Throughout his career, Sohrab Shahid Saless drew out the transnational aesthetics of in-betweenness and displacement. His work, committed to a relentless questioning of the order of things, always thinks the past together with the present. Shot in 13 days with a cast of lay actors recruited from the streets of Kreuzberg, Far from Home (1975) is marked by Shahid Saless’s own migratory life, he having recently arrived in West Germany from his native Iran. The film delivers a trenchant portrayal of Husseyn, a Turkish guest worker who speaks little English or German, in 1970s Berlin.
Shahid Saless deals with the dismal West Berlin skies and the anonymity of the cityscape through simple, long, deep-focus shots down endless streets, animated only by the repetitive acts of daily life. Often he leaves us to our own devices once Husseyn has walked away: We wait for interminable seconds at the entrance of the Moritzplatz subway station or on the other side of the street in the midst of traffic. It is difficult to locate Husseyn among the crowd of other trench-coated passersby. Demanding our attention and patience, Shahid Saless offers in return a peaceful and powerful contemplation on the pace of life in conditions of migration and exile.
We first meet Husseyn in his workplace, where we will see him many times again. Seated in front of a screeching punch-press, Husseyn repeatedly inserts tin sheets, pressing and discarding. He seems to be mostly alone in this room of the factory, except for a coworker, preparing to return to their home country, to whom Husseyn wishes a terse “good luck.” Very little is said throughout the film: unremarkable announcements from the train conductor, unreciprocated conversation on a park bench, loud remarks from a fellow passenger: “Go home, back to where you came from.”
A sparse shared flat serves as refuge from the cacophonous factory and the alienating streets. At home, the guest workers gather to eat meals, play backgammon, and reveal their hopes to find lovers or to hear from family members back home. Shahid Saless meditates on the make-up of this collective and their shared acts of homemaking: A woman cooks the meals and is joked to be Husseyn’s wife. Husseyn brings home a gift for a young girl staying with them. One resident tutors the others in German (though Husseyn is only interested in the art of the pickup). There are frequent, satirical negotiation of borrowing and lending money. Flatmates discuss the realities of working life, their wages, and what percentage of savings one can afford to send home to their family.
Shahid Saless’s cropped interior photography takes the viewer very close to his characters, as if the tiniest facts of history could be seen in the changing of a face: the silent contemplation of the woman watching the blond German visitor drink tea, or wandering eyes that briefly meet each other upon learning of one’s father’s death back in Turkey. These shots individuate the characters within a shared space while reinforcing the unified experience of their condition.
Breaking up the monotony of the long and repetitive camerawork in the streets and in the workplace, the warm colors and close-ups of family-like domestic life announce the drama of human desire and kinship. This is true especially in Husseyn’s bedroom, shared with another man. In this room, two brass twin beds mirror each other, each set beneath hard-to-see posters that seem to be erotic portraits of women. Their empathy finds form in simple acts: to assuage his roommate’s grief, Husseyn brings him a glass of water and tucks the man into bed. When the men are at their shared desk, drafting letters home, Shahid Saless keeps the lighting dim. With these scenes, simultaneously the most cryptic and the most expositional of the film, the director complicates the portrayal of interiority. He is not interested in simply making these men’s grief, or their temporary friendship, available to be “known” to the viewer; he shows that there is value in ambiguity, in privacy.
Shahid Saless gives locomotion, a story, to migrant friendships and to the everyday desires of the worker. Husseyn is repeatedly turned away from his own desires, mostly around possibilities of play and romance: twice he’s coldly shooed away from his flatmates’ game of dice; twice he’s met with a slammed door at the brothel, even after he begs to be let in. Throughout, Shahid Saless places Husseyn in spaces where leisure and pleasure take place—only to confront him with the realization that these thresholds are still out of his reach.
During Shahid Saless’s life, his films were not seen in Iran outside of festival screenings in Tehran. He became deeply frustrated with the lack of arthouse distribution infrastructure in his home country. His first feature-length films were shown in Paris and in competition in the 1974 Berlinale. Encouraged by their reception and under pressure from the Shah’s new regime and the restrictions it imposed, the filmmaker moved to West Germany and made Far from Home just a year later. Shahid Saless documents diasporic life during political instability in Iran, which was particularly heightened in 1977, the peak of demonstrations against the forced urbanization and industrialization of the White Revolution. This turmoil contributed to Shahid Saless’s decision to stay in Germany, although he soon became disillusioned with the structural hurdles of the country’s film funding, especially for immigrants. He had chosen exile, a key theme of his cinema, and continued to lead a migratory life, eventually leaving Berlin for Chicago, where he died in 1998. Although he shot 13 films in Germany between 1975 and 1991, his work remains largely unknown and unavailable.
In Far from Home, the shadows of the stairwell that Husseyn must climb and descend every day are daunting, seeming to multiply its length. Shahid Saless ends his film here, between dimensions, as if history and the future, too, remain unavailable to him.
Far from Home screens this afternoon, October 28, and on November 8, at the Museum of Modern Art, the New York premiere of a new digital restoration. It is part of the series “Iranian Cinema before the Revolution, 1925–1979.”