Was hast du gestern geträumt, Parajanov? | Faraz Fesharaki

[…] Faraz Fesharaki’s first film reintroduces humour as the counter-voice to the extremely earnest image of Iranian cinema […]

[…] We laugh together, far from heaven, at the heart of troubles.

Podcast

Was hast du gestern geträumt, Parajanov? | Faraz Fesharaki

Live-Podcast at Bildrausch Filmfest Basel 2024 about the film «Was hast du gestern geträumt, Parajanov?» (What Did You Dream Last Night, Parajanov?») with the director Faraz Fesharaki, Öykü Sofuoglu, Giuseppe Di Salvatore and Nicolas Bézard | in English (with introduction in French)

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There is no humor in heaven (Mark Twain)

Sometimes I wonder whether my dreams are an extension or an overflow of reality into imagination, or if reality is just a continuous dream. I've come to realize that it's both, and I've only discovered this since I began living in this second reality – a new temporality: the time of here (Europe) in distinction from there (Iran). Delegating a significant part of my personal, social, and emotional life to telecommunication apps and video calls, I oscillate playfully in this tantalizing space between reality and imagination, intimacy and distance, transparency and ambiguity. This in-between-ness has allowed me to smile at, like, or even love people and things that are too much to bear in the immediacy of serious, real daily life. There is nothing more real and nothing dreamier than those low-quality, gridded, half-blurred semi-moving images of my parents from thousands of kilometers away, talking to me as if we are sitting together. There is nothing more poetical than constructing and performing together this reality that is our theatre and this dream that is our temple. This always makes me smile, often laugh. All these thanks to migration.

However, how can one talk about an experience as overwhelming as migration, or even touch it, and walk on that very thin thread that balances on the one hand the tragic, the old, nostalgia, hardships of a new life, and on the other sufferings, and the promise, forgetting a past for a new future, and being carefree? That thin rope might be humour.

For a long time, I had not laughed so much while watching an Iranian movie. Here, from the very first scenes, I began to smile, then laugh, and then laugh more. There were moments of silence, a deep reflective silence, but then laughter again. Faraz Fesharaki’s first film as a filmmaker is of a poetic nature. His Was hast du gestern geträumt, Parajanov? (What did you dream last night, Parajanov?) is an elegiac and amusing journey into the most personal, private moments of his life with his parents and best friend, full of idiosyncratic humour, discrepancies, and even antagonisms, yet with all sharp angles softened by a certain amusement and humorous observation by the filmmaker. But is it ok, allowed, or even demanded that we laugh at experiences that can be deeply saddening, psychologically, emotionally, materially, and physically very heavy for most people?

Fesharaki’s answer seems to be positive. Here, the filmmaker/cinematographer’s humour is of special significance as the image of Iranian cinema in the West has become increasingly devoid of any sense of humour. Looking back at this picture, apart from Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema in his short films such as Case One, Case Two (1979), or exceptions such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salam Cinema (1995), Dariush Mehrjoui’s The Tenants (1986) and Mother’s Guest (2004), or more recently Mani Haghighi’s The Pig (2018), the image of Iranian cinema has become progressively earnest and serious, finding its way in social dramas and pedagogical movies with explicit political and social messages as Iranian society drowns more and more in the difficulties of the past two decades. Economic crises, social and political oppression, migration of the young generation, desperation, and most recently a feminist revolution repressed with brutality, have all moved Iranian cinema towards a dominant and explicitly political and social seriousness. When it comes to documentary films, the subject of humour becomes more complicated and delicate since documentaries are first and foremost – on the face of it – about reality, and as the reality of Iranian society has been very difficult and bitter during the past few decades, there have not been many documentaries with strong humour. That being said, exceptions always exist: Mohsen Amir Yousefi’s Bitter Dream (2004), which had great international success but was banned from cinemas in Iran for twelve years and was to be screened only in 2017, and Nasser Zamiri’s Family Relations (2019) are both very good examples of documentaries with explicit and intentional humour. It is evident that not only humour has been pushed to the margins of the image of Iranian cinema in the West but also in documentary cinema – it is an absolutely rare gem. Almost as if by unconsciously internalizing the Iranian regime’s ban on humour, demonstrations of happiness and vivacity, the body of Iranian film d’auteur and documentary cinema has been reluctant with regard to humour. However, Faraz Fesharaki’s first film reintroduces humour as the counter-voice to the extremely earnest image of Iranian cinema, thereby joining the small group mentioned above.

