|Drum (Keywan Karimi, 2016)|
On October 13th, 2015, the Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced the Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Keywan Karimi to six years in prison and 223 lashes for “Writing on the City” (2015), a documentary short about the graffiti in Tehran from the 1979 Islamic Revolution to the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Karimi appealed and had his sentence reduced to one year in prison, 223 lashes, and a fine of 20 million Rials (approximately 660 USD). The ruling is final. This form of capital punishment is reprehensible and an attack on freedom of expression. Many intellectuals, artists, and organizations decried this violent act of censorship. The SanSebastian Festival rejected the ruling. At Cannes this year, filmmakers and professionals signed a document written by the European Film Academy. It asked the Iranian authorities to grant Karimi clemency. To raise awareness, the Punto de Vista Festival asked filmmakers to make a short uttering one word for each of the 223 lashes. Agnès Varda, for instance, says "hope" in her video. And in a piece for Al Jezeera, Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi described a moving encounter with Karimi, saying the director “hails from the Kiarostami corner of our global visions of truth.”
As of now, Karimi is in a limbo state. He hasn’t been imprisoned yet, and he cannot leave the country. In effect, Karimi is under house arrest. Still, Keywan remains creative. Like Jafar Panahi, Karimi shot his first feature, Drum (2016), secretly in Tehran. It has the look and feel of a subterranean movie.
Drum opens with a low-angle shot. In it, a man with a limp drags himself along a narrow and desolate street. In his hands he cradles a package. He brushes past the few people who cross his path. As with the rest of the film, the scene is in stark black-and-white, and the post-sync sound is sharp. This beginning has the right amount of poetic abstraction that Karimi sustains for the rest of the film.
The noir-tinged story is deliberately thin. The limping man delivers the package to a washed-up lawyer. With the help of his friend, a junkie who talks to himself by whispering into his collar, they hide it. But mobsters come knocking, demanding the coveted package. When they murder his wife, the lawyer seeks revenge.
From this stock pulp story (adapted from Ali-Morad Fadaei-Nia’s eponymous book), Karimi creates a film sopping with atmosphere. Drum is a slow-burning mood piece with snaking camera movements that crawl backwards, diminishing the on-screen action that’s now taking place in the background. Its slow camera movement, high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, and emphatic post-sync sound design, share a passing resemblance to Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Béla Tarr’s work. And aside from “The Adventures of a Married Couple” (2013), Drum is nothing quite like Karimi’s prior shorts.
None of the characters in Drum have a name, hence an identity. What reverberates is Tehran. Characters utter the name of the city throughout the film. Drum transforms Tehran into harsh lines and pools of light and darkness. It becomes a shadow world where one gets lost, but never found.