Entering the race for the prestigious Golden Lion prize at this year’s 71st Venice Film Festival, Iranian director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Tales (Ghesse-ha, 2014) presents the interlocking lives of several disparate Iranians trying to make sense of modern day Iran; imagine a Shortcuts set in Tehran and with a predominantly female cast. A documentary filmmaker takes a late night taxi, filming the streets and only half listening to the stories that the taxi driver tells of his life. The taxi driver asks why he never filmed him. “Because you didn’t ask me too,” the filmmaker says before disappearing into the night and leaving the taxi driver to the unfolding of another story.
With Bani-Etemad’s last two films being documentaries (it’s been over eight years since the Iranian’s last narrative feature), Tales feels almost like the admission of the limitations of documentary for capturing reality. Too many stories are going on the fringes and not necessarily where the earnest filmmaker expects. So we have the woman whose factory has closed and who hasn’t been paid her wages, an old man trying to get reimbursed for his hospital bills, a women’s shelter, an overheard conversation on a train about a fake kidnapping. This is a warm and complex film giving an image of a modern country with many of the same problems of any country: economic uncertainty is further compounded by drug use and the insolence and inefficiency of the bureaucracy that controls people’s lives.
Women are in a particularly precarious position, living at the whim of their husbands. And yet they react with courage and determination not to be ground down. The old lady joins her colleagues from the factory to go and protest its closure. A young girl takes care of drug addicts, inspired by her own difficult past as a recovering addict. There is some unevenness in the stories as might be expected from this genre and some of the more interesting stories feel tantalisingly brief and without time to develop fully. Likewise, some of the humour is a little heavy-handed and the target of the satire overly easy. A bureaucrat who is more interested in talking with his mistress than dealing with a member of the public is familiar to the point of well-worn cliché. That said, there is a warm humanity here, upheld by sterling performances from the cast. For an understanding of life in present day Tehran, Bani-Etemad’s Tales gives a series of snapshots that, although making no claim to give the whole picture, are certainly an illuminating corrective to the western media’s cold portrayal.
The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.