'Orduckly' ('Ordakli'): Film Review

Courtesy of Farabi Cinema Foundation
A grimly poignant look at childhood.

This Iranian film revolves around a schoolboy who is bullied because of his name in 1967 Tehran.

Inspired by the works of Jean Vigo and Francois Truffaut and their odes to troubled childhood, Orduckly (Ordakli) mingles a child's fantasies and dreams with the cold reality of growing up in Tehran under the shah. Writer-director Behrouz Gharib Pour, who is celebrated as the founder of revival Iranian opera and marionette theater, brings an unusual sensibility to his first film along with a distinctive Iranian atmosphere. He was the co-screenwriter on Amir Naderi’s 1984 classic The Runner, a drama told from a boy’s point of view, and his deep understanding of children brightens the harshness of this vision of a grim world gone by.

The storytelling is old-fashioned but masterly, and if the film is a little on the slow side, it should still be a good catch for festivals. It made its market bow at the EFM in Berlin.

Shot mostly in dreamy black and white, with snatches of color glimpsed only in a few flashbacks to the boy’s village, it may have more hold on adult viewers than kids, who could have a hard time relating to the pupils’ shaven heads and the ironclad discipline of the sadistic, whip-wielding faculty. But there is much for younger audiences to enjoy, like the antics of a group of mischief-making friends and the Keystone cop who chases them around the neighborhood. The spare decor, black-and-white images and a notable tendency to one-shot scenes give the story the exotic fascination of a silent film (though there is dialogue).

Bayram Orduckly’s beloved mother is dying from a respiratory disease, and his father has brought her to Tehran from their village in Azerbaijan in a desperate attempt to save her. When little Bayram transfers to the Hedayat Exemplary School, he finds himself both the top of his class and mercilessly mocked by classmates and teachers alike because his last name means “duck.” It is a common name in his village, but becomes the source of cruel badgering from class bullies.

Bayram’s chief tormentor is Azizi, who leads his band of hell-raisers in teasing puppies and climbing lamp posts to remove the bulbs. Chased through the streets by a Chaplinesque local policeman with a mustache and baton, Azizi slinks home to his uncaring father and pregnant stepmother, who wants him out. At her egging, his dad kicks him out of the house one morning before school starts, almost drowning him in a pool of water.

Azizi is spared a second beating by the principal because the school is preparing to celebrate the shah’s self-elevation to the title “King of Kings” on Oct. 26, 1967, and the boy is to play an important role in an athletic performance in front of the shah: He will climb to the top of a human pyramid of boys and hold the man’s portrait aloft. This key moment is rendered as a fantasy sequence in which a defiant Azizi floats into the air in front of a marveling Bayram.

Hedayat may be an “exemplary” school, yet the principal and teachers are depicted as anything but social workers – most of them are as stupid and prejudiced as their pupils and lead the taunts about Bayram’s name. Only a few enlightened adults appear to counter their ignorance. Bayram’s father, above all, is an honest man who recalls the desperate hero of De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. (He even rides a bike.) Although his drama is not only poverty but his wife’s grave illness, his love for his son shines through these dark days.

Bayram is filmed mostly in long shot, head bowed. The greatest insight into his psychology comes from his dreams and nightmares, shot by DP Keyvan Motamedi in a gay riot of colors characteristic of his native village, and the brooding shadows and half-light of Tehran’s forbidding public edifices. Overhead shots suggest a God’s-eye-view of the dramas unfolding in the schoolyard and hospital.

Tech work plays a major role in creating the film’s unique atmosphere, from the barren, almost theatrical sets to the students' thick, poorly cut uniforms. Amir Behzad’s score is poignant and subdued, but soars with ethnic music in the charming village scenes.

Cast: Shahrokh Forutanian, Ehsan Ameni, Hengameh Ghaziani, Radin Bagheri Firouz Salari, Yousef Jivan, Payam Ahmadinia, Jila Shahi
Director, screenwriter: Behrouz Gharib Pour
Producer: Ali Hazrati 
Director of photography: Keyvan Motamedi
Production and costume designer: Behrouz Gharib Pour
Editor: Emad Khodabakhsh
Music: Amir Behzad
World sales: Farabi Cinema Foundation
Venue: Berlin EFM (market premiere)
90 minutes