'Fifi Howls from Happiness': In Thrall to Iranian Artist Bahman Mohassess
Brilliant, loving, and as intensely political as any of Bahman Mohassess' works, this film celebrates connection as much as it reveals isolation, dedication and outrage.
"Put the sea at the end of the film," says Bahman Mohassess. You hear his instruction as you see the end of Fifi Howls vrom Happiness (Fifi az khoshhali zooze mikeshad), which is, indeed, comprised of a lengthy take of the sea, with waves blue and dynamic, seemingly endless… until the end is marked, "Fin."
As traditional as this marker might seem, there's nothing traditional or even very final about the end of Fifi Howls from Happiness. For one thing, Mohassess' instruction concerning the last image has been preceded by a rambunctious dual portrait of both the Iranian artist and his filmmaker, Mitra Faharani, who tracks him down in 2010, years after he all but disappeared from public life, living in Rome's Hotel Sacconi.
Moreover, it's preceded more specifically by a caution. "It's fruitless to promise a future full of little angels with round little pink butts," Mohasses asserts, even as you look on that sea. "Because a child has lost its father or his feet at a result of an 'intelligent' bomb cannot and must not forget. When the seeds of hate are sown, they will grow. All right?"
The question has less to do with what he's just said (or even whom he's been, remembered here via footage from a 1967 film, The Eye that Hears, showing him at work in his studio), than with his relationship with Faharani. He addresses her directly throughout their collaboration ("I am not directing, I'm only giving you my opinion"), usually calling her "Lady", as in, "Look here, lady, this is me," arranging himself on his green couch as he begins to tell her how to "tell my story." Or he asks, "So lady, what's the plan for my film's music?", asked from off-screen while the camera gazes out his balcony window onto traffic. He speaks to other topics as well, beyond his film: "Don't let me smoke cigarettes, you stop me, lady."
Here the filmmaker speaks, as her camera moves slowly down a stream of tap water, filling a vase full of greens. "I employ all the delicacy I can muster," she says, "I don't recall ever before focusing so intently on the touch of a white handkerchief on the wrinkled skin of a peach. I know he is watching me." He's sending his doctors away, she adds, and so she makes conscious efforts, crossing one leg over another. He looks toward the camera, cigarette in hand, as she observes, "Beyond these preoccupations, there is a vital engine driving these daily encounters, a film for me and a commission work for him."
The bargain they strike seems straightforward, but it is also, as Faharani puts it, "vital". Both invest in goals that are defined and in sight, achievable, even as they overlap and shape each other. He agrees to make the film ("I really don't understand what this film you are making about me is about") and, when he suggests that it will be better if she can record him at work, she arranges the commission, a 100,000-euro painting for a couple of brothers. They not only come to visit Mohassess at the Saccio, but also serve as yet another audience for his stories of conflict with authorities in Iran, the destruction of his work and his enduring response, at once philosophical and practical.
He doesn't worry about lost works, he says, and even took to destroying his own pieces (as he has, he says, no expectation of "immortality and all that nonsense"). Asked if he wonders "about the destiny of each of your pieces," the artist takes a moment to light Faharani's own cigarette as she leans into the frame, then holds forth, "I don't think about it. Just as God created the shah and the ayatollah and then let them loose in the world."
The filmmaker wonders some more, concerning his subject matter (figures without faces, figures in distress, fish out of water, naked figures that inspired the regime's censorship), as well as possible themes. "It seems," she says, "the destiny of your work tends toward destruction." "Yes, yes, totally," he responds. "But there is one issue. If they're destroyed, shattered, stolen or whatever it is, it is the victory of the ignorance of these times. It isn't my fault."
Faharani speculates that the fish might be him, representing dislocation or struggle. Mohassess doesn't so much answer as gesture (the film offers up images of his fish as well as fish footage, as several are gasping in air, as well as the images he keeps in his kitchen, a kitten on the postcard, a tiger on a calendar). Mohassess embraces struggle, certainly, but he's found that the opponent is less a form of government ("Democracy is just as rotten as dictatorship," both shaped by individual behaviors. "Try going to America as an Iranian, they won't let you in").
Neither is this outspoken gay man convinced that marriage or even visibility is an answer to oppression or an inspiration to art. The film shows his maid, vacuuming, dusting, straightening, as he notes that previous eras produced "a Leonardo da Vinci a Botticelli… a Cocteau or a Proust." Now, though, when "everyone wears a badge proclaiming they're faggots, what's there left to say?"
As Mohassess goes on to describe art made and lost, the film offers images, photos and book pages, illustrations of memories. While you might also be pondering the tension between invention and annihilation, the ineluctable processes of time, the movements back and forth between past and present, Mohassess talks and laughs and coughs, his health plainly poor, his spirit vividly undaunted.
He points to a magazine cover, a photo of a great beauty whom he calls "an artificial martyr, wanting to be sad but not sad at all." The artist's reading of surfaces corresponds with the surfaces he shapes, the beauty he wields like a weapon. And in his interactions with Faharani, and in the art she makes of those interactions, you see too how tightly intertwined are the forces of creation and destruction.
You may know this truth already, may have felt it or lived it, and still, Fifi Howls from Happiness feels like a revelation. This in part because it is so delicately and so deeply remade in the relationship you witness here. When Mohassess, looking forward to her visit on an afternoon, instructs Faharani over the phone, you watch a view from a car, looking onto a street, en route, as he speaks. "You know that ice cream shop. Get two ice creams, one vanilla for me, one lemon for you."
You realize, suddenly, acutely, that you need see nothing else in this film about art, about gorgeous, passionate, endless art, and still, you can know something about this artist and art more generally. Brilliant, loving, and as intensely political as any of Mohassess' paintings or sculptures, Fifi Howls from Happiness celebrates connection as much as it reveals isolation, dedication alongside outrage. Art, you see, is a relationship, as complex as it can be, a function of sharing and debating and wanting.