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“Iranian Voices”

At the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center Nov. 22 to Dec. 20

Imagine one of those Frederick Wiseman documentaries that immerse themselves in some institution, coolly observing its every failing—except that instead of revealing yet another of society’s hells, this film discovers heaven. That’s what happens in French documentarian Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and to Have, an unexpectedly charming account of a one-room schoolhouse in St.-Etienne-sur-Usson, a small mountain town in the Auvergne region.

Childhood is not paradise, of course. The 13 students, ages 4 to 11, all under the supervision of veteran teacher Georges Lopez, sometimes get in fights, worry about graduating to the regional middle school, and stumble in conjugating French verbs (especially the irregular ones in the film’s title). The kids’ parents, most of them farmers, are not especially sympathetic or helpful, and life in the region is hard. The film opens with cows in a snowstorm, and the village appears to be one of those places where winter loosens its grip for only a few months a year.

In France, To Be and to Have was a surprise box-office hit for Philibert, who’s been making documentaries for 25 years. (His La Ville Louvre and Animals screened earlier this month at the National Gallery of Art.) Like residents of most industrialized countries, the French have a soft spot for accounts of their still-rustic compatriots. Yet the film itself is no softer than Lopez, a stern if unthreatening authority figure. The son of a Catalan-speaking migrant worker and his French wife, the 55-year-old teacher manages to embody tradition while embracing change: One of his youngest charges, who bears the utterly French name of Marie-Elisabeth, is of Vietnamese descent.

Empathetic without being demonstrative, Lopez patiently guides his students toward well-rounded lives. The older children must take dictation from classic texts, a mainstay of traditional French schooling, but picnics, coloring, crêpe-making, and caring for the classroom turtles are also on the agenda. The teacher approaches every sort of lesson with equal gravity. When one of the kindergarten-age kids wants to go to recess without having finished coloring a picture, Lopez simply reminds him, “You promised.”

Shot over the course of seven months with a three-person crew, To Be and to Have was culled from 600 hours of film, yet in 104 minutes can’t offer a complete picture of this one classroom. The movie doesn’t fully explain how Lopez engages his class’s three different age groups—each seated at a separate table—and it tends to make the school look a little more old-fashioned than it is. (We see kids use a photocopier, for example, but not the school’s computers.) Philibert remains unobtrusive when the kids are around, but the documentary is not strictly cinéma vérité: The director’s voice can be heard during a brief interview that provides most of what we’re told about Lopez’s background. The teacher, always involved in some quiet task, gardens while he talks.

After 35 years on the job, Lopez had almost qualified for retirement when the film was shot, so To Be and to Have could be seen as elegy for France’s vanishing rural life and its attendant virtues. Even the most chauvinistic French viewer, however, must suspect that few of the country’s one-room schoolhouses have such a skillful, even-tempered steward. Indeed, it turns out that Philibert, who admits he hated school himself, visited more than 100 classrooms before selecting Lopez’s. In doing so, he demonstrated the cardinal skill of the documentarian: setting up the camera in the right place.

Most educated women would probably prefer to live in L.A. than Tehran, yet the latter city seems to have more notable female film directors per capita. “Iranian Voices,” a 15-film series beginning this weekend at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, includes a documentary, Iranian Women Filmmakers (Nov. 23), that spotlights the work of Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Samira Makhmalbaf, Tahmineh Milani, and others. The program also features five movies by Bani-Etemad, including Under the Skin of the City (Nov. 22) and Nargess (Nov. 23), which have shown several times before in the area, and The May Lady (Dec. 13 and 14), which was unavailable for preview.

Whereas Milani concentrates on educated, upscale women, Bani-Etemad favors the dispossessed. That preference, combined with her taste for melodrama, yields films that may seem exotic at first but usually end much like Warner Bros. problem dramas of the ’30s. In The Blue-Veiled (Nov. 23), brooding widower Rasool hires blue-headscarfed Nobar to work at his farm and food-processing plant. Impressed by her selfless concern for her family and neighbors, he transplants her from a crime-ridden rural slum to more comfortable quarters, and then gradually falls in love with her. Worried about the reactions of his daughters and their husbands, Rasool marries Nobar secretly. Unsurprisingly, he can’t keep the relationship hidden for long. Soon enough, he must choose between his class standing and his true love—a near-universal dilemma. Indeed, the film’s decision-revealing final sequence would have worked just as well in Depression-era America.

Under the Skin of the City opens and closes with scenes in which its working-class female protagonist—apparently speaking for her creator—denounces the Brechtian documentary style associated with such internationally celebrated Iranian directors as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Yet the approach of Bani-Etemad’s more recent Our Times (Nov. 22) is similar. Intrigued by the enthusiastic campaigning of young first-time voters—including her own 16-year-old daughter—for President Mohammed Khatami’s re-election in 2001, the director follows their activities, observing disapproval that sometimes turns to violence. But then Bani-Etemad becomes distracted by the many women who quixotically filed to run for president. She soon fixes on one: 25-year-old divorcée Arezoo, who works in a small office and is about to be evicted. A camera crew follows Arezoo as she looks for a new home for herself, her young daughter, and her blind mother. The quest not only reveals some of the difficulties of being a single female breadwinner in Tehran, but also leads to an open-ended conclusion that might be called Kiarostami-esque.

Milani’s newest film, The Fifth Reaction (Nov. 29 and 30), opens with a group of female teachers having lunch in a pleasant Tehran restaurant. As the conversation reveals, the women all have their problems, but their fundamental situation really comes into focus when one of the lunchers’ husbands arrives, squiring his young secretary, and rages at his wife for eating in public. Later, the angry man apologetically gives his wife, Taraneh, a new Peugeot, which becomes the getaway vehicle when she helps another of the teachers, recently widowed Fereshteh. The latter’s imperious father-in-law, Hadj, wants to keep his two grandsons but send Fereshteh back to her parents. When she, Taraneh, and the two boys hit the road, Hadj calls on his many connections to track them—not exactly Thelma & Louise, but certainly the most hard-hitting Milani movie I’ve seen. Crisply photographed and edited, it’s also an Iranian film that might appeal to viewers who rarely watch non-Hollywood fare—although Milani does offer her own variation on the open-ended ending.

The series also includes Iran, Veiled Appearances (Dec. 20 and 21), an interesting but incomplete portrait of contemporary Iran by a Belgian documentarian, and the new film by Secret Ballot director Babak Payami, Silence Between Two Thoughts (Dec. 6 and 7), a consideration of fundamentalism and politics that the Canadian-based director managed to reconstruct from computer-editing files after its negative was seized by Iranian officials. CP