Journey of the Gray Men

Journey of the gray men

Journey of the Gray Men or Safar-e Mardan-e Khakestari by Amir Shahab Razavian is a road movie of three old folk musicians with nostalgic memories to Birjand

Call for the Journey

Bahman, an old Dutar player, arrives in Tehran to find and convince his friends, Esfandiar, puppet player, and Javad, Tombak player, to go on a journey to Birjand, where they all initially met each other. Esfandiar is now a ticket seller in one of theatre houses in Lalehzar Street and Javad, who has developed a heart problem, lives and works in a greenhouse. Getting on an old Chevrolet Station Wagon, they set out on a road journey from Tehran to Birjand after forty years, where they used to perform Persian Marionette to earn money.

Journey of the gray men
Nostalgic Chevrolet Station Wagon

Persian Marionette

In their first attempt, they stop at a mixed school in a mountainous village to perform what they had missed all these years.  The story of the marionette is a love story of a young man named Farrokh Khan who is in love with a beautiful girl, Sarvenaz, but sheriff of the town has his eyes on her, too. Farrokh sets on a journey to Mount Qaf, a legendary mountain in the popular mythology of the Middle East, to fetch Simurgh’s feather, as a power tool, to win Sarvenaz back.

Safar-e Mardan-e Khakestari
Performing Marionette at School
Safar-e Mardan-e Khakestari 2001
Coffee House at Caspian Sea

Stopping at a beach coffee house, they began to smoke hookah and drink tea. Despite their insistence, the owner did not remember them after such a long time. Those who are in debt to him are important to remember, not the others. They left the coffee house disappointed to spend the night on Caspian Sea beach, next to fire where music is in the air. Esfandiar remembers good old day in Golestan Palace, a puppet show place for public, which was closed down after Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Secretive Wedding Picture

The next day, Javad found an unknown wedding picture at a back of sun visor, but put it back. Later on Javad was taken to hospital as result of too much smoking. The doctor warned him to quit; however, he made some excused to continue.

Safar-e Mardan-e Khakestari Film 2001
Wedding Picture behind the Sun Visor

Going down the desert part of Khorasan province, they gave a lift to a group of singers and dancers heading for a wedding ceremony in Fakhr-e Davud village. Turning their car into wedding car, they happily joined the Persian wedding. But, it didn’t last long. After realizing the father of the bride forced her into this marriage, Esfandiar made Bahman and Javad leave it in fury.

Fakhr-e Davud Castle
Fakhr-e Davud Castle
Journey of the Gray Men film
Agha Ghasem Garden

Unrequited Love Story of Ghasem

They unanimously decided to spend the night at Agha Ghasem Garden like old time. Ghasem has been living alone in this garden for nearly half a century. Fifty years ago, when he was doing his military service, he fell in love with a girl. Since he was a simple private, he asked his superintendent to step forward as an experienced man to ask the girl’s father for marriage. But, the superintendent himself fell for the girl and married the girl. Ever since, he has been living alone in this garden where she and her children pay a visit in summer for pleasure. (See Colors of Memories)

Football Fans & Afghan Refugee

The journey went on as the next day, they got into a fight with group of young football fans and badly beaten. The movie stops at the film crew ran toward them to break the fight. On the way to Birjand, they stopped to pick up an old Afghan man heading to desert. The Afghan man has left his country 30 years ago to live in Iran. The Afghans live in camp where law of jungles rule. It has started since 1979. The police checkpoint turned out to be the last destination for Afghan as he was arrested for smuggling marbles!

Journey of the Gray Men
Afghan Refugee
Journey of the Gray Men
Football Fans

Javad who kept resisting telling the death of his father finally gave in. The cause of his death was the death of his closest friend, a goat! Getting to Birjand at night, they spent the night at Bahman’s house where his widowed sister, Rabe’e also lives.

Love Confession

In Birjand, Esfandiar opened his chest out and confessed his love for Bahman’s sister, Rabe’e. Esfandiar has kept the wedding picture of Rabe’e behind the sun visor, a lost love.

