Mani Haghighi –
Pop-Cinema of the Absurd
Essay by Olaf Möller
Mani Haghighi is a pretty unique phenomenon of contemporary Iranian cinema. His work is marked by a respectful knowledge of his country’s film history, like maybe no other directors’ works since 1978/79. His sense of the sometimes absurd, the sometimes surreal, the sometimes existentialist that characterizes his films stems from another time and another world. A world that has disappeared from the country’s screens after the so called Islamic Revolution, but that has not disappeared from the audience’s memory: the cinema of the Iranian New Wave of the 1960s and 70s.
Haghighi’s relatives have decisively contributed to this cinema. His current master-
piece A Dragon Arrives! (!Ejhdeha Vared Mishavad) (2016) goes back to this era, more precisely to the year 1965: Back then, Haghighi’s grandfather Ebrahim Golestan (with his neorealist crime film The Brick and the Mirror (Khesht va Ayeneh)) and the cinephile Farrokh Ghaffari (with his film The Hunchback (Shab-e Ghuzi), an eccentric pastiche of The Trouble With Harry) lay the foundation for Iran’s departure into modern cinema. Moreover, looking at the film’s protagonist and his special kind of macho essence conjures up a type of film noir antihero as we know them from the action films of the 1960s and 70s. Haghighi’s father Nemat worked as a cameraman on some of the most brilliant examples, among them Masud Kimiai’s masterpiece Gavaznha (1974). This film was shown on August 19, 1978 at an evening screening at the Cinema Rex in Abadan, when the picture house went up in flames – a political motivated event that is often regarded as the beginning of the end of the Shah regime. This date has a certain symbolic power: It was exactly 25 years previously that Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown.
A Dragon Arrives! begins on January 22, 1965, with a reference to a political event that happened the day before. An event that failed to leave behind any documents or traces and that thus probably also didn’t happen in this way: an attempt on the life of the president. However, in this country’s history full of violence there were enough assassinations of Iranian statesmen before and after 1965. These were orchestrated from within as well as from the outside – often in a struggle over the country’s oil wells. The date could refer to many things; ultimately the specific date does not matter, but rather does the motif: power and how it is obtained and preserved. How relative time is in A Dragon Arrives! becomes clear in another scene: On a meta level, a leap in time points to the fact that the character of an interrogating secret service agent is cast much too old with regard to the “historical” figure. A retirement-age man plays a character who should have been around 20 years old at the beginning of the 1960s. The explanation for this is that the old man sitting there was the “real” agent and that, for this film, his “existence” in the here and now is more important than the age of the film character. It remains undecided what really is “historical” or “true” in this hall of mirrors, this labyrinth of half-truths, allusions and allegories – what is sure is that this accounts for the mystery and for the power emanating from this film. At least Haghighi, who appears as the director of A Dragon Arrives!, plays himself, as do other members of his family. …
The film claims that the scenes from this work from which the sound engineer disappears during final steps of production are taken from The Brick and the Mirror. And the secret service – the subject that A Dragon Arrives! really is all about – existed as well, and still exists under a different name today. When asked about this, Haghighi responded that he didn’t intend the film to be an allegory on the current situation in Iran or Iran’s more recent history. But what else could he really say, officially? In this film, yesterday might just as well be tomorrow. There is always a reason to look over your shoulder and to see who is behind you – in this, all governments and systems are alike, at home just as in the rest of the world. And thus people will always be disappearing, and not all of them will resurface.
It is a motif that Haghighi already picks up on in the beginning of his work in feature fiction, namely in Abadan (2003), named after the city and oil port in the south of Iran. His grandfather Ebrahim Golestan used to live in this city for some time. Haghighi’s mother, the translator and gallery owner Lili Golestan, grew up in this town. During the war with Iraq, Abadan was largely destroyed due to its key location within Iran. Old Amir wants to go to Abadan – but he disappears.
At first sight, Abadan has little to do with A Dragon Arrives!. While the latter shows off with powerful imagery, a spectacular color palette and insanely wide landscapes as if from another planet, the former seems small, almost crouching, dirty, grey on grey, and brutally claustrophobic. Small apartments seem to require close-ups, just like back yards and secret paths between concrete canyons, that often turn out to be garbage dumps. But still, they share one thing: the will to risk an aesthetic breach. A Dragon Arrives! might be a complete spectacle of cinema, a surreal mix of genres from “polit-paranoia noir” to scary science fiction, Iranian style meta film to pythonesque grotes-
que. And Abadan, on the other hand, is a solid piece of social realism with aspects of middle class melodrama. But both of them share a passion for abrupt changes in tempo and mood. You can never be sure of Haghighi’s setups – not even of their aesthetic condition.
This also becomes apparent in his documentary film Hamoon Bazha (2007), which talks about one of the most popular Iranian films of all time and about its significance, namely of Dariush Mehrjui’s Hamoon (1990). “Significance” is used in a double sense here: The documentary not only discusses the undeniable cultural status of the film (one can hardly imagine the work of Haghighi and Farhadi without it), but it also focuses on what this film – which is constantly dissolving into wild nightmares, dreams and visions – actually talks about.
His two probably best-known films seem more “closed”, but no less intent on throwing punches with regards to their tone: Men at work (Karegaran Mashghoul-e Karand) (2006) and Modest Reception (Paziraie sadeh) (2012). In both cases, Haghighi cultivates a certain fundamental artistic austerity, which is sometimes observant and partaking, sometimes inconspicuous and discreet. It seems that nothing should stand in the way of observing the madness that in Men at Work develops slowly but surely in the direction of escalation, and in Modest Reception spreads the madness like an explosion. What happens within the image is bizarre enough: In Men at Work four men on a mountain road try to move a gigantic stone. In Modest Reception a woman and a man drive through the streets and distribute vast sums of money. In increasingly disgusting ways they humiliate those on whom they impose the plastic bags full of dough. Men at Work thus resembles an unexpectedly harmonious and suitable combination of Beckett and popular theater, while Modest Reception seems to be a toxic mixture of Sartre and Jodorowsky.
Both films are driven by their actors. Which in the case of Modest Reception also includes Haghighi himself, who as a not very kind, but very exhilarating and seductive psychopath shows off an unparalleled tour de force: he giggles, screams, rumbles and time and again gazes into the country with an inscrutable stare. One is bound to ask why he cast himself for this role as a hysterically sinister fool who plays cruel moral power plays with people.
Quite possibly this self-presentation has a certain cinephilosopcial dimension. It is one of the idiosyncrasies that has made Iranian cinema famous in the past 30 years that its internationally most successful directors appear on screen. Both Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf as well as Jafar Panahi play themselves in their own films – usually they are friendly but determined characters trying to convey something to (or even teach) the audience. When Haghighi rages on screen as a sinister and sarcastic version of this teacher figure, then this tells us something about how the times have changed. And they haven’t changed for the better. These conditions cannot be resolved by taking recourse to rationality. Maybe anger also won’t help, but at least it creates those kinds of energy that can achieve something.
Maybe Mani Haghighi’s filmmaking is best described as follows: pop cinema of moral concerns whose decisive certainty only lies in the belief in people’s curiosity.