Articles and Reviews
Elahe Massumi - Roxana (2018)
Elahe Massumi (Isfahan, Iran, l961) is a movie director, producer, and media artist (Pratt Institute MFA-1990) who lives in Brooklyn, New York.1 Her first short, the multi-media installation Obliteration (l994), about female genital mutilation (FGM), surprised film curators since at that time the subject was barely known in the West. The graphic images provoked an unbearable degree of discomfort in audience, but did not prevent the work’s inclusion in several museums exhibitions and screenings. Another example of her earlier work about abuse, violation and profanation of a young body, A Kiss is not a Kiss (2001), also leaves the viewer speechless. The images and subject matter are powerful enough to hold the audience without the support of words. Without narration, we are transfixed by the black eyes of the girl that seem to follow us even after the projection is finished.
This painstakingly edited video is not a documentary about child prostitution, a theme that recently became a subject of television reality shows. Nor does it speak about sexual desire -- a paramount topic for feminist theory – or even about sexuality. There is a sensual quality to the edited imagery and its saturated colors, but the work is not about eroticism, desire or passion. In the bedroom there is only submission and humiliation, pain and nausea. At many moments the images transmit a puzzling conjunction of realism and fantasy. It is the artist’s gaze and the conscious orchestration of images that bring us to this outer frontier of the modern world, where cruelty and the realities of survival are collapsed together.
Outside of the framework of exploitation of the female body, in 2002 Massumi produced Bitter Moon, a hybrid documentary on another taboo subject: Roma survivors of the Holocaust narrate the ordeals of their ethnic group, seized by the Nazis, sent to concentration camps, often subjected to torture and in many cases rapidly exterminated. 2
Massumi’s filmography includes 15 short films, all shown in festivals and museums. In each of them, she touches on an aspect of what is known as Human Rights. 3
Roxana is Massumi’s first full-length feature film: a maturation of the long-established themes of her previous work, such as female oppression or atrocities against women and children. It was a substantial undertaking for a visual artist and independent filmmaker to master the complexities of producing a feature film. The project has been evolving for more than six years, interrupted in 2015 by creation of the short work titled Patriarchal.
Roxana - Plot
The story begins with Roxana’s (Lara Dalileh Wolf) 4 unexpected return to Iran from London, where she was studying journalism, to look after her ailing mother. With the voice of Mary Apic 5, and in the line of previous works, the film denounces the hierarchal orders of power, and is a combination of artistic and political slants. In some sequences, Massumi uses state-of-the-art animation technology to produce images of a greater painterliness, resembling the brushstrokes of old masters. With an original soundtrack 6, the work is permeated with subtle signs of Persian culture. Roxana is an ancestral name, originally that of the princess who married the Greek Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, and was killed by Alexander’s second wife. Visually and symbolically, Persian culture surfaces in gestures such as the gift of a pomegranate- a fruit that represents beauty and symbolizes prosperity and seduction, especially in poetry. Roxana’s ‘Persian blue’ outfit echoes the vivid shades of the thousand-year-old, increasingly endangered Persian mosaics that are still found in most Iranian cities. Roxana’s gestures and postures are deeply rooted in her culture.
Massumi’s screenplay constructs a fictional history based on real events. Roxana embodies a group of contemporary Iranian woman of all ages, rebellious against the odds. Iran severely restricts women’s rights, from what they can wear in public to the jobs they can hold; they cannot even watch men’s sports in stadiums.
