And, Towards Happy Alleys: Review and Analysis

And, Towards Happy Alleys, a documentary film by Sreemoyee Singh, was a dream. It is a singular, detailed, and passionate dedication to Iranian cinema – the country, culture, and, in particular, the women it portrays.

By Shona McCallum, Refugee Festival Scotland volunteer

The Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI) arranged the screening, hosted by SDI director, Flore Cosquer, and filmmaker Sreemoyee Singh. SDI celebrates, supports, and shows “independent and creative documentaries” from Scotland and beyond. This screening formed part of the Crossing the Line series, which highlights documentaries that push boundaries and reveal new, unseen understandings.

Background

And, Towards Happy Alleys, is the product of six and a half years work, “driven by curiosity and love”. The project was unfunded. The entire budget came from Sreemoyee’s own meagre PhD stipend. And it was filmed without the permission of the Iranian government – it could not have been made otherwise.

The root of the film began to grow 12 years, ago, when Sreemoyee was a 21-year-old Masters student in Kolkata. She was taking a class on world cinema, and was introduced to the masters of Iranian film – Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami, and Panahi amongst others. This initial introduction blossomed into a love story, not only with Iranian cinema but poetry, music, culture, and the people.

While researching her PhD on modern Iranian cinema, Sreemoyee travelled to Iran five times between 2015 and 2019, staying for around three months each time. She took Persian language classes in the mornings, and filmed and interviewed in the afternoons. The fruit of this labour is the mesmerising film, And, Towards Happy Alleys

For me personally, this film was very, very resonant. I connected to almost every aspect of it. Afterwards, I told Sreemoyee that it felt like it was exactly the film I wanted to see. I am very fortunate to be a student of Persian language at university.

Much like Sreemoyee, I fell in love with Persian language, music, cinema, poetry, and culture almost by accident. I was lucky enough to take the class when I started university, and have my teachers share their language and homeland with me.

This film spoke to me as a student of Persian. As an “informed outsider,” like its maker. And as someone who is constantly in awe of the people and women of Iran and its diaspora. After seeing the film, many Iranians in the audience thanked Sreemoyee:

“For not villainising or victimising us… you found a way to celebrate us which we have forgotten to do.”

And, Towards Happy Alleys, encapsulates such a perfect ‘thank you’ to, and account of, them.

The film

The film shows varied scenes of modern Tehran and its people. Sreemoyee experienced a strange déjà vu when she was there, riding on public transport and driving or walking on the streets. She had watched so many films set in the city, it was like she had been there before. The love and care with which she films, and even the colour-palette and details she focusses on, are clearly inspired by Iranian cinema and photography.

In one scene, showing yellow fields, there is a clear resemblance to the stunning scenes from Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us. This sense of wonder is clearest at the beginning of the film, when she was younger, shyer, newer to the city. As she becomes more familiar with her surroundings, as her Persian language skills and confidence grow, this observation turns to conversation and interaction.

Since the film was in a large part an academic research project, it is mostly comprised of interviews. Sreemoyee speaks with, and befriends, an impressive array of Iran’s most well-known and influential artists and activists.

Notable amongst them is Jafar Panahi, one of Iranian cinema’s most famous directors, but who is famously banned from making films. She also briefly interviewed women’s rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, a moment all the most striking because shortly afterwards Nasrin was sentenced to 38 years in prison for her work.

The vitality and value of these interviews cannot be overstated. They form an essential archive of the thoughts and lives of key figures in Iran. Figures that the Iranian government is trying it’s best to silence.

Given the current climate in Iran, the film feels even more poignant and relevant. The the Women, Life, Freedom movement formed in October 2022 in response to the violent suppression of protests triggered by the death of 22-year-old Masha Jina Amini in police custody.

Since then, the world has become more aware of the lives and struggles of Iranian women. And, Towards Happy Alleys is an account of the years which led up to this moment. The circumstances and places this frustration originated from, and the people who inspired and led this movement.

Sreemoyee herself faced many challenges and questions when making the film. Many people, most noticeably funders and producers, could not understand why she, an Indian woman, was making a film about cinema in Iran. As she aptly pointed out, the handful of white, Western, male documentary makers who have visited Iran over the years did not seem to encounter such issues:

“A person of colour cannot make a film about another country but a white man can.”

What Sreemoyee has achieved is something no Iranian, man or woman, currently could. For Sreemoyee, it was only possible because she she holds another country’s passport. Because she hid what she was doing and used her thesis as a disguise.

The oppressive Islamic Republic censors film-making, especially on the topics of politics and women. This becomes a bit of a joke in the film, as seen when Sreemoyee interviews director, Mohammed Shirvin. As he talks about why his films are considered ‘sexy’ or ‘erotic’, construction work starts up nearby. Every time he speaks about eroticism, the drill starts. When he talks about religion and hijab, the drill stops. They laugh, “he is censoring you!!” Intentional or accidental, the effect is pervasive.

Nevertheless, Sreemoyee’s work is not extractive, misinformed, or dramatized like much reporting on Iran. It has so much humour, and imperfections which show Iranians as they really are, not as media outlets would have them be.

She wanted to give a clear depiction that the Iranian people are separate from the Islamic Republic. To show the pain, joys, and idiosyncrasies of their lives. She visited ordinary places like the optician, watched football in the mall, sang with people, and spoke to them about their everyday experiences – food, their jobs, cosmetic surgery (nose jobs are very popular in Iran).

