Film Reviews: Tribeca Docs — An Artist Confronts Iran’s Mullahs, Culture Rebuilds in Ukraine

By David D’Arcy

At the Tribeca Film Festival this year, documentaries led the way as usual.

A scene from A Revolution on Canvas (Untitled Nicky Nodjoumi).

A Revolution on Canvas (Untitled Nicky Nodjoumi), directed by Till Schauder and Sara Nodjoumi, is an ambitious look at one family’s experience of the Iranian dynastic dictatorship and its successor, the Iranian Islamic revolution. The film is the story of an artist, Nikzad Nodjoumi, told by the artist’s daughter, Sara. Her mother, Nahid Hagigat, is also an Iranian artist.

The documentary examines Iran at a time of cataclysm, seen through the eyes of a political dissident who depicted that time, or some of it, in his paintings, and was persecuted for it. Given all those personal and epic elements, the narrative is remarkably coherent.

The family story is built around the life of Nikzad (Nicky) Nodjoumi, a painter and activist, now 81. Nodjoumi and Hagigat moved to New York in the ’60s. Nodjoumi was radicalized there by everyone from Malcolm X to Yoko Ono, yet he returned to Tehran in time for the fall of the Shah and an uprising that gave way to the Islamic Revolution. Islamic rule, as we see, turned out to be far more brutal than the injustices of the Shah.

We see much of this on the screen in archival images, including footage of the sumptuous pomp of the Peacock Throne. The Shah ruled in grandeur with oil money and the muscle of the dreaded SAVAK, his secret police. We also see the massive demonstrations in Tehran that helped depose the Shah, although the transition from unified opposition to bloody Islamic rule happens so fast in this documentary that we must be missing some crucial details. If Revolution on Canvas has a flaw, it is that in the interest of time it deals with major events in visual shorthand. This is a film that deserves to be longer.

Nodjoumi returned to Iran from the US once the anti-Shah demonstrations got going. His work, often painted on pages from newspapers, recorded what was happening on the streets, sometimes drawing on sources in Persian history paired with photographs taken in the present. Think of a pictorial style of multiple scenes within the frame, influenced by Robert Rauschenberg, though sometimes showing hints of Jack Levine’s grotesquery. Once the Islamic government came to power, the improbable happened. Nodjoumi was given a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran, a postmodern cultural temple filled with European art that had been acquired by Empress Farah, the Shah’s wife. Among Nodjoumi’s works was a painting that featured scenes of violence that implicated (and depicted) the Ayatollah Khomeini and Sadegh Khalkhali, a sharia judge notorious for ordering executions. Nodjoumi’s paintings were only on view for a day, which put a target on his back. The artist fled the country, ending up back in Brooklyn.

Politics continue to overwhelm Nodjoumi’s personal story, a point made through the man’s interviews with his daughter, who co-directed her debut film with her husband. Her mother’s family opposed Nahid Hagigat’s marriage to Nodjoumi, a brusque ceremony at City Hall in Manhattan. As Hagigat tells the story, he ran off after the ceremony to be part of a street demonstration. Spending the afternoon with his new bride would have been “bourgeois.” Living hand to mouth in Brooklyn, the young family didn’t have a telephone. Why bother? They were going back to Iran, anyway.

Nodjoumi, now 81 and in New York, genially answers his daughter’s questions. He has become a hero among Iranian emigrés and is now becoming known to a wider public. The artist shrugs off much of what his daughter resurrects in the film about their family life: he admits that his wife could have found a better husband. No one will argue with that. She ended up leaving him.

The scenes of protest from the Iranian Revolution can be shocking. Protesters are put up against walls and shot. We see young men condemned to death lined up with their long hair — it was the ’70s — shorn in odd ways by Islamists to humiliate them. Men who were not sentenced to death still had had sections of their hair chopped off  — it made them easier for the police to spot in the future.

The history of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened in 1977, would make a film in itself, or should be, given that it is barely a haiku in the doc, albeit a fascinating one. Under the Shah, Iran sought status as a modern power. Modern art and architecture were part of that effort. The building, designed by Kamran Diba, an Iranian architect who was a cousin of the queen, was an enormously lavish expense at a time when much of the country lived in poverty. The collection — the ultimate checkbook art collection of its time — was paid for by Iran’s national oil company. (“Just put those Monets on my tab, please.”) Works by Francis Bacon, Toulouse-Lautrec, Max Beckmann, Degas, Duchamp, Picasso, Warhol, and a list of must-haves have been kept in storage under the Islamic government. So were the paintings from Nodjoumi’s transgressive 1981 show. Recovering his paintings, or at least trying to, is the third act within the doc’s broader structure of the daughter-father interview.

The Revolution on Canvas will be a revelation to anyone unfamiliar with Iran’s art scene over the past 50 years. Finding the film won’t be a problem. It airs on HBO or Max, later this month.

A scene from Comedy of War: Laughter in Ukraine

Finding Comedy of War: Laughter in Ukraine, which also premiered at Tribeca, might not be so easy. Christopher Walters’s doc follows a troupe of Ukrainian stand-up comedians who tour through areas ravaged by war, often performing for audiences of soldiers or in stark shelters underground. Ukrainians, like Russians, are known for appreciating scathing pitiless humor, the darker the better. Here, in the performances that we see, strong, warm doses of comradery soften the jokes, although there’s still plenty of hatred for Russia. The comics’ audiences love that.

As for the jokes, remember that the local standard is high. Ukraine even has a comedian for a president, although he’s been holding back on comedy for understandable reasons. The comedians in the doc are new at the game and don’t reach the heights of Yakov Smirnoff, the comic from Odessa (now resettled in Branson, Missouri), who made a career of mocking Soviet communism in the ’80s until the Kremlin decreed that communism was over.

Touring through devastated, war-torn sections of Ukraine, these comedy shows are an act of courage. As the war drags on, I fear that these brave performers will have plenty of time to hone their skills.

A scene from Rule of Two Walls.

Also from Ukraine is Rule of Two Walls by David Gutnik, whose parents are Ukrainian. This film’s focus is on artists, particularly artists who stayed in Ukraine while many others left. The title is inspired by advice given in wartime: the safest place to be is between walls, so the roof doesn’t fall on you. No need to test that at home.

The term “artist” is defined broadly here. Gutnik meets Ukrainians who are making or imagining work as the built environment around them is under attack or already destroyed. These are not artists who have a market or an audience. What they do have is a determination to maintain the country’s culture. Many of them don’t want to be named or have their faces shown on camera.

If the task is building or rebuilding culture, what will it look like? Some of the artists, who range from rappers to restorers, stress the importance of doing everything in the Ukrainian language. They note that for decades the primacy of Russian has put the homeland’s tongue in an inferior position. Some focus on the most ordinary of surroundings, like the interiors of buildings where Ukrainian murals on walls and ceilings have been covered since Soviet times with thick layers of white paint. The restorers call it chalk as they chip away by hand to reveal graceful patterns that somehow survived being smothered over for over during a century of Soviet life. Important work, but Gutnik isn’t just an aesthete. Even as the artists and artisans discuss their work, it’s never too long before he cuts away to crews pulling bodies out of other buildings that are beyond saving, suggesting that it takes more than two walls to survive.

David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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