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'The Twilight'/'Pay Back': Iranian Artists as Troublemakers

Two films highlighting the recent strides in Iranian cinema.

Facets has released two DVDs of 21st Century Iranian films made by filmmakers who fought the law, and sometimes the law won. One is a reissue that they're calling attention to because of the director's struggles, and the other is new on DVD. It's strangely consoling (except to those in jail) to know that art can get you into serious trouble.

The 2002 movie The Twilight (Gagooman), shot on video, is a documentary-like reconstruction of events with the real people playing themselves. (This has become something of a specialty in Iranian cinema, for example Close-Up and A Moment of Innocence.) It begins with the camera looking out through the windshield of a car on its way to some location, which may be intended to remind us of Abbas Kiarostami's The Taste of Cherry. The main character has lived in prison all his adult life, and now the warden arranges for him to marry a female prisoner, with his mother (also in prison!) acting as intermediary. These scenes are handled in a simple, even unprofessional fashion, accumulating details at a steady pace until we have a wedding (apparently the actual wedding footage, not re-enacted).

Over a period of several months, the prisoners are released into the outside world. This would be another movie's happy ending, but now their problems begin as our main character has trouble finding a job to support his family. With this simple story and technique, filmmaker Mohammad Rosoulof makes a powerful statement about life-as-prison that has ironically proven too true. In December 2010, Rosoulof was sentenced to six years in prison (along with the more famous Jafar Panahi) for counter-revolutionary "propagandizing". (His later films are Iron Island in 2005 and The White Meadows in 2009.)

From 2007, Tahmineh Milani's Pay Back belongs partly to the genre of Iranian women's prison movies, like Jafar Panahi's The Circle. Milani has made a career of movies about women's issues in Iran, and she was briefly jailed in 2001 over her The Hidden Half. Pay Back was inspired by a woman Milani met in prison. After a group of women get out of stir, they hole up in a swanky house and form not a prostitution ring but a shakedown scam in which they attract guys who think they're hookers and blackmail them for cash. In this way, we get a cross-section of men and glimpses into the lives of women. This is a much more slick and professional film than The Twilight, with the actresses giving tour de force performances and the men offering sharp cameos. It's funny, suspenseful, and melodramatic in ways more forceful than Thelma and Louise.

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