'Radiograph of a Family': Film Review | IDFA 2020

Radiograph of a Family
Antipode Films
Immersive and lyrical.

Firouzeh Khosrovani's prize-winning documentary uses the tensions between the filmmaker's parents as a mirror for Iran's turbulent recent history.

An elegantly composed mosiac of real events and artfully restaged memories, Iranian director Firouzeh Khosrovani's stylized documentary Radiograph of a Family is a personal passion project with rich political and cultural resonance. Subtly chronicling Iran's last few turbulent decades using her own parents as emblematic protagonists, Khosrovani's fourth feature makes imaginative use of nostalgic found footage, immersive sound design, love letters and vintage family photos, including some that the director salvaged and re-assembled after her religiously strict mother tore them into scraps.

World premiered at IDFA documentary festival in Amsterdam, where it won the main prize for best feature, this handsome multi-national production is a strong candidate for further festival slots, broadcast platforms and niche distributors.

Opening her story in the early 60s, a decade before she was born, Khosrovani blends archive photos, Super-8 footage and off-screen dialogue spoken by actors to recreate the awkward early years of her newly-wed parents. Her religiously devout mother Tayi, still an unworldly teenager, struggles with the culture shock of moving to permissive Europe to be with her older husband Hossein, who is studying to be a radiographer in Geneva. While she prays to Mecca, he eats pork, drinks alcohol in mixed-sex bars and listens to classical music. But after injuring her spine in a skiing accident, then falling pregnant, a homesick Tayi finally pressures Hossein into returning to Iran. The director herself first appears midway through the film in cute baby photos, home video clips and scratchy audio recordings.

Radiograph of a Family is an exercise in symmetry, both visual and narrative. The central plot pillar is Iran's 1979 revolution, which transforms a fairly progressive, secularized nation into an oppressive Islamic Republic. The power balance in Khosrovani's family mirrors this shift, her father downplaying his bohemian liberal habits while her mother is promoted through the educational system by the new regime. Western pop culture is banned, American flags torched in public squares. “The revolution entered our house,” the director recalls over images of black-veiled women disturbingly reminiscent of The Handmaid's Tale. “An entire government was now behind mother...”

Piecing together her family history across half a century, Khosrovani's creative approach to cine-memoir pays only fleeting regard to documentary naturalism rules. Instead she deploys techniques closer to fictionalized drama, including re-imagined dialogue and reconstructed interior sets. The family home at the heart of the story serves as a symbolic recurring motif, its decor increasingly austere as hard-line Islam sweeps Iran. Later in the film, the director commemorates her father's death with a lyrical visual effect, simulating celluloid film melting in a projector gate. A bravura extended closing shot combines slow motion zooms, tricksy editing and an antique X-Ray of her mother's spinal injury. Pure poetry.

For younger audiences, or viewers with scant knowledge of Iranian history, this personalized take on momentous events might have benefited from a little more political and cultural context. Some outside voices could also have enriched this story, notably the director's mother, who is still alive and makes a striking cameo appearance. But beyond its subjective specifics, Radiograph of a Family also delivers a universal message about how marital bonds can survive even deep rifts in faith, lifestyle and values. In our polarized times, Khosrovani's finely crafted chronicle of enduring love strikes a gracious, moving, uplifting note.

Venue: IDFA
Production company: Antipode Films

Co-production: Rainy Pictures , Dschoint Ventschr, Storyline Studios
Director, screenwriter: Firouzeh Khosrovani
Producers: Fabien Greenberg, Bård Kjøge Rønning
Cinematographer: Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah
Editors: Farahnaz Sharifi, Jila Ipakchi, Rainer M. Trinkler
Art director: Morteza Ahmadvand
Sound designer: Ensieh Maleki
Music: Peyman Yazdanian
Sales company: Taskovski Films
82 minutes