his darkly surreal imagery and his penchant for destroying his own work, there
is definitely something Kafkaesque about the late Iranian expatriate artist
Bahman Mohasses. For years he had removed himself from the world. Yet, he was
ready, perhaps even eager to talk when Mitra Farahani tracked him down for her
documentary profile, Fifi Howls from
screens during the 51st New York Film Festival.
is clearly out of step with the current Islamist regime in Iran. It seems his large scale nude statues were
not compatible with the post-Revolutionary standards of “decency.” He also happened to be gay, but in a defiantly
politically incorrect way (marriage was not exactly a priority for him). However, his first extended period of
self-imposed exile began shortly after the Shah’s ascendency.
Mohassess returned to his homeland, where the Shah’s wife became one of his
leading patrons. A far cry from a fundamentalist, Mohassess still gave the
Islamic Revolution a fair chance, but eventually tired of the gauche scene. Before he left, Mohassess destroyed a
significant portion of his oeuvre, taking only a few pieces with him (most
notably including the painting that supplies the title of Farahani’s film).
one hand, Mohassess’s actions echo the existential self-negation of a
Dostoyevsky character, yet at other times one suspects it is all a calculated
attempt to create mystique. It almost seems
like Mohassess has been waiting for someone like Farahani to take his
bait. Regardless, she develops a
considerable rapport with the artist, but never sounds nauseatingly fawning.
not quite deleted from Iranian history books, Mohassess’s place in the nation’s
collective consciousness is decidedly ambiguous, which makes Fifi a valuable cinematic record. Clearly, there are still Mohassess
collectors, like Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh, prominent Iranian artist-brothers
working in Dubai. Through Farahani, they
visit Mohassess to commission what may or may not be his last great artistic
Fifi is almost entirely shot in
Mohassess’s residential hotel, the film is visually somewhat static. Still, it
is fascinating to see the stills of his work, accompanied by his artist
commentary, especially considering most of said pieces no longer survive. Farahani
cleverly incorporates her subject’s unsolicited directorial advice, ironically
following it to the letter. Her extended allusions to Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece and Visconti’s The Leopard are also add literary flair.
Indeed, Farahani earns great credit for working
with and around Fifi’s inherent
limitations. Mohassess is a difficult subject, who never sounds like he is
really “for” anything or anyone, not even himself. Yet, Farahani does him
justice, convincing the audience he is an odd character to visit, but one well
worth saving from the memory hole.
Recommended for connoisseurs of art documentaries and Mohassess’s work, Fifi Howls from Happiness screens tomorrow
(9/28) and Tuesday (10/1) at the Gilman Theater as part of the Motion Portraits
section of the 2013 NYFF.
Labels: Bahman Mohassess, Documentary, NYFF '13