Review: Radiograph of a Family
by Kaleem Aftab
- Firouzeh Khosrovani wins the IDFA Award for the Best Feature-length Documentary with a superb personal essay about our divided world
Radiograph of a Family, the winner of the 2020 IDFA Award for Best Feature-length Documentary (see the news), is a superb personal recollection of her parents’ marriage by Iranian director Firouzeh Khosrovani (Fest of Duty, Profession: Documentarist). The Norwegian-Swiss-Iranian co-production benefits from exquisite poetic language of such an epic scope that, despite the sadness of the tale being told, it delivers the impression of a masterwork of Persian literature.
There's formal excellence in the use of still photography on the screen that is as good as anything made by Chris Marker. These photos are interspersed with grainy archive moving images that feel like they've been unearthed from the unknown vaults of Iranian poet and director Forough Farrokhzad. Everything is exquisite and economically relays so much information. There are historical images of Iran, Switzerland, Italy, Paris and London to gawp at on a journey that keeps on surprising.
If that were not enough, the pictures are lent even more life by the accompanying magical voice-over. There are three voices. One is our narrator, director Khosrovani (actually voiced by the film’s editor, Farahnaz Sharifi), serving up her memories and recollections with a musicality and softness that’s befitting of a story made in Iran, a country that gave us Rumi and Hāfez, and where poetry is so highly valued. The other voices heard are re-enactments of conversations that her parents (voiced by Soheila Golestani and Christophe Rezai) might have had, two unlikely bedfellows thrown together when “Mother married a photo of Father”. And she means this literally.
The story is not just one of a strained May-December marriage that began when the director's father, Hossein, asked the family of her mother, Tayi, if they could complete the wedding in his absence, as his studies to become a radiologist in Switzerland meant that he could not return to Iran. Hossein had seen Tayi at a gathering and fallen instantly in love. What the Westernised Iranian couldn't bargain for was that his bride would be so orthodox in her religious outlook, and not drink the Kool-Aid that European liberal secular life is the best.
So begins a story that poignantly and with no demonisation explores differing views that seemingly polarise the world, about what kind of society or life is better. While here it's a story with Islam and the 1979 Iranian Revolution as the backdrop, it could just as easily be about the divisions so apparent in America today that were recently played out and became so apparent during the 2020 presidential election.
What's so striking is how Khosrovani tells this story from the perspective of someone with one foot in each of the two camps. Her love for both of her parents is apparent, even as the story takes some surprising turns and her docile mother becomes a warrior fighting for her world perspective to dominate, as the different global outlooks come to divide their home. It is one of those rare endings that seem both inevitable and completely surprising.
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