The First Letter

English Title: The First Letter

Original Title: Abjad

Country of Origin: Iran

Studio: Novem Productions

Director: Abolfazl Jalili

Producer(s): Emmanuel Benbihy, Abolfazl Jalili

Screenplay: Abolfazl Jalili

Cinematographer: Mehdi Majd-Vaziri

Editor: Abolfazl Jalili

Runtime: 113 minutes

Starring/Cast: Abdolreza Akbari, Fariba Khademy, Mina Molania, Mehdi Morady, Gholamreza Tabatabaei

Year: 2003

Volume: Iranian

Outside Tehran, in the town of Saveh, 16-year-old Emkan is in frequent trouble with his surroundings. He is torn between his deep, instinctual passion for artistic expression and his parents’ conviction that his creativity is an offence against their Muslim faith. Though very bright, Emkan is constantly berated by his father for his interest in music, photography, calligraphy and poetry. When a new girl named Maassoum moves into the neighbourhood, they strike up a tender friendship which develops into love. This relationship feeds Emkan’s burgeoning desires to explore his talents and experiment with arts he has not encountered before – photography and motion pictures. However, his father’s ongoing disapproval, and the changing political climate of the time, present Emkan with the increasingly difficult task of negotiating the family’s traditions, his own faith, his irrepressible nature and his feelings for Maassoum.

Abolfazl Jalali’s films perfectly represent the new characteristics of post-revolution art-house Iranian cinema, which are the common elements in the films of film-makers such as Kiarostami, Panahi, Samira Makhmalbaf and Majid Majidi. This type of cinema, although successful in finding an important place in the international scene, has more or less failed to attract a domestic audience, and has been criticized by some Iranian film critics as merely being a ‘festival favourite’ kind of cinema. Amongst them Jalili’s films, due to his unique cinematic approach and emphasis on documentary elements, and by avoiding classical narrative structure, has had the smallest audience among Iranian cinema goers. In his films, Jalili is mostly concerned with criticizing tradition, the fundamentalist conception of religion, and the moral taboos within a conservative religious society.
Abjad is to a great extent an autobiographical work, and is inspired by Jalili’s own personal life. The story of a teenager named Emkan who rebels against the restrictions and religious constraints in the fanatic and traditional atmosphere of a provincial town, and despite his family’s wishes, spends his time on interests such as painting, calligraphy, music, photography and cinema. At the same time, he falls in love with a Jewish girl, whose father owns a movie theatre, and Emkan designs signboards and gate posters for his cinema hall. This film, which is in fact telling the story of Jalili’s own youth and his infatuation with cinema in a closed society, deals more than any other film in Iranian cinema with the issue of tradition vs modernity, and depicts an atmosphere filled with fear, distress, and repression, which is something that has always been facing Iranian artists. Emkan feels a frightful contrast between his natural and reasonable wishes and the expectations of the traditional society surrounding him. He is the muezzin at a mosque, goes to a religious school and fasts even on non-Ramadan days. But the society that is moving quickly towards modernization, examples of which can be seen everywhere, takes Emkan with it as well.
Abjad might be the first Iranian film that portrayed the reaction of the conservative and fundamentalist Muslim clergies against music, painting and cinema. The mullah teaching at the school, punishes Emkan for drawing the portrait of a woman on the blackboard, the neighbourhood’s clergy reprimands him for bringing a violin into the mosque and bans him from being the Mukabbir during prayers. However, since the film is based on historical events, Jalili’s carelessness in recreating historical details and an accurate and realistic portrayal of the atmosphere of the time period in which the film is taking place, can possibly be seen to have damaged the believability of the film in the eyes of the audience, and to have weakened their connection with the film. These details not only include songs and musical compositions that are supposed to reminisce a specific time period, but they also encompass people’s clothing, the equipment and material used on the set, as well as the display of certain scenes from the old films shown in the town’s movie theatre. In terms of substance and atmosphere, many of the scenes that take place in the relatively distant past prior to the revolution look no different than the ones that happen in the present time.
The biggest historical error in the film is in the scene where Emkan, who makes signboards, is doing calligraphy on a work commissioned by the Iranian Tudeh Party (an oppositionist, communist party) during the days prior to the Revolution. It is quite obvious that the Tudeh party near the end of the Shah’s regime, when the Iranian political system was a single party, did not have any open and publicized activities to need a signboard for its office. As well as this, the film’s logic and its inner reality necessitate that Emkan’s age and appearance would change in the passage of time, yet during the long period between his childhood and his adolescence we see he is played by the same actor with no noticeable change in his appearance.
The use of the music and voice of Mohammadreza Shajarian − the prominent and famous vocalist of traditional Iranian music − for the soundtrack plays no role in creating the film’s atmosphere, and is probably due to the film-maker’s sheer personal interest. His fondness for the maestro had been so much that he even dedicated the film to Shajarian. Though containing all of the elements to make it a work that stands out as pioneering and an important breakthrough in Jalili’s career, it is to a certain extent a flawed final product which lacks certain merits to make it an outstanding success in the field of artistic Iranian  cinema.

Author of this review: Parviz Jahed