Damascus Time (Be Vaghte Sham)

Iran (2018) Dir. Ebrahim Hatamikia 

This is something I never thought I’d see – an action film from Iran. Most films I’ve seen and reviewed from this nation have been critical social and political dramas towards the country’s oppressive ruling regime. Damascus Time may eschew these themes but it still has something prevalent to discuss.

Syria is under siege to ISIS with the airport of the eastern city of Palmyra is currently being surrounded by its soldiers. With many locals seeking refuge waiting to leave the city, two Iranian pilots, father and son Younes (Hadi Hejazifar) and Ali (Babak Hamidian) arrive in to fly them to safety in Damascus in a military cargo plane, the only one at their disposal.

Among the passengers are captured ISIS soldiers, but a distraction by female member Mariyeh (Nada Abou Farhat) disguised as a Syrian, allows the prisoners to be freed and hijack the plane. The leader Sheikh Mamdooh Sa’dieh (Khaled Al-Sayed) demands the plane is flown back to Palmyra, and having shot the original pilot, forces Ali and Younes to man the cockpit.

If you look on IMDb, this film has numerous glowing 10 star ratings, while on Letterboxd the scores are mostly in the ½ star region. What we can infer from this discrepancy in opinion is the positive reviews are most likely from Iranian writers and the negative from Arabic territories. If only I could read Persian and Arabic to confirm this.

Politically the tone and rhetoric is anti-ISIS but obviously not anti-Muslim. Most of the disputes between the Sheikh and Younes are about the Quran and “My God is better than your God” squabbles. They represent both sides of the Islam spectrum – Younes believes everyone deserves to be treated humanely, the Sheikh wanting to slay those he considers an infidel.

Yet the script goes further by introducing dissent within the ISIS camp as to how far is too far according to their mission – The Sheikh agrees to let women, children, and the injured go, but his son Abu Khaled (Layth al-Mufti) thinks he is being too soft and they should all be shot. This “extremism among extremists” doesn’t end with these two as we discover later, in a most grisly manner.

This divide of philosophy about the Qaran within the Muslim community is no secret but an Iranian film making this statement is gutsy. Thus, it becomes a vehicle to distance Iran from extremism by having the terrorists hail from other nations – including a Belgian – and the Iranians are the heroes, except films from dissenting voices like Jafar Panahi have made it clear Iran is not exactly a paragon of virtue itself.

Writer-director Ebrahim Hatamikia has clearly watched plenty of Hollywood films dealing with hijacks and sieges by the way the first five minutes set up the personal stakes of Ali, the de facto hero of this story. The explosive third act is also straight out of the action hero playbook; Rambo this isn’t, but it isn’t supposed to be given the poignancy of the sacrifices it details.

To summarise, Ali’s pregnant wife is ready to give birth after a previous miscarriage; he accepts his discharge papers until he learns of his father’s mission to Palmyra and defies orders and his mother’s pleas and joins him.  Later on after being captures by ISIS, the fate of everyone left depends on Ali. Join the dots – it’s as easy as it easy formulaic and surprisingly it works but the aftertaste following the religious showboating is bitter.

Perhaps there is a positive aspect to this being Iranian and not American as the flag waving patriotism would be unbearable if it were. Aside from a note at the start of the film stating Iran was first to offer aid to Syria and some subtle emotional manipulation in the denouement, the self-aggrandising smugness is all but absent. Not that it’s necessary, as it had made its point by depicting ISIS as a group unable to synchronise its ideologies.

But they are also utter barbarians and their terrifying deluded devotion to their distorted religious doctrine is given full attention as if we needed reminding. The apex of this is a young lad, no more than 12, brandishing a pistol and delivering an impassioned learned- by-rote speech about slaying infidels in the name of God, as the lead in to a mass throat slashing of the male hostages.

Regardless of the intent behind this film, it is hard not to feel a cold chill witnessing such scenes, or the intensity of the irrational hatred they hold for “infidels” irrespective of gender or age. If that was a primary aim beyond establishing ISIS as the villains then job done but unlikely to galvanise audiences as if this was about drugs or sexual abuse.

Hatamikia was clearly given a large budget and it is all on the screen, although it doesn’t stretch to make this an all out action blockbuster, so special effects laden set pieces are sparse – like a soldier’s head being blown off by the aftershock of an explosion! But it is all superbly shot and the flying/landing sequences are filmed from odd angles to take us into the heart of the drama.

Acting is pretty solid all round although Hadi Hejazifar is reported to be unhappy with his performance which I didn’t think was that bad. Babak Hamidian was much weaker as Ali, emoting with little conviction and less credible when he finally mans up. The strongest turns are from the ISIS fanatics, like Khaled Al-Sayed as the Sheikh, the passion behind their words means they are not so much delivered but spat with venom.

So, is Damascus Time a good film? Taken as a war themed action flick it does pull the viewer in and engages with its good vs. bad story, but the blatant political point scoring from a country like Iran sticks in the craw no matter where you watch this. A curiosity worth examining in that respect.