Fact, fiction and eccentricity in Parviz Kimiavi’s images from “the garden of stones”

by Ramin S. Khanjani Volume 19, Issue 6 / June 2015 34 minutes (8349 words)

The deployment of fictional techniques within the structure of documentary films has been a perennial area of argument for both directors and scholars. While one group firmly believe in the purity of the form, others argue that documentary films benefit from resorting to a level of fictionality, yet there is no agreement as to what extent the blending of fiction and non-fiction is acceptable without affecting the film’s claim to truth, a desire ostensibly informing the production of many documentaries. With the pair of movies, The Garden of the Stones (1976) and The Old man and His Garden of Stones (2004), director Parviz Kimiavi furnishes us with appropriate examples to scrutinise the efficacy of this proposed hybridity. Although made more than a quarter of century apart, both films consider the same subject matter; a deaf and mute shepherd named Darvish Khan, who abruptly decides to set up a garden of withered trees festooned by blocks of stone of varying size, and devotes the rest of his life to the expansion and protection of this arcane collection. For his first movie on this topic –which earned Kimiavi the Silver Bear award from 26th Berlin Film festival in 1976– the director opted for a cross-over between fiction and documentary by placing the shepherd and his family within an account of the genesis of the garden, told almost in a manner of a fiction. Twenty five years later, after staying more than two decades in France and making documentaries for French Televisions, Kimiavi revisited the aged Darvish Khan, who still continued to be the guardian of his enigmatic garden, this time making a more conventional documentary about him and his family. My aim here is to compare and contrast ways in which these two films address the same real-life subject, albeit in disparate time frames and with different degrees of fictive elements incorporated. I will attempt to show how the change in balance of fiction and fact works towards presenting a less or more cogent image of an eccentric figure.

Throughout his career –which kicked off by making short documentaries– Kimiavi has shown a strong penchant for crafting films around peculiar and aloof characters. 1

This fascination was even carried over into his filmmaking activity in France, where he made La Tranche (1981) about the grandson of a WW1 warrior whose corpse had never been recovered; the central figure of this film devotes himself to the self-imposed task of discovering and gathering the remnants, belongings and letters of the fallen soldiers, to the point that he leaves behind his previous life and settles in a caravan in the jungle close to the site of his excavations. 2 Kimiavi’s directorial method obliged him to personally approach these characters, build a friendship and even live with them for a while. By striking up a close relationship, Kimiavi strived to obtain a better understanding of these characters and then came up with a structure that suited the projection of this personalised experience of this encounter into the film. The Garden of Stones is one example for the enactment of this method. The director had to show extreme patience by staying around Darvish Khan’s home for a few months, until his perseverance yielded a simple exchange of greeting with the shepherd. 3 Needless to say, his second film on Darvish Khan did not require this demanding degree of dedication and this difference discloses itself in the way the two films differ in their structure, with the more complex and subjective narrative of The Garden of Stones distinguishing itself from the less sophisticated style of his later documentary.

The place depicted in the film is situated in the southern part of Iran and there are stories in circulation with regard to Darvish Khan’s motivations behind creating this mysterious collection. 4 The Garden of Stones begins with Darvish Khan amidst his herd, who takes sight of a light in the horizon. The source of the light as the film shows is a saint, depicted without a face, in accordance to the portrayal of saints in Islamic culture –especially after 16th century. Worried by his absence, Darvish Khan’s elder son goes on a search for him and finds him passed out on the ground, holding to a big block of stone. After coming round and returning home, Darvish Khan plants a dried-up tree, laboriously hauls a big block of stone from the desert and hangs it from the tree. Then he starts expanding this installation by erecting similar trees on daily basis. Meanwhile his elder son is called up for military service and attempts to prevent his draft meeting fail and Darvish Khan has to part his son with teary eyes. In order to attach stones to the trees, Darvish Khan climbs up the posts and cuts and snatches pieces of phone wires and in so doing interrupts the phone connections. At the same time and unbeknownst to him, his family conspire to spin rumours about the holiness of the garden of stone so as to draw pilgrims. When their plot is eventually debunked, it incurs villagers hatred towards the garden. The film ends with a surreal sequence in which Darvish Khan finds his collection stained with the white colour sprayed by a strange figure, dressed and masked like an exterminator – presumably a “public health agent” as mentioned by Hamid Naficy– and this scene leads him to let out a shriek of despair. On the other hand, The Old Man and His Garden of Stones simply tries to cover in an almost matter-of-the-fact style the present situation of the ‘Garden’, Darvish Khan and his relation with his family and problems the family have in trying to come to grips with him.