Working as a journalist and blogger in Iran, Roxana reports on women’s lack of legal protection against sexual and other gender- based violence. Shortly after her arrival she decides to investigate a controversial theme since the times of the Prophet, the ‘temporary marriage’ or Sigheh 7 – a private, verbal contract in which the duration as well as the conditions are discussed in advance. The arrangement can last from hours up to months. It is not recognized by Sunni The story begins with Roxana’s (Lara Dalileh Wolf) unexpected return to Iran from London, where she was studying journalism, to look after her ailing mother. With the voice of Mary Apic, and in the line of previous works, the film denounces the hierarchal orders of power, and is a combination of artistic and political slants. In some sequences, Massumi uses state-of-the-art animation technology to produce images of a greater painterliness, resembling the brushstrokes of old masters. With an original soundtrack, the work is permeated with subtle signs of Persian culture. Roxana is an ancestral name, originally that of the princess who married the Greek Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, and was killed by Alexander’s second wife. Visually and symbolically, Persian culture surfaces in gestures such as the gift of a pomegranate- a fruit that represents beauty and symbolizes prosperity and seduction, especially in poetry. Roxana’s ‘Persian blue’ outfit echoes the vivid shades of the thousand-year-old, increasingly endangered Persian mosaics that are still found in most Iranian cities. Roxana’s gestures and postures are deeply rooted in her culture. and some Shia scholars, who hold the view that today this kind of temporary marriage is a polite name for prostitution.8
Roxana has been watched since her arrival by the Iranian secret service, suspicious of this young woman from infidel London who uses social media to tell her stories. The recent articles about temporary marriage she has been sending out through her blog provide the Government with the perfect excuse to arrest her.
Roxana’s interrogator in jail, Amir (Eric Etebari) 9 , is a devout Moslem, highly educated and a powerful figure within the governing body. After weeks of interrogation and torture, Roxana is broken down. Out of desperation, she signs a document confessing to being a spy – which amounts to signing her own death sentence.
Awaiting execution, but clinging to one last chance to save her life, she goes through a moral dilemma but finally decides to play a seduction game with Amir, simulating an interest in him. Gradually, he is captivated by what remains of her feminine sensuality and intelligence, and on the pretext of interrogation he visits her cell several times a week, engaging in continual conversations but at the same feeling vulnerable. Amir fights for her release, which is granted under his responsibility. He becomes the prototype of the voyeur, placing Roxana under surveillance, constantly following or calling her. To neutralize his fears – as in Hitchcock and many other filmmakers – he finally comes up with an unthinkable proposition.
Like a character in one of her latest reports, he pressures her to enter a temporary marriage with him as the condition for staying out of prison. Again, Roxana is morally torn, but lacking any other route to freedom, she accepts.
At the center of this narrative, the key theme is Roxana’s struggle with her own history. Her father, a prominent figure during the Shah’s regime, was killed when she was a child. While under interrogation she had noticed Amir’s ring, and a foggy image of this chunky male jewelry remained, with a nagging familiarity, in her mind. Anxious to illuminate an image lost in memory, she now learns from Amir that the ring is a memento from his father.
From this point on, the film cuts abruptly from one shot to the next, undermining continuity by the frequent insertion of flashbacks. The tone of the film approaches that of a psychological thriller, Roxana running between her sick mother’s home and Amir’s apartment, trying to understand what is happening. One day, at Amir’s place, Roxana finally touches the ring he left on the bedroom table, and this action embodies the real nature of the flashbacks to the past: the object of desire is her father. And Amir’s father was the one who killed him.
Experimental in technique and narrative, produced on a low budget, Roxana could be framed as an historical film, since it has a sociopolitical function: to dramatize the plight of contemporary Iranian women. They (unlike the heroine, who escapes the country in the end) are still denied their fundamental rights, and are treated as second-class citizens.
2 Robert Knafo. Trilogies. Bitter Moon. Robert Knafo is a Critic and Curator. He lives in New York.
4 Lara Dalileh Wolf was born in Tehran and raised in Zurich to an Iranian mother and to a Swiss father. She was raised bilingually and started performing early in her life playing the violin, singing and acting. She continued studying psychology and educational science at the University of Zurich.
5 Roxana's voice is played by the Iranian actress Mary Apick.
Original Score and Clarinet: KINAN AZMEH / Music Composition SHAHIN NAJAFI
7 The word Sigheh is Farsi. In Arabic the word is Nikah mut'ah although the meaning is the same. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikah_mut%27ah
8 Tamilla F. Ghodsi, “Tying A Slipknot: Temporary Marriages in Iran,” 15 Mich. J. Int'l L. 645(1994).
Shahla Haeri. Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Iran (London: IB Tauris 1990)
9 Eric Etebari was born on December 5, 1969 in Los Angeles, California, USA. He is an actor and producer, known for
El inocente (2011),Infiltrado (2016) and 2 Fast 2 Furious: A todo gas 2 (2003).
- Review by Berta Sichel
Berta Sichel is a writer and a contemporary art curator, focusing on moving images.
Her book 14 Artists will be out September 2018.