Venice 2023 review: The Sun Will Rise (Ayat Najafi)

The Sun Will Rise is the perfect marriage between art and political engagement, between aesthetic and importance.”

On September 16th, 2022, almost a year to the date, Mahsa Amini died in a Tehran hospital as a result of severe beatings by Iranian police three days prior. She had been arrested by the Guidance Patrol for not following the compulsory hijab law, which forces a woman to wear a head covering in public at all times. Amini’s death sparked violent protests throughout the country, protests that continued well into the current year. Brave acts of defiance were systematically beaten down.

Art can be an act of defiance, when done the right way. Ayat Najafi has done it the right way. A documentary director who spends his time between Berlin and Tehran, Najafi has created a film that raises as many questions as it answers, but in an artful way exposes the difficulty and lack of bodily autonomy for women in Iran. Shot for the most part in stark black and white, The Sun Will Rise (Aftab Mishavad) defies all Iranian censorship rules on how a woman’s body can be depicted, while it also wrestles with questions about the effectiveness of art as an act of defiance or the motives of ‘outsiders’ when creating art about the plight of Iran’s women, and whether they should be the ones to create it. The Sun Will Rise delivers on its title’s premise quite literally, but whether the hope that speaks from it will come true remains to be seen. The defiance remains though, as evidenced in the film’s powerful last shot.

Okay, time to brush up on our knowledge of Greek tragedies. Lysistrata is an ancient Greek comedy, written by Aristophanes at the end of the 5th century BC. In the play the titular character persuades fellow women from warring city states to withhold sex from their men in order to force them into peace negotiations. The women take over the Acropolis, incensing the men, and a battle of the sexes is born. In the end male desire wins out and peace is negotiated; celebrations ensue. While at the time the play was not seen as overtly feminist, it is one of the earliest examples depicting sexual relations in a patriarchy.

The play brings us to Tehran in October 2022. A theater group is rehearsing a staging of Lysistrata while outside a protest following Mahsa Amini’s death is growing in strength. Once anti-riot police show up to put the protest down the ensemble is locked in their rehearsing space. A rift in the group develops: some want to go out and join the protests, others argue that they should stay inside and keep rehearsing. Arguments arise about the interpretation of the play: should it remain a comedy, or should it be adapted in a more serious tone, given what is happening? As chaos reigns below them on the streets, the group can no longer rehearse as planned, and instead start to act out scenes from outside, without filter and without limits.

The Sun Will Rise is not a fiction film. Najafi’s camera is present in the rehearsal space, moving in between the actors, eavesdropping on their discussions, registering their bodies. Their bodies, in particular the female ones, are open and free in a way that is rare in Iranian cinema, for obvious reasons. Out of necessity this means that their heads are never shown, to ensure anonymity and avoid retaliation. So the camera starts low, focusing on feet and legs. Bare feet and bare legs, an absolute no-go in the public sphere, which extends to cinema or art in general. There is a certain sensuality in these shots, a sensuality that is heightened by tight jeans and high heels. At one point the jeans are gone, high-heeled feet dangling in the air, a lacy and miniscule pair of panties dangling between them. It’s an overtly sexual image, an expression of freedom over one’s own body and sexual behaviour.

Over time the camera pans up to show midriffs, chests, arms, mouths. It shows movement, carnal and raging like a choreographed dance. Lysistrata‘s scenes are gone, but its feminist message remains, as does its message of freedom. But who gives that freedom, and who has the right to express it? In a remarkable scene the actress playing Lysistrata questions Najafi’s motives, accusing him of being a ‘tourist’ coming to snap up a souvenir. It is an extraordinary moment born out of pent-up frustration, anger, and repression, and also a good starting point for a discussion of the role of the artist when creating political art.

The Sun Will Rise is the perfect marriage between art and political engagement, between aesthetic and importance. It is a cry for freedom from a group of young people who have crossed the Rubicon and for whom there is no going back. Hopefully in time this will be seen as a landmark in Iranian cinema, and not as a footnote that was never shown in the country it was shot in. With The Sun Will Rise, Ayat Najafi puts himself at the forefront of rebellious cinema (Ali Ahmadzadeh is another recent example, with his wild Locarno title Critical Zone). His ‘cast’ may have questioned his motives, but as he says in the film: the story only comes alive in the editing. And what has come out is not just a masterpiece, but an important piece of political art in support of the female struggle for bodily autonomy.