1978, Abadan, Iran: a packed cinema goes up in flames. Almost 500 people die. Another 278 climb to the roof, to safety. Islamic militants claim responsibility—a terrorist attack on a fragment of westernised culture—and the fire triggers the Iranian revolution, ushering the Grand Ayatollah and an Islamist regime into Iran.
Cinema retells that event from the perspective of the cinema’s (fictional) in-house cat, Shahrzad. Like her namesake in 1001 nights, she’s a storyteller, and she insists that every single person sat in those auditoria had a story of their own.
Her plea—in a text by Steven Gaythorpe—is quietly, defiantly democratic. Not the top-down singularity of the cinema screen, but the many stories of the audience – a metaphor, surely, against the Ayatollah’s reign. The art-form, too, is significant: populist, affordable and accessible. Far from being a corrupting influence, “an insult to the Prophet,” as the Islamists maintain, cinema is a modern form of the campfire: stories flickering in the dark. The very things that make us human.
And yet, and yet…there’s just not enough here to really fill an hour. The lives being described are never really lifted beyond their banalities and Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh hasn’t the force of personality to really entrance an audience. Gaythorpe’s text needs paring down and distilling: there’s too much pussycat, at present, and too little politics. Clearly, as ISIS tears through the Middle East, installing a deeply regressive regime, this has the potential for real potency.