Let’s talk about ‘Salam Cinema’ (, , , ) first (which actually means let me talk about …). The movie starts with a long scene of a very long queue of people densely crowded on both sides of the road on which the vehicle carrying the camera is moving. The scene culminates in a view of an almost riot in front of a building. It turns out that all those people have turned up in response to a small classified ad placed by the director Makhmalbaf for wannabe actors. In the hundredth year of the birth of cinema.
We see shots of all kinds of people: people of all ages; men as well as women; beautiful as well as not so good looking; and what’s more, the least to the most self-conscious. Jostling with each other for getting the form which has to be filled by the candidates. As the gates of the building open, we witness a stampede which reminds us of the numerous news stories of stampedes in which many people routinely get killed. Fortunately, no one gets killed here, as far as I know. We also see the shots of the director’s crew, holding cameras or making announcements to the crowd. Chaos is the word which will come to your mind if you try to describe this scene.
The scene then shifts to the inside of the building. We see a man sitting on a chair behind a table. A few yards in front of the chair and the table is a small square marked on the floor. We then see the prospective actors coming in and be told to stay within the square. The candidates are called in either individually, or (more frequently) in groups. Sometimes in large groups.
We realize that the dictator sitting on the chair and ordering the candidates to laugh or (more frequently) cry within 10 seconds is the director Makhmalbaf himself. The dictatorial director even counts loudly as the wannabe actors try to make a show of trying to cry or laugh. Which, of course, results in some strange spectacles. Those who can’t cry (i.e., almost everyone) in 10 seconds as the director counts up to 10, are summarily dismissed. But there are exceptions.
But if we keep our eyes and ears open, we also realize that the director is trying to show something more than the hold of cinema on the general population: the craze to be in the movies. That the director is deliberately behaving like a dictator to show us something indirectly. For example, when the two girls who have defiantly faced the director’s bullying are dismissed and then called back (more than once) and then finally made to sit in the director’s chair, they also start behaving like the bullying director. But before that, we see a long mock debate between the director and the two girls (well, for the girls it is not really a mock debate: they don’t initially know that the ‘screen tests’ themselves are part of a movie) about being an artist and being humane. Is it possible to be an artist as well as humane? After the girls fail to cry in 10 seconds, the director declares that they were humane but they failed as artists. There is another test for them. An old friend of the director who was with him in the prison during the Shah’s rule before the (Islamic) revolution has also come with his two children who want to act in the world famous director’s movie. The friend himself is questioned about his seeking favors from the director and is repeatedly reminded about how idealistic he was before the revolution. Actually, the director is quite sympathetic to him and is therefore also telling us about his friend so that we don’t judge him just because he is seeking favors the only time when we are probably going to see him. This friend, along with his two children, is often standing in the square with the two girls mentioned above. All of them are asked many times to cry or laugh. But the director brings in a moral dilemma for the girls by asking them whether they will sacrifice their places to the friend’s children as the friend had made sacrifices for everyone before the revolution. The girls hold firm and don’t agree to give up their places. The friend is also asked whether he can back out in favor of the girls and he agrees. We don’t know whether it is because he realizes that the girls are perhaps potentially better actors or he is making sacrifices for others again.
There is another argument between the candidates and the director. One of the candidates challenges the director to make his own professional actor (who is present there) to cry within ten seconds. The director initially denies that there is any professional actor present, but when the candidate identifies the actor, the director asks the actor in the same dictatorial tone to go stand in the square and cry within ten seconds. And he actually does just that. He is genuinely crying before the ten seconds are up.
Just to leave no grounds for misunderstanding (after all, when most people, including those who are supposedly scholars, don’t even know how to read properly, they can very very easily miss the point of the movie), the director asks the girls how could they be as cruel as him when they know how hard it is to laugh and cry on demand.
It is, of course, no coincidence that most of the screen time is given to the two girls (whose parents do not enthusiastically support their decision to act in a movie) and the old idealistic revolutionary friend.
It is also no coincidence that the director uses a dictatorial tone throughout the movie. He also plays along with the (men and women) ‘action’ lovers. In many shots we see the director firing with his hands at the ‘actors’ and the ‘actors’ making a show of falling down as if in a shootout. There are references to Hollywood movies and actors.
There are times when you feel that the movie is becoming exploitative. But the ‘actors’ are explicitly asked whether they agree to the ‘screen tests’ being a part of the movie. I don’t know whether it is pathetic or wonderful (from the magic-of-cinema point of view) that most of the members of the crowd outside the building (who are ‘killing each other’ to get into the movie) don’t even get to fill the form, let alone be ‘interviewed’ by the director. And those who are screen tested are not actually to be given any part in any movie except this one where the screen test is itself a part of the movie. Even though the girls and the revolutionary friend are told that they are already in a movie so they have become actors and will also be paid for their roles.
At the end, you still keep wondering what was it that all these people were seeking: money, fame, glamor, excitement or all of these or something else (like simply a job for survival). Or perhaps most of them didn’t know themselves.
There is even a young man who (quite convincingly) pretends to be a blind man who is passionate to act in movies. He even lies that he spent the night in the open ground outside the building. And he even cries. But in spite all his deceptions, perhaps he is indeed passionate about movies. That won’t be very unusual, would it?
And you wonder about the difference between the life in front of the camera and that behind it. After all, the movie is about cinema itself. But I am not sure whether ‘Salam Cinema’ was an appropriate title.
Perhaps it was meant to be a bit ironic.