Journey of the Gray Men
Rabe’e Youth
Journey of the Gray Men
Rabe’e Elderly
Journey of the Gray Men 2001
Rabe’e at Marionette Show
Journey of the Gray Men 2001
Esfandiar as Peeping Tom

Performing marionette in Birjand finally came true. However, Esfandiar changed the love story of Farrokh and Sarvenaz into an unrequited love, as Rabe’e was watching the show in the first row. Unfortunately, Javad died of heart problem and buried in Birjand, his favorite place. Bahman asked Esfandiar to stay in Birjand, but he left to keep his journey on the road. The film ends Amir Shahab Razavian, his father and mother in the same car in Hamedan. Six months later, his real father passed away. In fact, Journey of the Gray Men is the story of his father and his friend.

Amir Shahab Razavian Director

Journey of the Gray Men Film Review

As the first feature film of Amir Shahab Razavian Journey of the Gray Men has a lot to say. Inspired by the story of his deceased father, the young Iranian director focuses mainly on Persian Marionette, lost love and travel.

Persian Marionette

Razavian reminds us how short our cultural memory has become. Once popular puppet show, with its folklore tales and music, is now forgotten for good due to Iranian Revolution as Esfandiar straightforwardly reveals. The mobile trio puppeteers are the inheritors of Gusans, creative and performing artists dating back to Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 AD). Gusans were the artists narrating the epic tales along with folklore music and performance on street for public. The Persian marionette’s tales reflect similar aspects in a new form. Entertaining as it used to be and it is, the marionette emphasizes the importance of art and its vital role connecting people with their history. Those disconnected with history are subject to forgetfulness and loss of memories. As Javad brilliantly put, “one who does not think about the past, never care about memories”. 

In Pursuit of Persian Marionette, Lost Love & Memory

Lost Love Memory

Digging the past memories was the main propeller of these three old artists to travel to Birjand, where they befriended first. Birjand is home of sweet and bitter past for them, particularly for Esfandiar who left it heartbroken. Fallen in love with Bahman’s sister, Rabe’e in the narrow alleys of historical part of Birjand, Esfandiar was unable to confess his love for her out of “respectability”, an irrational deep-rooted eastern element of ethics. As a result, he has remained bachelor all his life sticking just to a wedding picture as a memento. Moreover, Ghasem heart breaking tale of love and regret, although short, underlines similar theme which extensively elaborated in his next film, Colors of Memory.  The characters are modern odyssey wandering the land for the lost loves.

Go down memory lane is manifested in real road trip. Travelling from Tehran, visiting scenic landscapes of Hyrcanian Forest, passing by the old Caravanserais, ruins castles and spectacular deserts, all in all make Journey of the Gray Men a genuine road movie.

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Here One Does Not Die

Here One Does Not Die poster

Here One Does Not Die tells a story of private solider who must watch oil pipes on Iran-Iraq borderline alone for a month.

The film opens with the longshot of horseshoe road with two men on a buzzing motorcycle noise heading to the watch post. While telling a film story, Ghasem (Reza Behbudi) take Ashkan (Houman Seyyedi) to a one-room shelter. Ghasem is worried about his wife’ mental health and thinks the baby heals the pain. The observation post is in a remote mountainous area empty of any humans but some wolves. Ashkan has to keep his eyes open for smugglers who hit the pipe at night.

Here one does not die film
Horseshoe Road

One fine day, he sees a girl, Rojin, down below on the green covered flat land carrying stuff to a stony house. Quickly gets on his motorcycle, Ashkan approaches her and asks about her business there. The girl (Bahar Katozi) replies that she is just living in here. As a part of duty, he reports about her presence in the area to Ghasem.

Rojan (a Kurdish name means “shining”) keeps visiting Ashkan day and night to bring some food and have small chitchat. One day Ashkan tries to pay her a visit to her home, but Rojin rebuffs him angrily and asks him to leave. Ashkan becomes suspicious that she might be in cahoots with smugglers. His worry grows when she calls him by his first name over having some food the next day. Ashkan never remembers telling his name to Rojin. Slowly and slowly Ashkan’s state of mind begins to break.

