TEHRAN: Six years in the life of an adolescent crime gang that breaks into cars in the streets of Tehran.
A film in which we see real crimes committed without the intervention of the police might in itself be enough of a reason to catch our interest, but 20th Circuit Suspects has several other attention-grabbers: one of the crime victims is the filmmaker Hesam Eslami himself; the filmmaker becomes personally involved in the lives of the criminals; and the illicit events take place in Iran, a country not known for allowing the outside world to observe the underside of its society.
The main protagonist of the film is Eshan, the leader of a gang of young thieves, whose relationship with Eslam begins after the filmmaker catches him breaking into his car. Eslami follows Eshan and his gang over the course of 6 years, during which time Eshan has several run- ins with the police, serves jail time and, with fatherly help from a devoted NGO youth worker – and encouragement from Eslami — eventually is rehabilitated, marries and starts a family. Along the way Eslami and Eshan also become close friends.
Each part of this film journey raises thought-provoking issues, both through what the filmmaker shows and what he ignores.
The most controversial question is the extent to which filmmakers can remain neutral bystanders without an obligation to intervene in the events happening around them. In the film, Eslami fails to report to the police the crimes he is witnessing – mainly the gang breaking into cars in order to steal radios and car speakers, and the wanton vandalism of billboards and other property. Did Eslami act in an ethical way?
This is a familiar debating point often raised when journalists and filmmakers return from a battlefield or other violent venue with footage of the wounded and dying. In some cases, professional dedication is valued, as for example when Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici kept on taking pictures while the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in an Ankara art gallery in 2016. Even though Ozbilici arguably could have immediately stopped working and either run to assist the victim or summoned the police, he kept on taking pictures. Yet in this case the result was widespread recognition for his perseverance, with one of his photos actually winning him the Photo of the Year prize in the 2017 World Press Photo contest.
Eslami, in a press interview, when asked about his non-intervention in the crimes of the gang, argues that he didn’t think that he could have influenced the gang’s delinquent behavior at that stage and implies that he was not there to do the job of the police. It is certainly to Eslami’s credit that the relationship he builds with the gang has a positive effect, but one wonders what would have happened if things would have turned out differently and Eshan wasn’t able to turn his life around. Not only would Eslami not have been able to create a worthwhile film, but his inaction would have amounted to mere complicity.
Another intriguing aspect of the film, is the inside look it provides of a nation that is largely cut off from much of the rest of the world. That isolation was underscored when filmmaker Eslami, in remarks read to the audience at the international premiere of 20th Circuit Suspects at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto in April, pointed out that he was denied a visa to attend the festival. Yet paradoxically, one of the most striking aspects of the film is the familiarity of the scenery and lifestyles on display – the cars that are vandalized are the same cars that are in the streets of Paris and Los Angeles, the houses the hoodlums live in could just as easily be homes in lower middle-class parts of France or California, and the way the teenagers grease their hair and choose their hairstyles is similarly universal. In addition, the Iranian NGO depicted working with Eshan and other wayward youth, which is led by a very sympathetic youth worker, also seems comparable to social welfare institutions just about anywhere.
But at the same time, noticeably absent is any depiction of the Iranian justice system, the conditions of the prison cells or treatment by police, or any critical mention of the socio-economic conditions that may have led the delinquent youth astray. Eslami allows us to penetrate deeply into the heart of his subjects but his camera keeps a narrow focus. It’s a look at life in Iran indeed but ultimately through a tiny peephole.
The limitation of storytelling that is humanistic yet lacks criticism of the wider society is also apparent in the feature films that one sees coming out of Iran, including the works of Academy-Award winning director Asghar Farhadi, and consequently should come as no surprise.
Still, 20th Circuit Suspects is well worth seeing. Watching the main character Eshan literally grow in front of the camera during the 6 years of filming — from a cocky teenager to the maturity of a young man – is a remarkable viewing experience.
In Iran, Eslami’s steadfastness has paid off and earned him several awards in local film festivals. The film can also be expected to do well outside Iran – and one can only hope that the next time 20th Circuit Suspects is screened at a foreign festival, Eslami will be able to get a visa to attend.