Sreemoyee learnt their language and spoke to them as they speak to one another. She became friends with the people she filmed, often singing with them. The famous song Soltane Qalba (King of My Heart) becomes the soundtrack of Sreemoyee’s Iran. Coincidentally, this was the first Persian song I learnt, too.

Singing in this way is a privilege that Sreemoyee holds as outsider, since it is illegal for women to sing in public in Iran. But people trusted her because she was an outsider and could not be working with the Iranian government.

“The film was an outcome of that trust.”

The role of women 

The role of women in And, Towards Happy Alleys, is very interesting. The persistent presence of Forugh Farrokhzad’s is a case in point. Forugh was an (in)famous Iranian poet, both adored and despised in equal measure by different segments of society.

Writing in the 1960s, Farrokhzad’s work spoke openly about sex, desire, and femininity in a way which was incredibly rich and deep. It was also controversial. Her first poetry collection was named ‘Sin’. She separated from her husband and had her son taken from her. Farrokhzad was killed in 1967, aged just 32, in a car-crash on a high-way in Tehran. “Poetry is such an intrinsic part of expression in Tehran” and Farrokhzad is their rebel poet, expressing things most women feel but cannot voice.

Sreemoyee was led to Iran, in large part, because of her love for Farrokhzad’s verse. She echoes the sentiments of Jinous Nazokkar, who reads the poet’s verse throughout the film: “From the first day, Forough made me feel like a woman.”

And, Towards Happy Alleys opens with footage of women gathered at Farrokhzad’s grave, as though she died yesterday and not over half a century ago. Sreemoyee conveyed clearly how this grave site is a sanctuary in Tehran, away from the claustrophobia of the rest of the city. The film also closes here, on the anniversary of Farrokhzad’s death, with women trying to light a candle in the rain to remember her; a moment of clear metaphor.

Farrokhzad’s verses appear throughout. In particular, Tavalode deegar/ Another Birth, Panjere/ Window and Hadeyeh/ The Gift. It is from this last poem that the film takes its name:

من از نهایت شب حرف می زنم

من از نهایت تارییکی

من از نهایت شب حرف می زنم

اگر به خانه من آمدی من ای مهربان چراغ بیاور

و یک دریچه که از آن

به ازدحام کوچه خوشبخت بنگرم

 

I speak out of the depth of night

Out of the depth of darkness I speak.

If you come to my house, friend

Bring me a lamp and a window through which

I can look at the crowd in the happy alleys

Farrokhzad’s work and life foregrounds the subtle exploration of women’s issues in Iran throughout the film. One of the most moving and memorable scenes is a close-up of writer Jinous Navzokkar’s face as she reads Panjere, tears filling her eyes. She concludes with the line: “I discovered I must, must, must love insanely.”

By documenting her conversations with friends, Sreemoyee reveals the struggles, insanities and loves Iranian women navigate. She also shows the many ways women in Iran are resisting and advocating for themselves, including footage of women taking to the streets to protest against forced veiling.

She talks to two women, who as children acted in Panahi’s films, about the success of a campaign at their workplace to loosen dress rules for women. Maede M, a writer, also discusses the pressure she receives to have cosmetic surgery on her nose, something she chooses not to do.

In what is perhaps the most joyful scene, Sreemoyee visits a girls’ school in the countryside near Tehran. The pupils, all wearing their mandated black scarves, are told to listen while she sings them a popular Persian song. The teacher warns them not to sing along. But in the final moments, the girls all join in chorus in a beautiful moment of defiance and liberation.

Hope and everyday resistance

The scenes Sreemoyee captures demonstrate that “living every day is an act of resistance” in Iran. The Islamic Republic has used legislation to grind away the morale and humanity of Iranians’ everyday lives and experiences, instilling a sense of dread. Make-up, drinking, dancing, music, and mixed gathering have all been banned. In the complicated decisions to subvert these rules, Iranians seek their freedom.

The outside world has seen photos and videos showing that many Iranians have partied, consumed alcohol, loosened their headscarves, and listened to western music. Unseen in these frames is the constant anxiety these lifestyle choices produce”

Mahsa Rouhi – Women Life Freedom In Iran’, Survival: Global Policy and Strategy Vol. 46 Issue.6 2022

What struck Sreemoyee most about Iranian films when she first watched them, was the sense of hope. “These films spoke of hope despite being made under an obsessive, totalitarian regime.” She; “wanted to go and find out where this hope emanated from.”

There is much cause for despair in Iran. Much pain and difficulty, both for those in the country, and those who have left it behind.

Mohammed Shirvin worries that Iran is like a dried-up plant, that there is no point in watering it anymore. He apologises: “Did I speak too much about hopelessness?” And then he goes back to making his film.

Sreemoyee shows that choosing to hope is not easy. The outcome is not guaranteed. Many people feel weak and beleaguered. They struggle to continue resisting and creating.

She also provides an essential reminder that we, as outsiders, must not place the burden of resilience on Iranians without being willing to carry it alongside them. We must continue to support them, uplift them, and listen to the stories they have to tell.

Sreemoyee sang for us several times after the screening, in Persian, Hindi, and Bengali. One beautiful Persian song was an interpolation of Forugh’s poem, Dar Khamooshihaye Sahel/ In the Silences of the Beach:

“چه رویای، چه رویای”

“What a dream, what a dream”

It really was.

 

The quotes used throughout this article are taken from the film and the Q&A that proceeded it.

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