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Epistolary cinema, in which directors communicate via digital video, has quietly emerged as a distinct sub-genre over the past half-decade or so – and now a pair of very different UK-based directors join illustrious ‘pen-pal’ predecessors such as Jonas Mekas, José Luis Guerin, Lisandro Alonso, Albert Serra and Abbas Kiarostami. A five-part correspondence between Edinburgh-based polymath Mark Cousins and London-resident Iranian writer-director Mania Akbari, Life May Be is a wistfully poetic exchange between close friends that successfully straddles the tricky line between private communication and public consumption. Cousins and Akbari’s international profiles will ensure plentiful festival exposure for this exquisitely rarefied but surprisingly accessible example of unapologetically personal film-making.
Cousins, of course, has plenty of ‘form’ in this regard, the critic/programmer/traveler’s prolific output – which most famously includes the epic Story Of Film series (2011) – often encompassing diaristic, travelogue material subjectively presented through the director’s eyes, digital cameras and distinctively confiding voice-over. Akbari is better known for fictional fare, the sometime actress (Kiarostami’s Ten) having emerged as one of Iran’s most prominent female directors with 20 Fingers (2004) and One.Two.One. (2011). Resident in London since fleeing Tehran during the production of her previous feature, Akbari makes for an eloquent and compelling correspondent here, musing on the representation of the human body in art, frankly discussing her own physical transformations as caused by cancer-treatment, and recalling notable episodes from her recent wanderings.
The ‘letters’ take the form of discrete, narrated dispatches running between ten and twenty minutes, Cousins initiating the process with an enthusiastic paean to his friend’s abilities – he compares her work with that of Martin Scorsese on two separate occasions, and elsewhere describes her as an Iranian Virginia Woolf. We’re very much in a harmonious zone of mutual appreciation here – no friction, no hint of disagreement, instead an optimism and positivity expressed with such sincere directness that it quickly becomes beguiling. Both correspondents revere the woman who’s very much the guiding spirit of the film: Iranian poet and film-maker Forough Farrokhzad, director of 1963 classic The House Is Black, who’s heard reading from her work from time to time, including from the poem which provides Life May Be with its title.
The fifth ‘letter’ profitably dispenses with narration altogether, Cousins’ distinctive Northern-Ireland-cum-Scottish tones giving way to Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem as on-screen titles accompanying a stirring, eclectic montage of natural and man-made wonders – images gleaned from a life spent, it seems, perpetually on the move. The overall impression is of eavesdropping into the lives of two cinephile cineastes, both of them engagingly erudite and perceptive, while flicking through a generously illustrated scrapbook of their intensely-experienced inner lives.
Production company: Hibrow
Directors / Screenwriters: Mania Akbari, Mark Cousins
Producer: Don Boyd
Executive producer: Dominic Dowbekin
Editors: Timo Langer, Paria Kamyab
Sales: Hibrow, London
No Rating, 86 minutes
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