Being principally a cinematographer, interestingly enough, Fesharaki does not shoot anything new but instead uses his vast archive of material, namely his conversations with his parents and his childhood friend, to embark on a journey that meticulously touches upon every aspect of the lives of most Iranians of his generation (those born in the 1980s). Faraz has been recording his conversations, from 2012 up until very recently (presumably 2022), initially as a personal diary. Using a feature of the Skype application for auto-recording video calls separately on both sides, Fesharaki has recorded his calls with his parents and his friend Rahi – a musician and his alter ego – throughout these years. Instead of shooting anything, his intervention consists of a long process of editing and carving roughly one hour and twenty minutes out of more than eighty hours of video-call recordings. What emerges from this laborious reviewing and choosing process is a deeply intimate, poetic narrative about distance, migration, family relations, the migrant’s relation to his homeland, the politics of environment and generational dialogues in content which resonates with the unintentional formal aspect of the movie: most images of his parents are blurred and have very low quality. Technological deficiency or rather the Islamic Republic’s censoring machine has obtained an aesthetic role here, rendering clear limitations and total transparency impossible. Our optical difficulty in discerning his parents’ faces, their surroundings, colours, and shapes is in line with the ethos of the people involved: blurred contexts, distanced and yet intimate, abstaining from talking about certain things and yet being very close, attached and yet detached.

Now, if the situation seems quite serious and is full of difficult moments, sadness, and frustration, we could imagine that – as John Morreall puts it in his book Comic Relief (2009) – it is due to the idea coming down to us from Enlightenment, according to which serious matters should be rationally analysed and the reason behind this rationality, in its search for understanding, categorizing, analysing, and ordering the events of the world, cannot accept humour’s incongruity, irrationality, and asymmetrical approach towards the serious. In spite of this, in Fesharaki’s Parajanov, this rationality is put into question by reintroducing the element of amusement and humour as a new rationality: the rationality of the irrational.

The collage of conversations is marked by a certain reluctance to tackle certain subjects, such as love, homesickness, missing one another, distance, and the changes that happen there during one’s absence. The contrast between written and spoken communication that becomes manifest in the second part of the film is interesting here: before the invention of comic books and telecommunication technologies, almost all humour took place in a social, performative context. Indeed, laughter and humour are mostly social matters and, as Søren Kierkegaard would say, «you would have to be a little more than queer» to only laugh alone. Humour is first and foremost something we engage in with others, and even for others. It shifts our attention from a cognitive and scientific approach to a cognitively distanced view where we discover the humorous aspect of serious matters, and humour is directly related to negative feelings, disturbing situations, and painful experiences. In short, life’s negativity: there is a certain upper to lower state dynamic in things we find funny, whence Twain’s idea that there’s no laughter in heaven.

Bringing family dynamics intertwined with all sorts of social, political, psychological, and interpersonal difficulties and challenges to a shared social space of movies – dynamics of which some seem either too heavy and serious, and some just trivial – allows these issues to demonstrate their humorous and amusing sides beyond purely private matters, an amusing and humorous character when shared with the audience precisely because it moves away from the private laughter towards the social: we laugh together, far from heaven, at the heart of troubles. In the Q&A after the screening at Bildrausch Filmfest in Basel, Fesharaki states: «Whenever the film is screened, I stay in the movie theatre until I hear the first laugh. If after a few minutes people begin to laugh, then I have made it; if not, then I’m like, “Damn it, it doesn’t work”.»

To sum up the power of this counter-voice of humour at the heart of and despite the atrocities of reality, it suffices to quote Michel Foucault in Introduction to a Non-Fascist Life (1994) here: «Do not imagine that you have to be sad to be a militant, even if what you are fighting against is abominable. It is the relation between desire and reality that possesses revolutionary power (and not its escape into forms of representation).»

Info

Was hast du gestern geträumt, Parajanov? | What Did You Dream Last Night, Parajanov? | Film | Faraz Fesharaki | DE 2024 | 82’ | Berlinale 2024, Bildrausch Filmfest Basel 2024

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First published: June 11, 2024