When introducing the 2014 Brisbane Asia Pacific Festival, my largely optimistic take briefly pondered “will anyone actually turn up?” before concluding, basically, “who cares.” Fast-forward a year or so later and I have to adjust that answer slightly; as I noted in my Queensland Film Festival piece argued that “sometimes, the atmosphere of the film festival – the buzz in the air, the hum of animated conversation – is as important as the films themselves.”
That atmosphere was largely absent from last year’s BAPFF; even the well-attended opening night felt like a let-down when it commenced with an underwhelming screening of The Crow’s Egg. The culprit here wasn’t the festival organisers, however, who put together a formidable program within a truncated timespan, but Screen Queensland, who abruptly cancelled BIFF and replaced it with BAPFF with insufficient time for a proper marketing campaign to be mounted.
Thankfully, this year things are different, which bodes well for festival attendance and atmosphere alike. While BAPFF’s program announcement isn’t due until late October, they’ve been able to roll out the marketing much earlier this year, starting with four ‘preview’ screenings in the lead up to the festival proper. The first of those was Friday night’s screening of Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Tales, which – despite having played at both Sydney and Melbourne film festival – attracted an enthusiastic sold-out audience. (I even had someone offer $100 for my plus-one, which is a stark contrast to the underpopulated theatres of 2014 BAPFF!) That ‘festival atmosphere’ was well and truly in the air, and I’m optimistic that audiences will be equally interested in the full festival later in the year.
So what about the film? Tales (aka Ghesse-ha) presents an inter-locking sequence of diverse stories centred on working-class Iranians, many of whom are – as explained by Dr Anne Démy-Geroe before the film began – taken directly from Bani-Etemad’s earlier films. Rather than the trite ‘everything is connected’ pablum of films like Babel that render realistic tales implausible through a series of coincidences, Bani-Etemad instead elevates its fictional framework to something true. Her characters drift through each other’s lives gracefully, without the artificial machinations of an underlying narrative framework pushing them together.
Tales demonstrates an admirable command of tone, deftly juggling its characters through a series of gruelling trials: unfeeling bureaucracy, abusive men and drug addiction all feature prominently. But don’t mistake this for a social-realist slog; the brief tales collected here frequently defy expectations, surprising the audience by shifting from tragedy into laugh-inducing satire …or vice versa. This is thanks in large part to a talented cast doing exceptional work, with Peyman Moaadi and Mohammadreza Forootan the clear stand-outs, each playing a taxi driver of a sort. (The taxi, of course, serving as a resonant symbol within Iranian cinema, from Taste of Cherry to [Tehran] Taxi.)
Tales’ tales never coalesce narratively, but taken in toto they produce an emotionally-compelling portrait of modern Iran. Maybe every story isn’t as strong as the last, but it’s much the same in film festivals, after all. Not every film – or every story – needs to be masterpiece. It’s the overall effect that matters.