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Once Upon a Time in Iran (2007)


Kevin Sim


Kevin Sim


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22 February 2007 (UK) See more »

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Interesting to a point but a very basic film that doesn't explore the modern Iran and cultural issues so much as allow a very narrow viewpoint a lot of unchallenged airtime
12 April 2007 | by bob the mooSee all my reviews

Like many westerners, I don't really know a great deal about Iran apart from the suspicion that the US war on terror could soon mean there is a lot fewer Iranians in the world than there are right now. So, on this basis I decided to watch this film as it was marketed as being an education on a country that we only really know about via Fox News (which, if you haven't worked it out already, may not be the best place to be getting your facts). The film focuses on a group of Iranians undertaking a pilgrimage to Karbala, the resting place of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Kevin Sim's film has plenty of lingering shots of the desert while a slow, Middle Eastern score lies lazily over the top of the visuals and, like these images, the film moves very slowly through its subject. At first it was pretty dull but gradually we started to get information about the recent history of Iran and not just the story of the people on the coach heading to Iraq. We learn about Hussain, the overthrow of the Shah and the war between Iraq and Iran. It presents all of this in a very measured and slow way and in this regard it is complimented by the low and steady narration provided by Sean Bean. However this does not mean that the material is worthy and fascinating.

On one hand the manner of delivery suggests that this is a fair representation of Iran and will in some way counter the conservative presentation of Iran as a load of religious nuts with one hand on the Koran and the other on a nuclear weapon. However on the other hand we have a film that focuses on Hussain (a symbol of martyrdom) and has a handful of people who come across like death at the hands of their enemy is preferable to life. I'm not sure what the film was trying to do with this, but it did seem to be making the point that the west probably shouldn't be looking to start a war against a country that has honourable death and sacrifice as a central theme. A fair point perhaps but I didn't feel like I'd learnt much about Iran – just some of the roots of this attitude. I didn't like the way that Sim didn't question any of his subjects but just sat back and let them put forward their views unquestioned; I appreciate that this gives the people in the film a platform but why is that seen as a good thing.

By just showing the prayers for the death of Bush and Blair from religious leaders and letting people ramble on about martyrdom the film has a limited value and also feels like it runs too long even though it is only 80 minutes. I saw it as very much of a missed opportunity because it does far too little over the running time where really it could have questioned the cultural importance of this things and also provided contrasting views and alternatives. As it is the film just presents us with people with views on death and war that will mostly be totally foreign and unpalatable to western viewers. Interesting to a point then, but hard not to see it as a very basic film that doesn't explore the modern Iran and cultural issues so much as allow a very narrow viewpoint a lot of unchallenged airtime.

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