Elevate Difference

Utopia and Epitaph

Utopia and Epitaph aren’t quite what documentaries are supposed to be, but, surprisingly, that’s a very good thing. In most documentaries, there’s narration and context, exposition and editorializing. The filmmaker boxes the viewer in with a comfy explanation of why “this” matters, and guides him or her on the sort of journey of other people’s lives that allows the interested, yet uninvolved, tourist’s view of the world. In the end, the way documentaries are “supposed” to be offers us an opportunity to improve ourselves, enrich ourselves, or do some other wonderfully important thing for, to, or about ourselves. In Utopia and _Epitaph, _Moslem Mansouri makes that all-important distance impossible and we and our “selves” are lost. There is only the subject—the people for whom these films are supposed to speak.

In Utopia, we meet Iran’s internal refugees who fled their homes due to what is simply referred to as “this war,”—the war between Iran and Iraq—and took up residence in the abandoned homes of those who had fled the country altogether. We know this small bit of context, the identity of the war to which the film refers and the source of the suffering we are to witness, only through a brief snippet of white words on a black screen at the beginning of the film. The same sort of opening introduces Epitaph, which examines the world of prostitution in a country where a woman can be stoned to death for sexual offenses, but self-declared holy men have no compunction against making use of their services.

From the first human face on screen to the last, both films are comprised solely of the voices of the desperate, their words often horrific and at times, astoundingly poetic. The same refrains echo through both films, despite the very different experiences of the two groups. Whether prostitute or refugee, adult or child, each person reveals the monster created by the twisted nightmare imposed by the Ayatollah and his henchman.

Over and over again, they speak of the crimes and offenses they have committed, or would commit, or imagine they must commit just to survive. They pray for death, or simply for never having existed in the first place. They mourn the potential within them that has been stripped away by law and circumstance, even if that circumstance is just being female in a world where children get married and educated women turn to prostitution rather than be some cleric’s cheap mistress. They curse their country’s political and “moral” leaders and the oppressive rules about gender and sex that diminish men, women and life itself. They dare to proclaim what they wish they could say to them, or what they have, in a few cases, had the courage to say to them about the failures, the hypocrisy and the lies. “If this is religion they are practicing,” they say, one after another. If this is religion, we want no part in it.

Neither film offers the viewer an out. There is no phone number to call, no foundation to contact, no address for donations. There is nothing to help us feel better for having done something, just the knowledge of suffering a world away. Watch them anyway.

Written by: Melinda Barton, June 9th 2009