Between Hope and Fear

In his first feature film, the Austrian-Iranian director Arash T. Riahi tells the story of a group of Iranian refugees who begin an odyssey in Iran and end up in a dubious Ankara hotel, where they wait day in, day out for their asylum applications to be processed. Amin Farzanefar on For A Moment Freedom

In his first feature film, the Austrian-Iranian director Arash T. Riahi tells the story of a group of Iranian refugees who begin an odyssey in Iran and end up in a dubious Ankara hotel, where they wait day in, day out for their asylum applications to be processed. Amin Farzanefar on For A Moment Freedom

​​ Hardly a year goes by without an Iranian movie winning an important film award somewhere in the world. This time around, Asghar Farhadi's About Elly won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, with the famous artist Shirin Neshat just recently receiving a Silver Lion in Venice for her directorial debut Women without Men.

Yet unlike the lively Turkish-German filmmaking scene, the 100,000 Iranians living in Germany have yet to make an impression in terms of film.

Despite their best attempts to live up to the common clichés of Persian doctors, taxi-drivers and copy-shop owners, there are actually many successful Iranians in the German media working as filmmakers, actors and so on.

German Iranians: well-educated culture-vultures

But none of them have yet managed to address their own situation as migrants and post-migrants in their work. One could interpret this inconspicuous submersion in the mainstream media as successful integration – Iranians barely make a dent in the crime statistics, generally cultivating a reputation as well-educated culture-vultures.

2009 has seen contrasting images of Iran hit the media: a seemingly degenerate regime celebrating its 30th anniversary with much ado on the one hand, and young, modern Iranians demonstrating against the presidential elections and their results on the other. And be it a coincidence or not, cinemas are now showing not one but two German-language films by exile-generation Iranians.

In Ali Samadi Ahadi's crazy culture-clash comedy Salami Aleikum, a mollycoddled Iranian butcher's son from Cologne ends up in deepest darkest eastern Germany, where he meets the love of his life in the form of a solid but sensitive shot-putter. Samadi's comparison of two cultures that don't feel quite at home in the new Germany sparkles with illuminating humour.

Merry band of refugees

Arash Riahi's For A Moment Freedom takes a more serious look at life, following three groups of refugees through a number of episodes. A married couple, two young friends with their smaller brother and sister who hope to join their parents in Austria, and two Kurds all find life in Iran unbearable and see no other way out than to attempt a high-risk escape through the Kurdish border region.

Director Arash T. Riahi with child actors during the shoot (photo: DW)
The children in director Arash T. Riahi's latest film acted as if their lives depended on it

​​ This merry band of refugees is as diverse as it gets – political and apolitical, young and old, patient and short-tempered – and as the viewer knows from the beginning, some of them will make it as the film goes on, while others will not finish their journey.

Their paths cross in the film's main setting, Ankara, where they all have to place asylum applications with the local branch of the UN. What was planned as a temporary stop along the way stretches into a veritable purgatory, caught between hope and fear. Yet there is still time for romance, poetic pause for thought and the tricks of the Kurd Manu as he tries to persuade the villagers back home with his telephone calls and faked photos that he has made it big in the West.

Acting as if their lives depended on it

The white lies of washed-up emigrants are not exactly a brand new film motif, but Fares Fares' comedy talent saves the day. The Swedish-Lebanese actor has already tickled a few funny bones in his brother Josef Fares' multicultural comedies Jalla Jalla and Kops.

​​ Another two comedy actors, the cult Austrian cabaret favourite Michael Niavarani and the Cologne actor Navid Akhavan, both of them hamming it up in Salami Aleikum, have more serious roles in the film. And among the many amateurs involved, it is the children in particular who stand out, acting as if their lives depended on it.

In the balance, the tragic element outweighs the comedy: for the Iranian refugees, Turkey is first and foremost a snake pit, with informers and the Iranian secret police lying in wait at every turn.

Clumsy change from comedy to tragedy

In this oppressive atmosphere, the transition from comedy to tragedy is not always as smooth as film fans are used to from the likes of Emir Kusturica, for instance. All in all, in fact, Riahi sometimes seems to be trying to do too much with his poor characters.

Nevertheless, For A Moment Freedom is certainly an important debut feature film, revealing many years of hard research and also the desire to tell the story of an entire generation, i.e. the story of hundreds of thousands of Iranian men and women who fled to the West in the 1980s.

​​ Arash Riahi has already done just that in a documentary, capturing the life of an émigré family in the 2006 Exile Family Movie, a small but all the more intimate and vivid film made on shaky hand-held cameras. That family was his own; it came to Austria with 12-year-old Arash in the early 1980s, when Iran started recruiting young men for the war against Iraq and many turned their back on the country as a result of ethnic cleansing.

And somehow this is also a feature of his latest film, which comes across as a piece of the 1980s frozen in time: dark ski jackets and tired faces capture the dreary tristesse of these years. The only sign that For A Moment Freedom is set in an unspecified present day is the occasional sight of a mobile telephone. It's not a euphemism to say that life in today's Iran is much more colourful.

In fact the "green movement" really does seem to be having an effect, with even the ideological fossils of the global diaspora apparently more open for new experiences. But anyone wanting to move on to the future needs pictures of their past. And For A Moment Freedom helps summon up that past and present.

Amin Farzanefar

© 2009

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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