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Radiograph of a Family vetted. Five points that make this IDFA winner so special

Radiograph of a Family by Firouzeh Khosrovani has been awarded the IDFA Award for best feature-length documentary. In it, the Iranian-born director tells how her secular father and deeply religious mother lived under the same roof in Tehran. And how the 1979 Islamic revolution turned everything upside down. What makes this intimate family portrait so special?

One scene that particularly touched me is that of the torn photos. Khosrovani, who was seven when the revolution broke out, watched her mother search the family albums for photos showing her without a headscarf. She tore those up. After which little Firouzeh had a day's work to fish the shreds out of the rubbish and, if necessary, make them whole again with homemade drawings. It is a typical moment that shows how something very personal also takes on a much wider meaning. And says something here about the struggle between modernity and religion in Iran. This is one example.

No difference documentary and fiction

In a conversation Khosrovani had earlier during IDFA with American writer Pamela Cohn, she said she did not care much about the rules for docu or fiction. In the episode with the torn photographs, for instance, we see, in reconstruction I assume, a drawing child's hand. Even more telling are the dialogues between her father and mother, written by Khosrovani herself and voiced by actors on the soundtrack. Sometimes dredged up from a memory from her childhood, sometimes fictionalised. After all, in the first part of the film, she was not yet born.

Like, for instance, the way father wants his brand-new, religious wife to drink wine in Switzerland. Or persuades her to take off her headscarf at the photographer. Scenes that are often touching and painful at the same time. It is precisely these real-life voices that give real soul to the backdrop of family photos and appropriate archive footage. This is how it must have been, we are, as it were, there ourselves.

The child perspective

A third, subtle but striking aspect is the child's perspective. Besides the fictionalised dialogues, Khosrovani himself acts as narrator in voice-over. Largely told as if it were all a childhood memory. A memory of a child who sees everything in an uninhibited way. How mother suddenly discovers her worth after the revolution, becomes the inspired head of a school, discusses and has fun with new girlfriends and can be found less and less at home. While father, who is no longer allowed by his wife to play the piano loudly, increasingly hides under his headphones. The child perspective is a natural way to capture, without preconceived notions or stereotypes, the feeling of the time.

The room as a mirror

The fourth find is the meticulous reconstruction of the family's large, initially rather luxurious living room. As the camera slowly drives through it, like the scanner of an X-ray machine, we notice the changes before and after the revolution. A bold painting with nudity disappears. The furnishings become different and more austere as mother puts her stamp on them. The room as a stylised imprint of the zeitgeist. A regular reference point and moment of reflection in the film.

The unexpected look

In digging through the archives - both official sources and super8 material from friends - Khosrovani has deliberately sought images that are not so often seen. Several times in the process, the viewer's expectations are challenged. For example, one such shot of a speech shortly after the Islamic revolution. We hear a woman's voice passionately declaring that women are 'not a commodity' after all. So away with all that frivolous clothing and jewellery. It is almost like hearing a radical American feminist. But beware, right after that the "Death to America!" chime and American flags burn.

Equally inconsistent with our imprinted idea of the headscarf as a tool of oppression are the post-revolutionary images of masses of headscarved and enthusiastically pro-revolution women demonstrating. During the war with Iraq, we even see them participating in military training. Khosrovani's mother also joined them. It gave Firouzeh a nightmare as a child. She dreamt that mother was killed at the front. She did not dare to tell. Soon after, her aging father died. The camera glides across the room again, slowly and lovingly zooming in on a picture showing Firouzeh as a toddler lying in her father's arms. This is how she always wants to be.

Good to know Good to know
Radiograph of a Family, also winner of the Sound and Vision IDFA ReFrame Award for creative use of archive material, is still available to watch online on 3 December. Don't miss it. For other IDFA 2020 awards, see the IDFA website.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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