A LOST IRANIAN COMIC MASTERPIECE


By Ramin Sadegh Khanjani

OK MISTER is one of the most bizarre films ever made in Iran - especially as a comedy. Actually there are very few good comedies in the entire history of Iranian, for a very understandable reason. Comedies are usually concerned with criticizing personalities, and the red lines and limits imposed by either government or society; and in Iran, as in many other eastern countries, transgressing these lines is not readily tolerated. This is of course particularly true of political comedies, the sub-genre to which OK MISTER belongs. In fact its director took advantage of the brief period of freedom of speech during the first days of the Iran revolution in 1979.

The director, Parviz Kimiavi is better known to critics for his first two features, MONGOLS and STONE GARDEN. He had also made a handful of short films and documentaries, such as P LIKE PELICAN. Though it was his first experience in making a feature comedy, he was not unfamiliar with humour before. In some of his earlier films humorous moments are apparent, as in HILLS OF QEYTARIE, a short documentary about archaeological exploration in a historical site – which gave its name to the film - in which we hear the voice-over of the dead who once resided in the place, giving their comments.

In fact the style of comedy used in OK MISTER is very different from ordinary Iranian comedies. Most Iranian comedies, produced for a popular audience, have consisted of cheap jests, like jokes on human deformities, or poking fun at naïve and simple-minded people, without any serious idea hidden behind them. They are made just for entertainment, and are usually frowned upon by intellectuals. On the other hand, OK MISTER is apparently a real intellectual comedy, of a type of which other examples are rare – among them comedies directed by such intellectual directors as Ebrahim Golestan (MYSTERY OF THE TREASURE OF DJIN VALLEY) ,Farrokh Ghaffari (FALCONET) and Jalal Moghadam (SAMAD AND FOOLAD-ZEREH THE OGRE). None of these films won popularity with Iranian spectators. In some respects, OK MISTER has some similarities with the first of these. I haven't seen Golestan's film, but I know his book on which the film was based. MYSTERY is also a political comedy, criticising the imposed rapid modernization of Iran under the Shah's regime and squandering the budget of the country, the wealth gained from sudden increases in oil prices in the 70s . In a similar fashion OK MISTER deals with the problem of modernization in third world countries.

The film director, Parviz Kimiavi studied cinema in France, and so his taste and style in cinema were influenced by western (especially French) culture. This influence is apparent in his films. His first film, MONGOLS, a criticism of television and its influence on the lives of Iranian people, received great acclaim from the film critics, but it was commercially disastrous. The modern narrative style of film which mixed reality (the everyday life of a TV director) with imagination, was too complicated for ordinary Iranian cinemagoers to digest and some of them reacted by tearing out the seats of the cinema! But this didn't deter our avant-garde director, who his experiments with the language and form of cinema in his later films.

OK MISTER starts in a remote Iranian village, but throughout the film the location of the film is never indicated. In fact the story takes place in an imaginary geographic spot which provides an allegory for any third world country. As we'll see, the film tries to explore the mechanisms of Imperialism and its interaction with people in third world countries. After showing the village, the film introduces us to its main character, William Knox D’Arcy, played by Farrokh Ghaffari (A good director himself, he was the founder of Iranian National Film Archive, and for some years collaborated with the Cinématheque française. He died in early 2007 in Paris).

D’Arcy was a historical person, a British entrepreneur who won a monopoly to explore and extract the oil resources of southern. But the figure Ghaffari plays here has borrowed only its name from the real Darcy. He is the personification of Imperialism in general, as we see later, when he selects mercenaries from among the villagers and enslaves them by giving them Coca Cola! As D’Arcy moves through holes excavated in the vicinity of the village (which doesn't look at all like the villages of southern Iran), he glimpses the friends whom he has summoned to come. They are three persons, an archeologist, a journalist and a lady who is to play the role of Cinderella (in fact the first title of the film was CINDERELLA). They arrive at the village in a balloon and are warmly welcomed by the villagers – somewhat recalling THE WIZARD OF OZ. The villagers prepare a place for D’Arcy and his friends. From the next morning the visitors set their plot in action. They use the lady's beauty to enchant people. As a visual metaphor for this idea they use colourful nets to capture people. They also choose some people as their mercenaries. Then they start to exploit people, using them to excavate archaelogical sites and oil wells. The only person in the village who is not seduced by Cinderella and subjugated by the foreigners is an old man whom the villagers regard as crazy. Cinderella starts classes to teach the villagers the new language, using such conversational phrases as "Your country is rich, My country is not rich, Your country is my country"! The foreigners persuade the villagers to buy useless objects made of plastic (The sequences in which they are proudly marching of with this stuff recalls a similar sequence in Mongols in which the villagers welcome the newly purchased TV set) and to paint the the adobe walls of their homes with varied bright colours. In return the villagers hand over their old traditional handcrafts and antiques to the exploiters. Gradually people forget their native language and start to speak English. But problems arise when Cinderella meets the charming prince of her dreams in a castle, and is raped by him. D’Arcy and his colleagues fail in their attempts to find the rapist. At the same time the crazy old man teaches the villagers a few words of the native language they've forgotten. They unite and start a revolt. Archaeologist and journalist flee by Balloon, Cinderella finds her charming prince in the rubbish covered alleys of the village and D’Arcy throws himself into an oil well. In the final shots, we see a villager selling oil while other villagers fight their way in the streets of village full of plastic rubbish.

