A commentary on the Iranian film Mermaid and an interview with writer-director Saber Mostafapour: “Cinema is nothing without reality”
Directed and written by Saber Mostafapour
Mermaid (2020), by Saber Mostafapour, is one of the recent Iranian short films that stand out not only for their aesthetic quality, but also for their realistic approach and the seriousness with which they treat the problems of broad sections of the population. Seemingly elementary and everyday feelings and desires, when fulfilled, can generate great conflicts and even tragic crises.
The film is a portrait of Milad (Mehrali Ghazvini), a transgender high school student who identifies as a woman, but is not accepted by her parents or her school. To sustain herself emotionally and spiritually, she draws on her imagination and depictions of mermaids in sketches and murals that she paints on the walls of an abandoned building where she will change into women’s clothes.
In the opening scene, as Milad prepares to leave the house in the morning, we learn that Milad’s father has been invited to visit his child’s school. Milad’s mother (Mahla Eslami), like Milad, appears with bruises and abrasions, signs of physical abuse. She strongly suggests that something bad will happen if Milad’s father finds out Milad has skipped school.
Later, after changing clothes in the dilapidated building that serves as Milad’s sanctuary, she is discovered by a group of her classmates. Milad is described as a “rabid boy” and physically assaulted. As writer-director Mostafapour told me about the high school students attacking Milad, “Schools in Iran are gender segregated and adolescents do not reach sexual maturity and this void leads to their inappropriate behavior. The sexual void persists in children from adolescence and leads to inappropriate behavior in adulthood.
Milad manages to escape her attackers and in a touching scene is helped by a driver (Meysam Vahhabi) who picks her up by the side of the road. The driver looks a little uncomfortable when he realizes his female passenger may be transgender, but when Milad’s classmates chase them in another car, the man doesn’t hesitate to help Milad escape his attackers, and he loses them in a few quick maneuvers.
Fearing what her father will do to her if she returns home, Milad starts wandering by the sea when her classmates find her. Trapped, Milad enters the ocean and does not come out.
The film takes a naturalistic approach that gives an idea of the broader social forces at play in the lives of its characters. Beyond Milad’s very personal situation and the ostracism she faces for being transgender, Mermaid Also realistically conveys the specific social context in which Milad finds himself. This is a lower-middle-class household headed by a physically and emotionally abusive father (invisible in the film), whose intolerance towards his transgender child is driven by his concern for his reputation amid social pressures to defend traditional values. And Milad’s attackers even seem distraught and ashamed of themselves in the end when they realize what they’ve done, which is a testament to the humanity of the film.
Mostafapour, who wrote and directed Mermaid before the pandemic, comes from the Iranian port city of Nowshahr, on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. He studied cinema in Tehran, at the Iranian Youth Cinema Society and at the Free Film Workshop School. One of his teachers was the famous filmmaker Masoud Kimiai (Qeysar, 1969; The deer, 1974), pioneer of the Iranian New Wave of the 1960s.
The WSWS recently interviewed Mostafapour by email.
Frank Anderson: I saw your short film Mermaid, which you directed, and the recent short film Model (directed by Mahnaz Valipour), on which you worked as a sound engineer. These two films, along with several other recent Iranian shorts, demonstrate a serious and humane approach to showing real life. Can you tell me about your background, and how you and your colleagues came to make these kinds of films? Do you see yourself as part of an Iranian cinema tradition?
Saber Mostafapour: I have been involved in many film projects as a writer, editor and sound designer and have so far directed two short films and several student films. Dogs and wolves was my first short film in 2019 and Mermaid was my second short film in 2020.
Before the Iranian revolution of 1978, Iranian cinema experienced a “new wave”, while mainstream Iranian cinema consisted of popular films heavily influenced by Egyptian and Indian cinema. After the revolution, Iranian cinema was divided into two parts. Some filmmakers have made feature films and have been influenced by the new wave of European cinema, and others have made war cinema. Continuous, social and human cinema has become the mainstream of Iranian cinema.
