The interaction between documenting the act of filmmaking and the final film as a meaning-making document for the filmmaker, subject, and spectator is a staple of postmodern Iranian cinema. Abbas Kiarostami experimented with it first in Close-Up (1990) and then in Through the Olive Trees (1994); Jafar Panahi, who served as his assistant on the latter, has been forced to do so since his filmmaking ban. Both these filmmakers filmed themselves filming their subjects to reveal something that only having them in the frame would not reveal. In other words, the combination, or better still, collision of cinema and reality — docufiction — was needed to discover something that they, the subject, and we could otherwise not see.
Farshad Hashemi’s debut feature, Me, Maryam, the Children and 26 Others, takes a similar approach to better understand Mahboube Gholami, the “naggy” tenant who leases her house to Hashemi and his crew for shooting a Marriage Story-style short because she needs urgent money. At first, she’s entirely disinterested in the film that Hashemi is making, constantly angry at him and his crew for painting her white wall blue without telling her, breaking multiple things in her house, and getting her cat’s neck stuck between a tripod’s stand (don’t worry, she comes out unharmed). Cinema is an angel of destruction for her at this point, intrusive and obstructive in the worst way imaginable. But gradually, its transformative potential comes to light. The blue paint, also used during the film’s introductory credits to first erase names plastered on the wall but then reprint new ones, becomes a symbol of rebirth; the chaos of filmmaking becomes calm chatter; the seemingly extraneous film-within-a-film about a separation becomes integral to reli(e)ving Mahboube’s traumatic past.
Hashemi’s “cinema as healing reality” mantra is undoubtedly sincere, but it works best when revealing itself, not when directly stated. Everything before Mahboube’s unpredictably open acceptance of Hashemi and his crew, then, feels potent. Our protagonist’s guardedness is key to this: we, like her, feel thrown right into the chaos without necessarily knowing how to respond. Like her, we too signed up to give ourselves over to the filmmakers, but such is their disorganization that annoyance negates sympathy, at least initially. The more we learn, though — about the budgetary restrictions of the crew, the intention behind the story, the story of other crew members’ life stories — the more we push closer to embracing them. Crucially, it’s still not stated out loud: it’s the leaning forward and listening, the imagining of oneself for the briefest second within the film-within-the-film that’s charged with the sensation of discovery, the unsureness of knowing what this union of cinema and reality will eventually entail.
About halfway through the film, though, Mahboube explicitly states this discovery. She’s then actively involved in helping Hashemi finish his short film, and through that, her story with her dog, Shellman, her deceased father, and her romantic partner. To some extent, it’s admirable that Hashemi doesn’t “solve” Mahboube (we only see glimpses of her romantic past, even less of anything of her relationship with Maryam). But, within the context of the film’s open-heartedness, these unexplained events feel frustratingly vague, not mysteriously ambiguous. For little of Me, Maryam, the Children and 26 Others is about discoveries that instigate further questions, especially on our part: it’s a sweet film about celebrating the heart as the art of filmmaking.
Published as part of IFFR 2024 — Dispatch 2.