From Buenos Aires, we review this year’s International Competition winner.
Mitra Farahani’s Fifi Howls from Happiness is a documentary feature about Bahman Mohasses, one of Iran’s most important modernist painters, who, after exiling himself in Rome following 1979’s military revolution, disappeared from the public eye. Mitra finds him living in a hotel room in the northern part of the city, and it is from there, following an introduction of abstract shots of fish markets, mystical narration and vague, contradictory biographical facts (she makes the point that Bahman Mohasses has been largely forgotten by society, while a scene at Sotheby’s auction house shows one of his paintings selling for over £100,000) that the film truly begins.
Bahman Mohasses, as we first see him, relaxed and unassuming in his Japanese dressing gown, is both cleaner and smarter than the created image of a forgotten artist might lead one to believe. His apartment, although perpetually thick with tobacco smoke, is well ordered, TV/DVD- filled and surprisingly austere. Indeed, for an artist and a man who (as the film so deliberately shows us) was so characterful and colourful in everything he did, the plainness of his surroundings is somewhat disorientating.
The subject, Bahman Mohasses, has a naive love of cigarettes, the terrible irony being that they are leading him to an early death
Nevertheless, despite the kempt nature of his appearance, Bahman has aged quite significantly, something very much underlined by the archival footage of him as a young man shown at the beginning of the film. His face has sagged, seeming to have melted down the sharp contours of his once-accentuated jawline. Great fleshy pouches semi-circumnavigate his eyes, whilst liver spots punctuate his face. He looks like an old blood hound, which, in spite of its age, is still eager-eyed through its manifold folds of soft skin.
He has a Mutley-like laugh, which he uses frequently to augment or cover up the quality of his jokes, and an easiness with words that transcends the rigidity of the subtitles. His boyish, naïve love of cigarettes, which he smokes constantly throughout the film, seems at some points to transcend their insidious nature and the terrible irony that they are leading him to an early death. At the heart of this film is a pact, in which, if Farahani promises to help Mohasses find a commission for an art project, he will agree to her filming him as much as she may need. For her, the procurement of such a commission is essential, for, in the words of Mohasses himself, “the big thing missing from your film so far is me actually painting”. To Mohasses’s mind, painting is a necessity, “like pissing”.
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And it is at this point of the documentary, in which Mohasses meets up with two would-be commissioners, also from Iran, that we gain an insight into the scrupulousness of the man’s artistic process, and where, to a certain extent, the sharp-witted eccentricity at the film’s beginning turns somewhat cantankerous and hateful. Mohasses becomes more confrontational and won’t agree to certain seemingly silly things during the commissioning process. It becomes clear that Mohasses is his own master and will tell his own story as far as his capacities allow him, something which Faharini captures wonderfully in retained excerpts of him directing her how to direct the film.
What is not clear however, is whether his art has moved to be more metaphorical and verbal; whether he is now only capable of expressing his art in conversation and not on the canvass; and whether, in fact, he knows that he will not be able to complete this commission before he dies, but does it anyway so as to end on his own artistic terms. Farahani allows these character traits to develop naturally throughout the film, paying great attention to the man of the moment rather than the man as a quantifiable history. What we see is the culmination of Mohassess, the perfection of his imperfectly lived life – warts and all – in an isolated stage and not via a progressive narrative from his beginning to his end.
Farahani’s film, which captures Mohasses in his final moments, is really as truthful a depiction of this man as you’d hope to get
Some might find this infuriating in a documentary that purportedly aims to educate. Indeed, what we are promised is the story of Bahman Mohasses, yet all we really get is a man justifying his life’s decisions on camera. Yet in Farahani’s defence, if she had built up that standard documentary biography we are so accustomed to seeing, then it would have been in opposition to the principles of her subject and therefore contrary to the subject itself. Somewhere towards the end of the film, Mohasses says “I don’t work for posterity”, and by that he means he never worked to be remembered as an ordered narrative in the future – a neat and digestible history on Wikipedia, so to speak.
Viewed from this perspective, Farahani’s film, which captures Mohasses in his final moment of life, is really as truthful and accurate a depiction of this man as one could hope to get. For some this film could be slow and unnecessarily long; it could be argued that some of the narration is verbose and flowery. Moreover, Farahani’s relentless documentation of Mohasses’s daily routines perhaps surpasses what is needed to demonstrate the man’s exactitude and precision. On the whole, however, Fifi Howls from Happiness is a wonderfully irregular documentary that speaks so plainly and profoundly about the richness of life and its perpetual proximity to death.
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All images: Urban Distribution