In this film Kimiavi's visual and narrative style suits the story well – better, for instance than in his second film STONE GARDEN, the story of an old deaf and mute man who one night meets in his dream a saint who instructs him to make a stone garden. In this film there is a conflict between scenes in documentary style and other very stylized sequences. But OK MISTER maintains the quality of a surreal comedy consistently. This kind of surreal comedy is very rare in Iranian cinema, though an immediate instance of it is Dariush Mehrjui's contribution to the episodic TALES OF AN ISLAND, made a few years ago, titled "Dear Cousin is Lost". As a surreal comedy, some sequences have a cartoonish quality, as when D’Arcy plays golf with a short man, which leads to the discovery of an oil well. The dialogues also contribute to the creation of this surreal world. When the villagers start to learn English and forget to speak Farsi, they merely utter very short English sentences or individual English words, or just repeat the phrases Cinderella has taught them. Sometimes it sounds to us as mere nonsense. Even the old man uses just three separate words (khaak, gol, gandom, ie, Soil, flower, wheat) to re-educate them; and those who take part in the revolt simply repeat these words and nothing more. In this surreal world not only the parrot of Cinderella's clock can speak, but also sheep and goats are taught to speak English! The comic figures of huge and short men are also present here, but they just mirror the absurdity of this deformed world rather than being a subject for laughter in themselves because of their deformed shapes. There are some crazy figures - like the ostriches wearing top hats and tailcoats – that obviously do not come from Persian tradition, and which remind us of Kimiavi's affinity to French culture, as obviously they do not come from Persian culture.

The film also deals with fairy tales in its own way. Its opening is like an old fable. And this sense is intensified by a narrative voice-over which reminds us of old-style storytellers. Also, well-known fairy-tales are used and manipulated here, sometimes with their original relationships reversed. The original Cinderella is oppressed by her step-mother and step-sisters, but here she turns out to be an oppressor, a kind of magician who put people under her spells. The glass slipper story is echoed here, but this time the lost show belongs to the supposed Prince Charming, with whom Cinderalla falls in love, even though he has raped her. D’Arcy and his friends order all the male villagers to try on the shoe, so as to discover the rapist! This case repeats once more in a more parodic way. When their plans for finding the rapist fail, D’Arcy and his people decide to find another man for Cinderella, to comfort her yearning for her Prince Charming. They gather all the men in the village and after preliminary examination, invite Cinderella to choose one of them. One part of the examination is to put a detector on the pubic part of the men to check the size of their pricks! There could also be allusions to Asian legends in elements like the Prince with whom girls fall in love, whereupon he makes love to them and vanishes, or the old castle. Cinderella herself seems to be too much obsessed with middle eastern legends, and when she faces the man whom she names as Prince Charming, who actually seems to be a common villager, we can style this sequence as "Cinderella in the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights". The lovemaking takes place in a deserted old castle – I think this sequence was shot in the old Bam citadel, demolished by the recent earthquake - and reminded me of Pasolini's Arabian Nights which was also shot in real old monuments of Iran. It is hardly necessary to say that an Iranian movie does not share similar erotic scenes!

