Crystal Globe Winner at Karlovy Vary – Summer with Hope
Young hope and desolation
The fire of tragedy burns slowly in the sophomore feature by Iranian filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi, so slow that one couldn’t even guess how imminent the flame is. Having freshly won the Crystal Globe at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Summer With Hope / Tabestan Ba Omid blends together the premises of a coming of age story with that of a family drama but ends up culminating in what is almost a thriller. Mistakes, egos, revolts, and unspoken words gradually accumulate, bringing a well-established Iranian family to the brink of despair, and testing the limits of love and, finally, of forgiveness.
The center of the story lies in Omid (Mehdi Ghorbani), a seventeen-year-old teenager and, likewise, a young hope in the sport of swimming, who is invited to compete in a race that would qualify him for the nationals, somewhere on the edge of the Caspian Sea. There is much at stake: his entire future. Aside from the fact that, if he ends up winning, he can postpone his military service, it’s not quite clear what this future will entail, but what is clear is that it would lead him far away from his current life. Quite obviously, everyone, from his mother Leili (Leili Rashidi) to his uncle Saadi (Alireza Kamali), is putting pressure on Omid – and it might be that he, himself, is the one putting the most. Despite the invitation, it turns out that the boy is barred from competing, possibly because he didn’t strike up the right connections at his swimming club. The idea that Omid might miss out on this chance leads to a crisis in the family, and generates hostilities between the young man and the adults, as everyone blames each other for the situation. It’s hinted that, of course, there are older wounds at play here, further inflaming the conflict.
Still, it’s quite uncertain what exactly is wrong: the film just pushes us into itself, like into water. Summer of Hope proves to be ingenious where it initially comes off as opaque, and reveals its context step by step, allowing spectators to connect the dots of these lingering, fragmented stories by themselves: a divorce, an authoritarian father, Saadi as a surrogate father and legal guardian of Omid, the director of the club who seems to have an interest in Leili, small issues in the apartment complex where they’re living. Foroughi’s brand of realism doesn’t look for a classical sort of exposition, but rather works with suggestion and the spectators’ power of intuition in order to understand what is going on in the few days in which the competition plays out. Details are gathered from conversations, glances, and reactions, while the unyielding camera gazes out placidly from a distance (and what often seems to be a dark place) as the tragedy escalates and the family relations slowly deteriorate. Amongst all these interactions, one can read hints of the social and hierarchical practices in modern Iranian society, from the restrictions and liberties of women to the patriarchal pressures exerted upon younger generations, along with the know-how of flattering the right person.
Omid’s teenage revolt is two-pronged: both against the adults, mostly men, who surround him, and against the sports club that denis his right to participate. The conflict is generational – as the usage of the youth hit song Ocean Drive by Duke Dumont schematically anticipates at the beginning of the film, as it’s immediately interrupted by a piece of classical music played by his mother in the family car. He seems to get on better with the kinder, more understanding Leili, while his uncle, rather more demanding and thorough, seems to generate more confrontations. Omid is unable to empathize with the rigorous and outdated models of the surrounding adults, but is idealistically seeking for his liberty, like so many other teenagers. Just as he repeatedly tells Leili and Saadi, the main chance offered by this competition is that he will be able to achieve more in life than they ever did, and to no longer be like them. The clashes between the family members also seem to come out of their inability to communicate the love and care that they feel for each other – saying “I love you” is shameful. Instead, love is manifested in a roundabout way, through the need to control and the rigor and pressure exerted upon Omid, in the hopes that this possible victory is essential for his own good.
More than just his I’m-not-a-kid-anymore style of stubbornness typical of any teenager approaching the age of eighteen, Omid also seems to be the victim of his own who, as a talented swimmer. The more his dedication for the story offers him meaning, the more dangerous it becomes. After being refused by the club, his only way to participate is to complete in a clandestine manner in a race where he’s not a specialist, at the suggestion of his trainer, Mani (Benyamin Peyrovani), who is also sort of his only friend. His friendship with Mani comes across as the only escape that he has out of his family’s hostilities, an escape that might even extend to the traditional roles of Iranian society, as there are some queer subtleties in their relation, who are often alone, at night, on the beach. But the film’s talent lies in its ambiguity, so that even the meaning of this camaraderie is left up to the spectators’ intuition and sensibility. In the end, the obsessive nature of the competition generates a chain of consequences that lead up to a violent climax, in which Omid’s actions have an unintended effect on the ones that are close to him. The camera’s calmness is interrupted by tracking shots and ones in which we see frantic swimming, as reality suddenly turns to a nightmare that none of the characters could anticipate, but whose terrain is set by all the small, slow-burning tensions peppered throughout the film. The chain goes even further and becomes one of sacrifices, which Omid’s close ones are ready to make in the face of horror, but also in the spirit of their profound, ill-expressed love.
Summer With Hope isn’t the most transgressive or innovative film that screened this year at Karlovy Vary, nor is it my favorite film in the competition, but it certainly deserves its awars. Sadaf Foroughi’s mastery lies in the way he calibrates his cinematography and narration to make them vibrate with latent anxiety, which comes to an explosive release in moment that cannot help but send shivers down your spine. The young hope sinks deep (to use topical terms) into hopelessness, in a case study on illusions, consequences and good intentions.