Iran is a country of 75 million people. That’s quite a lot of people. Yet, when we watch the news it’s easy to assume that everyone’s views are represented by just one or two of their leaders. For example, in the UK last week viewers of Question Time saw right-wing columnist Melanie Philips declare Iran needed to be “neutralised”. Of course Iran is a much more complex country than such tirades suggest, something beautifully depicted in films like A Play for Freedom.
The film opens with the tale of an evil King who is feeding his subject’s children to snakes. Thankfully a hero is on hand to fight the King, but he can only do it if the people “rise up” and join him.
You do not have to have a masters in literature to work out the subtext here.
The legend described in the opening scenes is the one four actors wish to perform as part of a traveling tour, their form of transport doubling up as their stage. However, they have one fairly major problem in their way, censorship. Will the play get the government approval it needs to be performed around Iran, and if it does will it be watered down so much as to lose the message at the heart of the story?
The opening act of the film sees the problems the actors have in putting on the play they way they want it. One member threatens to walk out after having her main scene cut from the play. Is it because of its message, or because she is a woman? It is unclear which of the two the censors have more of a problem with.
As the film also explores the wider issue of censorship, the play’s writer/director states he believes it is actually a boost to creativity. Regardless of the truth in that statement, you can see how it does make the actors a lot more determined and motivated. Censorship, despite its downsides, unwittingly confirms the power of plays, films, books, and so on to deliver messages in a way that scares those it could be criticising.
This is a power seen through out the rest of the film. As the show goes on the road, there is a real buzz and excitement to how primary age children (and their adult teachers) react to the play. They are engrossed, cheering and clapping through out the performance. Crowds of children come up to the performers afterwards for their autographs, these “big-star” actors from the nation’s capital city.
Of course once the excitement dies down, there comes the inevitable questioning of whether the few hours they have with these children are actually making any difference to their lives? One of the female actors in particular is very open about the influence she would like to have on young girls. She grew up being told to “sit in a certain way” and “laugh in a certain way” and hopes she can inspire the next generation to be more independent and free-thinking than she was growing up.
Through out the film the director, Niko Apel, often shows us the reaction of the children to watching the play which reminded me of Ten Minutes Older, one of the films featured in Mark Cousin’s A Story of Children and Film. In doing so he magnificently captures something of the magic and transformative quality of the arts to take us to places we could never go otherwise.
A Play for Freedom then delivers a fascinating insight into the challenges and triumphs of the arts scene in Iran at the moment, as well as a look at some of the issues in wider society, in terms of feminism and so on. A hopeful, but not sentimental, portrait that is well worth seeking out.