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  • Brandon MacMurray

Motherland Review

“They can’t take you if we’re married,” Katie (Oriana Leman) says to her boyfriend Babak (Behtash Fazlali). It is 1979, and anti-Iranian sentiment is growing throughout the United States. Babak, an Iranian immigrant and university student has his personal crises compounded by the tensions that surround him as an Iranian in America, and his life is about to change forever.

Jasmin Mozaffari’s energetic and deeply-felt new short film Motherland opens with a sharply-paced montage of news footage summarizing the first six days of the Iranian hostage crisis. Nearly 60 American diplomats were held by Iranian students in the American Embassy in Tehran, angry after the Shah had left Iran and concerned by rumors of another U.S.–backed coup in Iran that would re-install him. After establishing this important context, the film jumps to a university campus in Iowa, where Babak is being chased by an angry white student for tearing down a poster—Nuke ‘Em Until They Glow, it says. It Worked in Japan It’ll Work in Iran. The brisk cutting and handheld camerawork of these opening scenes give a restless energy to Motherland and a tension that continues to build to almost excruciating levels.

Worried about the growing calls for President Carter to “deport all Iranians,” Katie is taking Babak to meet her parents before they get married. The tension immediately begins to mount in these scenes as the couple leave the city and head deeper into rural Iowa, the farms, taverns, and angry white faces that look like they’re waiting for any excuse to cause Babak trouble. Especially since his best friend says his beard makes him look “like he burns the flag.” (Babak thinks it makes him look like Pacino). Katie worries that every time Babak answers the phone he’ll be in trouble, and Fazlali’s incredibly charismatic and emotional performance show a man who has had to shoulder this type of pain and stress for years. Even Babak’s mother, who we only hear over crackly, broken-up phone calls, wants him to go to live with his Uncle Reza in Canada, a relative safe haven.

Whereas Ben Affleck’s Argo showed the American characters’ point-of-view of the Iranian hostage crisis from within Iran, Motherland shows an Iranian point-of-view in an American setting. Babak eventually shaves his beard and introduces himself as Bob to Katie’s father (John Ralston in a tightly-wound performance of intense energy), but finds the prejudices of rural America already too deeply engrained for these changes to matter. The tensions between the two men rise and fall in unexpected ways in a beautifully shot nighttime conversation (the 35mm photography throughout brings a textured aesthetic to the film), where the personal and political become more intertwined than ever. “My daughter is not gonna be your green card,” he barks. Babak can’t stay in Canada, and he can’t go home, because the situation in Tehran is so tense. Where does he belong?

Motherland’s story is a personal one for Mozaffari, as some aspects of the story are similar to the director’s own life—her father was an Iranian immigrant who came to Canada from Tehran at the time of the Iranian Revolution. The intimacy with which Mozaffari handles the specifics of the story can’t be faked, and the cultural texture and familial details are packed into each vibrant frame.Motherland is Mozaffari’s first return to TIFF since her debut feature Fireworks in 2018. That film went on to win the Best Director Canadian Screen Award (putting Mozaffari in the company of Canadian luminaries like David Cronenberg, Denis Villeneuve, Sarah Polley, and Xavier Dolan). This early potential continues to pay off in Motherland, and if Mozaffari continues to follow this upward trajectory, promises to have a long and inspiring directing career.

Review by: Joshua Hunt



The short end of the stick: The inferior part, the worse side of an unequal deal

When it comes to cinema and the Oscars it always feels like short films and getting the short end of the stick. Lack of coverage, lack of predictions from experts and an afterthought in the conversation. With this site we hope to change that, highlighting shorts that stick with you, predictions, and news on what is happening in the world of shorts. 

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