July 8, 2010

Dog Sweat, or How To Make An Iranian Film about Feminism, Homosexuality, and Alcohol.

Filmmaking always carries a unique set of challenges.  It’s a collaborative art that needs multiple conditions to not only be set and met, but go right.  The filmmakers behind Dog Sweat, Hossein Keshavarz and Maryam Azadi, deserve a special award (say an Independent Spirit Award?) for the challenges they dealt with in creating their profoundly moving and entertaining ensemble piece.  Dog Sweat, slang for anything illicit, and filmed underground in Iran, follows twentysomethings (and maybe a couple thirtysomethings) in Tehran, trying to live their lives “amidst limitations and oppressions as their scenery,” as Hossein explained. I had the pleasure of speaking with the filmmakers after the world premier of their film at the LA Film Festival, both wrote the script, Hossein directed and Maryam produced, and they are delightful, charming, and intelligent, but don’t let my lighthearted language betray the gravitas of their film.

The filmmakers, admittedly influenced by Robert Altman among others, tackle women’s rights, gay rights, and the ban on alcohol in 90 minutes.  Yet at no point does the story suffer because of all their messages, or vice versa.  Dog Sweat presents an engaging and compelling story; one with a very important message and purpose.  It is also superbly acted; their cast shows great range, portraying tenderness, weariness, and even optimism, traits honed from years of just trying to live their lives.   The cast also acted under, and crew worked under, pseudonyms to prevent persecution:  “Art is important, but life is important,” Hossein intoned. Absent from the film is a debate about the headscarf or hijab, though Maryam expressed her displeasure with being forced to wear the headscarf during our interview.  A conscious choice, the movie highlights other issues facing young Iranians, a young Iranian couple searches to find a place to make out a car accident fuels one young man’s rage; stories that do not always make headlines in newspapers but are a constant reality for many Iranians.  The filmmakers each told me about young friends and family they’d lost in road accidents and informed me of the chilling fact that Iran has the highest number of road related fatalities of any country in the world.  They talked about how there will be 4 police vans responsible for checking the attire of people driving cars, rather than focusing on safety. This is the by product of a government that is more “obsessed with the proper relationship between men and women” and morality than infrastructure and the result is “dead bodies on the side of the road everytime I visit,” according to Hossein.

Hossein shot the film using a hand held camera technique, which allows the viewer an intimate experience with the film’s characters, young Iranians, who despite restrictions manage to carve out meaningful lives for themselves.  The fillmmakers emphasized that “politics aside, it’s fun to live in Iran [because of] the energy of the people; people want to be happy,” stressing that people still have “positive visions for their lives.”  Dog Sweat captures this, and as a Westerner with no first hand knowledge of Iran, I had been denied young Iranians agency, as I used to assume their lives could not mirror my own.

The filmmakers met after Maryam met Hossein’s sister at a Women’s Day Event In Iran. The duo live mainly in New York, but both hope the film will not prevent them from returning to Iran to visit loved ones and colleagues.  They praised the underground art and music scene and talked about gatherings where friends read poetry, joking that this would come off as pretentious in New York, but it’s commonplace in Iran, where “poets are heroes.”  Maryam has long been involved in feminism in Iran and is the child of parent’s who participated in Iran’s revolution, “intellectuals and writers” Hossein added, and her spirit and passion are apparent and contagious.  Hossein was raised in the US and has religious family in Iran.  Keshvaraz admits that much of the screenplay comes from his own life, and his characters often struggle against their religious parents, as much as they struggle against their religious society.

In art, aestheticism is a theory that follows that art can be made just for art’s sake, but as a rabble rouser, I love when art meets cause. In Dog Sweat, Hossein and Maryam have crafted a beautiful, moving, and above all, important film.

Here are some highlights from a Q&A at the LA Film Festival with Maryam and Hossein in lieu of meeting them!

This post was also published on my blog womanofsteele.

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