Simulation (2017)

Simulation, a film from Iran directed by and featuring Abed Abest, cleverly strips its actors and set design to the bone and turns its chronology upside down to address the unspoken. 

Simulation / TamarozIran
4*

Director:
Abed Abest

Screenwriter:
Abed Abest

Director of Photography:
Hamid Khozouie Abyane

Running time: 85 minutes

Original title: تمارض
Transliterated title: Tamaroz

It’s far from a perfect comparison, and the two films go in very different directions, but calling Abed Abest’s Simulation a Persian Dogville is a useful shortcut for saying it has austere, even Brechtian, stage design and deals with very real events and emotions while also being visibly and deliberately artificial. While the two films’ directors find filmic solutions to what is essentially a stage-bound production, the Iranian filmmaker doesn’t have his Danish counterpart Lars von Trier’s radical taste for doom and gloom. And yet, given the setting of Simulation’s first (i.e. final) act, a police station on the Iran-Iraq border, the tone is far from light.

The reason why the first act is also the last act is because the last act turns out to be the first: Abest starts with the climax and then works his way back (similar to, but much less detailed than, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible). In so doing, he presents us with an inverted chronology of events that unspool until we reach the dramatic moment of stasis when a decision is made that ultimately leads to the tragedy of the film’s opening minutes.

In the opening scene, three young men are brought handcuffed into the police station in Abadan, the site of major conflict during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Accompanying them is Esi, a much older man. This early part of the narrative may very well be the most important, as two conflicting stories quickly emerge. The three young men are accused of attempting to burgle Esi’s home. They deny any wrong doing and say Esi assailed them for no reason whatsoever, even though he had invited them in as his guests. Esi has a very different account, but both sides seem equally passionate and sincere about their version of events.

Simulation‘s first few minutes are very different from anything we are used to seeing in the cinema and already hint at a strong sense of alienation: The opening credits sequence features a particularly unusual approach, namely to show the actors approach and look directly into the camera. They do so mostly one by one, while in the background a giant green screen is impossible to miss. Something else that draws our attention in the film is the fact that some details seem deliberately off. For one, although Esi is continually referred to as an old man, the actor, Danial Khojasteh, is about the same age as the three “young” men and does not behave in a way that suggests he is that much older than they are.

The vibrant green spills over into the rest of the set design, as most of the objects, from doors to tables to mobile phones, are all the same kind of… let’s call it “green-screen green”. In interviews, Abest has suggested that his idea was to allow these coloured objects to serve as types of intra-scenic green screens onto which the viewer can project his or her own imagined colours or textures. In a way, then, it is easy to interpret the green as a kind of freedom for the viewers to add or construct their own ideas. And although the connection between the green here and the green of the 2009 Iranian Green Movement in Iran is never made explicit, it goes without saying that this potential for symbolism will be at the forefront of most viewers’ minds.

However, what the blue sneakers mean (all the character wear exactly the same kind) beyond serving as a facile reference to “blue screen” is much less clear.

The opening scene at the police station, filled as it is with contradictory information about the events earlier that same evening, also creates a sense of dread that will hang over the entire film, no matter how bright the final moments are. In fact, as with Noé’s (admittedly much darker) film, the levity of the conclusion only serves to emphasise the despair of the scenes leading up to it.

The central part of the story takes place at Esi’s home. A man who lost his loved ones during the war (in a wonderfully staged, unexpected flashback inserted between the scene at the police station and the one at his home), Esi has become a rather wealthy businessman and, by the looks of it, a well-established bachelor. When he answers the door late at night, his expression and body movements make it immediately clear he is thrilled that the three young men – Abed (Abest himself), Vahid (Vahid Rad) and Aris (Majid Yousefi) – have paid him a visit. As the evening wears on, it becomes more and more evident he is a gay man, a fact seemingly acknowledged by the director when Esi starts playing an Elton John song on his bright-red piano. It may not be Madonna or Judy Garland, but the signs can only be missed by someone who is wilfully blind. This being a film from a country where homosexual acts are punishable by death, the film doesn’t venture much farther than innuendo.

As the four of them sit on a pair of couches in Esi’s lounge, the camera does something unusual. It divides the scene into blocks without using any cuts. Abest is very skilled at creating the illusion that the action is playing out in real time: Every time the camera moves to focus on a different character or pair of characters, the action “freezes”, meaning the actors stop moving until the camera, with a dramatic flourish, has reached a new spot. In this way, we get the feeling that there are no false cuts. In fact, the editing seamlessly combines different takes, but for those reading the subtitles, these transitions go by almost entirely unnoticed.

It comes as no surprise that Abest starred in the lead in Shahram Mokri’s stunning Fish & Cat (ماهی و گربه), a single-take feature film that was also very creative in its approach to time. 

Abest has said that the film is whatever the viewer chooses it to be, thus neatly putting the onus of proving the presence of controversial themes on the viewer. And yet, despite the sparse décor, there is more than enough information to work with – not only the dialogue, which is so abundant that the film often struggles to distinguish itself from a theatrical production, but also the gestures, the looks and the multitude of sound effects that are deployed. At times, the sound is clear and natural, but at other times there is a slight echo that makes it sound like it was recorded surreptitiously, perhaps by microphones planted on the premises by paranoid authorities.

The meaning of the title is not particularly self-evident (What is the simulation, and what is being simulated? Is the film a simulation of Abest’s imagined story? Of ours?), but we get that the film is an artistic representation rather than a mimetic one. And yet, because the story is easy to follow despite the play with time and design, the viewer is quickly immersed in the action, trying to figure out what comes next by trying to find the intentions behind the actions.

Simulation is creative, smart, daring and unexpectedly engaging.

Viewed at ÍRÁN:CI – the Festival of Iranian Films in Prague 2018.

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