She wanted to die, but war saved her life

by Mark Schilling

Many recent Iranian films are about the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, claimed a million lives and, as journalist Robert Fisk noted, “touched every family in both countries.”

Despite state control of the Iranian media, not all these films are straight propaganda, as Ensieh Shah-Hosseini’s “Goodbye, Life” illustrates.

Screened at this year’s Fukuoka International Film Festival and scheduled to play at more festivals in Europe and the United States, “Goodbye, Life” has plenty of bloodshed but little in the way of conventional heroics. Instead, it presents the chaos of battle, the resilience of the noncombatants, the humanity of the enemy and the personal growth of the heroine — a young woman who comes to the front posing as a journalist, with the intent of finding an “honorable” death. Her real aim: suicide.

Modeled on Shah-Hosseini herself, Maryam (Ladan Mostofi) carries a camcorder (the same one Shah-Hosseini used as a war reporter), wears a man’s army uniform to disguise her identity (including Shah-Hosseini’s own helmet) and is distraught from a failed marriage. But as she stumbles among the shell bursts, she finds, not the sweet oblivion she was seeking but war in its all-too-real confusion, pain and fear. She decides she wants to live, especially after an encounter with a handsome commander, Bashar (Mohammed Mokhtari), who offers to help her escape the war zone and return to Tehran.

First, though, she must undergo a Dante’s tour of the hell of war, beginning with an abandoned village where a bride-to-be has been slaughtered by Iraqi soldiers, an Arab encampment preparing for the wedding that will never be and a field of helmets, as far as the eye can see, that are mute reminders of the dead. She becomes close to a woman in the camp, Jenan (Esmat Reza-Pour), who may accept the rules of her ultratraditional society but is outspoken, passionate and welcoming. Maryam becomes close to Jenan — finding in her a reflection of her better self, but war threatens again. Maryam’s tour of hell is not yet over.

Shah-Hosseini, a prizewinning novelist and filmmaker, underwent transitions similar to Maryam’s. “At first I wasn’t thinking about my country or the war,” she told The Japan Times at the Fukuoka festival. “My reasons for going to the front were personal. I married during the revolution. Back then I was idealistic about men and my country, but in my first year of marriage my feelings about both changed.”

She went to the front much as her heroine did — disappointed in love, with no greater ambition than to escape.

Seeing war first hand, however, shocked her out of her self absorption. She remembers seeing an Iraqi soldier searching for his brother and finding he had fallen in battle. “That sight affected me more than anything I saw among the Iranian soldiers,” she reminisces. “Now the Iraqis are fighting the Americans, but when I see that an American soldier has been killed, I am saddened, just as I am saddened when I see an Iraqi killed by the Americans. It saddens me whenever human beings are killed.”

Shah-Hosseini has also spent much time with the Arab tribe she depicts in the film, who were determined to carry on with their lives, even though their ancestral lands were on the front line. “They had it the toughest of any (group) because they lived the closest to the border, but during the war no one thought to help them,” Shah-Hosseini said. “Instead they had to find their own way to survive. I had great sympathy for their struggle.”

Like the Arabs she admired — neutrals who finally took up arms to protect themselves — Shah-Hosseini came to hate war but does not consider herself a pacifist. “The Iranian people are like that — they are basically peaceful and wish no harm to anyone, but when they are attacked they will defend themselves — I think that’s only natural,” she comments.

She also found that war, for all its horrors, has “one good thing about it.’

“Through war, human beings can discover strengths that they never thought they had,” she says. “When you are leading a peaceful life, you do not use your full strength — you do not even know you have it. But in an extraordinary situation like war, you realize you do have strength. I don’t mean the strength to destroy, but to build.”

Her sympathetic portrayal of Iraqis in the film, she says, reflects not only her own view, but another national trait. “We Iranians were able to forgive the Iraqi people soon (after the war) — that’s just the way we are,” she explains. “The religion of Islam places a high value on love — not everyone in the West knows that. We are like a white slate that people from the outside color in their own fashion. It’s easy to draw on white — to invent your own image about people you don’t know.”