In the ancient Persian epic poem Shahnama, an evil king seeks out people to feed to snakes until a just and virtuous man offers himself as a sacrifice.The poem has a lot to say about the abuse of political power, which is why a young Tehran based theatre group have adapted it into a play that they want to tour round Iran. Of course, this being Iran they have to get it past the censors!
A Play for Freedom is a vibrant, inspiring documentary that follows the theatre group as they tour in their huge truck that opens out into a stage. They travel through the stunning mountain scenery of rural Iran to take the show to villages and small towns where the residents have never seen theatre before. It is clear from the rapt expressions on the children's faces that they are captivated.
The film is beautifully edited, with performances of the play intercut with scenes from rehearsal, arguments between the cast about censorship, scenes from the bustling city life of Tehran and interviews with the cast.
It's interesting that even after the censors have seen the show, it still has a very relevant political message for today. The children may not entirely appreciate the political message but there is also a strong message about speaking your mind and the women in the cast offer inspiring role models for the girls and women in the audience.
A film for anyone interested in the power of theatre and the effect of censorship (a very different film in the film festival that also focuses on censorship in Iran is Fron Tehran to London, which I reviewed here).
A similar ancient story about the misuses of power forms the basis for the Chinese film Emperor Visits the Hell. In this case, the source material is the Ming Dynasty classic Journey to the West, which in the film is retold using contemporary characters. The Emperor is now a calligrapher, the Dragon King a petty mobster.
The film is beautifully shot in monochrome, moving from a beautiful lake to claustrophobic interior settings. The story is told with a wonderful deadpan humour, which shows up the absurd contrast between the human and supernatural roles of each character. In ancient times it was much more commonplace to think that supernatural beings walked amongst us and that we could move with ease between the earth, heaven and hell. This film shows how odd those beliefs seem when interwoven into a contemporary setting, but also highlights how people can see themselves as much more important than their everyday roles allow them to be.
Both these films make the viewer appreciate the value and relevance of ancient literature.
These films are showing as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival:
A Play for Freedom: 2030, 26 June and 1300, 29 June both at Cineworld.
Emperor Visits the Hell: 1815, 26 June (Filmhouse) and 1945, 29 June at Cineworld.
Disclaimer: I have a press pass for the Edinburgh International Film Festival and attended free press screenings of these films.