Feature Documentary Reviews

Bloody Petrol (2021) – 2.5 stars

Director: Reza Azadi

Running time: 52mins

A sombre thought experiment is to ponder which of the odious regimes around the world one would least like to be governed by. Sadly, there are a hell of a lot of contenders out there but, on most metrics, the Islamic Republic of Iran is certainly up amongst the winners.

The poet, Louis MacNeice, in a prayer for a yet to be born child, prayed that they be kept from the man who is beast or who thinks he is God. The Iranian regime (yes, they are all men) manages to combine both of MacNeice’s attributes in a supremely horrible way. Beast – a murderous response to any forms of dissent in the form of judicial and extra-judicial torture and killings. As a theocracy, the regime although not thinking it is God nevertheless claims to have its own hotline to the divinity so any form of protest about the apparent pervasive corruption perpetrated by the revolutionary elite can be characterised as opposition to the Will of God – a neat double-whammy.

Given the events of the last few weeks – I am writing on 18 October – with the regime’s vortex of evil, Evrin prison, going up in flames and street protests led by women burning headscarves rocking the country, Reza Azadi’s documentary Bloody Petrol is an extremely apposite piece of work. Azadi provides us with a depiction of a previous iteration of anti-government protests that took place in November 2019 in response to the regime’s decision to raise the price of petroleum by 300% – hence the movie’s title.

Azadi’s film gives us a visceral insight into the horrors of how the regime deals with dissent. However, for your reviewer, despite some profoundly moving sequences and some clever touches, Bloody Petrol does not work very well as cinema.

Azadi is an exiled Iranian journalist living and working in Europe. The vast majority of the documentary is taken up by what I assume to be footage filmed from the mobile phones of protesters in various locations in Iran. In what must have seemed to the director as somewhat of an investigative reporting coup, we hear recordings of a police force’s internal communications team discussing how to deal with the protesters – no surprise here – it is pretty much shoot the brutes.

In an attempt to give the protests some national and global context and to draw our attention to what the director contends to be the international media’s indifference to the suffering of the Iranian people, Azadi includes short news clips and talking head discussions taken from Iranian state media, various US TV channels and Al Jazeera. There is a short piece of original work at the end of the film which acts as a coda and a memorial to those protesters murdered by the regime’s forces and sympathisers.

The key problem with Bloody Petrol is the inordinate amount of time that Azadi gives to the mobile phone footage – I found it almost unwatchable and, in a weirdly reprehensible way both as a film reviewer and as a human being, boring. We are shown what felt like an interminable series of sequences of jerky film where protesters, in 2019 these were overwhelmingly male, confront the police – gunshots ring out – cut to a body on floor with blood gushing usually from the head – cut to frantic efforts by comrades to provide medical assistance – cut to outpouring of grief when comrades realise the victim is dead. The same scenario plays out again and again. I fear that Azadi by taking such a monolithic approach will lose their potential audience. Although at IFL we stay to the end, I cannot imagine most casual viewers would endure the full litany of horrors – which, given the importance and contemporary relevance of the subject matter, is not a Good Thing.

And a pity, because there is some fine and interesting work in the movie that would be missed. The clip of an Iranian interior ministry official evoking Rousseau’s theory of the Social Contract to legitimise the shooting of unarmed demonstrators is, for any student of tyranny, a collector’s item. So too is the televised speech from everyone’s favourite Twelver Shia cleric – Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. Khamenei comes across as benign and avuncular, as though they had just taken a huge dosage of diazepam, and gently chastises the protesters for getting above themselves – a weird display of cognitive dissonance given the blood flowing in the street.

The movie’s endpiece works extremely well – aided by some fine editing from Leenard Fieret. The camera moves from a petrol pump to a collage of pictures of the regime’s victims and then focuses in on the victims as individuals whilst on the soundtrack some of the mothers of those shown chant: “I am mother of everlasting name“. One of the mothers then reads out a beautiful resonant poem set to music – one of the many memorable lines I picked up on being: “the whole country is a cage“.

The endpiece is such an engaging and powerful piece of cinema that I feel the director has missed a trick – it would have made a great introduction to the movie and would have helped to draw relatively uninformed international viewers into some sort of comprehension of the situation within Iran.

In the coda, Azadi uses their investigative journalist skills to come to a rough estimate of the death-toll amongst the protesters by looking at excess mortality rates – a technique that many of us remember grimly from the pandemic – and comes up with the figure of 4,000. The director informs us that many hundreds more are still held in prison, denied access to basic needs such as health care, with many in Evrin which this week we saw go up in flames.

Azadi takes the opportunity of the coda to reiterate a condemnation of the global media for its complete silence over the atrocities. I take the director’s point as to the nauseating solipsism of much of the Western media, but I think complete silence is a bit of a stretch – I am not that much of a news junkie, but I was reasonably well informed, living in the UK, as to the events unfolding in Iran in November 2019 as I am about the current wave of protests.

In order to get their charge to stick, it would have been useful if Azadi had provided more context and analysis of the various media clips used in the film. Indeed, a greater concentration on context and provenance throughout the work, in particular the mobile phone footage, would have been hugely beneficial. Although I appreciate any explanatory detail would have had to be handled with great care given the long tentacles of the reach of the Iranian state apparatus.

The sense I got as to the genesis of Bloody Petrol is that the director, as a political actor, was seduced by the emotional power of the footage that their comrades, no doubt at great personal risk, had managed to provide. The failure of the movie is that the material, by its nature deeply heroic, has not been shaped into a coherent artwork – it is not up to the task which it needs to undertake – to convey truth in an untrue form.

However, in relation to both Iranian society and to the world beyond the country’s borders, Azadi has left a marker – a memorial to those who died and who are still suffering for the part they played in the events of November 2019. In another time and place, another dissident Milan Kundera had it spot on in the context of struggle against a different but depressingly similar set of tyrants…The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.  

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