We Are All Fine is a metaphysical black comedy which as a double take offers an oblique and penetrating look at contemporary Iran. We Are All Fine Bizhan Mirbagheri Iran 2005 Ahu Kheradmand;Mohson Moradi; Lehla Zarch
Viewed Rotterdam Film Festival 1 Feb 2007
Beware the empty centre
We Are All Fine is a metaphysical black comedy which as a double take offers an oblique and penetrating look at contemporary Iran.
Mirbhagheri’s film begins with an event that comes close to being a proposition. A family – an extended family of three generations – is visited by a stranger who says he is a friend of the eldest son who has left Iran to work abroad but has not been heard from in two years. His message is that the son wants his family – mother father brother sister wife and child – to make a video letter to be sent back to him with the stranger. The son wants to know how things are with them.
The visitor goes leaving behind him uncertainly, endless unanswered and unanswerable questions and, as proof of his authenticity, a nondescript recently taken photo of the son. The family believe it’s their boy: the full length picture shows a man standing in front of a wire mesh fence wearing jeans trainers a light jacket. The location( as one member of the family observes) could be anywhere; in a sense the figure is also everyman.
Borrowing a camcorder, the family decide to make the video for their son. At this point the film starts to shift between two expressive modes: the film which documents the action and the video mode which records the feelings of the family trapped in their own expectations. The structural dynamic of the film stems from the alternation between the two systems of recording, between monologue and dialogue. After considering and briefly trying to speak collectively the family take the decision that what they really want to do is to talk individually to their son so that unconstrained they can commune with him from their hearts. At the point at which the video monologues are taken up the film enters a realm of communication that is religious in form: it’s like prayer, communication with the unseen. The family, who continually try to revise edit wipe and redo their performances in attempts to find the right key or the ‘right’ tone offer their son: accounts, justifications, confessions, brutal statements of unalloyed truth (“I am dieing” his father tells him). They are speaking to the male who is the absent and empty centre of the house. He is not there yet they have to speak to him and in this absence and emptiness he assumes a sort of god like abstraction. He becomes an empty vessel for the outpouring of lamentation supplication and truth. A man functioning and being as the form of God. The absent male? Absent but omnipresent.
I think that We are All Fine(WAAF) is a finely tuned reflection of a certain internalised psychic state of affairs in Iran. Of course the film has social context: the revolution and the Iraq war are strongly alluded to. But in WAAF nearly all the action takes place inside the home of the family. There are some exterior shots: the military academy, the garment shop where the sister works (where her male manager is fired by the female boss), but essentially this is an interior film and it is through the interiority (both in monologue and dialogue) that we know what is happening. The father is old sick and dieing; the sister is keeping the family afloat by working; the mother keeps the hearth; the wife takes their daughter to the out of school drama club. The woman and the old father all have their problems and get on with living and dieing. The younger brother is a good natured soul; perhaps naïve but he understands why his brother has deserted the family, and admits that he too might do the same thing. The actuality is that it is the women who are living sustaining life; for how long can they take the strain? The men dream and then plan the execution of some sort of flight either abroad or perhaps to another kind of place. With elegance and simplicity Mirbhagheri suggests that the empty centre he describes is not just a feature of this family but is replicated through his country. Without intimate knowledge of Iran I do not know if Mirbhagheri is representing something actual. But certainly Mirbhagheri (and his script writer) is a filmmaker with vision who has looked at his society and seen somewhere at its core the phenomenon of the absent centre that is transformed into a vessel for outpourings as a component of the social assemblage. He has conceived a subtle and telling form for conveying his insight, for by removing the male presence he has freed himself to be able to deconstruct the fabric of Iranian society. Looking to filmmakers in the West, in comparison we have a generation of filmmakers who lack the capacity to see and understand their own situations. Some see symptoms (lots of films about problems) but not the conditions. Filmmakers who struggle to make films about ideas and as such are incapable of making films that probe and deconstruct psychic assemblage of schizoid Western societies and their values.
Checking the film on the imdb to find the cast list I saw that (unsurprisingly) few people had seen the film. One person who had seen it commented on the bad acting. In the West the acting profession has become part of the communications industry. The consequences of this industrialisation of the art have in the course of 80 to 90 years completely taken over expectations of and demands made on actors. In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller through Willie Lomax, points out that to sell the product you first of all have to sell yourself. The emphasis on the actor adopting a heightened emotional individuality as the chosen expressive mode to the exclusion of other styles of performing, has led to actors and actresses ‘selling’ themselves for role and ‘pitching‘ themselves into roles, to the exclusion of other expressive styles drawn from folk or classical traditions of performance. In particular over the last 30 years in the UK and USA the soap opera has become the dominant form of an industrialised output defining the demands made of actors and actresses. This form has increasingly exerted influence in curtailing the acting profession’s repertoire of dramatic responses. The soap opera which is not a arena of ideas relies on idiosyncratic roles (parts) that have to be filled out emotively by the players. The industry needs a type of overdetermined emotive response from its actors to fill out the vacuity and the emotional similarities of the various switchback plot lines. The actors are required to respond and react in particular with expressive faciality (many shots and even complete sequences are in full face close up). The players gestural responses have become corrupted or delimited by: multiple but crude variations of the rictus the forehead and eye muscles and expressive use of arms and hands as if they were huge levers pumping out reactive cues. (Sales men and women are taught a similar gestural vocabulary).
In Iran there seems to be an acting tradition that isn’t distorted by the selling ethos. Much of the action of WAAF is shot wide. and in its playing WAAF is understated and so shaped to allow to Mirgbhageri’s idea primacy. It is the idea that unfolds and develops in the course of the film, rather than the characters. Had it been played otherwise it would have been at the cost of the increasing urgency and power in the development of the film.