Tehran Has No More Pomegranates

Anyone who has lived in Tehran knows how rapidly it morphs and expands.  One can hardly keep track of the establishments opening or being shut down in a given week or of the buildings being erected in this neighborhood or that.  It is no wonder, then, that Masoud Bakhshi chose in Tehran Has No More Pomegranates to document the megalopolis with archival footage.  Realizing the futility of any attempt to take an accurate snapshot of today’s Tehran, he opted instead to juxtapose old black-and-white film clips with more contemporary color material to chart the city’s progress.

Comparisons of past and present, ranging from police uniforms to the treatment of women to the occupations of the city’s inhabitants, are made with glib, tongue-in-cheek humor.  It takes a certain amount of familiarity with the city to know exactly when the filmmaker is stating a fact and when he is being coy.

Bakhshi is quick to absolve himself of the historian’s responsibilities.  Just as he has no qualms about being unable to show us anything close to the totality of Tehran’s present form, he has no pretense of accurately piecing together its past.  The city’s history, he tells us, has been written by foreigners wedded to preconceived agendas and by Iranians who have tended to stretch the truth.

With this disclaimer in mind, we are taken back to the inception of Tehran as the country’s capital by Agha Mohammad Khan of the Qajar dynasty.  We journey through the Russian and British colonialist periods, the modernization project of Amir Kabir under Nasser Al-Din Shah, the democracy and hopefulness of the Mossadeq era, the coup that followed, and finally the Islamic Revolution.

Surveying the awful pollution, chaotic traffic, and devastating economic disparities in post-revolutionary Tehran, Bakhshi turns our attention to hyper-construction.  Persisting with his ironic narration, the filmmaker introduces us to Jafar Agha, who makes bricks for a leading property developer, Babak Joon.  Babak lives with his wife in a luxurious 600-square-meter apartment uptown; Jafar, in a 20-square-meter room on the south side of town with a family of four.

The theme of development and progress (or supposed progress) is central.  We are told that the sale of density rights — allowing developers to construct buildings higher than ordinarily permitted — is forbidden and that the construction of buildings without permits has been halted.  We are introduced to another resident of the city, Mohandes Khani, who tells us (rosary in hand) of the time and energy he dedicates to creating low-income housing in south Tehran, before describing his other main pursuit — buying land and constructing luxury apartments, then selling them for several times their cost when the property value rises.

Such observations are accompanied by the recurring voice of Jafar Agha, a small town man who speaks politely of Tehran but also offers sincere criticisms that stand in contrast to the narrator’s cool, dry tone.  The result is a multilayered film that makes a point of provoking its audience, albeit playfully.  For a movie that covers such a large sweep of history in such a short amount of time and opts out of delving very deeply — or even seriously — into many of the major concerns of Iran’s capital city, Tehran Has No More Pomegranates gives us a good deal to think about.

The film screens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Saturday.

This article was first published by Tehran Bureau on 24 Feb 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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