A Best Feature Film nominee at the recent Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA), The Bear (Khers) is the 10th work from Iranian director Khosro Masoumi and represents his most emotionally-charged story to date. Having won international recognition for his past works The Assignation (1987), Feather for Flight (2001) and Somewhere Too Far (2006), Masoumi based his latest film on the tragic actions of a displaced soldier.
It is my hope that this kind of film will stop our government from going into another war
“[The film] is based on a true story,” Masoumi tells SBS Film (via a translator), while visiting Brisbane for the Awards ceremony. “It came to me when I saw the gravestone of a child and the story developed in my mind very quickly. The site was in the mountains of the Visar Forest, which is in north Iran, near the Caspian Sea.”
Masoumi was returning from the set of his 2003 film Tradition of Lover Killing when his driver related the local tale of a serviceman, believed to have been killed in action, who returned to find his wife remarried and his family home ruled by a stranger. The driver took Masoumi to an isolated, decrepit cemetery and pointed to a headstone; chiselled into the rock was the statement, 'A 7-month-old girl named Sareh, her 11-year-old brother and their mother were shot to death by a cruel father'.
In the 67-year-old's reimagining of the events, a series of crossed paths result in escalating tensions that lead to a graphic climax, one that has left festival audiences stunned. (Masoumi, whose direction was nominated by the APSA voting body, accepted the Best Film trophy at this year's Shanghai Film Festival.) For the Behshahr native, the story is both intrinsically Iranian in its exploration of the culture of martyrdom and gender roles and universal in its study of grief, jealousy and honour.
“Our country has some men like him, who return from war and find it very difficult to resume their lives. His life is one of the consequences of the war; it is damaged,” says Masoumi of his lead character Noureddin (played by Parviz Parastouie). “Also, the women and children, as they are presented in the film, are not typical but they do exist.” He points out that the struggle his protagonists endure is not uncommon but that his plot is a fictional construct, based more specifically on the tragic history of those whose names he saw on the gravestone.
The Bear features achingly naturalistic performances from two child non-actors, both of whom react to some shocking scenes of domestic violence. Masoumi offers assurances that cinematic sleight-of-hand is what makes the physical threat seem real, though he acknowledges that both young co-stars were made aware of enough plot details to comprehend the horrors of the story.
“Because the very young children were unaware of cinematic technique, they played their parts like children playing. It was my job to put them in the shoes of their character and bring them to the situation in the scene,” he explains. “That is the trick of the director. Once they are convinced of the reality of their characters' situation, then it becomes easy for them. This is why their performances are very real and why they are not 'playing' for the cinema.”
Masoumi's films have always exhibited a strong sense of social justice, often commenting on the policies of Iran's ruling parties. Given that The Bear depicts a soldier whose glorified and falsely precipitated death becomes a waking nightmare of post-traumatic stress and unpredictable violence, its fate seemed foretold.
“My film actually criticises the war and the consequences of the war which is why, at this moment, the film is banned by the Iranian government,” he says, with an air of resignation.
“But there is hope that these types of films bring to the attention of the government that war is a terrible thing and that the consequences of the war are damaging families, their land and Iranian society as a whole. It is my hope that this kind of film will stop our government from going into another war.”
The Bear is playing to international audiences who appreciate slow-burn, superbly crafted works; the film is executed with a prowess that belies its low budget origins. Khosro Masoumi believes his film's global success boils down to a universal connection to its themes.
“The notion of war does not belong to any one country; war is global. Fighting and the consequences of conflict impact individuals all over the world. The story in my film could be happening anywhere, it could be happening everywhere,” he says. “And war does not just impact those that are fighting the war, but also those that are going about their daily lives. My movie is representative of those people everywhere.”