Movie Night in Tehran

The joys of watch­ing films when they are hard to find

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Me­hdi M. Kashani

The joys of watch­ing films when they are hard to find

In the eight­ies, there were no of­fi­cial video stores in Iran. Very few for­eign films were shown on state TV, and even those were cen­sored. My par­ents, along with ev­ery­one else who wished to see movies from around the world, re­lied on mer­chants who spe­cial­ized in dis­tribut­ing il­le­gal films. These deal­ers, or, as we called them, filmees, trav­elled across Tehran car­ry­ing poor-qual­ity VHS and Be­ta­max tapes in con­spic­u­ous rec­tan­gu­lar bags. For the price of a sand­wich, “sub­scribers” could choose a few cas­settes from the dozen or so on of­fer. If my mom wanted some­thing spe­cific, like Gone with the Wind, all she could do was ask nicely and hope for the next week. If the movie ac­tu­ally ar­rived — a rare event — she’d in­vite her friends over and make a feast of it. When I was a child, these of­ten-glitchy tapes of­fered me a win­dow into the out­side world. I was able to see beau­ti­ful ac­tors sing, kiss, and, in the case of the In­di­ana Jones se­ries, crack whips. By the time I was in high school, in the late 1990s, the black mar­ket had grown thanks to DVDS, which were eas­ier to copy and dis­trib­ute. If you en­joyed the work of Michael Haneke or were fix­ated on Juli­ette Binoche, there was now a good chance you could find their films, though it might take months of search­ing. My re­la­tion­ship with cinema grew more in­tense when I en­tered univer­sity and started a part-time job with an IT com­pany near cam­pus. The pay was aw­ful, but the job gave me ac­cess to a re­li­able DSL con­nec­tion. At home, my fam­ily had dial-up in­ter­net, and down­load­ing a two-minute trailer took me sixty min­utes. At work, I could sur­rep­ti­tiously down­load en­tire films within hours. It was around this time that I first learned about Lars von Trier’s Dogville. I heard ru­mours that the di­rec­tor had rev­o­lu­tion­ized cinema with this film, which fol­lows a woman who runs away from a mob­ster and takes refuge in a small town where the peo­ple agree to keep her safe in re­turn for ever-in­creas­ing favours. My cinephile friends and I spec­u­lated end­lessly on the lit­tle we knew: Why had von Trier once again re­turned to the theme of a woman’s suf­fer­ing? Why did the art-house di­rec­tor cast Ni­cole Kid­man, a high-pro­file celebrity, in the main role? Af­ter pic­tures from the pro­duc­tion trick­led out, show­cas­ing a mys­te­ri­ous, pared-down set de­sign, my thirst to see the movie only grew. When Dogville pre­miered at the 2003 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, I en­vied those who’d man­aged to at­tend. I was afraid I would have to wait months, maybe even a year, be­fore a pi­rated ver­sion would pop up on the in­ter­net. At the end of a shift one day, not long af­ter Cannes, I saw a file on­line la­belled Dogville. I im­me­di­ately started the down­load and went home for the night. As the evening wore on, I yielded to temp­ta­tion and made the forty-five-minute drive back to the of­fice to check on the sta­tus of the file. It was fin­ished. I burned the movie onto a disk and hur­ried home. I was in­stantly taken with John Hurt’s de­tached nar­ra­tion, Kid­man’s grace, and the film’s chal­leng­ing mo­ral stance. I quickly re­al­ized, how­ever, that my file in­cluded only the first half of the film. Even so, half was enough to make my night and leave me ea­ger for more. I savoured ev­ery minute of the film de­spite all the set­backs I ex­pe­ri­enced. No, I de­voured it be­cause of them.

Four­teen years ago, I moved to Van­cou­ver. The city has never been con­sid­ered a ma­jor cen­tre for the arts, but it felt that way to me. I basked in the aisles of Chap­ters and HMV, in mul­ti­plexes and the cozy Cine­math­eque; the only hin­drance to my con­sump­tion was my then–stu­dent bud­get. As years passed, that bar­rier dis­ap­peared as well. Thanks to on­line-sub­scrip­tion ser­vices, the history of film is now within reach for any­one with an in­ter­net con­nec­tion. In Tehran, most filmees have gone out of busi­ness; deal­ers have found more prof­itable things to smug­gle. Yet I can’t shake the feel­ing that some­thing is miss­ing. For one, none of von Trier’s later films have seemed as com­pelling as Dogville. I re­cently de­cided to re­visit the movie, and within min­utes, I was stream­ing the film in high def­i­ni­tion. Through­out the three-hour run time, I re­peat­edly found my mind wan­der­ing back to my first ex­pe­ri­ence with Dogville and that thrill of rush­ing home, burned DVD in hand. It was more than nos­tal­gia — I missed the yearn­ing. Striv­ing to un­earth art was, for me, no small part of the joy of art it­self.

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