Note the image above. The 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo depicts a firing squad aimed and ready in Iran. After the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, former members of the Shah’s regime — and also people like homosexuals, drug offenders, and ethnic Kurds — were executed after speedy “trials” by clerics. The photo here captures some of the condemned people caught in that instance. The photographer, Jahangir Razmi, out of fear for his life remained unnamed until 2006, when a Wall Street journalist worked to help him step forward and take credit.
The impact of the photo, which appeared on the cover of many newspapers worldwide in 1979, was profound on both levels of informing the public and international policy. Now, Iranian born filmmaker and artist Bahman Tavoosi, has taken this iconic image as a spring board for a film essay that recontextualizes the photo. In A Dress Rehearsal for an Execution, Tavoosi documents the meticulous restaging of the photo, from landscape to poses, with a cast of international actors. The performers, who must pose like the photo’s subjects, are either survivors of persecution or descendants of people who lost their lives in countries like South Africa (Apartheid) and France (the Algerian War), among others.
Some of Tavoosi’s fellow countrymen have been upset by what he calls a “delocalization of the image.” Speaking over phone, the filmmaker explains the controversy, saying, “It was not welcomed at all by Iranian audiences, as a matter of fact. At a few screenings around the world, in different countries, there were big protests and demonstrations in front of the theaters. People were holding banners.
"In a few of my screenings, they were basically interrupted by people screaming because they condemned the film of reducing that kind of violent history that led to that image and other executions.”
Since 2006, Tavoosi has been working in the Canadian film industry. He currently lives in exile in Montreal but is temporarily residing in Miami working on a documentary about Bolivia. A former journalist in Iran, Tavoosi says he has many friends who have been jailed there. “I have not been back,” he says, adding, “I received communications from friends who do not recommend going back.”
One friend, who he refers to as a mentor, is the award-winning director Jafar Panahi, who despite being jailed, tortured, and ultimately punished with a 20-year ban on making movies, is still producing and releasing films. The latest of which are This is Not a Film and most recently, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi.
“My father was a film producer in Iran,” says Tavoosi. “Since we were kids, I was introduced to the film industry in Iran, and of course when I grew up, that’s the time I found my own interest in cinema and filmmaking. Through this relationship, I had the opportunity to be present at the set of a few Iranian master filmmakers, including Jafar.”
He says as inspiring as it was to see the rebirth of the Iranian New Wave in the ‘90s, it was Panahi’s work in his subversive series of non-films that had its biggest influence on him. This influence comes across in the complex idea of A Dress Rehearsal for an Execution, which captures the image but also gives it a new context to examine something more universal. Addressing the fact that instead of creating an actual still image he presents a posed image, Tavoosi explains, “The truth is that one great impression that we receive from this Pulitzer Prize winning photo is that exactly: it is a moment between life and death."
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Thus, the wavering poses of the actors and the varied facial expressions create a sort of imagistic dissonance that Tavoosi hopes the audience can understand as more than a historical document. He hopes that with this bit of mise en scène his film speaks to both the medium and the capability of what man can do as both oppressors and resistors. “When I first encountered the image, I understood it as a very strong icon of the 20th century,” he says.
“It was an iconic image that reflected — that represented — certain qualities of the spirit of the 20th century, if you may, such as resistance and revolutionism.”
A Dress Rehearsal for an Execution
Florida premiere at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Sunday, December 20, at 6 p.m. Director Bahman Tavoosi will be present to introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session. Visit mbcinema.com.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.