Here One Does Not Die 2016
Ashkan is sharing his secret with Ghasem (Reza Behbudi)

He loses the date and day of the week. On an occasion when Ghasem is back to bring some food and water for him, Ghasem tells that his wife needs to see a doctor because he saw her playing with the dolls.  However, Ashkan refuses his idea and advises him not to do.

The doctors will bother her. They will do something that she forgets everything…I have been with them [Doctors]……I have seen something and somebodies that seemingly did not exist. Only I see them.  

One night he sees some men near the oil pipe through the binoculars. He reports to Ghasem and when Ghasem checks the situation he couldn’t find any evidence. Smoking heavily day in and day out, Ashkan cannot trust his mind anymore.  Through a series of flashback, we see Ashkan on a wheelchair of what appears to be an asylum. To stay focused and get rids of voices he hears, he tries to remember his events of his life by talking loudly to himself. However, it appears futile because Rojin keeps coming back to his loading. In a daring act, after seeing a man near the oil line, he gets into the house of Rojin with his finger on the trigger. Rojin begs him to leave the house immediately before they show up. As he was asking about the men, a door opens and a man enters. Ashkan pulls the trigger and shoots the man dead. Together, they dig a hole and bury the corpse. In an internal monologue, we hear that Ashkan tells himself that “This woman is unreal. I should not get close to women.  

Here One Does Not Die 2016 Iran Cinema
Ashkan (Houman Seyyedi) & Rojin (Bahar Katozi)

Waking up next day on his bed, he sees the dead man he buried smoking cigarette alive before his eyes, only injured in left ear. He warns him not meddle with his business because he has no intention of killing a private solider. After giving a pocket of cigarette, he tries to threaten Ashkan by choking him with his hands. He then leaves quickly. That night Ashkan saw a group of men show up at Rojin house and carry a dead body wrapped in rug. He picks a shovel and quickly runs to the burial place of dead man. To his surprise, there was no corpse. He goes on the verge of collapse and passes out on open space when Ghasem comes announcing that his watch is over. While carrying Ashkan on his back, he begins to narrate a story;

There was a fast sleeper boy who sleeps when the situation comes up. Once he slept at 20:00 and woke up at 12:00 noon tomorrow. He said that he went boating. On the other day, he slept for two entire days. He went boating again. But, one night we he fell asleep, instead of boating, the water pulled him down. He went down like a stone. A week passed. Three months passed. Ten years passed. The boy realized that he is asleep. He tried to scream, but he couldn’t. One day while his mother was playing with his hair, he saw that his boy was staring at her with open eyes. He woke up, but he felt like a boy who is trapped in the body of a grown-up man.

Ghasem carries Ashkan on his back to the motorcycle. Here One Does Not Die ends with the same horseshoe road with two of them on the motorcycle.  

Kondori’s Comment on Film

Hossein Kondori in his news conference at Fajr Film Festival said that at the begging the name of the film was “Zero Point Border”, but later changed into “Here One Does Not Die”. He introduced his film as a psychic drama and believed that from the second half of the film “an analytical point of view dominates the film” which make the audience to think more about the film. Regarding the cinematography of the film, Kondori states that Here One Does Not Die is the first film in Iran which was shot with Blackmagic URSA camera. He added that from the begging he had Houman Seyyedi as the main role, but he faced difficulty to convince him for the role. However, at the end, he talked him into it.

Hossein Kondori
Hossein Kondori, the director

Here One Does Not Die Film Review

Hossein Kondori, a young Iranian filmmaker, goes against the mainstream cinema of Iran to make a film on a psychic private. His narrative of a mentally ill person brings to mind films like Beautiful Mind where the protagonist sees unreal fictional characters. Unlike the John Nash, the protagonist is a soldier dealing with the unknown intruding woman who occupies and unbalances his soul and mind.

Here One Does Not Die
Ashkan in Observation Post

 Since that the director never shares Ashkan’s past experience with the audience and from the exchanging words between the characters, particularly Ashkan’s internal monologue, it is likely that Ashkan’s problem originates from the “presence of woman” of any kind in his life. As long as he is within male presence, he is sound and sensible. But, as soon as a Rojin appears his mind goes numb. In a revealing internal monologue, he points out that he should not get close to this woman, Rojin.

