Professor’s film stares into the Face of the Enemy

by Andrew Doerfler / Beacon Staff • March 31, 2011

 

Three decades after Iran released the American citizens it had held captive for 444 days, SPEC and the visual media arts department plan to screen Face of the Enemy, Professor Hassan Ildari’s startling reflection on the aftermath of the Iran Hostage Crisis.

Though the film’s screening commemorates the 30th anniversary, it serves even more as reminder of continuing issues in the Middle East — from the recent uprisings to the hostage crisis’s lingering influence on the victims.

“When the hostages were taken, obviously it became a huge political crisis,” Ildari, who was born in Iran, told the Beacon. “But then it was also a human crisis.”

Face of the Enemy serves, foremost, as a tragic examination of the event’s intensely personal side. The movie, first released in 1990, follows former hostage James Wald (George DiCenzo) as he encounters and subsequently kidnaps Lillian Neal (Rosanna DeSoto), who Wald believes to be among those who tortured him during his time captive in Iran.

By imagining the course of this personal crisis in the most extreme case possible, Face of the Enemy creates a psychological thriller brimming with inner torment. Despite a low budget and some unrealistic turns in the story, Ildari’s film explores the eerie scenario in a thought-provoking and challenging manner: Both characters are convincing in their claims that the other is the evil one, yet each remains a sympathetic figure.

Wald’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder — depicted through the frequent dreamy, highly saturated flashback sequences — makes him especially pitiable: the condition has cost him not only his family but his mental stability. For him, release from captivity back to America was just the start of a new crisis — a sentiment that, for many real-life ex-hostages, continues to hold true today.

Thirty years hasn’t diminished the shadow the hostage situation casts over its victims — an article last month in The New York Times described the continuous but futile efforts of many ex-hostages to sue Iran for damages.

Due to the Algiers Accords, the deal reached between the United States and Iran, no legal action against Iran for the crisis has been — or, it seems, ever will be — successful: The U.S. agreed to give immunity to Iran in lawsuits seeking financial compensation in exchange for the hostages, according to the Times. Even after so many years, many of those once held captive struggle to shake the psychological burden of their experience.

The movie finds strength in the apparent weaknesses of its main character: Wald’s inability to fully imitate the abuses committed on him years ago, his rampant self-doubt, and his growing sympathy for his hostage make him a tragic aggressor. According to Ildari, Face of the Enemy is about “political and personal tyranny.” Throughout the movie, viewers see Wald grapple with seeing the other side of personal tyranny.

Ildari said he hopes the clash between tyrant and captive will mirror the broader issues going on in the Middle East. In the midst of the revolts in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, there has rarely been a better time to screen a film that explores such a dynamic.

“Today… and for the past perhaps 30 years,” Ildari said, “people in the Middle East in one way or another are saying loud and clear that they’ve had it with the tyrannical regimes that have been strangling democratic principles.”

More than anything else, the ambiguity that pervades Face of the Enemy reflects the idea that such conflicts can’t be taken as clear-cut, simple issues. As Neal watches her captor stray further from reality and Wald questions his desperate abduction, the film succeeds in humanizing both the corruption of absolute power and the drastic measures taken by radicals.

The current conflict in the Middle East demands such open discussions of tough subjects — something that those in power, especially in Iran, are making increasingly difficult.

Iranian directors Jafar Panahi and Mahmoud Rasoulof recently received jail sentences and decades-long bans on filmmaking for merely intending to make movies critical of the government. Other Iranian directors, like Abbas Kiarostami, have begun filming outside their home country in fear of similar treatment.

“The exercise of police state tactics reflects on everybody, but particularly it reflects on people who are in the business of creative endeavors,” Ildari said. “I hope that showing my movie highlights and brings attention to the current Iranian crisis — this crisis that suffocates free-thinking.”

Face of the Enemy screens tonight in the Bright Family Screening Room at 7:00 p.m., open to Emerson students.