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Source: HindustanTimes

Jun 29, 2023

And, Towards Happy Alleys review: A tender, moving snapshot of Iranian cinema and censorship
Sreemoyee Singh's camera sensitively traces the growing climate of Iranian resistance through interviews and poetic anecdotes.

Cinema transcends boundaries. For Indian director Sreemoyee Singh, whose documentary And, Towards Happy Alleys premiered at the Sheffield DocFest, it transcended boundaries of language and resistance. As a doctoral student of film studies at Jadavpur University, Singh was fascinated with the poetry of Iranian poet Forogh Farrokhzad, and filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami. And, Towards Happy Alleys, the title taken from a Farrokhzad poem, is the culmination of her journey to Iran in pursuit of her research where she met and interviewed the filmmakers and their collaborators, and documented their cultures of protest.

Interviews with Iranian filmmakers

"I felt like a spectator marveling at the film, unfolding before my eyes," is how Singh introduces her free-flowing observation of Iran and its culture; from the hijab-clad women in a bus to reading the feminist poetry of Farrokhzad. Singh's camera becomes a perceptive spectator for the sights and sounds of a country in its reflective abundance. We follow her as she sits with Jafar Panahi in the car and he recounts the transition in his filmmaking career, from the two children-led films The White Balloon (1995) and The Mirror (1997), to take on more active underlining of the current reality of women's rights in Iran with The Circle (2000). The film would be treated harshly in his own country; and as Panahi explains, he almost attempted suicide when he was not allowed to make more films. "I thought without work what's the meaning of my life," he says directly to the camera.

The transitional framework

And, Towards Happy Alleys also ties itself with a similar trajectory, introducing us to a place from the perspective of an outsider, filled with lyricism and poise. Yet, as the camera becomes a witness to the ways in which the voices operate within oppressive forces, the film transforms into a double-edged cry of protest and longing to be free. A child passing by the director on the streets asks her why is her head not covered? This is but one example of the invisible, somehow inescapable censors that find ways to seep into the narrative. Singh's camera restlessly seeks out the rebellion in the calmest of situations, even as it is not prepared to assimilate the variety and vitality of experiences that collide into the formation of this documentary.

Observations of the cultures of protest

Filmmaker Mohammad Shirvani also appears, as he recounts his approach to filmmaking that caused such a stir in the country. Farhad Kheradmand, the actor known for his work on Kiarostami's And Life Goes On (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994) shares his memories of working with the director. Aida Mohammadkhani, the child actor in Panahi's The White Balloon (1995), now arrives in one profound scene, where she is able to unlock emotions on cue. From where do these emotions arise? These rendezvous, although fascinating, seem to emerge out of no direct framework. The energy never feels extractive for dramatic effect. It flows like formless, episodic chapters of an epistolary novel.

Still, a brief history of the obsession with nose jobs in Iran feels removed from the conversations that abound in the film. Given how the proceedings evolve as a love letter to Iranian Cinema and the subsequent documentation of rising protest, the conversations around activism also arrive a tad too late in landscape of Singh's camera. The focus zooms out and dissolves into scattershot moments of resilience, without fully absorbing the power of these voices. You wish there was more. Even as And, Towards Happy Alleys is reluctant to strategize its own construction of the plethora of voices, it still remains incredibly tender, sensitive and deeply moving. It scores as a thoughtful testament to the collective spirit of resistance. Singh's documentation is as much a love letter to Iranian Cinema as it is a reminder of the importance of activism, culminating into a profound denouement with Farrokhzad’s verses. It gently illuminates the mind.

(Santanu Das is covering Sheffield DocFest for Hindustan Times as part of the accredited press.)

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