The structure of The Garden of Stones can trigger bafflement in any audience who had presumptions about fiction and documentary being distinct territories. Notwithstanding the fact that the film is based upon a real event and features characters appearing as their selves, it still slides itself into the guise of a fiction by closely following a narrative arc, although from time to time this thread is interrupted by the bursts of subjective imagery. The film tells the story of the inception of the garden up until the –surreally pictured– moment when Darvish Khan discovers that the sanctuary of his garden is violated. It begins like a mystical tale, when we hear the shepherd’s noises over the images of clouds swiftly drifting over the moon. The use of music over the following image –which displays Davish with his herd– along with the rest of the movie veers in the direction of fiction in that its uncanny tone prefigures a supernatural phenomenon which buttresses the dramatic potentials of the story. What’s more, while the principal subject of the film is the garden of stones and its creation, two more narrative strands linked to the agency of Darvish Khan’s family members push the narrative towards further dramatisation –the conscription of his elder son, and his wife and younger son’s ploy to turn Darvish’s artistic/spiritual enterprise into their cash cow by fabricating a legend of sacredness around the garden.

Aside from employing a narrative structure, The Garden of Stones also strays in its visuals from the habitual concept of documentary. The plethora of stylised imagery directs our attention to the director’s intervention, which in addition to grafting imaginary contents into the image, gives itself away through the expressive staging of the scenes, even those supposed to illustrate a mundane life. One such instance is when the director resorts to deep staging in order to impart a lack of communication between Darvish and his son; or a minimalist or abstract representation of events (like the scene where the draft officer’s jeep and the in pursuit son go around in a small circle). Parallel editing, an old asset of narrative cinema, also has its application in this hybrid structure to intensify the effect of drama. For example, Darvish’s unearthly vision is intercut with scenes of his family having their breakfast, or in another instance images of Darvish Khan cutting the phone wires are inserted within the officer’s conversation with his superior and explains why the line suddenly drops.

Upon a close examination, fiction has never been entirely exiled from the domain of documentary. Bill Nichols believes that the documentary came to pass as four essential tendencies converged, with narrative storytelling being one of them. 5 Even the basic Griersonian definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality” in its widely accepted interpretation suggests a correlation between documentary and fiction. Derek Paget rightly reminds us that this succinct definition readily yields to different readings that legitimise borrowings from the fictional world: “creative sometimes becomes imaginative, treatment often turns into interpretation or use” and “actuality is sometimes changed to reality”. 6 It is easy to conclude from his argument that Grierson’s definition does not prescribe a simple and singular form for the mingling of these two formats.

Hence part of the problem of categorising Kimiavi’s earlier film is rooted in the slippery notion of documentary. Taking these difficulties into account, some scholars envision alternative criteria for identifying a film as documentary. Eitzen, for example argues in favour of defining the genre at the site of reception. He affords the spectator the authority to deem a film a documentary or non-documentary based upon their own perception. 7 He postulates that the spectator’s reception is contingent on his/her response to this key question which they may ask themselves during the screening: “might it be lying?” 8 Applying this definition of documentary to The Garden of Stones however helps little to clarify the nature of the film, for while on the one hand it tells a true story with collaboration and participation of the real so-called “social players”; on the other hand Kimiavi makes little effort to convince the uninformed spectator that what unfolds on the screen is not a mere fiction; conversely his fictional treatment of the material impels the audience to cast a shadow of doubt over the verisimilitude of the subject.

