The Struggle for Freedom

An award-winning Austro-French movie premiers in Vienna

On The Town | Matthias Wurz | February 2009

Film director Arash Riahi (Photos: Reinhard Bimashofer)

Already from a distance, those who were just passing the Gartenbaukino on Dec. 10 could notice the commotions at one of Vienna’s traditional 1960s cinema.

The foyer and corridors were filled with hundreds of people, mostly young ones, chatting and waiting in excitement. With 736 seats, the last surviving large one-screen cinema, with 736 luxurious red, though a little outworn, chairs was host to a special film preview, and indeed the seats were filling fast, judging by the long cues at the ticket office.

SOS Mitmensch, the Austrian human rights and anti-racism pressure group, was the host to this special event of the Austrian-French production Ein Augenblick Freiheit by the Iranian-born Austrian Film Director Arash T. Riahi. In a loose series of film previews, including the one tonight, under the heading of ‘Drei Filme fürs Bleiben’, the organization promoted the idea for a universal right of permanent residency for refugees (the so-called Bleiberecht). And Ein Augenblick Freiheit translates the political demand into powerful pictures.

Riahi’s film was first shown at the Worldfilm Festival in Montréal in August 2008, where it picked up the award for ‘Best First Feature Film’. Pocketing almost a dozen international accolades since – including the Viennale’s ‘Best Austrian Film’ – Ein Augenblick Freiheit premièred in Austrian cinemas on Jan. 9, 2009 (see also Events, page 15).

The film preview certainly conjured up an atmosphere of poignancy. The date - Dec. 10 - was deliberately set to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. The whole event - screening, subsequent panel discussions and live performance of the Austrian-born Kurdish musician Karuan - offered much more than an evening at the movies.

As I settle into the large red chair in the movie theater, the red curtain slowly rises, wrenching the audience into a different world. An execution scene opens the film, and that forms the frame – as I realized in later stages – for the movie: the need to escape from Iran.

The film connects three different life stories, no all of them end happily. The movie does not focus on the actual escape but the life the refugees face once they reached Turkey; but the life in transit, blighted with uncertainty and the struggle for recognition as refugees by the United Nations.

We are taken to a remote Iranian village where two young children of about six or seven years of age – Azy and Arman – guided by two young men in their early 20s, Ali and Merdad, aim to join their parents in Austria. The characters wind their way across mountain peaks and a rich natural backdrop, before descending into Turkey: Guided by human traffickers, the small group struggles through snow and ice on foot, horseback or by car.

The pictures are rich in natural landscape, as the characters make their way across the mountain areas. Among the touching scenes here was the dramatic revival of Aram, the little boy, almost frozen to death when camping outside at night.

This life story, however, has a happy end, because "it tells the story of my two younger siblings," Riahi said in an interview with us about one month later. He himself also took this dangerous trip with his parents in 1981.

"I was nine-years old when we fled Iran across the mountains. For me, it was like an adventure, and indeed that is what my parents kept saying to me then," and his face, otherwise open and with a naïve, nevertheless charming smile, became much more serious as his thoughts were clouded with past struggle.

Although the film has a powerful documentary quality, especially the linear progression of the timeline – Riahi’s most previous film projects were of that genre – the construction and combination of the true life stories, however, is fictious. It took about seven years researching, writing the script and finally shooting the film.

As we arrange the time for a more extensive interview, he suggests the night of the official film premiere at the Votivkino.

"I do not need to see the movie yet again ;) ," he replied jokingly in his email to our request, indicating that the project from a creative point-of-view is already a closed chapter, but that does not mean, however, that the touching stories told here are not important anymore, rather the contrary.  And so, we sit down in the café of the cinema while the screening takes place at the same time.

Riahi reiterates that shaping the traumatic theme of refuge into a feature film allowed him to endow harrowing true life stories with a sense of dramaturgy that "shows a greater form of truth."

All protagonists – Ali and Merdad with Azy and Arman – another couple, Lale and her husband Hassan together with their son Kian, narrowly escape arrest by Iranian soldiers while fleeing across the mountains.

The film’s protagonists end up in a run-down hotel in Ankara, where we encounter the third set of life stories opening out; with the young Kurdish boheme Manu sharing a room with the middle-aged Iranian political activist Abbas.

Manu and Abbas form a refreshingly uncomplicated friendship and add an enlightening tragic-comic flow to the serious and heartbreaking narration of the movie. In a particularly striking scene, both men – frustrated with their prison-like diet bound to financial restraints – decide to catch a goose in the park. This quest for a more substantial meal – featured on the film poster – yields surprising results.

Sat in my cosy red seat, the realities of the danger and uncertainty following the initial act of escape becomes more vivid with each scene of the film. As the prolonged drama unfolds in the setting of transit countries, the reality of a refugee’s rejection by society also becomes stark.

Building on this powerful depiction, is Riah’s clear conviction: "Everyone must have the right to go where he or she thinks they can find happiness." And with a smile lighting his face once more, you get the impression he has found his place here in Vienna.

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