A disturbing flight from enthusiasm into obsession is witnessed in Kamran Heidari's Ali Aqa, the story of an aging Iranian pigeon fancier and the toll his volatile eccentricity wreaks on his long-suffering family. Premiering in the feature-length competition at documentary giant IDFA, this Iran-Switzerland-France co-production is a well-crafted and unsettling work which poses some tricky questions about the practicalities and ethics of fly-on-the-wall non-fiction film making. It should find further perches at similar events and with a little trimming should find favor among TV buyers.
Things seldom work out well for pigeons in fictional cinema — the ones so lovingly tended by Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront and by the eponymous hero of Ghost Dog all meet grisly fates. They don't fare so well in this documentary, either, Ali Aqa proving a less than conscientious steward of the columbine avians in his care. A bulky 68-year-old who looks around a decade older and is suffering from a variety of serious health issues including diabetes, Ali Aqa is a frequent patient at his local hospital but must also make his household's living as an itinerant fruit and vegetable man.
He doesn't breed the pigeons for racing purposes — instead he supplements his meager income by selling to fellow fanciers. But the main benefit he obtains from his rooftop flock evidently comes from simple companionship. He's particularly close to one white female, and when she disappears a quarter of the way through the film, Ali Aqa is so distraught that his mental and physical condition rapidly deteriorate in perilous tandem.
Even when the elusive bird returns, the damage seems to have been done. He inflicts physical punishment not only on the hapless pigeon but also on his downtrodden wife — when he lunges at her with a knife, the moment of impact is masked by a brief flash of black scree — and his young grandson. He threatens to beat the latter with a large stick after the kid apparently fails in his bird-feeding duties, at which point director/editor/co-writer Heidari feels sufficiently moved to put down his equipment and directly intervene. The resulting altercation is captured via one of his collaborators' cameras.
By this stage, just before the one-hour mark, whatever sympathy we might have had for the ailing Ali Aqa has long since been eroded by his bad temper, violent outbursts and a basic incompetence in the handling of his feathered friends which verges on cruelty and neglect. What started off as yet another quirky character-study of a rascally oldster has darkened into much more troubling, complex territory. Ali Aqa's second half, with its protagonist seemingly on an inexorable downward spiral into misanthropy, mental illness and physical decay, makes for tough watching.
Heidari — whose two previous outings, the 65-minute My Name Is Negahdar Jamali and I Make Westerns (2012) and the 45-minute Dingomaro (2014), made little international splash — serves notice of considerable talent here. His doc is rough-edged when he wants it to be, as during the centerpiece scuffle involving the grandchild. The filmmaker even includes a moment when he wipes water from the lens of his camera, which could have easily been elided in the editing suite. But the movie is also slick enough to rely on sound-bridges for fluent transitions between scenes and to include delicate poetic montages in the latter stages.
In collaboration with screenwriter Ehsan Bahri, Heidari has crafted a distinctive miniature about masculine pride and how it can curdle into spiky paranoia. Studded with visual grace notes, the film features a soundtrack that wisely dispenses with non-diegetic music altogether in favor of the rhythmic cooing of the pigeons. Usually a cantankerous raging bull of a man, Ali Aqa is often shown being lulled to sleepy calm by his birds' soft sounds, slumped on the rooftop only yards from noisy neighborhood traffic, his savage breast temporarily soothed.
Production companies: Sunny Independent Pictures, Endjavi Barbe Art Projects
Director-cinematographer-editor: Kamran Heidari
Screenwriters: Ehsan Bahri, Kamran Heidari
Producers: Afshin Salamian
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Sales: Sunny Independent Pictures, Geneva, Switzerland (firstname.lastname@example.org)