To support my perspective, I would like to pay attention to the Ghasem’s wife. His wife is playing with dolls like a kid and he thinks that making her pregnant will exorcise her illness. In fact, we never hear Ghasem’s wife side of story nor Rojin one. We see the world from the two male characters. In Here One Does Not Die, what we see is a male-centered world where women are either trouble-maker like Rojin or mentally ill like Ghasem’s wife.   

Here One Does Not Die Film Location

The setting of the film is on Iran-Iraq borderline in Kurdish area of Iran. However, the film was shot in Rineh and its surrounding area near Mount. Damavand.

Iran film location
Rineh, Amol County, Mazandaran
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Where Was Ten Little Indians Filmed?

Ten Little Indians 1974 Poster

Ten Little Indians, aka, And Then There Were None was filmed in pre-Revolution Iran by Peter Collinson. The setting of the film is quite tricky. The first shot of the film shows two important monuments in Iran, Persepolis and Shah Mosque in the middle of desert.

Where Was Ten Little Indians Filmed
Ten Little Indians 1974 Opening Scene- Persepolis & Shah Mosque

Perepolis, Shiraz

Then the film cuts to the deserted ruins of Persepolis while we hear a gust of wind sound. Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of Achaemenid Empire in 5th century BC.

Ten Little Indians film location Persepolis
Deserted Persepolis in Ten Little Indians 1974

Shah Mosque, Isfahan

After that, the film jumps to the Shah Mosque. As the camera moves down, we see Elsa Marino (played by Maria Rohm), the female servant of the hotel in a white blouse with sunglasses on, waiting for arrival of the doomed guests.

Maria Rohm in Ten Little Indians -Shah Mosque Isfahan
Maria Rohm in Ten Little Indians -Shah Mosque Isfahan

As she is looking at the open desert before her, the tile of the films appears. So did the credit.

Ten Little Indians was filmed in Iran
Ten Little Indians was filmed in Iran (1974)

The pre-credit sequence and the post-credit of Ten Little Indians is the fruit of editors’ sleight of hand. I mean that, the editors put Persepolis and Shah Mosque, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Iran, next to each other which geographically speaking is not right. Shah Mosque is in Isfahan while Persepolis is in Shiraz. The editors reduce the nearly 500 kilometers to almost 30 meters.

Shah Abbasi Hotel, Isfahan

That is not the end. There is more to it. Since Ten Little Indians is an adaptation from Agatha Christie whodunit novel, the director decides to set his film in an isolated place to emphasize its enigmatic atmosphere. So, we see the mysterious hotel in a middle of a nowhere next to the Persepolis ruins. It is not the end of the story. As the ill-fated guests enter the mysterious hotel, the viewers witness shots of Hotel Abbasi Isfahan that is one kilometer away from the entrance of Shah Mosque or New Abbasi Mosque before.

Ten Little Indians in Abbasi Hotel Isfahan

So, the opening of the Ten Little Indians is as weird as the story itself. Click here for Ten Little Indians film review.

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Capernaum: Struggle for Hope

Capernaum Film Poster

Capernaum Film Poster

The Middle East has been struggling with wars for the past 60 years. Daily news on the Middle East particularly Lebanon is an inevitable fact. I am living kilometers away in Tehran, Iran. I am safe here, despite all the prejudice and political-oriented news broadcasted on Western TVs. However, I can’t suppress my anger for war and all the bloodshed and injustice inside and outside of my country.

Iran states television channels broadcast Arab refuges in Syria and Iraq. People are getting used to seeing these violent images which is a huge regret. Human being is getting to see another of his own kind losing his home or getting hurt or killed on daily basis. Was Nietzsche right when he cried out “God is Dead?” Because it seems the world is moving toward the dark valley. But, every now and then, one seems to seek a lightness and hope out of this miserable world. This time Nadine Labaki, the renown Lebanese actress orchestrated this optimistic perspective.