This tendency to meld fiction and fact has its own line of tradition, mostly present in British and American TV channels and through production of drama-documentaries and docudramas; most writing on the symbiosis of these two impulses address only this specific reincarnation of the concept. Paget’s general definition to cover both groups could hold true of Kimiavi’s earlier film as well: “They offer a form (not documentary, not drama) through which we are challenged to reconstruct our mental model of the real by means of codes both documentary and dramatic.” 9

While Paget’s general observation about docudramas makes sense vis-à-vis The Garden of Stones, using this subgenre to define Kimiavi’s film would still be problematic. For instance Paget cites from Hoffer et al. who describe docudramas as “accurate re-creation of events in the lives of actual person” 10 and therefore lays stress on both the individualised nature of the story, as well as the realness of the depicted character. While in taking a real figure as its central hero The Garden of Stones follows this model, the “accurate re-creation” part is at stake as a result of the subjective narrative of the film. Considering Alan Rosenthal’s formula for blending fact and fiction in a docudrama as proposed in his textbook about making documentaries, The Garden of Stones once more displays its inconsistency. Rosenthal advises practitioners to keep the distinction between two kinds of materials. He writes: “To keep a sense of proportion, it is necessary to distinguish between facts that are crucial to the story and incidental fiction.” 11 His argument pivots on “the viewers’ right to know” 12 and he considers it necessary for the directors to keep clear for the audience which images are fact and which are re-enactment. On the other hand the reality, the subjectivity and fiction are so closely intertwined in The Garden of Stones that any attempt to isolate either of seems pointless. The delicate fabric the director fashioned through mixing components of these two realms is concisely addressed in this review:

Kimiavi has crafted his film by interweaving two different treatments of the material, reaching its climax at the finale: the realist treatment (the realist eye which follows the routines of the tangible events) and a surrealist treatment (through a creative eye which registers the events in an abstract way beyond the reality and intends to discover the subjective realities which, in turn, generate the objective realities). Both approaches are ambitiously meant to uncover the truth.” 13

In fact, the purely fictional narrative structure the director concocts precludes the factual elements from being foregrounded. While a title at the beginning of the film announces the presence of Darvish Khan and his family, it is not sufficient to win the spectator’s trust about the veracity of the unfolding story.

One can also compare Kimiavi’s first film to foregoing traditions with regard to the presence of indexicality. The indexical relation to the real world is probably the most crucial of the four impulses that gave birth to the documentary as a genre, and even more, constitutes the rallying point for the documentary project. Paget believes that dramadoc/ docudrama enlists this indexicality through its referential relation with its origins in the real world and as such departs from other forms of drama. 14 In this respect The Garden of the Stones outdoes this subgenre, for the fact that indexicality is not only achieved through pointing to a real event/person, but becomes more pronounced by virtue of the appearance of the real people – Darvish Khan and his family, at the very least– in their own role. Nevertheless, unlike films belonging to the above-mentioned traditions that underscore this referential connection, such an indexicality in The Garden of Stones is concealed underneath a narrative that effaces any hint of the authenticity of the story; therefore an uninitiated spectator is likely to receive the film as a mystical story shot with non-actors and on location. It suffices to watch the first few minutes of The Old Man and His Garden of Stones to discern the different approach it represents; here the voice-of-God narration takes hold and by relying on the established conventions boosts the indexical aspect of the story.

We might also consider a connection between The Garden of Stones and the other established tradition reliant on both fiction and facts, to wit, fake documentaries. However I feel hesitant about linking The Garden of Stones to this tradition given specific conventions of this subgenre. Generally speaking, the dynamics of fake documentaries are constructed upon a contract between director and his/her spectator, in which the latter is assumed to be aware of the fakeness of the film in order for it to be successful 15 whereas Kimiavi’s film operates through remaining ambiguous about the truth of the subject. In her discussion, Juhasz initially concurs with a broader definition of the fake documentary as a form that permits varied degrees of altering facts, or pro-filmic events as she refers to them, by fictional devices 16 ; nevertheless she still insists on the prominence of the documentary aspect in these films. Her definition is more focused on the parodic function of this (sub)genre which in her opinion interrogates the construct of documentary and its claims of reality. 17 Albeit not totally devoid of irony, The Garden of Stones with its muted documentary impulse does not fall into this self-reflexive game of mockery. Far from mulling over the mechanisms of capturing reality, the film is loaded with a desire to transcend the visible reality. To complete the Juhasz discussion, Lenner tries to expand the scope of this genre, but her discussion unfailingly hints to the presence of a documentary tone in the fake documentaries 18 , missing in The Garden of Stones.

