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This is a director who finds his questions spontaneously in the moment, acting and reacting as we look on; Mehran Tamadon’s cinema takes action in its own unique way. He makes his way into situations whose outcomes remains open, puts himself in the frame as the subject of the discourse. He looks for and examines his homeland in the process: “I’m an Iranian living in Paris.”

Tamadon moved to the French capital with his parents at the age of 12 and went on to study architecture there. He returned to Tehran for four years, working as an architect while he began chafing at his surroundings, camera in hand. Tamadon’s documentary films open up space for thought and dialogue, observing the inner workings of the Iranian regime and the totalitarian methods it uses to sustain itself. In his new film JAII KEH KHODA NIST (Where God Is Not), he thus confronts the use of torture in Iranian prisons. Victims are given a chance to speak, while the director himself tends to remain at the edge of the frame, waiting, sometimes gently asking questions.

In his first feature-length work BASSIDJI (2009), the camera glides over a battlefield from the Iran-Iraq war, as men can be heard wailing rhythmically about their fallen comrades. It’s almost as if they’re crying for themselves too, for not having died a heroic death in the name of faith. They pray to express their willingness for sacrifice and their bravery. 

For over three years, Mehran Tamadon moved through the world of these men, voluntary members of a paramilitary militia who also see themselves responsible for the enforcement of morals. He accompanies two of the Basijis on their motorbike rides through the streets of Tehran, affirming that the rules of Islam are being followed to the letter. Tamadon confronts them with his own way of life, entangles them in conversations about unmarried cohabitation, tolerance, equality, atheism. The more persistently he questions their rigid world view, the more tangibly the invisible walls they build around themselves can be felt. They make clear in no uncertain terms that they regard the filmmaker with the “Western” lifestyle as a foreign body in the country he himself sees as home.

With his next film IRANIEN (2014), Tamadon attempts to open a door once again. While the discussions in BASSIDJI still took place in the middle of the street, now he invites four Shiite mullahs to his family’s country house. He would like to offer a place where the most disparate ideas about society can all come together under one roof.

As it customary in traditional households, everyone sits on the floor to eat and to talk. The limits of the exchange are already made manifest in the image: Tamadon sits opposite the four men, who form a sort of block. The mullahs act with composure, they’re practised rhetoricians. Tamadon tirelessly looks for some way to start a dialogue, but finds himself in the same defensive position again and again: “your religion is secularism.” The four mullahs laugh and eat with the filmmaker, who captures the tensions within his simulation of a pluralistic society with humour. Yet at some moments, the almost surrealist-seeming chamber drama threatens to tip over into open confrontation. Following the shoot, Tamadon finally had clear boundaries set for him for good: his passport was confiscated. Over the course of various interrogations, it was suggested he leave Iran forever.

Tamadon’s previous films were a hopeful attempt to enter into discussion with representatives of the so-called theocracy. Now he exposes a regime from afar that also betrays religion so that it might continue to exist.   

Now he gains entry to rooms locked and bolted without ever leaving France. The locations in his new film JAII KEH KHODA NIST are warehouses, garages and cellars that become places for recollection. He reconstructs a prison cell in a former factory floor together with another Iranian exile living in France. She had to live in such a cell consisting of just a few square metres, packed together in that space with up to 18 other inmates. The women repurposed their veils into hammocks. The former prisoner pauses for a minute, and more images pass before her mind’s eye. She seems to want to keep some of them to herself, while she starts speaking about the others.  

A former prisoner uses cables, bedsteads and other objects to demonstrate the torture methods employed in Iranian prisons. It’s shocking to see how familiar he is with these movements, as shocking as the precision with which he describes the pain caused by the different ways of tying people up and lashing them with the whip.  

“One, two, three—only three steps are needed to cross the dark room,” says another of Tamadon’s conversation partners in describing solitary confinement. “You have to try and gain control over the wall.” With each step he takes in the Paris cellar, he is confronting the trauma of the six months he spent living in such conditions. The re-enactment sets painful recollections in motion, we feel that a process of grieving is beginning. 

Tamadon’s previous films were a hopeful attempt to enter into discussion with representatives of the so-called theocracy. Now he exposes a regime from afar that also betrays religion so that it might continue to exist. There is a bitter form of utopia inscribed into JAII KEH KHODA NIST: the idea that at least one of the men who humiliate, interrogate, torture and force people to make false statements or collaborate will eventually come across his deeds on the big screen. In this way, this godforsaken film will also become part of the dialogue that Mehran Tamadon unwaveringly seeks.

Anke Leweke is an independent film critic and curator.

Translation: James Lattimer

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