Notes on film: The Neighbour

Note: Written for the Samsung Women’s International Film Festival 2011, Chennai.

Director: Naghmeh Shirkhan

Time: 104 min

Country: Canada/Iran

Genre: Feature

The Neighbour is an unconventional love triangle involving two women and a girl. Shot in mostly tight interior spaces, it tells the story of a woman, her neighbour and the neighbour’s child and the way their lives become entangled.

Shirin reaches out to Leila

Shirin (Azita Sahebjam) is a single mature woman, an accomplished Iranian folk dancer and teacher in Canada. She is desperately missing a real connection in her life. Her lover is only a functional asset to her life; she dumps him when he asks too many questions. Into this vacuum, steps in the neighbour’s latchkey child Parisa (Parisa Wahedi). Parisa washes the dishes, entertains herself, and looks after herself while her mother, Leila (Tara Nazemi) leaves the apartment everyday to be with her lover. Parisa and Leila’s week is punctuated by long-distance phone calls from an absent father and husband. Shirin and Parisa haven’t met yet; however in two shots that follow each other showing them in the emotional heart of the home (the kitchen) we know they will get along very well.

On the other hand, Shirin and Leila could not be more different. Many shots focused on Shirin’s graceful and smooth dance moves in two genres (folk, tango) which is a sharp contrast with Leila’s clumsy ice skating. Leila has no purpose in life; Shirin’s purpose is her dance.

Shirin tries to befriend her neighbour but is met with a cold reception. The inevitable happens. A crisis (in this case, Parisa’s illness) propels Leila to ask for Shirin’s help. In the beginning, Leila is happy that she has found a babysitter. However, when she realises that she is being excluded from the happy circle, she tries to separate them. Shirin’s nourishing presence makes Parisa blossom whereas Leila’s careless mothering leaves Parisa scarred, insecure, and wise beyond her years. Between the fast food served by her own mother and the homemade food served by the neighbour, the child knows which one is good for her and slowly gravitates toward Shirin. In one memorable scene, Shirin brings over a plateful of homemade food to Leila’s house but that is rejected.

Both Shirin and Parisa are artists: Shirin with her dance, Parisa with her playacting and dressing up. It’s no wonder they come together. Later this is reinforced when Parisa enjoys Shirin’s dance lessons. Leila, on the other hand is a stumbling ice-skater, literally walking on thin ice when it comes to her daughter.

Shirin and Parisa

Through Shirin and Leila, we see the stereotype of the good mother/bad mother played out. Ironically, neither of them are stereotypes and one of them is not even a mother. Shirin has her own demons to deal with including her troubled relationship with her mother, who in her turn– in this circle of repetitions – is dealing with her relationship with her own mother i.e. Shirin’s grandmother. Every where you look in this film, you will find a mother-daughter pair who love but do not understand each other.

A day comes when Leila walks out on Parisa leaving her in Shirin’s capable hands. Shirin steps in literally (in Leila’s clothes on Parisa’s insistence) assuming the role of her mother, looking after her, and searching for the absent mother.

Leila also has an internal vacuum to fill, only she doesn’t realise that it’s for her daughter to do that. She searches for love in sterile pubs and hotel rooms when all the while it waits for her at home. By the end of the film, she has an epiphany and makes the crucial trip home. Shirin can only step in temporarily. In order for the cycle to be complete, the real mother must return.

Parisa is quite a complex character by herself caught between two mothers she needs but who don’t see eye to eye. When she is with Leila, she asks to be with Shirin. Her constant refrain, ‘I am hungry!’ is a loud proclamation of her emotional hunger. Later, when the situation is reversed, she keeps asking for Leila.

Thoughtful touches like Parisa’s hair elevated the film from the ordinary. Parisa’s hair is like her emotional barometer. When she is with Leila, it is dishevelled but when she is with Shirin, it is tied neatly. But when Leila disappears –ostensibly for good—her hair goes back to her old state. Her hair seems to indicate what the child cannot—Parisa needs both the mothers, which eventually happens.

Shirin’s fluid folk dances echo the dance of the whirling dervishes. The lush green light of her dance studio underlining the fact that dance is her love and her life. Some scenes were stunning in visual detail like the ones of the women in black dancing. Tara Nazemi and Naghmeh Shirkhan have created a Leila of such Brechtian detachment that no one can sympathise with the character. This alienation was important to achieve the balance in the film. Azita Sahebjam played Shirin in an intense yet restrained way. Parisa Wahedi’s natural acting was a sheer delight. She reminds me—in appearance only—of Mani Ratnam’s Anjali and Sanjay Leela Bansali’s Michelle McNally.

Naghmeh Shirkhan has created a sensitive film that explores the complexities of modern women’s lives.

Image courtesy: http://www.chicagofilmfestival.com

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2 thoughts on “Notes on film: The Neighbour

  1. A thorough review…it’s taught me in a way to look for connections and even metaphors in visual images. Thanks for such a deep and thought-provoking review. Will try to watch the film. Keep writing, long time since we saw anything…:)

    1. Hey H, that was fast! Thanks! I think I ‘read’ a film much like a literary text. So, this is a reading/interpretation/analysis/whateveryoucallit. Reviews will happen for sure.. maybe one day. 🙂 True, I saw this only because of the film fest.

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