By describing Kimiavi’s follow-up project as a more conventional documentary, I did not intend to deny the presence of a narrative activity underlying the structure of the film. Generally speaking, irrespective of personal preferences about the inclusion of fiction into the documentary structure or the use of unadulterated non-fiction form, the role of narrative in documentaries still has to be acknowledged. However, as Beattie points out, narrative in documentary takes on a different function and mainly serves to communicate an argument, whereas in fiction film it is predicated on a cause-and-effect logic to “emphasize the motivation of characters operating within the boundaries of time and space”. 19 So in The Old Man and His Garden of Stones, Kimiavi makes use of the conventional documentary format to share his view of the present status of the garden and its patron. Although at the beginning the film gives a brief explanation about the back-story of the garden, for the most part the film deals with the garden’s current status.

In The Old Man and His Garden of Stones, Kimiavi creates a binary between two gardens, the garden created by Darvish’s spiritual world, and one that he and his family, who are now in charge of taking care of him, inhabit. It is not hard to observe how the narrative layer of the film is created through the contrast between these two threads. While the film starts with Darvish Khan and his garden, the voice-over suddenly marks a shift in the focus of its narrative by speaking about the menace of the drought. Two gardens take on a more symbolic role and represent respectively the old man’s subjective realm and the surrounding reality. Two gardens also delegate the difference between the concerns of the old man and those of his family. This is clearly stated in the line where Darvish’s son and his wife, learning of Cultural Heritage Organization plans to turn the garden of stones into a tourist attraction, articulate the priority of maintaining their privacy by keeping future tourists away from their garden. The alternation between scenes of family life and Darvish’s private moments in the garden form the backbone of the film and affirms the abovementioned duality as a main concern. To maintain a stress on the family life in parallel with the old man’s obsession with his garden, the director interjects scenes that can be seen as a digression from the title theme. For example, the partridge-hunting scene, in which the accompanying voice-over assumes almost an ethnographic tone. The different relations of Darvish Khan with the family garden and the garden of stones is best represented when the mayor and governor come for a family visit where everybody but Darvish Khan is present to greet them. At the end of the scene, the shot of the trees dissolves into the images of Davish’s installment so as to re-emphasise both the connection and distinction of these parallel worlds.

Perhaps one of the main dissimilarities that readily make us aware of the differing tones of the two movies is the use of voice-over, which in The Old Man and His Garden of Stones clearly announces the allegiance of the film to the main tropes of documentary. Even though a poet 20 has been in charge of composing and narrating this voice-over, his narration exhibits the same straightforwardness we associate with voice-overs in the expository mode of documentaries. Moreover there is a striking difference between the two films in their account of the creation of the garden. In The Garden of Stones, Darvish has a revelatory experience of meeting a saint, following which he starts constructing his garden, as though carrying out a holy decree. On the other hand, the voice over of the later film uses simple, more logical descriptions by starting the story with the fall of a meteor and the shepherd’s visit to the site, which inspires him to gather the holed stones and hang them from trees (only a line in passing holds that Darvish finds the fallen meteor like a celestial gift). For the spectator who has already seen The Garden of Stones, this account sounds more or less ironic as they are read over the images of the original film.