Unlike some pro-revolutionary films, its depiction of foreigners is not very insulting. It's true that they are ridiculed, but the film makes even more fun of the exploited nation. For example we see men in a long queue to try the shoe, and when they are rejected, a picture of sheep is stamped on their back! Or men are ridiculed for their obsessive sexual desire. Also we see the villagers play with the name of D’Arcy and call him a fool, while they themselves are fooled all the time. Nor does the film try to act as a slogan; it's true that what Cinderella and the old man say might be interpreted as slogans in a different context, but here, in the overall comic atmosphere, they work like any other exaggerated element of a comedy film. Moreover the film lacks the idealistic point of view of other revolutionary films. For example in JOURNEY OF STONE by Masud Kimiai which was made in the same year, a peasant's revolt ends with the demolition of the house of the great feudal masters, implying the end of oppression. In contrast the final shots of OK MISTER show a rather pessmistic attitude toward the revolution and the end of colonialism. It's true that the foreigners have finally left the village and people use the oil for their own, but the signs of the long period of exploitation still survive: people can no longer speak their native language as before, and they are sinking in the remains of imposed modernization and the consumerist culture.

The character of the old man in this film is somehow similar to the main characters of STONE GARDEN and P LIKE PELICAN - someone who is regarded as crazy by ordinary people, but whose innocence and simple character makes us sympathise with him. Someone who seems to put aside the mind in favour of spiritual abilities. Maybe while shooting Kimiavi saw such a character in Khomeini's face, regarding him as a spiritual man who could be the best option for leading a revolution. It appears that later that year (1979), he even went to France and made some documentary shots of Ayatollah that were never edited. What happened after the fall of the royal regime showed him (and many other intellectual) to what extent they were right.

Of course there are some shortcomings in the film. For instance, the role of reporter in the whole affair is not clear. Similarly we don't know why villagers call the old man mad, as he shows no apparent sign of insanity. Moreover, the director uses the painting of the homes as an allegory for consumerism, while it actually makes the colourless village look more vivid! Also there is a great contradiction: while the director implicitly reproaches the villagers for using a foreign language, most of the film’s dialogues – not to mention the titles - are in English! But none of these problems detract from our enjoyment of the film. Nor can they dimi9nish our admiration for the director’s new experiments within the rather conservative cinema industry of Iran. Kimiavi used a mixed cast of professionals and non-professionals, Iranians and non-iranians for this film, but this has not a negative effect on the whole quality of acting. Ghaffari's acting desrves to be noted here; while he cannot be regarded as a wholly professional actor (he played only in a few films made by his friends and also in one of his own), he is successful in the caricature role of the Imperialist. The soundtrack also deserves mention. Kimiavi chose a wide range of music, ranging from Iranian traditional themes to various western pieces, which admirably suit the accompanying images. The best instances are two parodic musical scenes, one showing the villagers painting their homes and the other depicting them bringing found antiques to the archealogist.

The film was completed just as the new Islamic government's came to power, so not surpringly it received no screening permission. No reasons were announced, but we can hazard some guesses. The new government might well not be pleased to see the old leader of villagers revolt described as a madman, even though he is clearly not insane. Some scenes also were clearly not acceptable under the newly imposed Islamic laws - scenes showing people's sexual obsession with Cinderella and the love-making/rape sequence. Even worse (to people in charge of censorship) would be the sequence in which someone says Azaan (an Islamic holy chant spoken in a loud voice to remind people of time for prayers) in which original Arabic phrases are replaced by not related and senseless English words. Add to this the depiction of a charming lady without a veil! Whatever the reasons, the film was never shown in public and Kimiavi, like some other Iranian artists, left Iran in despair. He made several shorts in France. In 1990s he returned Iran and finally made his 4th feature IRAN IS MY HOME. But bad luck never left him. Though it was shown in the Fajr film festival, it has so fare never received a public screening yet, though this time the reasons were unresolved problems between Kimiavi and his producer.

Unfortunately OK MISTER, like many other great Iranian films, is not available in any good form. I have seen it only on VCD, captured from a poor-quality VHS copy, and was even unable to find any still photographs to illustrate this article. But since this had French subtitles, it is possible that copies exist outside Iran. This highlights the deficiencies of film archiving in Iran, far below international standards. The chances of survival are even less for films which do not receive screening permission. These films may not even be preserved in the Iranian National Film Archive and no one appears to care about their survival I hope this will not prove the case with OK MISTER. And if any good quality copy does exist outside Iran, it is greatly to be hoped that someone will consider restoring it and distributing it on DVD , to introduce this undeservedly unknown picture to cinema fans all around the world, to show them the other faces of Iranian cinema.