Close-Up The human need for certainty

“No Date, No Signature” and “Disappearance”, two Iranian social dramas from the new generation of filmmakers were shown at the 19th Bratislava International film Festival.

The colours in Vahid Jalilvand’s second feature “No Date, No Signature” speak for themselves: A grey, white, brown and black palette of opaque drabness. Very few specks of colour catch the viewer’s eye throughout this enquiry on guilt and responsibility. But in those matters, things are hardly ever black and white.
Kaveh Neriman, a doctor played by Amir Aghai, gets into a small accident with a family on a motorbike. At first, the injured boy Amir Ali seems more or less fine, but the doctor still advises his parents to take him to the hospital for a check-up. It is only after Dr. Neriman goes to work the next day that he realises the boy died in the early hours of the morning. From that moment onwards, there is but one question plaguing his obsessed mind: Is he responsible for the child’s death? The autopsy report shows no sign of severe trauma, the cause of death likely being botulism, a type of severe food poisoning. The second possible culprit could thus be the boy’s father, Moosa, played by Navid Mohammadzadeh, who had bought cheap chicken carcass and fed it to his son.
Cue an ultimately meaningless pursuit for certainty by the doctor – a very human trait indeed, this need to find answers and determine guilt and responsibility – and a quest for revenge by the father. Dr. Neriman exhumes the boy’s corpse days after it was buried to determine the neck trauma that he may have caused in the accident and that could have killed him. In a key scene Amir Ali’s father goes to the seller who sold him the rotten chicken. This is where “No Date, No Signature” gathers up the necessary vigour for such a social drama. Apart from that, the film remains emotionally flat in spite of the topic’s severity and we remain largely disconnected from the existential pursuits of these two men.
The pain of not knowing takes a backseat in Ali Asgari’s film “Disappearance”. The young couple at the centrepiece of this social drama know fully well what has happened: They had pre-marital sex. Sara, played by Sadaf Asgari, needs surgery as she suffers from abnormal bleeding after the sexual encounter. All night her and her boyfriend try to get her medical attention, but the Islamic Republic is unrelenting. A marriage certificate is needed for these kinds of interventions and they do not have one. Dragging themselves from hospital to hospital they make up stories and lies to try and circumnavigate the limitations imposed on them, attempting to erase that which has been done. The couple does not want to get Sara’s parents involved, as her mother especially does not know about her relationship and would disapprove vehemently.
Sara’s medical issues consistently get labelled “problems” throughout “Disappearance”. What happened to her is not referred to in clear, plain words, speaking to the taboo that remains in Iranian society when it comes to these subjects. It is refreshing to see a male filmmaker make a film about what is sometimes perceived as a female problem. Instead, Asgari has developed a story in which the male character takes responsibility. Simultaneously, the director sparks discussion on an important topic, although he has not yet been able to show “Disappearance” to audiences at home in Iran, where this social drama ought to resonate the most.
Neither “Disappearance” nor “No Date, No Signature” break new ground in terms of technique and storytelling but both are good examples of the latest generation of filmmakers. The likes of Asghar Farhadi and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad have paved the way for filmmakers such as Asgari and Jalilvand, as they have explored questions of revenge, guilt, responsibility and freedom through narratives about the Iranian middle class and its troubles, but also drug abuse, prostitution and other social issues, basically using narrative cinema to tell bigger stories and shine a light on deep-seated societal problems. This social-critique cinema marks, in part, a departure from the more “poetic” type of filmmaking exposed by figures like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, although female filmmakers such as Pouran Derakhshandeh and Tahmineh Milani have long exposed their country’s misfortunes in fiction too.