San Sebastian 2022 review: A Tale of Shemroon (Emad Aleebrahim Dehkordi)

“Although his stylistic choices veer from Dardennes-style handheld realism to Hollywood filmmaking (the former clearly delivering the better parts of the film), Dehkordi proves himself capable of creating some powerful and hypnotic scenes, which bodes well for his future.”

Iran is a country that has one of the highest drug addiction rates in the world. Being directly on the trade route with Afghanistan, the leading manufacturer of opium and heroin, and having a border that is almost impossible to monitor doesn’t help. Yet in Iranian cinema drug abuse isn’t that often a subject, at least not when put against its number of addicts. But despite state censorship, films do come out where the problem is faced head-on. The most recent notable example is Saeed Roustaee’s Just 6.5 (the number incidentally referring to the number of addicts in Iran; in millions, that is), a cat-and-mouse game between the head of an anti-narcotics brigade (played by Payman Maadi) and a top drug dealer (Navid Mohammadzadeh, in top form recently in Venice title Beyond the Wall). The casual but pivotal role drugs play, however, in Emad Aleebrahim Dehkordi’s debut feature A Tale of Shemroon is somewhat of a novelty in Iranian cinema. There are other elements that make it stand out in the field as well, something that can perhaps be traced back to its director dividing his time between Iran and France. A Tale of Shemroon is in its essence a family drama that isn’t always tonally consistent, but features an exciting lead performance and gives interesting insight into Tehran’s younger generations, especially when it comes to social divides.

The world of Iman (Iman Sayad Borhani) and his brother Payar (Payar Allahyari) has been turned upside down after the death of their mother, but one thing it hasn’t affected is their strong brotherly love. Living in an apartment that is falling apart, with a father who is struggling with his health as well as with Iman, their life in the Shemroon, a suburb in the north of Tehran, isn’t exactly rosy. When one of his best friends returns from the US, well-off and with a vernacular loaded with Anglicisms, Iman sees an opportunity to make a quick buck. The community of young and rich former expats returned to Tehran, even if in some cases temporarily, have brought with them a spirit of hard partying, and Iman can provide ways to keep those spirits high. An initial sample of cocaine leads to more demand from the affluent youngsters, and Iman strikes a deal with a bigger drug lord. This deal, however, will endanger the budding relationship between his brother and Hana, a single woman returning to Tehran from Paris with her young son, as well as put Iman’s relationship with his father on knife’s edge.

The interesting thing about A Tale of Shemroon is that the copious drug use (which includes one character, a friend Iman lives with after being kicked out of the apartment by his dad, almost overdosing on heroin) does not lead to a tale of misery. It is merely portrayed as part of the life of the young nouveau riche of Tehran, with their all-night parties filled with booze, coke, and techno music; a life that Iman, from a decidedly poorer background, desperately wants to be a part of. It’s interesting that the ‘wild side’ of Tehran is mostly made up of people who have returned from the West, as if to say that they imported this behaviour when they returned. A lot of Iranian films feature people doing their utmost to leave the country, yet here we have a film where expats actually return. Dehkordi’s look at twenty-something life in Iran, at least in the affluent segment of it, is probably closer to reality than most Westerners might think, but the excesses in particular when it comes to drugs combined with expats enjoying them could give off the wrong image. Drugs are an integral part of the story as they drive Iman’s narrative, but the film’s frankness threatens to work against it.

Another hindrance for the film should be that Iman is not a very likeable character, certainly not when compared to the sweet Payar. But Borhani infuses his character with so much panache and explosivity that despite misgivings you can’t help but root for the guy. Borhani’s performance invokes pathos for his unreasonable and needy hustler trying to claw his way out of misery. Part of that is the bond between the two brothers, the film’s strongest but somewhat underdeveloped relationship. Payar’s storyline by contrast is rote, despite Masoumeh Beigi’s charming performance as Hana. There are weaknesses in the script that sadly diminish the film, but elsewhere Dehkordi’s debut is an intriguing and surprising portrayal of Iranian life that we rarely see in film. Although his stylistic choices veer from Dardennes-style handheld realism to Hollywood filmmaking (the former clearly delivering the better parts of the film), Dehkordi proves himself capable of creating some powerful and hypnotic scenes, which bodes well for his future.

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