By: Ghasideh Golmakani
The Visit (Azadeh Moussavi, 2019) premiering at the 42nd Claremont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival occasioned this review piece.
A mother and daughter are sitting across from a camera in a photography studio to take a joint picture. The scene is blurry. At first, it appears as if the reasons for this out-of-focusness are technicalities related to the legal implications of showing a woman without headcover in Iran. Further into the story, however, we come to see how this visual device is used in a meaningful way by the young and industrious director, and it establishes a firm ground to tell the rest of the story.
Azadeh Moussavi’s The Visit (2019) builds around the relationship of a caring mother (Elaheh) and her child (Tara). Partially set in the streets of Tehran, the smooth performance of the child actress (Maneli Nafar) alongside the professional role of the mother (Mahin Sadri) gives the viewer the impression at first that s/he is about to see a film on “motherhood” in an urban setting. This expectation lasts up to the very middle of the 14-minute film when the viewer is brought face to face with a different course of events. Having mentioned in the studio that she wants the print for the next morning, the mother goes on to purchase hair color to hide her white hair (hinting, perhaps, at times of hardship) while the daughter bathes and grooms herself for the following day. It is only in the middle of the film that we learn the reason for all these preparations: to meet the man of the family in prison.
On the day of the visit, outside the prison complex, many visitors have come. Rain is pouring down as if rubble on a people. Some are sitting on mats on the ground and have hung makeshift canopies over their heads. Tara is wearing a pink coat and pink shoes, ready to meet her dad. Her pink shoes, a symbol of gender/childhood, are soiled. The mother is wearing black, perhaps an indication of her inner feelings.
As the two main characters walk past those waiting to visit their loved ones, the viewer is given hints of their situation. One hasn’t seen her son in a year, another speaks of an impending execution, a third about his lawyer. Moving smoothly, the camera captures these scenes with a close-up of Tara and Elaheh amongst people in dark suits, forlorn, anxious, withstanding mud and rain. The perspicacity of the director in this sequence along with the smooth performance of the actors, the arrangement of the cast, dress and set design, the compatibility of the mise-en-scène and the hand-held camera movement creates a different atmosphere from that of the first half of the film. The documentary nature of this sequence is such that the viewer doubts whether these are fictional or actual events.
As she explains to the prison guard, it has been six months since Elaheh last visited her husband and prison authorities tell her that this time, too, she won’t be able to see him. We learned the night before, from Elaheh listening to her voicemail, that her husband is a journalist and therefore a political prisoner.
Not being given permission to visit, Elaheh goes to the prison judge’s office to submit the knickknacks she has brought her husband, among them the emblematic photograph. The out-of-focus photograph at the beginning of the film is now in focus, but the authorities won’t accept a woman’s photograph without headcover – “even if it is for your husband, even if you haven’t seen him for six months, even if your appearance is nothing but decent.” As the first prison guard, we don’t see the face of the second. His back is to the camera. This appears to be the director’s way of telling us how she regards those working in such institutions, lacking in an independent identity, representatives only of the law. Before the bewildered eyes of the child – whose face is no longer gleaming – the prison guard nonchalantly scissors the mother out of the picture, because “there are no legal prohibitions against children below the age of maturity, which is nine according to Sharia, to appear in public with the head-cover.”
The guard gives the mother back her mutilated picture and it appears that at that very moment the child grows up to a new reality. Many Iranian female children do not learn or understand the reasons behind social mores in childhood. When children, like Tara in the first half of the film, walk the gray streets of the city, and their mothers are hassled or harassed, they are seldom told the truth about the meaning of such behavior lest their pink world is soiled; the same way, in this story, Elaheh tells Tara that they are visiting her dad in his office rather than his prison. Tara witnesses the censoring of her mother from the picture by the guard. The film ends with a scene of Tara holding the incomplete photograph of her bear-headed mother as the two walks towards the prison gate. Before they exit, the picture fades out into the darkness as we hear the frightening sound of the prison gate shutting behind them. In the darkness, Tara enters a new era of her life.
The direction in The Visit is unassuming and understated, like the scene where before folding her husband’s pullover to take it with her to prison, the woman smothers it, hinting at her desire to embrace her husband, or the scene of reacting with great apprehension to the sound of the doorbell, which may point to her experience of having uninvited guests showing up at their house, or the spell of hiccups, indicating shock or fear, that visits the child exactly when the prison guard is cutting the photograph in half.
Being a woman appears to be problematic, more so if you happen to be Iranian. After the out-of-focus shots at the photography studio, when Elaheh goes to purchase hair color, we see pictures of non-Iranian women models in various hairstyles on hair products. This explains why many Iranian filmmakers in recent years have set their films outside Iran casting foreign actresses to have more freedom to show women as they appear in their normal and daily lives.
Prior to The Visit, Azadeh Moussavi had shown her talent as a director of Finding Farideh (2018, co-directed with Kourosh Atai), which was the Iranian cinema’s representative at the 2020 Oscars to compete in the Best Foreign Film section. In “The Visit” she is showing us a different aspect of her filmmaking. She conveys the shared experience of being-a-woman in Iran with dexterity, penetrating the deeper layers of its social and personal implications. The Visit portraits the common experience of Iranian female Children at the beginning of the 21st century.
Translation: Sohrab Mahdavi