Searing Summer (Tabestan-e Dagh)

Iran (2017) Dir. Ebrahim Irajzad

Being a parent is not an easy job. You have to do everything you can to protect your children which means making decisions that affect them as well as you and sometimes they may not always be the right one. This debut film from Iran looks at this scenario set to a backdrop of an oppressive patriarchal society in the Middle East, where being there for your children becomes a problem in itself.

Nasrin (Parinaz Izadyar) has a dilemma – either stay in a loveless marriage or divorce her husband Farhad (Saber Abar), which will mean forfeiting the right to custody of their six year-old daughter Hanieh. Nasrin moves away with Hanieh in tow, getting a job at a hospital crèche, befriending the mother of one of the children, a doctor at the hospital Sara (Mina Sadati).

Since the shifts of Sara and her doctor husband Iman (Ali Mosaffa) tend to clash, Sara pays Nasrin on the quiet to babysit their son Parham, which she reluctantly agrees to in case Farhad, who has tracked Nasrin down, finds out. But one night when Parham is left with Nasrin, a distraction for Nasrin leads to a tragedy that will shake the two families to their core.

Asghar Farhadi has a lot to answer for following his 2012 Oscar win for A Separation, inspiring a generation of Iranian filmmakers to cast a cynical eye over the state of their country, and how the Middle East is falling woefully behind the rest of the world in its treatment of women. Of course, this is for the better if it opens the right eyes, but the fact these films still need making means some remain firmly closed.

First time director Ebrahim Irajzad and writer Payam Karami do appear to have been cut from the same cloth as Farhadi in targeting the difficulties of divorce for women, but this is no cheap clone – they touch a raw nerve head on where Farhadi would be cautious and ensure that the pain is felt all round. The situation might feel a little exaggerated when viewed through western eyes, but it does highlight a serious concern about child safety.

The reason for the separation between Nasrin and Farhad isn’t disclosed in any detail, although an early exchange about his smoking and the debts he has run up is the closest we get to one, with Farhad insisting there has to be more than that. Again, without going into detail it is heavily implied that, in complete contrast to the west, Nasrin would have few to no rights as a mother to custody for Hanieh should the divorce actually go through hence her needing to disappear from Farhad’s radar.

Nasrin has a small apartment which she shares with Naser (Yasna Mirtahmasb) who is either her brother or nephew (his relationship isn’t made clear) and Hanieh. A surly teen, Naser gets a job as a motorbike courier which Nasrin objects to but relents as it at least gets him earning. They have a next-door neighbour, a midget woman that Hanieh is scared of for some reason whilst aeroplanes fly overhead with a deafening roar.

Meanwhile at the hospital, Sara and Iman are arguing, partly due to their clashing schedules meaning Parham is left with Nasrin longer than his allotted time, but also because Iman wants to move to another hospital to avoid an angry relative who keeps attacking him after his father died on the operating table under Iman’s watch.

Following the path of a natural social drama, the first half of the film is spent introducing us to these particular elements and the principal players, but with a perfunctory 80-minute run time, this is a lot to be devoted to their quotidian, if complex lives. But it makes all the difference once the tragedy occurs and suddenly we go from melodrama to traumatic nightmare.

On the surface there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of contentious issues, beginning with how young Hanieh is quiet self-sufficient at an such an early age, which some people might find endearing. This becomes an important plot point when Nasrin is forced to leave her alone on the night a stressed out Sara is due to drop Parham off for babysitting, yet it asks the important question is it is really alright to leave a capable child alone even for a short while?.  

Because both mothers are guilty of assuming this much responsibility on Hanieh, they are both considered to blame for the tragic occurrence by the men – Nasrin for not being home and leaving Hanieh unsupervised and Sara for leaving Parham with “strangers”. It’s not that straight forward as both do cover their bases in enlisting help but they were forced into their respective distractions by the men in their lives, so why is it fair they should take all the blame?

What makes this so harrowing to watch is that so much suffering has been incurred from one tiny lapse of judgement which could have been avoided if systems were in place to give the mothers the support they needed. I can see some interpreting this validating the idea of women staying at home to raise the kids and not working, but this glosses over the reasons why some women are forced to work in the first place.

The final thirty minutes are tough to watch, not just because of the implications and emotional fallout of the tragedy, but the way the women are framed as the villains of the piece. Yet it is the believable performances of the cast that make it so palpably gut wrenching, a credit to the talents of Parinaz Izadyar and Mina Sadati and the young girl playing Hanieh.

Irajzad keeps his Farhadi influences strictly thematic whilst suggesting Jafar Panahi in the naturalistic camerawork to make Searing Summer a confident and devastating debut to what looks to be a promising career and another significant voice in Iranian cinema.