IRAN: A severe critique of the Muslim model of a family from within, and subtle analysis of patriarchy and authoritarianism
Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher. Regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: October 30, 2019

This film, directed by Nasser Zamiri who is known as one of the most successful short filmmakers in Iran, is an excellent study of authoritarianism. It has two equally important qualities: one is a deep respect for the victims and their suffering; the other is the courage to face the autocrat and give him every possibility to present and defend himself. That the dictator demonstrates no need for defense and is thus denying any guilt and responsibility is probably the key feature of authoritarianism. The brilliance by which the filmmaker makes this gradually visible is breathtaking.

Absolute power

Family Relations is no observational documentary. The scenes are well studied and prepared, and, in addition, reworked in post-production: from the very start, the protagonists enter and exit the field of vision in an instant, as if transported by an invisible hand. This creates a dream-like atmosphere in which everything seems far from the real. As the film unfolds, we understand there is good reason for this. It very well describes a society in which a group of people – grown-up men – treat other members of society – children and women – with the lightness of a cartoon: having absolute power over their existence, they «enter» and «exit» their subjects as they please. Most probably, this also well represents the lightness by which these men experience the world they live in, their relations with others, and their responsibilities; but, what about all other members of such society – women and children, the victims?

The voice of the devil

In this film, they are invited to speak. The worlds have a particularly important role from the very start when the protagonists rapidly fill-up the screen, then the voice (presumably) of the director tells those who do not want to be in the film to leave. Many of them do. In addition, the words have a form of a dialogue. For each mention of the man’s cruelty, another voice responds in wonder, «Haji Baba? » Even Haji Baba himself, this despotic, autocratic, ruthless husband and father gets to speak. After hearing the testimonies of his victims, he denies everything with a soft childlike voice resembling the voice of the devil in the films about exorcism.

Family Relations is no observational documentary.

While the rhythmic repetition of the name in response to the brutalities resembles a dramatic performance in an Ancient Greek theatre, the scene in which Haji Baba tries, in vain, to pronounce the name Hitler is very close to stand-up comedy. Yes, there are several moments when one is invited to question if it is what it claims to be. The end leaves no doubt, but let’s not reveal how it does. In the scene with Hitler, one thing is already clear. It’s not the point if the dictator does not want to, or cannot, properly pronounce the word. The point is, the authoritarian is always right. This, probably, is one of the most reliable ways to recognise an authoritarian regime. In these terms, the film is very self-reflective. Somewhere towards its middle, we learn that when Haji Baba got ill, his children, the same children he abused, went searching for a cure and finally learned that he is depressed because he lost authority as they grew up. So they started faking that he still has the authority over them. By doing this, they helped him recover – a deeply political, allegorical criticism of its country of origin, but not limited to it.

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