'The Unseen' ('Kaghaz-pareh ha'): Film Review

The Unseen Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Iranian Independents
Iran’s drug crisis in chilling miniature.

Animator Behzad Nalbandi uses cardboard figures to tell the tales of women addicts who once slept on the streets of Tehran in cardboard boxes.

In Iran, homeless street people are known as “the cardboard box sleepers.” With compassionate irony, The Unseen (Kaghaz-pareh ha) uses the same humble medium to tell truths too harsh to be spoken face-to-face. Graphic artist and documaker Behzad Nalbandi spent five years preparing and editing the film, a remarkably intimate portrait of five unfortunate women living in a shelter in Tehran that gets under the skin. Yet none of them appears on screen. Their recorded voices fill the mouths of animated figures, creating a distancing effect that makes their sad stories palatable and, dare one say, novel for audiences who would give straight documentary a pass. Running just over an hour, this unusual animated doc reveals an uncomfortable reality normally hidden from view, and its premiere at the Fajr Film Festival should be followed by plenty of festival dates.

One could see the film as a companion piece to the box office hit Just 6.5, a cops and pushers’ actioner that describes the inability of the judicial system to curtail Iran’s 6.5 million drug users. The Unseen turns the telescope around to focus on a handful of female addicts whose harrowing slide into meth, crack and heroin addiction put them on the street, then turned them into living ghosts in a government-supported home.

Nalbandi, who laconically narrates the film and conducts the interviews, explains that when a visiting dignitary comes to town, municipal authorities beautify the city by rounding up the cardboard box sleepers. The men are eventually released, but the women end up in a shelter on the edge of town and become wards of the state until they die. In these unmarked holding centers, the social workers keep no records and the women effectively stop existing. The only way out is to be taken back by their families, but it soon appears obvious why this is virtually impossible.

The film opens with a razor cutting out a box and gluing it together in the shape of a woman with a cloth rag on her head. A barren interview room completes the film’s ramshackle cardboard world. Nalbandi briefly describes how a friend working in the shelter agreed to let him meet some of the residents when the authorities weren’t around. His selection of subjects is chilling and to all appearances representative.

Arezou is 27 and has evident trouble expressing herself. “Meth made me like this.” Another girl in her twenties says she has been an addict since she was twelve. She was raped, then started hooking to pay for her habit. Another was ten when her father gave her drugs to try.

Their stories are similarly horrific. “Mom set herself on fire because Dad wouldn’t give her heroin. Then he killed himself.” Another woman’s sister and husband got into a fight with a knife and a cleaver. The sister’s body rotted in a well for five years. An older woman casually says her son is now a toothless 30-year-old addict. “If your life is broke, find hope in smoke.”

Behind all this misery is a common thread: the longing for love, for someone who cares and will take them in. “Boys ruined me,” says one girl. “I let him rape me because being alone hurt so much.” “I smoked because no one loved me. I could have turned out different.”

The shelter is surrounded by barbed wire. The girls who run away usually return. The grotesque cardboard cut-outs and the ruined potato-head faces end up making you uneasy. The social worker tells the director there are 60 detainees in the shelter and 30 beds.

It’s now five years since Nalbandi recorded his first interviews. Two of his subjects are dead and three are still living at the shelter. The friendly social worker has been fired. There are 90 women detained there now.

Director, screenwriter, producer, animator: Behzad Nalbandi
Music: Ata Ebtekar
Venue: Fajr Film Festival (Docs in Focus)
World sales: Iranian Independents
63 minutes