On a week dominated by Harry Potter and Thanksgiving, in a city that's been sulking about its dwindling access to independent cinema, one of the freshest and most rewarding films we have seen this year is quietly making its run at the AMC 30 out west of town. Heiran is the outstanding debut feature for Shalizeh Arefpour, a promising young Iranian filmmaker, and it achieves both contemporary political relevance and the resonating timelessness of a well-told story.
Mahi is a 17-year-old schoolgirl preparing for her exams to go to university. Her parents are Iranian migrant workers, and the family is spending the season in the small village where her grandfather lives, sleeping in the front room of his house. Heiran is a refugee from Afghanistan whose parents were both killed in the war. He's attending school at the University of Tehran, but he's also working (illegally) in the small village in between semesters to earn money for tuition. The two first enter each other's lives on the bus when Heiran catches Mahi mocking the way he moves his lips to her brothers as he studies, and from there on the romance builds.
It is striking how differently this film unfolds in contrast to a typical Western romance. The two young actors, both incredibly deft in their roles, exchange very few words during these scenes, if any at all. It's their eyes that show their cautious infatuation with each another, like the feeling of holding two magnets apart.
The other noticeable difference from the typical fare comes in its visual style. Even in films that have little dialogue, American directors like to fill the gaps with plenty of close-ups to give us a window into the thoughts and feelings of the characters on screen. Arefpour gives us a different kind of access to her characters. The shots are often from a distance, placing the actors inside of a much larger scene beyond their own thoughts. The world is often very busy, unconcerned with individuals: Cars go by, people talk, kids play games, work is being done. The lenses flatten the background, leaving shapes and actions in a natural softness so that the images come out as rich and subtle paintings.
The moral of this fable, however, is a harrowing one. Young love, as powerful as it is, can lead people down very dark roads. Mahi's family is against her interest in the Afghani boy, a prejudice which is slowly and subtly deepened as the pair solidify their relationship.
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Once the young couple is married, their lives face many challenges that are deftly revealed. With the same astounding modesty that characterized the development of their affair, the increasing hardships of their married life are revealed through small moments, physical cues, and uncertain longings. We never find out how exactly Heiran is imagining their future, but we watch as he tells his wife that he asked for his tuition back from school, that he no longer has student papers to allow him to stay in the country, that he must work in sweatshops and run from police officers. (Afghanis must live nomadic lives in Iran because they have no legal status.) These moments are not crises for the couple, nor cathartic shouting matches, as they could easily be; rather they're smoldering realities. These are the thoughts that must be occupying their minds morning until night, but what we see are the simple gestures of love: making modest snacks and watching a movie on a borrowed VCR, taking walks through the park, and scraping up money to pay rent.
And then the descent quickens. The couple has a daughter. Heiran gets sick from his menial job. The cops press harder on immigrants. And then one day Heiran doesn't come home. Mahi's journey to find out what happened to her husband, traveling from work camps to detention centers to immigration offices across the country, her child in her arm, following the thinnest threads of hope that she might be reunited with her love--this is what the movie has been building to.
It's a beautiful mediation on the lives of people who can't control their own conditions, their needs, their choices--whether they're seeking refuge or love. It gives a human face to the ongoing wars and conflicts in the Middle East, though we never once see a gunshot or hear an explosion. And it casts a worldwide spotlight on several promising new faces and names in Iranian cinema. The film will be running through November 25 (Thanksgiving Day). Catch it before it's too late.
(Heiran screens at the AMC 30, 2949 Dunvale through Thanksgiving Day.)