“Who am I?” Tayi asks. Her life so far has culminated in this moment, when she realizes the world she clung to was gone for good. “Radiograph of a Family” opens years before Tayi gets to this point — all the way back before she married Hossein, before she followed her husband to Switzerland and before the birth of Firouzeh Khosrovani (the film’s director), which returned her to Tehran. What follows is a cinematic memoir, a poignant and engrossing documentary using personal mementos to create a radiograph of Tayi, her country-hopping life and her family.
Khosrovani opens her film, a documentary of her mother’s life after marrying, with a simple scene. The camera pushes through a still room in a house in Iran with dust covers thrown over its sparse furniture, and Khosrovani’s only narration is “mother married father’s photograph.” Anticipation builds as a piano melody pirouettes through the room and a soft afternoon slant diffuses through the windows. Something is fundamentally off, though; where’s the vitality — what happened in this nice house?
“Radiograph of a Family,” which played at the 2021 San Francisco International Film Festival, tells us what happened using mementos and memories, starting with that wedding day. It turns out Tayi did marry a photo, as Hossein was too busy studying radiology in Geneva to attend. Just as we’re starting to meet this woman, still a teenager, she’s off to Switzerland and all of its Western affronts. Hossein, a secular progressive, is a contradiction to Tayi, a traditional Muslim, and she immediately feels out of place.
We meet the couple in pictures before ever seeing them together. Khosrovani constructs her film from family photos, archive materials and a mix of real and imagined dialogue voiced by actors. Just as the couple don’t quite meet on a soulful level, we know them by fragments of themselves, primarily by the sound of their voices. Conveyed with inventive, stylized craft and brisk pacing, the details we’re privy to are sharp and insightful; despite how different these two strangers are, the narration reminds viewers of their love.
But because we can never see their faces, it’s hard to tell how true that love is — the most gorgeous bit of this documentary is its poised and complex navigation of its central relationship. So it hits hard when Hossein asks Tayi to do his bidding without question as his wife. The gall!
Soon enough, once the pieces of these two lives have fallen into place, “Radiograph of a Family” heads back to Iran with Firouzeh’s birth. They leave Switzerland with a going away party. The party is nothing unusual, but it’s for him, and Tayi was never integrated into his life. Her existence was as a hanger, a coat rack for Hossein’s wants.
Khosrovani forms something of a parallel, with her film unfolding symmetrically from Iran’s 1979 revolution. That directionless Tayi, the one who asked herself “who am I,” turned into an unapologetic revolutionary. She burns American flags, she’s a school principal and she’s reclaiming the house. Gone are Hossein’s luxuries, replaced by a rigid adherence to faith, ever-catalogued with photos and the set of the home, which take a turn for the austere.
Khosrovani’s most magical suspense lies in the first half of her film. That might be a consequence of history, a result of the two different stories she’s telling. One is the first half, set in Switzerland, and filled with unique personal details. The second half sees the Iran-Iraq war, a matter of history that disrupts the suspense of the first half’s developments. Some forbearance of the film’s direction arrives with history.
That’s only to say “Radiograph of a Family” becomes familiar, not that it stops being touching. Yet, Khosrovani leaves questions about her family unanswered. Her mother and father grew distant after her birth. Was there more to tell? At the end of the film, Khosrovani introduces us to Tayi as she is today. Her spine, injured in a ski accident, never healed, as seen in the radiograph Hossein, now passed, took of Tayi decades before. The visual poetry of the X-ray is the spine of the film: an immensely complicated story about a messy, curved, cracked world.
Contact Dominic Marziali at [email protected].