Review: In the Name of Scheherazade or the First Beer Garden in Tehran (Narges Kalhor)

Editor’s Note: even in these COVID-19 times some festivals still go on, albeit often online. Reporting from one such festival, Barcelona’s International Women’s Film Festival, Luis Felipe Raguá Miranda reviews the Iranian film In the Name of Scheherazade or the First Beer Garden in Tehran.

In the Name of Scheherazade or the First Beer Garden in Tehran is many, many things. A multi-layered approach to storytelling, identity and the Othering, the film finds Iranian director Narges Kalhor playing herself while she struggles to finish her film In the Name of Scheherazade (or perhaps The First Beer Garden in Tehran?) with the aid of an academic advisor. The film-within-a-film includes many different stories intercut: an animated musical version of some stories in Arabian Nights, a live-action Scheherazade telling her stories in front of a green screen to the king, an Afghan performance artist and, more prominently, an Iranian woman trying to open the first beer garden in Tehran, where alcohol is illegal.

At first, the most startling feature is the animated section, where the use of shadow puppets reminds us of 1926’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, directed by Lotte Reiniger. Kalhor uses the same technique for the same source material as Reiniger (Arabian Nights), but it’s now a Middle-Eastern director who is in charge, not a German one, even though the film is produced and financed in Germany. It is another layer that adds to the complexity of In the Name of Scheherazade…, this time focusing on the shifting tide in the politics of representation in audiovisual art and the authenticity of first-hand and contextual experience. What is gained when a director from a Persian background decides to tell Persian tales in her own terms vis-à-vis a German one telling the same stories?

There is a concern now from the traditional centers of power (Western Europe and North America mainly) to listen to filmmakers from ‘outside’, the ‘Others’, the ones from the ‘periphery’. But what stories are they allowed to tell? Or, to better phrase it, what stories are those in power actually listening to? While Kalhor shows her cut of the film to her academic advisor, who only appears in voice-over, he is quick to point out a number of things: she should talk about politics and religion, she should perhaps be a bit more erotic (although she is, smartly showing male and not female bodies, much to the dismay of her advisor), she must mention her country, she should remove all but the uplifting story of the first beer garden in Tehran. Her ordeal recalls that of Elia Suleiman in It Must be Heaven. In it the Palestinian director, playing himself, is turned down by an American producer after pitching a story because it’s not Palestinian enough, which basically means it doesn’t adhere to the image that’s been built of Palestine from the ‘center’ (in this case, the US).

Kalhor similarly is expected to play up her identity as a victim of the Iranian government (in real life, she sought political asylum in Germany in 2009). She is first and foremost an immigrant who’s aided by the helping hand of liberal Europe, and so she must remind others and remind herself of her place within this society. She isn’t even allowed to create her own titles for the film. They appear on screen crossed out and corrected–apparently she hasn’t learned her German well enough. When we finally get the movie the advisor wanted for a few minutes (The First Beer Garden in Tehran), the result is starkly less lively than the rest of the film. You can sense the soul slowly being sucked out of Kalhor’s stories.

The director is insistent on showing how identity is performative and therefore non-static and strategic. In one of the stories intercut in the film a gay man from Syria is seeking refuge in Germany. His friend advises him to emphasize the dangers of returning to Syria and to firmly assert that going back is not an option for someone with his sexual orientation. Even though his testimony is based on his experience, he is expected to amp up certain things in it that would make it more likely for him to receive his refugee status. Tell them what they want to hear, is what his friend is basically saying. While he is telling the story of how he fled Syria the advisor instructs Kalhor to include graphic images from the event, since the audience will surely get bored at just watching him speak. None of that commentary is present when it’s the German men doing the talking.

Tell them what they want to hear is not as simple as it sounds. It requires them to be able to identify and analyze the positions and thoughts held by people in power, their deeply held beliefs of the superiority of Western values over everything else, their white saviour complex, and then to tap into them for their own benefit, be it getting money for making a film, acquiring refugee status, or being accepted in an art exhibit with your performance. It is strategic.

To tell them what they want to hear, to adjust and shape the narrative according to the interlocutor, is what Scheherazade cleverly accomplished in Arabian Nights and what ultimately saved her life. The stories we tell and the way we tell them change depending on who they are being told to. It’s a game that Kalhor proves to dominate insofar as she is able to joyfully subvert it. What’s identity but a story we tell others about ourselves?