As we all walked out of Me, an Iranian thriller from writer-director Soheil Beiraghi, we were scratching our heads a little. When I say we, I mean the Carbon Arc programmers and volunteers. There were elements we didn't understand. That was at least partly due to a potent but dense and wordy script that tells the story of Azar (Leila Hatami), an oboe teacher in Tehran who moonlights as a smuggler of alcohol in plastic water bottles, an arranger of official papers for refugees who can pay, a real estate agent, and a record producer for an ambitious young pop star. The confusion also had to do with cultural barriers — some plot points were a little hard to parse without knowing a little more about Iranian society than many of us did. There was also a sense that the subtitles may not have been accurately representing all that was being said.
All that said, the overall response was very positive.
As a big fan of Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian filmmaker responsible for A Separation (which also starred Hatami), The Past, and The Salesman, which screened at the Atlantic Film Festival this past September, I can see a stylistic similarity here. Beiraghi's is more of a plot-driven piece, but the social and political lives of the characters in a society struggling under the weight of bureaucratic oppression is very much at the forefront. These films are all windows into real life in Iran, they're distinct cultural artifacts.
Azar is a fascinating character. She's the driving force of Me, the hub of all the action as she moves through her day. A third of the film seems to take place in cars or on motorcycles, but she's never driving, only being taken places. She argues with her companions, offering advice and refusing to back down on all the financial wheeling and dealing. She's the kind of female character we'd only see in Hollywood in comedies — Melissa McCarthy in The Boss, or Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Here she's the protagonist of a thriller, a crime drama. Producers in Hollywood would say she's too unlikeable to be the centre of this kind of film, but that's patently ridiculous. She's electric, and in times when the plot feels a little too obscure, we trust that she knows what's going on. How she managed to accomplish all she does, and why she does it, remain something of a mystery. Her motivation to live this life is unrevealed, but it doesn't matter. All eyes on Azar.
- Carsten Knox
To be completely candid, I was a bit worried about how I would fare during Saturday night’s screening of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s Further Beyond. I have heard great things about the duo’s (otherwise known as the Desperate Optimists) work, but I have admittedly yet to familiarize myself with it. I was therefore totally uncertain of what to expect. Furthermore, Ambrose O’Higgins, the self-proclaimed “Baron of Ballynarry”, a man who journeyed from Ireland to Chile in the 18th century, did not strike me as an especially compelling subject for an experimental documentary. I was sure the film would be brilliant, but I was ready for it to go right over my head. But the thing is, the film isn’t really about O’Higgins. Well, it is, but it isn’t. The way I contradicted myself just then does not make for the best writing, but perhaps I am simply stuck in a mode of uncertainty in characterizing a film which itself engages in intense self-questioning, intentionally making clear how films misrepresent “reality”. The film is less about O’Higgins, and more of a documentary about making a biopic about O’Higgins (one which does not exist) narrated by two voice over artists who digress into philosophical musings, as well as an entirely separate narrative about Helen, a woman who spent her life divided between New York and Ireland, who is supposedly one of the voice actors’ mothers.
All of this makes the film sound very complicated, which it is in many ways, but it fails to communicate how intriguingly delightful the film is. The film is very intelligent, but avoids the pitfalls of heady intellectual films that I had feared by sustaining a self-reflexive playfulness. In an era that seems desperate to suck the freshness out of self-reflexive pop culture, Further Beyond actually sustains genuine self-reflection, making “meta” feel fresh again. It is a meditation on the difficulties of representing real times and places in artificial images, and strives to find some kind of truth contained in the absurd constructions presented in film. The complex layers of meaning contained in its brisk 90 minutes had me ready to watch the film again before I had even finished it the first time. This is in no small part due to the fact that the film is also an impressive aesthetic achievement, from the simpler portraits of Helen to the breathtaking landscapes O’Higgins travelled.
We were also fortunate enough to have co-writer/director Christine Molloy present for a post-screening Q&A. Once again, I was somewhat dubious. Q&As so often end up falling flat, with audience members who ask questions too vague or too specific and filmmakers who prefer to let their work speak for itself. However, I was also once again pleasantly surprised. Molloy immediately responded to the broad range of questions fielded with erudite observations about her work that matched the acute self-awareness displayed in the film. At one point Molloy discussed the benefits and limits of the film being available on streaming service MUBI, commenting that when a little film like Further Beyond is featured next to a familiar auteur like Terrence Malick, most people will tend to stick to what they know. However, my Saturday night seemed to exist as a testament to taking risks on unfamiliar films; my doubts about Further Beyond were quickly pushed to the side by admiration for the talented filmmakers behind it. I hope more people will take a chance on the incredible, odd film, too.
- Nick Malbeuf