I first noticed him from the corner of my right eye. I was talking to Abel Ferrara, who had just screened his “Pasolini” (2014) in Venice and had now come to join me and the other jury members at a film festival in St Petersburg, Russia. It was mid-October 2014, and the weather was autumnal and sunny. Inside the festival hall, abuzz with excitement, we were getting ready for our jury press conference.
The young man eventually came forward with a disarming smile, a bright and joyous face, a mild and warm demeanour, and introduced himself to me in Persian: “Greetings Professor Dabashi! My name is Keywan Karimi. I am a film-maker.”
We hit it off as if I’d known him forever. After I was done with my jury duties for the day, I told Keywan I wanted to go and find the cafe where legendary Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Mayakovsky used to hang out.
“You mean the Stray Dog Cafe,” he said with an assured smile on his face. “I can take you there.”
The Stray Dog Cafe
Sharp, inquisitive, naturally gracious – and yet exquisitely probing – Keywan was a conversationalist by nature. Entirely unconscious of his misleadingly boyish face, he exuded an unusual command of high European theory, and before I knew it, he was engaging me in a comparison between Guy Debord and Roland Barthes. How, when, did he get so engaged with such issues, I wondered.
We entered the Stray Dog Cafe and found ourselves a cozy corner table; Keywan ordered us some tea and coffee, and we sat down and talked: film, fiction, cinema, poetry, politics, theory – right where Akhmatova had frequented and Mayakovsky had recited, acted, and performed his poetry, famously in a yellow sweater which he donned as “the slap of the public taste”.
From Mayakovsky’s cafe, we decided to walk to Anna Akhmatova’s home and museum. The streets were mostly vacant, dimly lit and quite cold. Keywan talked about his forthcoming film projects, while through what seemed like his mental GPS of St Petersburg, he was leading us towards Akhmatova.
Iranian cinema has hit a plateau. Its globally celebrated masters keep repeating themselves, while major film festivals around the globe keep featuring their search for a new vision of their craft.
Before we reached Akhmatova’s house, at a corner street, Keywan stopped and said: “There is where Joseph Brodsky lived.”
We crossed the quiet street – yellowish, eerie, nonchalant. With my iPhone, Keywan took pictures of me from my back as I was reading a memorial stone. I looked at the pictures. I looked like an aging Raskolnikov.
We turned around and continued towards Akhmatova’s place. As we entered into a side street towards the entrance, dry leaves bristling indifferently under our feet, I had a bizarre sense of deja vu: I had walked this path before, knew Akhmatova was waiting for us. Keywan was calm and quiet as a clam – he had been here before.
Flogging a film-maker?
The following day, Keywan arranged with the festival authorities for me to watch his most recent film, “Writing on the City” (2012), an excellent documentary on the evolution of graffiti in Tehran over the last three decades plus.
The film resonated with me for reasons beyond its own immediate merits. About three decades ago, I had written a book on the iconography of the Iranian revolution of 1977-79 that included a chapter on these graffiti.
Later, Hamed Yousefi, another gifted Iranian documentary film-maker, did an excellent documentary for BBC and further expanded on some of the themes of that book, “Staging a Revolution” (2002). With his “Writing on the City”, Keywan had brought the narrative of those graffiti down to the aftermath of the Green Movement of 2008 with an acute sense of history and aesthetics.
My final memory of Keywan was early in the morning when I was leaving my hotel for the airport to leave St Petersburg for New York. He had come to the hotel to see me off when we exchanged the details of our whereabouts to stay in touch.
Almost exactly a year later, just last week, I was shocked by the news that “an award-winning Iranian film-maker whose work focuses on the travails of modern life and political expression in the Islamic Republic has been sentenced to six years in prison and to 223 lashes over his films”.
I read further, and this film-maker was no other than Keywan Karimi.
I could not believe the news: the absurdity of the charge, the obscenity of the sentence, or the sheer vulgarity of flogging a young film-maker for making films.
Today I can no longer think of Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, or Brodsky without thinking of Keywan Karimi within the same mental frame of my memories. It deeply troubles me to imagine Keywan in the claws of similar Stalinist vulgarities of power that marred a magnificent moment in the history of Russian poetry and literature.
Keywan should be free, flying, happy, productive, daring to dream – the boorish banality of this ugly sentence lifted from his liberties to make more films, discover more truth, see the more hidden corners of the calamities that have afflicted his homeland, and show us the more sinuous labyrinth of things we might not have known within his beautiful cinematic meandering. He needs nourishing: He hails from the Kiarostami corner of our global visions of truths.
Iranian cinema has hit a plateau. Its globally celebrated masters keep repeating themselves, while major film festivals around the globe keep featuring their search for a new vision of their craft. Keywan’s generation of film-makers is the promise of that unforeseen future.
But unlike Jafar Panahi or Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Keywan Karimi will not be featured in Berlin or Venice film festivals, irrespective of the quality of their films. He is just a little-known, young, Kurdish-Iranian film-maker. But mark my words: His name will outlast the ignominy of his prisoners. Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Joseph Brodsky are all standing next to him as witnesses to my words.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.