Banned for seven years by the Iranian government, Dariush Mehrjui’s The Lady screens for the first time in the U.S. at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which showcased several films by the director in 1998. The Lady is one of the highlights of a festival that’s jammed with first-rate fiction films and documentaries, most of them too political and harrowing for commercial theatrical release.
Unlike the better-known Iranian directors Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Mehrjui makes films about women—specifically about female guilt and masochism. In The Lady—as in Leila, his 1998 feminist masterwork—Mehrjui deals with self-sacrifice, and here, in particular, with the inescapable perversity of the quest for purity in an impure world. Suffering under a double whammy of religious guilt, a wealthy Muslim woman who was educated abroad in Catholic schools withdraws from her adoring husband. Blaming the failure of their marriage on her coldness, he goes off on a trip with his girlfriend. Left alone in their isolated palatial country house, the wife is inconsolable until she goes to the rescue of a destitute couple. She gives them shelter, and in no time, they and their relatives take over the entire house, strewing every room with unwashed dishes, food, and shitty diapers. Then they proceed to rob her blind. Mehrjui’s black comic vision of the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the lumpen is something like a cross between Buñuel and Chekhov, but the psychological complexity of the central character is what makes the film extraordinary.
There’s also a Buñuelian edge to the opening-night film, Randa Chahal Sabbag’s A Civilized People. Following the advice frequently given to first-time directors—make a film about what you know—Sabbag sets her debut feature during the 20-year civil war in Lebanon, which she experienced firsthand as an adult. The film evokes the insane conditions of living in a battle zone where cease-fires are declared almost as often as people are killed by car bombs or sniper fire, and a stolen refrigerator becomes both a running gag and a cause that drives rival guerrilla groups to fight to the death.
The film is so sophisticated and unsparing that it almost made me forgive the flip, badly reasoned joke with which it begins. Two inept terrorists tie a wad of dynamite to a kitten, light the fuse, and push the struggling animal toward their chosen target. But the kitten hangs onto the legs of its torturers and they’re all blown up together. There follows a title card that reads: “No animals were killed during the making of this film, but 270,000 people died during the war in Lebanon.” You don’t have to be an animal-rights activist to realize that filmmaking and war are like apples and oranges. Nor to understand that cruelty toward animals is often the first sign of what the film deplores: the erosion of empathy and of the value of life. Having made this preemptive strike against what she presumes is the Pavlovian sentimentality of the audience, Sabbag relies on a Romeo and Juliet romance between a Christian girl and a Muslim boy to give the film a conventionally tragic denouement.
Among the documentaries are two extremely subtle films about the American system of justice: Lelah Khadivi’s 900 Women and Jens Meurer’s Public Enemy. Produced by Jonathan Stack, who codirected The Farm (the Oscar-winning doc about the inmates of Angola, Louisiana’s maximum-security prison), 900 Women is set inside The Farm‘s sister institution, Louisiana’s only prison for women. At one point, Mary Reilly, the 67-year-old lifer who is the film’s most amazing and heroic figure, meets with the warden to ask that the prison turn a half-acre of its grounds into a cemetery for the women who will inevitably die while incarcerated, herself included. Reilly’s patience in the face of the warden’s condescension says everything about her rehabilitation. When the warden says it would be depressing for him to see a cemetery from his windows, she quietly counters that it would give the inmates a feeling of closure to be able to tend the graves of their friends and that women who’ve had trouble with men all their lives don’t want to buried alongside a bunch of male strangers in the common cemetery at Angola.
Financed by European TV, Jens Meurer’s Public Enemy is a thoughtful, moving primer about the Black Panther Party. The film has punchy archival footage of Panther rallies and police brutality, but the heart of the matter lies in extended informal interviews with four former Panthers: Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver, the musician Nile Rodgers, and Jamal Joseph (the youngest and sweetest of New York’s Panther 21), now a poet and filmmaker. Joseph talks unguardedly about his depression and drug addiction after the Panther Party fell apart as a result of what Noam Chomsky terms the FBI’s practice of “outright political assassination,” which left 29 dead. The terrible thing, Joseph explains, was to come to terms with the fact that despite the sacrifice of so many lives, conditions in the black community weren’t any better; they were, in fact, worse. All four Panthers are troubled by questions about whether the Panthers made a difference in the course of the civil rights struggle. Seale uses humor as a defense, clowning his way through spirited chants of “Off the Pig” until he breaks down at the grave of Bobby Hutton, the youngest Panther and the first to be killed by the police. “Someone said, ‘That’s Bobby Seale,’ and the police shot him 10 or 12 times. . . . I guess it must’ve been worth it in the ’60s when we died in the streets.”
Robinson Devor’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel The Woman Chaser teeters between pulp psychodrama and a parody thereof. You might say the same of the novel, but the film is a more labored exercise in noirish style. Patrick Warburton (once Elaine’s boyfriend on Seinfeld) plays Richard Hudson, a used-car salesman who decides to make his life more meaningful by directing a movie. Warburton looks like a beefier Oliver Stone, which gives an extra frisson to the scenes where he’s hunkered down over his editing equipment or banging his leading lady to get her in the mood for some emoting. She’s one of a half-dozen faded, brain-dead bottle blonds whom Hudson beds in The Woman Chaser—ranging from his horny teenage stepsister to an alcoholic Salvation Army granny—but the film isn’t sexy or even lewd, merely grotesque. In the oedipal pièce de résistance, Richard strips off his shirt and dances a pas de deux with his mom, a former ballet dancer who still tiptoes around in a tutu. As Warburton propels his decidedly earthbound body through a series of grande jetés, you have to admire his guts, while wondering what kind of film his director thought he was making. At various times, The Woman Chaser suggests Ben Hecht’s The Spectre of the Rose, a Curtis Harrington mood piece, and various underground flicks from Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour to Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract.
Devor has the film noir conventions down cold—the low-angled close-ups, the high-contrast lighting—but the effect of printing black and white on color stock is too slick and prettified for the cheesy world of car lots and dank stucco houses. The Woman Chaser looks less like a ’50s noir (or even a neo-noir) than a noir-styled TV commercial; the queasiness it makes you feel is more like acid reflux than existential nausea. The cast is largely made up of small-time TV actors with faces like one-liners. The most amazing visage belongs to Joe Durrenberger, who plays a former army sergeant hired to manage Richard’s dealership. Durrenberger looks like a cartoon that was started by one artist and finished by another. The irresolvable contradiction between his flat-top hair and the bulbous curve of his cheeks is the most memorable thing in the movie.