Run, Tadai, Run
Iranian teen sprints for freedom in 'The Girl in the Sneakers'
WATCHING the new wave of Iranian films, I'm usually overcome with a sense of nostalgia, which is strange because I've never been to Iran. But it all began to make sense after I watched the latest import, The Girl in the Sneakers.
There's an evening shot of a traffic artery congested with cars. Suddenly it occurred to me: the heavy smog, the dismal light, the shoddy offices, and the crowded traffic of Tehran all mirrored a particularly ugly stretch of Los Angeles's Wilshire Boulevard that I used to ride the bus through in 1973.
The depressed nostalgia got harder to shake, thanks to Iraj Panahi's music (Francis Lai- style electric piano) and the opening scenes of a boy and a girl walking in a city park discussing Carlos Castaneda. The boy is temporarily fascinated with the idea of being able to fly away like Castaneda's sorcerer, Don Juan; he tells his teasing, bratty girlfriend, Tadai (Pegah Ahangarani), that he's ready to leave Iran and see the world--with her by his side, of course.
This gentle scene is busted up by the police. They suspect that the teens might have been having unlawful carnal knowledge. As the law requires, the cops haul Tadai away to have a pelvic exam (off screen) to make sure her virginity is intact. She's still a hymen-bearer, so the cops let her off with a warning. And her parents give her a good yelling at.
Director Rassul Sadr Ameli saves the scene from melodrama by putting the camera in the next room, where we overhear the argument along with Tadai's little brother, who is restlessly watching TV and trying to tune out the noise of his furious parents.
Planning a rebellion, Tadai cuts school the next day and walks the streets trying to use a series of pay phones to call her boyfriend. The story of a city wanderer is the easiest and most successful way to make a neo-realist film. Tadai has adventures; she tangles with an amusingly surly waiter at a hotel restaurant--Basil Fawlty's Farsi cousin--and entertains herself telling lies to some old ladies on the bus.
At night, when single girls on the street are all considered whores, Tadai becomes a fugitive, hooking up with a tribeswoman (Kurdish?). She takes Tadai back to her camp, a post-apocalyptic dump-side squat alive with predatory men.
The Girl in the Sneakers is very compelling, but it has two flaws. The first is that Ahangarani is an uneven actress, occasionally coy and forced in the role. The second is that director Ameli sometimes plays this story both ways. He officially describes his film as concerning "the subjective preoccupations of a number of the young people in our society."
This cautious language befits a director working through five different levels of Iranian film censorship. But would it have mitigated things if Tadai's parents had been more kind to the girl after the state pulled down her pants?
This film could comfort some watchers who think that the problem is that Tadai, with her affection for the Backstreet Boys, should have been guided into submission more tactfully by her parents. Some also could be comforted that The Girl in the Sneakers is a warning to youth of the evil gypsy tribesmen waiting to help themselves to unescorted young girls.
Still, the closing shot at the end of Tadai's run is a moment rich with implicit protest, encouraging the free to cherish their freedom and encouraging the enslaved to fight for their lives--a strong message in an increasingly moderate nation trying to shake off the shackles of fundamentalist rule.
'The Girl in the Sneakers' opens Friday, June 29, at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. For details, see , or call 415/454-1222.
From the June 28-July 4, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.