BIFF Review: An Owl, a Garden & The Writer

It would not be controversial to say that the modern history of Iran is a story of tremendous struggle for its people. Oppression from governments both foreign and domestic have led to periods of great social unrest, restriction of basic freedoms and rights, and widespread censorship. One of the greatest and loudest voices in promoting artistic and social freedoms in Iran has, for a long time, been writer Mahmoud Dolatabadi. An Owl, A Garden & The Writer sets out to give us a close-up portrait of the man, one of the most significant living writers in the region.

Dolatabadi’s daughter Sara, the film’s director and an accomplished visual artist in her own right, has been documenting her visits home for several years, and it is through this lens that we learn Mahmoud’s story. Quiet scenes of the writer playfully interacting with his young granddaughter, a cigarette never far from his hand, paint a picture of a man possessed of a great warmth and playfulness. This lies in contrast to his own recounting of the hardships he has endured. The struggles that helped him become someone who can document, as an opening intertitle tells us, “the dishonorable story of this honorable nation”.

Born in 1940 in a remote agricultural region of Iran, he worked as a laborer until he made his way to Iran and began writing. Having immersed himself in the worlds of theater and literature, he gradually earned recognition for his own writing and became a figure of note in the literary and revolutionary world. Then, in 1974, the Iranian secret police came to take him away. Asking what crime he had committed, he was told “None, but everyone we arrest seems to have copies of your novels, so that makes you provocative to revolutionaries.” He spent two years in prison, forbidden from putting pen to paper.

We first meet Mahmoud as he sits at home and receives a phone call from a young producer at the Iranian state broadcaster. Having been asked for an interview, he rebuffs the request, saying quite matter-of-factly that if he speaks his mind they will just censor him again, as they have many times in the past. There is no anger in his tone, just the experience of a lifetime in the crosshairs of state censorship, and an unwillingness to have his own time wasted.

An Owl, a Garden & The Writer does not set out to tell a blow-by-blow story of Mahmoud Dolatabadi’s life. It is not structured like a typical documentary, instead offering a small-scale window into a towering figure. One could not confidently sit down and write the timeline of his life after seeing this documentary, but it does a terrific job of giving you a sense of the man himself. You can see the chisel strikes that shaped him. The intimacy inherent in a daughter’s view of his father, no matter how titanic the figure, shapes the film into something much more human and personal than many other documentaries of its kind. I must confess to having been ignorant of his writing before settling into the theater to watch the film, but I will most certainly be rectifying that now.

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