A Play for Freedom

A Play for Freedom


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Zahhak has snakes for shoulders, eats the young. He is a tyrant, in the classical style - literally, in the sense of appearing in the Avesta, a figure in Zoroastrianism and Iranian folklore. He is a figure of no small mythological weight, an overlord king with ophidian counsel to whisper in his ears.

A Play For Freedom is about different whispers. Iran, today, a cast of four, two women among them, touring a play. It's a pantomime caravan, a mixture of puppets and masks and a song and some dancing that becomes a smaller dance when the censors get involved. For all the colour and spectacle, it is about the eyes aboard this pantechnicon that becomes a panopticon. We are watching through Niko Apel's camera watching the audience watching the cast watching the security personnel watching Apel and the audience and the cast. Watching their words, watching the watching.

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There's a moment where we see a group of women crossing the road, struggling to get past one of those railings that have a gap wide enough to tempt but which suggest some previous effort to curtail crossings. They laugh, they joke, they clamber, it is that absurdity of human choice in conflict with town planning. It would amuse anyone who has tried to follow what are sometimes called "preference pathways".

The police roll up, and their faces change.

The mouse puppet asks "does it make any sense?", and that's the question. The answer, though thematic rather than chronological, is "we have to function", one has "to live with it". There is a discussion of putting things into the play that they know will be taken out because other things will pass undetected. To paraphrase the film in the words of GK Chesterton, "Art consists of limitation." This is a film about a play about deposing an evil king, a play performed by four young people from the back of an articulated lorry, and in those limitations it artfully portrays a particular view of Iran, or the limitations that are there imposed.

Apfel's film just watches, even surveils. The cast talk, perform, but indirectly around as the camera observes. We see much of the play, its production, but in sections at the sites, villages up in the mountains, the rig pulled up across dead-end streets, the children wide eyed and watching, the music, the motion, the appropriately-censored dancing. There are alleyway adventures, modified masks, sound systems that have seen better days and cramped recording studios, theatrical rehearsal rooms where our dramaturges paint and sew and wrangle with the constraints of the rules and stretch the limits of their tempers.

"It's not about wanting or not, you have to obey". A Play For Freedom is about what happens when that obedience is stretched, when those limitations are tested. What happens when people are watched, what happens when people being watched are watched - the shackles of state are subtle, unseen, but their influence is felt, directly, indirectly. To borrow from Chesterton again "The essence of every picture is the frame". Here the frame is one of metal and wood, a rickety frame on wheels - and the picture it carries is a small, but a fascinating one, in a frame of rules and cultural understandings.

Reviewed on: 10 Jul 2013
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Is censored art better than no art at all?

Director: Niko Apel

Year: 2012

Runtime: 76 minutes

Country: Germany


EIFF 2013

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