Berlinale 2023: And, Towards Happy Alleys - Melodies and movies of resistance
Straight from Berlinale to your electronic devices, we bring to you the films that make the right kind of noises
A romantic Persian song that Sreemoyee Singh sings mellifluously in her documentary And, Towards Happy Alleys haunts long after the film is over. The song, Soltane Ghalbha is about the contradictory pulls of a lover’s heart. “I wander everywhere with your memory. So, I can keep you within. You reside within me, you are the king of my heart”, the lyrics state.
Words that could well encapsulate Sreemoyee’s own love for Iranian cinema, poetry, and people that her debut film, which premiered in the Panorama section of Berlinale 2023, is all about. It’s a song legendary filmmaker Jafar Panahi, and several others in Iran, loved hearing Sreemoyee hum for the rare experience that it was for them. Women have been forbidden to sing in public in the country since the 1979 Islamic revolution but the filmmaker, as an outsider, had the privilege of embracing music that, as she herself puts in the film, “fills the absence of feminine voices” and personifies as it were, the famous Bertolt Brecht quote: “In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”
In an arresting sequence in the film, Panahi makes Sreemoyee sing it in a shop where he has gone to pick up a pair of glasses. It’s like he has willfully arranged for the scene to happen the way it does and charmingly brings the entire movement to a close as he tries on a pair of shades, stares at his own reflection in the mirror, and smiles. Sreemoyee’s camera keeps capturing his cheerful image as she sings
on. It is evident that he is the mentor and she the apprentice copiously gathering facts, ideas, feelings, wisdom, moments and absorbing them like a sponge. And, Towards Happy Alleys has the unmistakable
imprint of a student’s film. Not just because its seeds were sown while she was working on Iranian cinema for her Ph.D. at the Jadavpur University, or several travels to Iran from 2015 to 2019 during which she also got to learn and speak fluently in Farsi, even as she filmed furiously.
There is something fundamentally unadorned and unaffected about the film, in a good way, with the conventional narrative form of interviews and testimonials and the filmmaker’s own voiceover grounding things in context even as she consciously implicates herself in the frames. It’s about her romance with Iranian cinema that started a decade ago with the “hope and poeticism” she saw in it “despite the totalitarianism” in the country. It doesn’t aspire to be streetwise, seasoned filmmaking but one with a lot of heart, which is powered by a disciple’s guileless personal reverence for the subject and a woman’s gentle, feminine way of seeing.
There is casual inventiveness in some artistic choices. Like how Sreemoyee frames Panahi’s introduction in the film by harking back to his own 2015 film Taxi, with him driving around the streets of Tehran, talking compassionately to women, offering to give them a ride, all in good humour. Another driving force behind the film has been the late poet-filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad who had the audacity to express feminine desire through her poems while living within the folds of patriarchy and whose 1963 film, The House is Black became a metaphor for the dark times in the Iranian society. Her work became influential in the country’s New Wave cinema, especially the films of Abbas Kiarostami.
What stands out is the access that Sreemoyee’s subjects chose to give her. Panahi candidly talks about his depression stemming from being banned from making films, or the attempt at suicide by the stormy sea, a reality that became a scene in Closed Curtain. There is a delightful relationship with his child actor Aida Mohammadkhani (now in her 30s) from the 1995 film The White Balloon. What hits home the most is the intense irony of Panahi pointing out the Evin prison to Sreemoyee, the one where he was jailed after his arrest in July last year and from where he got released recently.
There is black humour in the disarming interaction with filmmaker Mohammad Shirvani. Each time he wants to talk about sexuality or eroticism in the arts in his interview with her, the drill being used for repair work next door gets noisier. But turns silent the minute he switches to talk of religion. It’s as though the drill was on the censorship duty of Ministry of Islamic Guidance, he laughs. Censorship is inescapable in Iran, he says, “We keep censoring ourselves all the time”. He compares the place to a dry tree with no hope of turning green.
Then there is happenstance. The coincidence of finding herself living in the same room in Tehran as the one Farrokhzad had rented way back in time. The bad luck in not being able to meet Kiarostami, slipping a note under the main gate of his home just a week before his death. Or talking to the human rights lawyer and activist Nasrin Sotoudeh in 2018, about her 2010 arrest, only to find her getting imprisoned again a few days after their meeting.
The film is not explicitly about the recent anti-hijab protests, shot as it is between 2015-2019. But it shows early stirrings of unrest, a society priming for resistance and gives us glimpses of the roots of “Girls of Enghelab Street” with cellphone footage of the similar 2017 protest by Vida Movahed. There is talk about how Iran is called the Mecca of nose jobs, where “flawless faces” get sculpted even as bodies of women are sought to be erased by covering them in chador. There are conversations about mahjoub or modesty, how it must emanate from an inner understanding than outer covering.
Amid this, there is Jafar Panahi talking politics and trying to define political cinema in light of the unrest back then. “When 3 million people in my country are protesting on the streets, I can’t shut my eyes. It is my problem even if I am not political. I must react to it,” he says. But without running away from Iran. “I don’t want to lose my country and wander around the world for no reason,” he says. To be a filmmaker in exile is not an option, it is all about making films at home, surreptitiously and defiantly. With apologies to Brecht, in the dark times there will be filmmaking; about the dark times.