Firouzeh Khosrovani’s documentary Radiograph of a Family opens with an image that is both hook and omen: her mother’s wedding in Tehran, as she is being married not to a groom, but to a picture of her father, Hossein. While this is explained as a necessary compromise so as to not impede her father’s radiology studies in Switzerland, it points to an essential divide between Tayi and Hossein which the film aims to explore and evoke, between separate cultures, countries, and ways of living. Spanning an uncertain amount of time between their first meeting and Hossein’s death, the film, which won Best Feature-Length Documentary at IDFA 2020, invokes a series of wider sociopolitical issues within its shifting style, to both its benefit and its detriment.
In the absence of a plethora of footage of her father and mother, Khosrovani has opted for a more elliptical approach, relying mostly on photographs and repurposed Super 8mm footage, which have been overlaid with her own voiceover, scripted conversations between her mother and father recreated by actors, and music and sound effects that neatly interweave with the frequently blurred and degraded images. This hazy footage is deliberately contrasted with a pristine recurring image of a house that evokes the family home in Tehran, which is always shot via a slow tracking shot and redecorated throughout the film to represent the different states of the family’s living at the time.
Radiograph of a Family is fundamentally the story of constantly clashing views on religion and lifestyle: Hossein embraces Western culture and no longer seriously practiced Islam by the time he met his wife, while Tayi is a devout Muslim who undergoes an identity crisis when she begins married life in Switzerland. After the couple move back to Tehran to give birth to Firouzeh, Hossein largely recedes into the background, as Tayi discovers the teachings of influential revolutionary Ali Shariati, and soon after joins the Iranian Revolution and becomes a figure of minor prominence within the movement, devoting herself more and more to the cause as Hossein’s previous disregard for his wife’s requests is forced to diminish.
Throughout, Khosrovani latches onto intriguing details that point to a fittingly polarized experience of homeland and identity: when they initially return to Tehran, the friends that Hossein frequently host seem to Tayi to be far more reminiscent of Switzerland than the Tehran that she grew up in, and at a crucial juncture the two speak French to each other, in order to keep the conversation from Firouzeh’s ears. But while Radiograph of a Family is consistently well-crafted, it often risks reducing the complexities of the director’s parents and their relationship to a fundamental incompatibility, evident from the very first dismissal that Hossein makes of Tayi’s adherence to Islamic customs.
With practically no middle ground established in the film, it frequently lacks a strong and fully-formed viewpoint, which makes the personal aspects rise to the surface only fitfully. The people, and thus the cultures they represent, seem to be incapable of interacting in a harmonious manner, a sentiment which might have considerable weight if it was more willfully emphasized or deemphasized. Still, Radiograph of a Family encourages a complicated but ultimately admirable ambiguity, a state of inbetweenness experienced first by Tayi and then by Firouzeh herself, where the quest for self-discovery can be illustrated in a potential home movie here, a tinny audio recording there.
Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2021 — Dispatch 3.