Nadine Labaki in her new film, Capernaum, delves into the lives of the miserable in ghettos of Lebanon and their struggle to survive. Arial shots of shantytown and children’s smoking and playing with plastic and wooden guns in a slow motion, as the gloomy music is on, is the entry of viewers into the world of Capernaum. An overview of the shabby streets filled with garbage and car tires on the roofs from the up looks like an earth with a small black holes. The camera zooms out and a district appears. All in a unicolor of khaki, without a single bright colors.

Philosophical Perspective of Capernaum

Zain El Hajj is shown on courtroom sentenced to five-year prison for stabbing which really surprised me. But, what came after, to be honest, was a real shock. He sued his parents for bringing him into the world!

Capernaum Quote

His question has a philosophical perspective. It questions the concept of the “choice” which a child, a human being, has no control over it. He didn’t ask for it and yet he is paying the tolls. A Heavy one. Isn’t it unfair? If parents can’t afford any things for their kids, why they are breeding so many? Zain asks for the great measure. Zain’s father, Selim, played by Fadi Kamel Youssef, revealed in the courtroom that his upbringing thought him that his children would support him when they grow up. This is what life is. This deep-rooted attitude is widespread in the entire Middle East. Parents in Iran has the same notion and expectation. One has always expected something for doing something. However, in the modern world, where life is getting hard and harder every day, parents shouldn’t have a second thought on having a baby?

Zain parenting Yonas in Capernaum
Zain parenting Yonas in Capernaum

As a subplot for Zain life, we see a mother fighting for life, too. Tigest Ailo (Playing by Yordanos Shiferaw) the illegal Ethiopian refugee in Lebanon has a huge difficulty with keeping his cute son under such a harsh circumstance.

Having impersonated herself as an Rahil, she works illegally in a restaurant to make ends meet. After leaving home, Zain met Tigest in restaurant in an amusement park. She keeps his baby in a women’s toilet to keep her job. Her house is nothing but a space walled with layers of tins. Zian, reluctantly, became her babysitter. He had no choice. Cut the long story short, police finally arrest her for carrying forged resident document and put her in the most notorious jail in Beirut, Roumieh Prison. A space which later on Zain joined as well. Zain stabbed his brother-in-law because of killing his beloved sister, Sahar, acted by Cedra Izam, after getting her pregnant. She was only eleven years old. She couldn’t bear a child at that age.

Never Lose Hope

Zain, despite his naivety, fights to the ends. While he was living at home, he was working hard. When he left home heartbroken, he took care of Rahil’s son, Yonas. Once he tempted to leave Yonas next to street, but his consciousness didn’t allow him. As the pressure became unbearable, and dreaming of travelling to Sweden got into his mind by Maysoun, a Syrian refugee (Played by young Farah Hasno) manipulated by Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh), the forger of the documents, he finally succumbed. He sold Yonas to get the money for his travel to Sweden.

All in all, Zain’s struggle in this dark world is admirable. So does Nadine Labaki’s creation of this touching tale. The film is a real food for thought. I highly recommend it to film lovers and movie buffs.

Nadine Labaki Zain Al Rafeea Photo
Nadine Labaki Zain Al Rafeea Photo at Cannes Film Festival

One more thing. When I heard that Zain is now living in Norway and going to school like other kids, it became happy. I hope all kids would be able to have proper upbringing so we could have a better world.

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A Gift from Ingmar Bergman to David Lynch: Troubled Psyches

Twin Peaks

If one could choose a major recurrent theme in Ingmar Bergman’s film, that would be, undoubtedly, a troubled psyche. Bergman has been exploring the human psyche from the very beginning of his film career which lasted for nearly six decades. His mastery over probing the deep layers of human’s soul has greatly influenced the American filmmakers, particularly David Lynch. 

David Lynch has repeatedly acknowledged Bergman as one of his favorite filmmakers of all time; however, it seems it is more than that. Being known for his weird, eerie dreamlike films, Lynch, too, shows an immense enthusiasm in digging up the soul and mind of his fictional characters. Of course, this soul reaching is rooted in his what he figuratively calls is fish catching, “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.” Lynch, similar to Bergman, attempts to push his bottom where repressed desires and malicious darkness lie. Therefore, reading Lynch through a Bergmanesque filter will contribute to an expanded understanding of Lynch’s aesthetics and visual and thematic proximity of these two great filmmakers.

