Analysis Saturday Matinees Preview

Saturday Matinees Preview: Dark Room (2021)

Director: Vahid Aalam

Writer: Sadeq Hedayat

Cast: Vahid Aalam, Alireza Darani, Hosein Zohdi

Running time: 15mins

Over the last six weeks, Indy Film Library has supported artists from low-income backgrounds, opposition groups hit by censorship, and individuals in nations hit by international sanctions. To provide those artists with an international platform, the first season of our Saturday Matinees has showcased work from Brazil, Afghanistan and Egypt, where monetary and legal constraints have prevented the free communication of political and social issues.

The final film in our series comes from Vahid Aalam of Iran. A suspenseful short experimental film, Aalam’s movie breathes new life into the texts of one of the country’s great authors, Sadeq Hedayat, by adapting his short story Dark Room [sometimes also translated as The Dark Room or The Dark House] for a modern audience.

Best known for his novel The Blind Owl, Hedayat was one of the earliest Iranian writers to adopt literary modernism in their career. He suffered bouts of depression throughout his life, which were worsened by his sexual alienation (it remains a matter of debate whether Hedayat may have been homosexual or asexual), and the political degradation of Iran brought on by its monarchy.

Hedayat processed some of this in his writing – which was often wry socio-political satire, but also contained a darker thread of nihilistic surrealism. Even so, he still continued to slide into a deeper depression, and steadily withdrew from society, before tragically taking his own life in Paris in 1951. He reportedly left behind a note at the scene, which read, “I left and broke your heart. That is all.”

Many of these themes run through Aalam’s cinematic reincarnation of Hedayat’s work. The story centres on a man recounting a troubling encounter with a stranger, some weeks before, to a therapist. Our lead character is invited to spend the night at the house of a man he has just met, as he is in need of last-minute accommodation.

Initially it is unclear exactly why this meeting is such a cause for concern – but the tone of the film skilfully ramps up an air of menace that will cause you to think twice. Slow burning, atmospheric, the piece leads the viewer one way, before flipping the expectations it has primed on their head. The abstract horror that might have been incurred by this stranger simply being some paranormal entity, or a “serial killer”, is trumped by the much more everyday real horror of an individual who has been forced from society, and whose only comfort is now found in solitude.

The film was produced on a minimal budget, and that brings the kind of technical issues you would expect from it. Tin-can audio and unsharpened digital cinematography mean that the shadowy realm we are invited into is hard to make out, and characters often morph into a single entity – though for the sake of this narrative this kind of works, as the meeting could also be interpreted as an encounter with an aspect of the protagonist’s own personality, which he has been fearfully trying to conceal from the prejudices of wider society.

All in all, this means that despite its limitations, Dark Room is a great deal more than the sum of its parts. It serves up a surreal, ambiguous portrait of a psyche in turmoil, and will haunt viewers for some time after they see it. What better way to finish off this season of Saturday Matinees?

The film will be available to view for free from Saturday, until the end of the weekend, via our Saturday Matinees theatre page. As the film is still trying to gain access to other festivals, the page is password protected. Use the code IFLMATINEE2223 to access the film.

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