by Sara Saljoughi
Heiran is the first feature length narrative film written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Shalizeh Arefpour and produced by visiting filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. This is a film that contains what appears to be a simple narrative, and one that has been worked out many times in the history of world cinema: a story of love interrupted and troubled by immigration legalities.
Part of Arefpour’s success with Heiran is her attention to social issues in contemporary Iran, particularly in relation to the millions of refugees living within its borders.
Set in rural Iran, Heiran traces the evolution of the relationship between Mahi, a seventeen year old girl, and Heiran, a young Afghan student who works in her village.
In one of the film’s earliest scenes, the camera captures a small opening in the wall of a refugee holding center in Iran. As we peer through the opening together, Mahi says “They are all strangers, no familiar faces. Where am I in their story? Beginning, middle, or end?” At this moment, the tone is one of curiosity and perhaps even melancholy, but later in the film, we return to the same position. We, together with Mahi, look at a roomful of male Afghan refugees, but the tone has shifted and there is something menacing about the men, causing Mahi (and us) to only feel desperation about the situation at hand.
This oscillation of feelings about the “stranger” (Gharib in Persian) is arguably what structures the film and can be read as a statement about Iran’s complicated position on being a so-called “host” country to millions of Afghan refugees and migrant workers.
While Heiran contains some elements of Iranian cinema that are very familiar to Western viewers, such as a rural setting and a storyline following young people, it also shifts that perspective by engaging a narrative about something – immigration – that is often only thought of as something Iranians do throughout the world, not something that is dealt with as a domestic issue in Iran itself. As such, one of Heiran’s contributions is the fact that it speaks to a large misconception about who immigrates, who emigrates, and which countries do most of the hosting.
For example, it may come as a surprise to learn that throughout much of Afghanistan’s history of turmoil in the twentieth century, including during the rule of the Taliban, Iran was the logical destination for emigrating Afghans.
Heiran is one narrative that speaks to the complex and troubled relationship between Iranian society and Afghan immigrants and refugees. With all its moments of young, idealistic love against the background of an idyllic, rural setting (including some amazing sequences of bicycle riding), Heiran also reveals the cynical, suspicious and often times racist attitude towards Afghans in Iranian society. It is a strong film that suggests a promising future in cinema for Arefpour.
Sara Saljoughi is a graduate student in Comparative Studies in Discourse & Society at the U of M. Her areas of research are cinema, critical theory, Iranian studies and postcolonial theory. She has published film and music reviews in Exclaim!, Broken Pencil and Foxy Digitalis. She blogs at http://sarainamerica.blogspot.com/