Bergman’s influence upon Lynch is so substantial and profound that one could claim that Lynch is the surrogate figure of Bergman in American cinema, but much darker and more sinister. Exploring the disquieting side of psyche of both his characters and their dwelling town, Lynch attempts to show the hidden layers of American life, borrowing Roland Bathes’ idea of demystification, he demystifies the American dream and reveals its hideous and dreadful spirit. 

Mulholland Drive could be taken as a greatest reverence of Lynch towards Bergman. There are several similarities between Mulholland Drive and Persona.   Persona is a psychological drama revolving around the relationship between two women, Elizabeth Vogler and Alma. The former is a successful actress who is hospitalized for a nervous breakdown with symptoms of “muteness and a near catatonic lassitude” and the latter is the pretty young nurse who is in charge of her care. These two characters through some mysterious process exchange identities. The issue of identity crisis and transformation also echo in Mulholland Drive, an amnesiac brunette (Laura Harring) and an aspirational blonde (Naomi Watts) with shifting identities. Bergman displayed the mysterious identities of his characters in two ways. The first is through the mirror exercise where the initiator and responding character is almost impossible to pin down and the second one is the metamorphosis, a process of transformation of the characters. The idea of flux identity is similarly expressed in Lynch’s film. The wounded and traumatized brunette who is unable to remember anything including her name _ after taking shower she picked up a name, Rita, from the poster of Rita Hayworth on the bathroom wall through the mirror shot. Later in the film, Betty put on a blonde wig on Rita’s head in front of the bathroom’s mirror and then said “You look like someone else”. It seems that Betty perpetually provides identity for Rita and she passively adopts it. The question of identity reaches its climax after the lovemaking of Rita and Betty in bed. It’s where Lynch imitates what Bergman did in Persona: merging the faces of the two female characters in one shot. Unification of the faces of characters in these two films is considered a really important turning point of narratives.

After Rita and Betty visual and physical coupling, they enter into a mysterious club known as “Club Silencio” where the Magician performs on stage. The show is all an illusion, La Grande Illusion ever! The world where living, Betty, and the dead, Rita, are so close to each there that is impossible to distinguish which is which. Betty’s trembling in the club is an exact echo of what the magician, Albert Emanuel Vogler played by Max von Sydow, did in The Magician (1958), “He calls you down, he calls you forth, beyond the dead, the living, the living dead.”  Rita, Betty and the Club Silencio are the precise reflection of these concept, respectively.

Surrealism of Mulholland Drive could be traced back to the weird visual and narrative composition of Hour of the Wolf (1968). Mulholland Drive could be separated into two parts: Betty’s dream and after her waking up. So does the Hour of Wolf. The first part is quite realistic, whereas the second part is filled with surrealism qualities which is the reflection of the disturbed psyche of the protagonist.   Painter Johan Borg (von Sydow) is haunted by demons and images of his former lover, Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin). Parallel plot could be found in Lynch’s film and narrative. Betty is an artist like the Johan Borg and her life is haunted by her former lover, Rita, who left her to joined the young director, Adam Kesher (Played by Justin Theroux). Projection of demons and wild beasts in Hour of the Wolf corresponds with the weird characters of Lynch’s film such as the dead man behind the café which through the technique of surrealism could be best pieced together. Given these facts, Lynch is the heir to the psychic world of the Bergman ’worldview in America. The green light of the American dream which beckoned J. Gatsby is now turned into a green-eyed troubled spirit feeding upon itself and its surrounding world. Betty, the broken doll of dream factory of Hollywood, encounters the rotten soul of Hollywood and by her own volition she walks beside it, hire a hitman to kill her ex-lover and in the end, commits suicide herself. While the troubled psyche of Bergman’s characters is the result of lack of spirituality and faith, the characters of Lynch’s films are not related to any spiritual metaphysics, in a sense they are the victims of the larger rotten dream, a dream that in the end reveals itself to be nothing but a dreadful nightmare.   

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