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Siah Bazi (The Joy Makers) and Shadi

2004 and 2009
Distributed by Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Produced by Mahmoud Chokrollahi and Mortega Mohammadi
Directed by Maryam Khakipour
DVD, color, 45 and 58 min.
Sr. High - Adult
Middle Eastern Studies, Theater


Reviewed by Brian Falato, University of South Florida Tampa Campus Library

Recommended   
 
Date Entered: 4/14/2011

Siah Bazi is an improvisational Iranian theater similar to commedia dell’arte in the West. Actors perform at weddings and parties as well as in theaters. But the theaters featuring this are closing down, and women can’t perform at weddings. Director Maryam Khakipour documented the plight of Siah Bazi actors in her short Siah Bazi, translated as The Joy Makers. French theater director Ariane Mnouchkine saw Khakipour’s work and invited the actors featured in the video to perform in Paris with her ensemble Theatre du Soleil. Khakipour went along to document their experiences in a follow-up video Shadi. Both videos are now available on one disc.

The video Siah Bazi shows examples of the improvisational theatre work of that name, including the use of blackface for the most popular character, known as The Black. “The Black represents the people,” says the actor who portrays him. “The audience identifies with The Black.” The character says things that those in the audience want to say but cannot, and is able to mock authority.

We see the audience enjoying themselves at a Siah Bazi performance, but they are having fewer opportunities to do so. Theaters are closing down, and the one this Siah Bazi troupe performed in, the oldest in Tehran, is closed without warning by the government.

The last part of Siah Bazi becomes particularly poignant as the actors wonder what they’ll do after spending their working lives in the theater. A 54-year old actress says she has gotten a job serving tea. This disturbs a younger actress named Shadi, who is distraught that a great performer would be reduced to being a tea server.

Shadi is a focus of the second video, named for her. After the troupe gets the invitation from Mnouchkine, they make preparations for the trip to Paris. Shadi has to get notarized permission from her husband to be able to leave the country, and her husband isn’t too happy about her leaving, fearing what Western exposure will do to her. The two argue about the status of women in Iran.

Shadi encounters another male chauvinist in the Iranian director the troupe has hired to stage the show in Paris. He dismisses any opinion she has, saying she’s “only an actress,” and also distrusts Mnouchkine. The French director offers suggestions, but says the troupe is within its rights to reject them. She worries if the French translation of the Persian words in the play will convey the true qualities of the performance. But the audience in Paris seems to enjoy it, and the Siah Bazi troupe was invited to do a 2-year tour of other major European theaters, although they did so without the director they had originally hired.

The two videos together give a brief introduction to Siah Bazi and offer highlights of Iranian culture and potential problems of cross-cultural collaboration. It’s not something that would suffice for an in-depth study. The videos have no narration and so there’s no history or background provided for Westerners to fully appreciate the place of Siah Bazi. But they can be recommended for large collections in Middle Eastern studies or theater.