War cinema in Iran was born with the beginning of Iran–Iraq War. However, it took many years until it found its identity. In the past decades, the Iranian film industry has produced many war films. In the Iranian war film genre, Iran-Iraq war has often been portrayed as glorious and sacred defend, rooted in the Iranian nationalism and Islamic revolution ideals.
One of the most extraordinary films to be released in the 80’s was Bahram Bayzai’s ‘Bashu – The Little Stranger’ (1989). It tells the story of a little boy whose whole family is killed in the war in the south province of Khuzistan. He flees to the north of Iran on the back of a truck, to a village in Gilan province on the Caspian seacoast. The province was far away from the war zone, but the life of people was still affected, where he is found by a local woman, a mother and wife whose husband was fighting at the war front. The story of this movie is in fact the relationship between Bahu, and the woman, and also the portrayal of cultural and linguistic diversity in Iran. When the boy is first found, he is hardly understood by the rest of the village because of his different language, but the boy is taken in because he is Iranian. For the foreigner wanting to understand the Iranian heart, this love of Iran as one country must be understood.
Many renowned directors were involved in developing Iranian war cinema. However, among them Ebrahim Hatamikia was more devoted to the subject than others. Hatamikia who was a friend of famous martyr photographer of Iran-Iraq war Morteza Avini, began his directing career with the film “The Identity” in 1986 and some short films and documentaries about the Iran–Iraq War. His movies are considered to be the best that tackles the war and the issues surrounding it. His works have often received admiration in national film festivals. “The Glass Agency” and “In the Name of the Father” have won him the best screenplay and directing awards in the sixteenth and twenty-fourth Fajr International Film Festival respectively. His recent works have also been on international screens: “The Glass Agency” in Berlin and “The Red Ribbon” in San Sebastian.
Nevertheless, Hatamikia’s cinema is still not quite known to the West and little has been written about his films on Sacred Defense Cinema, beginning in 1980 and completed during the eight year war with Iraq.
Hatamikia’s cinema tackles the Manicheism of life and death and the mourning process. Images of missing husbands, children or brothers and those for whom there is no actual burial haunt the films of Hatamikia, conjuring up leitmotifs such as traumatic absence, anxiety, guilt, nostalgia and exile. The dichotomy of presence and absence through testimony, survival and memory, as well as the representations of war symbols are omnipresent in key films by Hatamikia such as The Scout (1989), The Emigrant (1990) From Karkheh to the Rhine (1993), Scent of Yusef’s Shirt (1996), The Glass Agency (1998), The Red Ribbon (1999), Low Heights (2002), In Purple (2004) and In the Name of the Father (2005) and Green Ring (2007).
Hatamikia’s movies are both poetic and aesthetic. His war films offer unique reflection on Iranian culture of “Sacred Defense” and a recent event in the contemporary history of Iran. The movies however carry a more universal sense and message of loss and trauma which every society may have experienced regardless of their culture. Though the war ended in 1989, the legacy of the war and its effect on Iran is still a very live issue for the country. This theme is brilliantly explored in Ebrahim Hatamikia’s films.
From Karkheh to Rhine is about victims of Iraqi chemical attack against Iranians. Chemical weapons employed by Saddam Hussein killed and injured numerous Iranians and according to Iraqi documents, assistance in developing chemical weapons was obtained from firms in many countries, including the United States, West Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and France. Two years after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, a former Iranian volunteer soldier named Saeed arrives in Germany (one of the countries which provided Chemical weapons for Saddam) seeking medical treatment for his eyes which had been badly damaged during an Iraqi chemical attack against Iranian forces. While Saeed is in a hospital in Cologne, his sister, Leila, who lives with her German husband in the city, comes to visit him. Their reunion brings them back all the nostalgia of their common past. Saeed regains his eyesight, but, he dies tragically, suffering from the cancerous side effects of being exposed to chemical weapons.
The Glass Agency’ which took the country by storm in 1998 is another example. Abbas, a combatant of the Iraq-Iran war who is now engaged in farming, arrives in Tehran along with his wife for the medical treatment of a wound in his neck. At the bus terminal, Abbas meets a wartime commander, Haj Kazem, who decides to accompany Abbas during his treatment.
Medical tests reveal the presence of tiny shrapnel part near Abbas’s artery. In view of the critical surgical operation that has to be carried out, the doctors offer two recommendations. First, Abbas has to travel to a country where adequate medical facilities are available for the hazardous operation. And second, Abbas must try not to get excited as that might cause the Shrapnel part to be dislodged and move. He should try to laugh, even forcibly, in case he gets excited. To arrange for Abbas trip aboard, everything is done in great haste. However, all this is concurrent with the arrival of the New Year, and that creates a number of obstacles for wounded combatant’s trip.
They endure alot of problems and Haj Kazem in frustration ends up taking a group of people hostage in a Tehran travel agency to meet his demand that his war friend who is in critical condition by then given immediate transport to London for treatment.
Through this story, the film explores the three-way tension. One side are the Iranians who gave their lives for the country in the war. The others are the Iranians who want to get on with running Iran in the 90’s, and the last group are those Iranians who want to go abroad. At one point in the film the hostage taker stands by a cardboard cut out figure of a smiling air-hostess. The point is obvious; Those Iranians who want to go abroad only for the sake of it, are chasing emptiness. Throughout the film, these customers taken hostage are completely passive. They have no roots, no convictions. They are as empty as the cardboard dream they are chasing.
The people of action, the people who love their country are the hostage taker, and the police officer who has to handle the incident. Both are war veterans, and both are now fighting to make a difference to other people’s lives. These are the real people that matter in Iran. And they matter because they love their country.