Cinema Without Borders: Revenge of the Marginalised-World War III
In this weekly column, the writer explores the non-Indian films that are making the right noises across the globe. This week, we talk about World War III
On the face of it there seems little in common between Bong Joon-ho’s much celebrated Parasite (2019) and Houman Seyyedi’s World War III (2022), but the fairytale-like chance of a lifetime offered to Seyyedi’s protagonist, the homeless labourer Shakib (Mohsen Tanabandeh), to become a “somebody” from a “nobody” has uncanny parallels with the mind-boggling infiltration, appropriation and occupation of the wealthy Park home by the poor Kim family in the former.
Some early scenes in it, of labourers waiting to be picked up in trucks to be ferried to the construction sites reminded me of similar working-class routine portrayed in M. Gani’s Hindi film Matto Ki Saikil (2022). This universality defines World War III.
Like Parasite it invokes the endemic inequities through architectural verticality. Like the semi-basements and bunkers in Korea, the dispossessed are confined under the earth, the Netherworld of sorts in the Iranian film. Both are marked by a gradual shift in tone—from a light-heartedness in Parasite and the fable-like feel in World War III, there’s a rushing headlong into a horrific climax that underlines a dystopic reality where, even in the face of promises of progress, the social divides between the haves and have-nots continue to remain entrenched, perennially depriving the latter of their rightful due. Social mobility is stuff of dreams, not reality.
Having lost his wife and son in an earthquake, Shakib has been in a steady relationship (a one-woman man as he calls himself) with a deaf and mute prostitute Ladan (Mahsa Hejazi) much to the disapproval of his friends. The turnaround in fortunes comes with a construction job on the set of a film about atrocities committed by Hitler during World War II. It makes Shakib and Ladan dream of a comfortable life together. But will they be able to seize it? Fact is that life for the poor and disenfranchised is a perennial Holocaust, of deceits, deceptions and betrayals. Their living conditions are like being in concentration camps. The poor of today don’t have to “get to know” the horrors of Nazism when they are living it.
It would be unfair to give away more about the out-of-the-box premise at the heart of Seyyedi’s film but suffice to say that he uses the device of film within a film to comment on society at large, specially deploying to great effect the comic-ironic element of the disempowered playacting the powerful oppressor. It ties in with Seyyedi’s evocation of political theorist and historian Hannah Arendt in his Director’s Statement. “Arendt once said that in dictatorships, everything goes well, up until 15 minutes before total collapse,” he writes, adding, “Societies ruled by such totalitarian regimes are the most effective creators of anarchists.” His film is an illustration of precisely this tyranny and oppression, it is an urgent warning for the present and the future by harking back to the past.
“People who will fight tooth and nail to obtain their most basic needs—a house, a job and a family. And everything they end up obtaining is nothing but a façade—decorative and artificial. There will always be those who have the power to give and those who are desperate enough to receive. And this vicious cycle will continue up until 15 minutes before total collapse—and it will restart soon after...,” he writes of the class war that he imagines with sharpness and acuity on screen. A war in which the humiliation of the powerless by the powerful and their intolerance are more brutal than the revenge of the disempowered.
However, not just political, there are several flashpoints between the empowered and the marginalised—social, economic, aesthetic, even cinematic—leading to their boundless rage, rebellion, revenge and bottomless tragedy. A director can be a dictator and a film set could be a site of physical labour pitted against intellectual, artistic pursuits. There is hierarchy and powerplay in filmmaking as well.
“Everyone is always bullying everyone else,” states an extra on the film. Shakib complains of no one listening to him, that it’s easier to beat him up than lend him an ear. “I was a nobody. I am a nobody still,” he says, despite his starring role. But is it worth becoming a somebody who is compromised and heartless? That forms the core moral debate of the film.
World War III won the best film and best actor awards in the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival and was the official submission of Iran for the Best International Film Oscar this year and plays on March 26 at the Capital’s India as part of the Habitat Centre Habitat International Film Festival. Well worth a watch.