The winner of this year’s IDFA edition is a feature documentary telling the intimate story of the director’s parents – their marriage coming together, then falling apart along the lines of the irreconcilable divide between secular and religious values. A deeply personal film, Radiograph of a Family intertwines the private with history of the social and political shifts that lead to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, illustrating the dangers and hurt potential hidden behind conflicting worldviews.
Born in Tehran, Firouzeh Khosrovani was, in a sense, the result of the meeting of two opposite worlds. Her father, Hossein, was a secular and Westernized man. When she was born, he dreamed she would live a life in close touch with European values and culture. Highly educated, he enjoyed classical music, art and nights with friends. At the opposite end, her mother, Tayi, was a devout Muslim, who found her husband’s preoccupations and lifestyle sinful. And she tolerated them until she didn’t anymore.
After their marriage – a celebration Hossein could not attend because he was studying radiology in Switzerland and could not travel at the time – the mother joined him in his adoptive country. But her husband’s hopes of her finding new meaning in this new culture proved futile. And even though, at his request, she stopped wearing her veil for a while, she only tried to cope and please her husband, as a temporary adjustment to a life she never understood. She never felt at home there and was most happy to leave once she became pregnant.
Through images, photos, and enactments, Khosrovani narrates the life of a couple that tried to make things work but was bound to fail. At its core, their story is one of identity, and of all the attachments and understandings that make one’s intimate compass in life, an inner universe that can be partially altered but never truly changed. As this inner universe is profoundly linked to the direct ways in which a person understands who they are in the world, it is also essential for their sense of belonging and home. What for Hossein was home, for Tayi was only temporary. The life that made him feel alive and gave him purpose – his studies, friends and ski trips – was for her empty, an episode before returning home to Tehran and starting their real life.
Through images, photos, and enactments, Khosrovani narrates the life of a couple that tried to make things work but was bound to fail.
The two entered each other’s lives only as visitors. Their marriage was an attempt to meld the in-between, a rift too wide to bridge. Telling this on the screen is a personal endeavour that ultimately gives dimension to the rift separating society’s secular and the devout. The family was built on cracks, the same deep cracks found in the Iranian society of the time.
Premises of implosion
The premises of the implosion were there for a while, waiting for the right time. The juxtaposing of the two sides of an Iranian society separated by lifestyle and beliefs makes it seem like there were two countries; one a negation of the other. The film also won the IDFA Award for creative use of archive, not only for the way it uses family archive but also for the way it makes the dramatic social and political shifts of the country tangible, waiving family visuals with those portraying the country at the time.
There is a before and after in Iranian history, just as there is a before and after in Hossein and Tayi’s marriage. As the path towards the revolution gained momentum, and Tayi got more and more involved in the developments leading to it, the balance between her and Hossein switched. From an obedient wife that reluctantly submitted to her husband’s wants, Tayi turns into an activist, finding her religious values echoed more and more throughout the entire country. As her world expands and gains more power, Hossein’s shrinks, not only in society but also in his own home. Just as he loses ground, a secular Iran loses ground in front of the religious state that soon takes over. The family and the country’s equilibrium was only temporary and more fragile than each of the parts could have guessed, an unavoidable crash in the making from the very start.
Beyond the powerful personal story, Radiograph of a Family is perhaps a lesson in the limitations of human tolerance and understanding and on how deep identity and fundamental values can sometimes cut. A lesson on how balance takes continuous effort and the will to understand the other side because once lost, life as we know it – both in society and in the family – will fall apart.
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