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Berlinale 2023 — The Siren’s Call

The Siren (Sepideh Farsi, 2023)


Sepideh Farsi’s The Siren glances back over four decades at a violent and momentous time: the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, which extended to the end of the decade and took 1.5 million lives. Shortly following the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah in early 1979, this war, according to the filmmaker, significantly changed the fate of the Revolution and blunted its outcome. The Siren is a political animation with a precocious 14-year old protagonist that recalls several films of similar style on somewhat related subjects—Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2007), Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s much more recent Flee (2021). Teenage Omid is, in the given context, old enough to fight—though one authoritative character loudly states that boys his age shouldn’t be on the front—but stays behind to look after his grandfather. Left among the last inhabitants of war-threatened Abadan, he observes the undocumented changes happening in the city by the Persian Gulf. His new home front employment, riding an inherited motorcycle to deliver food to sheltered Abadanis, grants him a better view of the coming danger. Further, while life in the city becomes, mid-film, pared down to waiting for a hot meal and hoping that bombs will fall farther away, the tide turns, quite literally, toward adventure: as the siege intensifies, Omid and his new acquaintances prepare to leave the city by boat.

Farsi and writer Javad Djavahery were teenagers living in the same city at the outbreak of the war and, while they consulted numerous stories about the same events, they decided to draw generously on their own experiences. Channeling the freedom and shape-shifting afforded by the medium, The Siren has frequent tonal shifts from terrific depiction of the siege of Abadan, to surrealist passages in which Omid imagines himself on his missing father’s boat facing the sea, to pastiches of Iranian pop culture that the freshly established Islamic republic was in the process of erasing. Omid is young enough not to be judgmental and old enough to be puzzled by the characters he encounters: the stealthy fighters defending Abadan, the cat-nurturing engineer, his slightly older friend who dodges the draft to support his family and then repeatedly complains Omid ruined his martyrdom—by saving his life. There are several mavericks in the film, including a photographer whose style seems incompatible with the post-revolutionary iconography (not to mention that he lost his supplies to the war effort), or newly marginalized characters like the world-weary diva Elaheh and her young, strong-willed daughter. Armenian priests, too, lend a helping hand to Omid when he prepares to get the lenj fixed to sail away. These silhouettes are often seen from a distance and partly mystified by a teenager’s (in)comprehension—either very manly, or very feminine, eerily berobed or plainly eccentric as adults tend to be, looming large over their visitor who’s often caught off-guard—and yet they provide anchors of sorts in the constantly altering skyline of a city under siege. The Siren plays out like a war film with no enemy, in the sense that the collective effort to gather and save the remaining inhabitants of Abadan is its dominant focus, in the process allowing us a glimpse into a society that underwent drastic and rapid changes.

I talked to Sepideh Farsi at the Berlin International Film Festival, shortly after the world premiere of the film, to inquire how the centrifugal references of The Siren weighed, in her view of the film. Given her view of how the war influenced the decades to come, she set out to avoid convenient, propaganda-friendly war film clichés—where soldiers are all good and idealized, then they get killed and their mothers mourn them, and nobody is of a different mind. This unity in grief, fairly common in war films globally, served to stifle the diversity of voices and causes initially aligned by their support for the Revolution. “In the beginning of the war, many people who were not believers in the regime went to war to defend the country, but they were all erased”, Farsi noted, detailing how the regime took control of representing the eight-year war and marginalizing leftists, for instance. “After two years Iran had taken back all the territories but they continued the war until the country was shattered. They wanted to push back dissidents.” Farsi’s account of Iran in the early 1980s, where she had spent a year in prison while still a teenager, is that of an initially permissive society that went suddenly stricter circa 1982, when upon her release she found herself in a different world.

Since Elaheh’s character hints at an age that had just ended in Iran—of famous singers with Western-style appearance and Filmfarsi pictures that would no longer be publicly screened after the Pahlavi era—I asked the filmmaker what these references signify to her. “I did want to give glimpses to the same part of popular culture in Iran which, even now, 44 years after the Revolution, is still influenced by Filmfarsi and songs like the one you hear playing in the car. These elements are very important for Iranians. We traced a lot of hints and clues to address different layers of popular culture.” Farsi further hints that, especially in a war between neighboring countries, it is quite ironic that enemies in battle share a great deal of popular culture. (In the film, an enemy soldier holds fire when recognizing Elaheh.) The filmmaker recalls with amusement the anecdote about Googoosh—a singer, whose performance was banned post-1979 and could only leave the country in 2000—that served among the inspirations for Elaheh: when a Tajik delegation met Iranian officials, the first question they wanted to ask was about the diva.

The film often uses the timeframe of the emerging war to hint at its immediate past, and so, especially since it is set in Abadan, it unavoidably recalls the Cinema Rex fire, where hundreds of spectators were locked in while watching Masoud Kimiai’s tough-guy film The Deer (1974). Farsi recalls the unfolding of the shocking event and its then-controversial causes: “Because that film was considered dissident or somehow critical to the Shah, it was blamed on the Shah’s regime, and this was one of the major blows they got before they left Iran. Years later we discovered that the fire was set by the mullahs. They had decided that this is necessary for the Revolution to happen, and it did happen, and they didn’t care about the 400 people burned alive.” Naturally, she supports the protests that erupted in 2022, one wave even sparked by the mishandled collapse of an Abadan tower that, to her, betrays the callousness of the regime.

Curiously, The Siren might be one of the rare Iranian-set war films to travel through the festival circuit, where Iranian cinema usually equals humanist, self-reflexive or formally provocative works. To Iranian audiences, the local war film is a familiar genre, while not the most politically inquisitive one, and the Iran-Iraq war is not alone in eliciting much subsequent silver-screen mythicization. Even Iran’s more recent involvement in Syria had its fitting over cinematic tropes— see, for instance, Ebrahim Hatamikia’s Damascus Time (2018). At the opposite end of the pop culture spectrum to the heroic men of movies is the ad hoc team of misfits, and it is clear in The Siren that the lenj reunites essentially divergent individuals.