Gaze | The Cost of Looking
No one can deny that Iranian cinema has a unique spot in the history of world cinema. One of the main film exporters of Eastern culture for over a century, Iran, and its complex history regarding filmmaking, has been a point of discussion in art film communities for years. Divided between two opposites, Iranian cinema is comprised of films that abide by the Iranian government’s censorship and its vision of a National cinema that promotes Iran as an ideal state, and art films that criticize said regime by portraying the everyday struggles of modern-day Iran.
This critique aims at bringing social problems into the foreground, so directors focus on controversial themes such as a woman’s positions in Iran. Perhaps the first filmmaker that comes to mind is Jafar Panahi and his feature films The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006). Besides Panahi’s esteemed works, there’s a hidden gem in the Iranian short films section one should pay attention to: Farnoosh Samadi’s Gaze (2017). The short follows a woman, beautifully played by Marzieh Vafamehr, as she returns home from work on a bus at night. During this bus ride, Samadi presents a major dilemma, based on personal experience, as her protagonist witnesses a subtle robbery taking place inside the bus and tries to decide whether she will speak up or remain silent. The director herself has stated that her objective in making this film was to create “a conscious struggle in the mind of the audience” with the main question being “should we tell the truth and accept its consequences or turn a blind eye to all faults and flaws and live an easy life?”. Needless to say, Samadi succeeds as this question resounds throughout the film.
One of many creative collaborations between herself and Ali Asgari, Gaze is a story with a universal message that forces everyone to spend a few minutes in a woman’s shoes. Generally speaking, regardless of where one lives, public transportation is not the safest place for women – especially at night. Adding to that equation an angry man who seeks retribution when his crime is uncovered by the nameless protagonist, the tension becomes almost unbearable; Ashkan Ashkani’s cinematography makes sure of that, especially when a handheld shot follows the woman running toward her home and safety, the shaky images escalating the sense of urgency.
Besides creating tension visually on screen, the film manifests the protagonist’s fear on an auditory level as well. It’s remarkable, and unfortunate, how relatable the sound of footsteps on the road can be for women. And yet it is. It brings back memories of trying to discern whether they are being followed. Or memories of picking up the pace, like the protagonist does, to cover distance faster. To deepen the woman’s, and by extension the viewer’s, distress, Samadi takes a step further. As the young man follows the woman on a moped, the sound of an engine suddenly becomes a threat. Consequently, her heart jumps and so does the spectator’s several times throughout the second half of the film. It’s in these moments that the short thrives. There’s not much dialogue, but it’s not needed; Vafamehr’s facial expressions say it all. Every decision is discernible, but most of all, it’s that sigh of relief when the door closes, and she knows she made it home unscathed.
Gaze is a very powerful film that talks about the responsibility of looking. Though it’s a never-ending experience of existence for some people, which is always taken for granted when it clearly shouldn’t, it’s also a constant act of witnessing. Samadi directs and co-writes a story with Asgari of how a simple look can become a morally complex situation that can put your life in jeopardy. Be it a warning for caution or a sign for change, the film proves that the line between safe and unsafe is very thin indeed.
Ioanna Micha is a freelance copywriter based in Athens, Greece. She watches films. She reads about films. She writes about films. Generally speaking, if the word film is in the equation, she’s in.