The Struggle of Freedom

22 01 2009

p1000445Photos: Film Director Arash T. Riahi, January 2009. Photo Credit: Reinhard Bimashofer

Already from a distance, people passing by at the Gartenbaukino on Dec. 10 could notice the commotions at one of Vienna’s traditional 1960s cinema. With 736 seats, the last surviving large one-screen cinema (Einsaalkino) in Vienna was host to a special film preview, and indeed the seats were filling fast, judging by the long cues at the ticket office.

SOS Mitmensch, the Austrian human rights and anti-racism pressure group, was the host of this special film preview of the Austrian-French production Ein Augenblick Freiheit by the Iranian-born Austrian Film Director Arash T. Riahi. In a loose series of film previews, including the one tonight, under the heading of ‘Drei Filme fürs Bleiben’, the organization aimed to promote the legal framework of a right of permanent residency for refugees. And Ein Augenblick Freiheit translates the political demand into powerful pictures.

Riahi’s film was first shown at the Worldfilm Festival in Montréal in August 2008, where it picked up the award for Best First Feature Film. With almost a dozen of international awards in his pocket, including best Austrian film at the Viennale in October 2008, Ein Augenblick Freiheit started in Austrian cinemas on Jan. 9, 2009 .

Evidently, the film preview in December had something special, I noticed. Not only was the date set deliberately – Dec. 10 was the 60th anniversary of the declaration of Human rights by the United Nations – but the whole event, the screening and the following panel discussion and live performance of the Austrian-born Kurdish musician Karuan in the foyer, who composed and performed the soundtrack, offered much more than just a good evening at the movies.

While I make myself comfortable in the large red-colored chair in the movie theater, the red curtain slowly rising, the audience is taken to a different world. An execution scene opens the film, and that forms the frame – as I realized at the end – for the movie: the need to escape from Iran.

The film connects three different life stories, no all of them end happily. The movie does not focus on the actual escape but the life the refugees face once they reached Turkey and their daily struggle for recognition as refugees and uncertainties of emigration requests.

We are taken to a remote Iranian village where two young children – Azy and Arman – guided by two young men in their early 20s (Ali and Merdad), aim to join their parents in Austria. The pictures are rich in natural landscape, as the characters make their way across the mountain areas into Turkey. Guided by human traffickers, the small group makes its way by car, on horses or on foot through the snow and ice. We witness the dramatic revival of Aram, the little boy, as he almost died when camping outside at night.

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This life story, indeed, has a happy end, because “it tells the story of my two younger siblings,” Riahi said in an interview with us about one month later. He himself also took this dangerous trip with his parents in 1981.

“I was nine-years old when we fled Iran across the mountains. For me, it was like an adventure, and indeed that is what my parents kept saying to me then,” and his face, otherwise open and with a naive, nevertheless charming smile, became much more serious in expression.

Although the film has a powerful documentary quality, especially the linear progression of the timeline – Riahi’s most previous film projects were indeed of that genre – the construction and combination of the true life stories is fiction. It took him about seven years researching, writing the script and finally shooting the film.

Nevertheless, as we arrange the time for a more extensive interview, he suggests the night of the official film premiere at the Votivkino. “I do not need to see the movie yet again ;),” he replied jokingly to our interview request, indicating that the project from a creative point-of-view is already a closed chapter, but that does not mean, however, that the touching stories told here are not important anymore, rather the contrary. And so, we sit down in the café of the cinema while the screening takes place at the same time.

Indeed, realizing the difficult and of the traumatic theme or refuge as a feature film allowed combining true life stories through a sense of dramaturgy that “shows a greater form of truth.“

All protagonists, besides the two children Azy and Arman, as well as Ali and Merdad, a young couple – Lale and her husband Hassan together with their son Kian – narrowly escape arrest while fleeing across the mountains.

All eventually end up in Ankara in a run-down hotel, where we encounter the third set of life stories; the young Kurdish boheme Manu shares a room with the middle-aged Iranian political activist Abbas.

Manu and Abbas form a refreshingly uncomplicated friendship and add an enlightening tragic-comic flow to the serious and heartbreaking narration of the movie. In a particularly striking scene, both men, frustrated with their prison-like diet bound to financial restraints, decide to catch a goose in the park – a motive also featured on the film poster – so that they would have a more substantial meal. However, it does not quite turn out that way.

As a viewer, I start to realize while watching the movie, that what follows the initial escape is an agonizing long period of uncertainty and danger. Refugees face rejection in our society, so the prolonged drama unfolds in transit countries, like Turkey.

Riahi’s message, however, is clear, and he recites the message of his movie: “Everyone must have the right to go where he or she thinks they can find happiness.” And the smile on his face shows that he evidently found his place here in Vienna.

This is an excerpt, the full article was published in February 2009 in The Vienna Review.

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