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BERLINALE 2023 Panorama

Review: The Siren


- BERLINALE 2023: Iranian director Sepideh Farsi tells a compelling anti-war story by revisiting the 1980 attacks by Iraqi forces on the Iranian city of Abadan

Review: The Siren

The current struggle of Iranian women might be at the forefront of the 73rd Berlinale, but the opening film of Panorama, The Siren [+see also:
film profile
, casts its gaze a bit further back in history. Iranian-born director Sepideh Farsi recounts the siege and bombardment of the Iranian city and oil terminal of Abadan by Iraqi forces in 1980. The film not only chronicles its collapse, but also focuses on its oft-suppressed citizens: the women, the Christians and the foreigners, for instance.

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Depicted entirely through 2D animation, the attack unfolds just as 14-year-old Omid is playing football with his friends. As he is supposed to block a penalty, his gaze wanders to the sky, following a volley of rockets launched at the oil refinery. The ensuing explosion is enough to make the group disperse. Farsi makes the football field a recurring point of reference to anchor us within the progression of her story. The more the city becomes a war zone, and as hope and its citizens dwindle, the more the field will fall apart, ravaged by the aerial attacks.

While Omid is too young to join the fight, his brother Abed makes his way to the front line. His mother and younger siblings leave the city, and only Omid and his grandfather, Saleh, stay behind. “Go to the shelter if you hear the red siren,” is the final plea by his mum. But with the attacks intensifying each day, there is little time or possibility to find a safe place. And with everyone gone, Omid will have to provide for himself and his grandpa. Between training Shir Khân, his pit-fighting rooster, and working on his dead father’s bike, he takes on a job as a food delivery person, after his friend Farshid loses a leg in an attack. “You fucked up my martyrdom,” is the only response Omid gets after he and a young girl named Pari rescue him from the rubble.

Farsi carefully guides Omid through traumatising and character-shaping confrontations. After a short stint on the front to find his brother, Omid focuses less on the heroics, and more on surviving. While delivering food, he meets a colourful batch of characters: an old mechanic, two Armenian priests, a Greek photographer and a former ship’s captain. And, in a showcase of how more things usually unite two factions than separate them, a former singer named Elaheh is admired by both the men in Abadan and the Iraqi forces, and two watch-tower operators tell Omid that while both Iranians and Iraqis are watching the Japanese anime show UFO Robot Grendizer, nobody needs to be in fear of attacks.

The movie takes a specific interest in Elaheh and her daughter Pari, showcasing the effect that the Iranian Revolution had on its people just one year earlier. Omid hatches a plan to save his friends by fleeing the city on his dad’s boat into the Gulf, and he can bribe men into helping him by providing them with forbidden alcohol or saving religious artefacts. For Elaheh, however, there is nothing her country can give her any more. Once a star, she is now banned from working and spends all of her time in her house, surrounded by memorabilia. Yet the ties to this place, her memories and her roots put her at odds with the idea of fleeing.

The Siren showcases these complex feelings of desperation, identity and holding on to the past in an empathic way. There is no right or wrong way to feel about Iran, Abadan, or even Iraqis. Farsi gives them their share of screen time, too, and explores their moral standpoint on attacking civilians. The biggest takeaway is the reflection on war. “We don’t all have to fight this war. In fact, no one should,” the Iranian general tells Omid. There are no winners; only survivors and their trauma.

The Siren is a French-German-Luxembourgish-Belgian co-production staged by Les Films d'Ici, TrickStudio Lutterbeck, Special Touch Studios, Rêves d'Eau Productions, Amopix, Les Fées Spéciales, Lunanime, Katuh Studio and Bac Cinema, and is sold abroad by Wild Bunch International.

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