Shahram Mokri’s best-known film, 2013’s Fish and Cat, which follows a group of students attending a kite-flying camp who find themselves terrorized by a pair of cannibalistic chefs, is in many respects an outlier. It’s a genre film, which is unusual for Iran, despite its rich cinematic history. Furthermore, it was both a commercial success domestically and a critical success abroad — when it comes to Iran, the two usually diverge. The movie caught the attention of Abbas Kiarostami, who later placed a note under a tree inscribed with Mokri’s name in 24 Frames. It’s not difficult to see what he admired; Kiarostami’s work seemed to come from a world in which cinema had developed with different rules, and Mokri’s is no different. His signature shots, which make use of digital stitching to create unbroken temporal loops, demonstrate the link between aesthetics and politics while realizing the possibilities of a digital cinema that dares to relinquish the temporal and spatial conventions of analog cinema.
A new box set of Mokri’s films, featuring Fish and Cat and three other features, offers an excellent opportunity to get to know his work and unpack the mechanics and purpose behind this signature technique. It’s best demonstrated by a scene from Mokri’s most recent film, 2020’s Careless Crime. A single long take features two women and a group of soldiers. One woman asks the other about the name of a character from the 1978 film The Deer, then asks a soldier the same question. Before she exits the shot, she hands him a hot cup of tea, since the cup already in his left hand has gone cold. The camera then follows the soldier as he hands the cold cup to an electrician, moves the hot cup to his other hand, interacts with his colleagues (one of whom is also holding a cup of tea), then returns to his starting position and has the exact same conversation with the same woman, who again hands him a cup of tea, since the one she gave him a minute ago has gone cold. This is not the characters repeating themselves, but the film returning to the same moment; at some point, the shot was digitally stitched. On the repetition, the camera follows the woman rather than the soldier, showing her giving a different soldier the cup of tea we saw him holding earlier. The shot continues from there, invisibly looping back twice more to follow other characters.
In some ways, such a technique is the long-awaited counterpart to the “Rashomon Effect,” which emphasizes the unknowability of reality or various points of view by showing how different characters perceive the same event. In contrast, Mokri’s temporal loops condense differing perspectives into a single shot, as if to establish a shared memory. In Careless Crime, a group of men attempts to recreate the Cinema Rex fire, which is often said to have started the Iranian Revolution. The women, meanwhile, are hosting an outdoor screening of The Deer, which was playing in the theater when it burned. For both groups, the past casts a long shadow, and the present cannot help but return to it. Indeed, the soldiers have located an undetonated bomb, but military intelligence differs as to whether it was defused decades ago or landed a day before and needs urgent attention. Past and present collide, and cycles of violence and tragedy repeat — a potent message, given Iran’s contested political history.
Fish and Cat is similarly allegorical. It unfolds over two major settings, with the open space of a lake associated with prey animals, or “fish,” while the adjacent closed space of a forest is associated with predators, or a “cat.” These ideas also manifest through the younger generation of characters and the older folks who literally feast upon them. Cannibalism is sublimated generational conflict, and the use of a single take to unite the spaces suggests their interconnectedness, while their separation into discrete loops within that take threatens to erode that unity.
But allegory is only the tip of Mokri’s iceberg. The violence of Fish and Cat is never actually shown. There is always a suggestion that the suspense can be relieved, that some less violent “way out” can be found in the next loop. His films envision a liminal Iran, scarred by violent memories but not without hope. They are decidedly anti-deterministic in their reconfigurations of the archetypes and patterns of genre, and they exhibit as open a view of Iran as they do of cinematic possibility.
The Time Bending Mysteries of Shahram Mokri will be available to purchase starting June 28.