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A Dress Rehearsal for an Execution

Distributed by Magic Lantern Films, PO Box 8567, New York, NY 10116; 646-926-6760

Directed by Bahman Tavoosi
DVD, color with b&w, 47 min.
High School - General Adult
Human Rights, Iran, Media, Photography

Reviewed by Rebecca Adler Schiff, College of Staten Island, City University of New York

Date Entered: 8/9/2016

In 1979, just after the Islamic Revolution, a group of revolutionary irregulars rounded up eleven Kurdish prisoners, transported them to a gravelly abandoned stretch of land not far from an airport, blindfolded them, and shot them at point blank range. A photographer who happened somehow to be present, shot (sic) the scene in medias res, as it were, one victim captured in the process of collapsing to the ground. The resulting photo went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for the photographer – in the category of “On the Spot” Photography,” presumably for the photographer’s ability to keep cool in the midst of horrendous doings.

Thus the photo joined other violent canonical images (cited in the film) of man’s inhumanity to man, though the photographer chose to remain anonymous for the longest time fearing reprisal. Some thirty-five years later, filmmaker Bahman Tavoosi, living in exile in Montreal, Canada, set his heart on memorializing the anonymous victims by re-creating (not re-enacting) the execution scene, that is, by an effort to duplicate the photo as accurately, as precisely as possible. It’s a colossal undertaking. Bulldozers are contracted to transform a parcel of land outside Montreal so that it resembles the Iranian terrain. Actors are recruited to “shadow” the respective victims and executioners. In fact auditions comprise perhaps the most labor intensive component of the preparation, in that actors are selected who themselves intimately connect to some other twentieth century atrocity – a grandfather who died in a Nazi concentration camp, a survivor of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Bloodletting events in Algeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe also make the grim roll call – all of which further add, if that’s possible, to the film’s somber message. In the end the unusual enterprise is rewarded by the sharp but bearable pain the viewer may feel as before one’s very eyes the re-created image seemingly instantaneously metamorphoses into the actual heartbreaking photo in a quick second. It would seem Tavoosi could have fabricated the memorial and simply taken a photo – no, he wished, his choice, to make a documentary film about how he went about accomplishing the task. But then, this is no ordinary documentary faithfully recording proceedings, but rather a self-conscious “art” film containing too many distractingly self-conscious effects – arbitrary blackouts, and lingering shots. Given the film’s subject matter, this would seem an aspiration too far. A second point is that the film plays background music – one recognizes, for example, Maria Callas singing Verdi (or so this viewer believes). And yet no credits are given, not in the film itself nor in the end-of-film credits. The credits themselves are accompanied by a piano piece almost certainly by Chopin – yet no credit appears, not for composer, not for performer. The film, still, is recommended.