Siyamo The Black-haired Girl

Mahmoud Reza Sani.

Iran 2002, 27min.

Shot entirely with a small digital camera, the film follows its director’s quest through Afghanistan, looking for a black-haired girl named Siyamo, who he has seen in a dream. Some of the people he meets are sympathetic, and one aged mystic seems to think that he can help him. But most of the people he speaks with are vaguely amused, not sure whether this eccentric foreigner is crazy or just playing some sort of game.

The viewer is not too sure either. Parts of the film feel staged or acted out, but there are other moments that seem unmistakably documentary. At one point, when Reza Sani is taking some images of a ruined graveyard, a young man comes up to him and gets quite angry for his presumed lack of respect for the dead. A sequence where he sits around drinking tea with men in a gun shop is also clearly un-staged and has the effect of making the entire project seem peculiar and off-kilter. But the closing sequence when he meets a burqa-clad young woman, who first says she is Siyamo and then says she was only joking, is clearly staged. But it hardly matters. The film’s final image when the young woman lifts up her burqa to show her face and the film image freezes just as it billows up, her face remaining hidden, is quite lovely, effortlessly transcending any questions about narrative vs. reality.

Despite the film’s story of a quest through Afghanistan, it seems clear that Reza Sani’s most direct influence is not Moshen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar (2001), but Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up (1990). That second film is, like Siyamo, more or less a documentary (it was, after all, included in the pantheon of DOX #50), and yet that’s a classification that seems somehow inadequate. I suppose that’s also true of a Makhmalbaf film like A Moment of Innocence (1996) or Salaam Cinema! (1995). But the lightweight digital camera allows Reza Sani greater freedom than either one of his mentors ever had, and he surely makes good use of that, giving the entire film a restless, nomadic feel.

This film is, then, part of the next step for Iranian cinema. It takes the formal and thematic elements that have made Iran such a hotbed of exciting work in film, and mixes them with the digital technology that is transforming image-making all over the world.