The reason why Iranian cinema has paid so much [attention] in social cinema was that Iranian cinema makers were not interested in supporting genre cinema, and the filmmakers had to pull out their cameras [into] the community as much as possible. Since the Iranian people have experienced economic and political problems at different times and [because] Iran has different climates with different cultures, there are always attractive film subjects in Iran which become the basis of film drama.
In recent years, filmmakers who started making short films are creating a new spirit in Iranian cinema and trying to introduce new genres into Iranian cinema. I also try to support this new wave.
FA: In your film Mermaid, the main character Milad uses art to imagine a different world. What can art do for people living in intolerable conditions?
SM: The task of art is to display the cry. The cry of people that no one cares about. The artist’s job is to display the cries of these people in artistic language.
In Mermaid, I tried to run two different plots parallel to each other. The main plot tells the story of a young man who cannot live a peaceful life with his identity because society cannot accept him with a new identity and in the end tragedy occurs. Most of the story told in this film comes from reality. At present, Iran is engaged in an acute conflict between tradition and modernity, which has caused different generations to understand each other less, and this clash of generations sometimes leads to tragic events.
The subplot and subtext in Mermaid expresses the psychoanalytic and mythological aspects. In the mythical subtext, water is an element that represents the identity and femininity of “Milad”. In the end, drowning in water has a less tragic meaning because [the character] merged with water and chosen its true identity. A mermaid doesn’t end her life by reaching for water, but just begins her life!
FA: Although nothing really fantastic happens in your film, the ending recalls some fairy tales, not only the obvious Hans Christian Andersen story “The Little Mermaid”, but also “The Little Match Girl” from Andersen, more socially conscious. Oscar Wilde’s socialist fairy tales. How did you conceive of the story of Mermaid, and what were the impulses behind it?
SM: I’m very interested in the world of myths. The use of myths and archetypes has a greater impact on audiences and the attractiveness of films. In Mermaid, I tried to bring reality and imagination together, but since the history of Mermaid is taken from reality, the main plot had more of a sense of reality, and the imagination was transferred to the subtext of the film. I haven’t read the Mr. Andersen stories, but I think the reason for the similarity between the stories you mentioned and the mermaid story could be the use of myths, especially the mermaid myths .
FA: What was the response to Mermaid in Iran and abroad?
SM: As I expected, it was not well received at national festivals due to its social criticism and the theme of the Mermaid! But at international festivals the film has been well received so far and has premiered in 20 countries on different continents and received several awards.
FA: In the United States, there is endless promotion of the supposed value of “escape” in films about lifeless fantasy worlds in which filmmakers and audiences are supposed to forget about real life. What is the value of realism, or real life images, in movies?
SM: In my opinion, the reason that real life in American cinema has declined is that film companies are sacrificing the artistic and cultural values of cinema to capital and money. Cinema is an endless world with space for different movies with different genres. Cinema is nothing without reality, just as it has no meaning without fantasy. The artist’s task is to bring the audience closer to the cinema by telling compelling cinematic stories.
FA: It is scandalous that Iranian filmmakers are barred from participating in US film festivals that demand payment of festival fees, due to US sanctions against Iran. And because of the official American propaganda against Iran, it is especially important for the American public to see Iranian films, to see the complexity of the highly cultured Iranian society and the humanity of its people. What kind of relationship should the American and Iranian people have?
SM: I think the US problem with Iran and their differences are not the differences of their people, but the reason for this difference is the political issues between the two countries. If sometimes the people of the two countries have an enemy vision of each other, it is only because of the media, which tries to involve the people of their country in their politics by false propaganda.
Iranian short filmmakers have many concerns as it is very difficult to find an investor for short films in Iran and many brilliant storylines do not lead to the production of short films due to the difference between Iranian currency and international currency. It is very difficult to submit films to festivals. But some festivals do Iranian filmmakers a favor [by allowing] Iranian films to be submitted to their festival without paying festival fees.
FA: What are the themes or subjects that you would like to address in future films?
SM: The environment, cultural questions and the world of children are some of the questions I am interested in when making films.