, she’s being courted by the Yugoslav Army captain Savo (Svetislav Goncic), whose differences from Divko are obvious—he’s stable and devoted, and not a little dull.
While these several romances bloom and wither, Cirkus Columbia offers a gloss on how such affections—temporary and superficial—affect change. Sometimes these transitions are for the good, and often they are contentious and even harrowing.
Cirkus Columbia suggests that the past is never quite past, but events occurring around the Australian film My Tehran For Sale, indicate that the past is ever present—and perilous. The film’s lead, Marzieh Vafamehr, has recently been arrested and sentenced to a year in jail and 90 lashes for starring in the film, which was banned by Iranian authorities (as of now, she’s is free on bail).
The film, which screens 22 October at the Festival, was shot secretly in Tehran by director Granaz Moussavi. It follows the travails of Marzieh (Vafamehr), an Iranian actress detained for two years in Australia. As she recounts her story, her shaved head and drawn face indicate both her frustration and her patience. Answering a government interrogator’s questions, Marzieh describes how she came to be so far from home, or more precisely, how home became so distant.
Flashbacks reveal that she and Saman (Amir Chegini), an Iranian-born Australian citizen she meets at a rave, plan to marry and move to Adelaide. Their ambition to escape finds a kind of correlative in the art they make and seek out—her performances on stage, part mime and part modern dance, illustrating violence against fearful yet resilient citizens, as well as musicians they support in underground clubs, including Mohsen Namjou (the “Bob Dylan of Iran”). Cinematographer Bonnie Elliot’s camera seems as restless as Marzieh’s spirit: much of the film was shot illicitly, chaotic handheld images showing the authorities breaking up a rave, scenes of parties and social gatherings cobbled together from footage that was smuggled out of Iran in backpacks.
As both films illustrate the very real risks of resisting social and political orders, they also show the costs of submitting. The choices can’t be easy.
My Tehran for Sale