The voice-over, a common means for edification in documentaries, is employed in The Old Man and His Garden of Stones in a disrupted manner. Its intermittent usage gives the impression that its elucidatory function is not trustworthy enough. At some points its presence sounds necessary, especially when Darvish Khan is shown in his garden of stones or when he entertains his granddaughters by imitating the sound of wild animals. During these scenes the voice-over tries to make sense of Darvish’s weird behaviour and diminishes the inherent tendency of establishing an exoticised picture of him, especially considering the many instances when Darvish tries to communicate by making incomprehensible noises; in contrast, he remains mostly silent in The Garden of Stones. However this explanatory role is sometimes taken over by his granddaughter who speaks directly to the camera, while in other cases we are shown scenes without commentary, as though they remains beyond anyone’s grasp. This is more pronounced at the end, when the voice-over concedes to the impossibility of uncovering the mystery of the garden and in a way alludes to the failure of the expository mode to approach any such subjects.

While Beattie speaks of voice-over commentary as the “explicit way of presenting evidence”, 21 we notice this explicitness is compromised in The Old Man and His Garden of Stones owing to the fact that the evidence dwells in a subjective territory. The opening scene and the omniscient tone of its explanatory narration suggests the voice-over in a classical expository mode which holds the key to all truth, but as the film goes on we begin to doubt its knowledge. During the rest of the film, it steers between expository and observational modes. The latter mode entails the director’s effort to efface any sign of his intervention. (We either hear the people speaking to the camera with the director’s questions omitted, or see them speaking among themselves while completely disregarding the presence of the camera.) The final voice-over commentary line however hints to the failure of both modes, as the camera endearingly circles the garden suggesting that we are only able to remain at the periphery of the artwork; the viewer assumes the position of a tourist, who records whatever the camera is able to capture, but is unable to penetrate what lies within.

While the film employs the commentary or granddaughter’s direct address to make sense of the old man’s demeanor, it does not stop to question its own mediating function. At some point in the film, the villagers comment about Darvish and among these points of view there is always one that contradicts the rest. 22 In one instance the villagers speak about the rumours of Darvish’s leopard hunt in his younger days. Among them, one person insists that it is a hoax. Following these brief interviews the film cuts to a family gathering in a garden, where the granddaughter asks Darvish Khan the same question and he tries to regale them with his own version of the story, but given the fact he is unable to speak, his voice and gestures are translated by his daughter-in-law. By drawing our attention to the inevitability of the recourse to mediation, the film once again foregrounds the limitations of acquiring a reliable account about such a personage, even by using an observational model.

I’ve noted the director’s peculiar methods for building up an intimate rapport with his subject before filming. For his second film on the garden of stones, he relied on this close relation to the extent that at least two of the family members received credit as crew members. This simultaneously hints at the difference in the scale of two projects. While The Garden of Stones was produced by the Iranian National Television and supported by a professional crew, the second film is a smaller, more personal project for which the director himself took the position of cinematographer. The home-movie feel the film evokes is a result of its mode of production as well as the homely texture of its digitally-shot images. The friendly environment of the production, having made its way into the finished film, allowed the director to take a quasi-observational position throughout the scenes meant to register the natural dialogue among the family members. The family members per se give no indication of playing for the camera. The illusion of a reality pretending to be observationally captured by the camera fades away only when we notice that these scenes were less likely to be shot in real time (such as the scene in which the daughter informs the family that Darvish has left the house alone, or when Darvish, reprimanded by his son, retreats to his garden to cry in solitude). In these cases the illusion is divulged through the constructed nature of the situation, and not the family’s performance. During these scenes the director enlists a subliminal level of re-enactment – or probably a disguised fiction– and in doing so makes a connection between this film and its progenitor. Here the austere camerawork allows the digital image to fall back on one of its major associations with the feeling of home movies and therefore makes these re-enacted moments less pronounced.

The sense of humanity and love we perceive in these two films have been the abiding characteristics of Kimiavi’s films throughout his filmmaking career. 23 Obviously this hailed quality is attained through the noted close relationship he laboured to achieve with his difficult subjects. Such an intimacy however might be contrary to one essential aspect of documentaries phrased by Bill Nichols: “epistiphila.” 24 The desire to know entails a level of distance from the subject and the negation of attachment, so as to ward off the personal feelings that can strongly affect one’s judgment of the situation. Kimiavi’s films show that he values the warmness of human feelings over a scientific mission that aspires to lay bare the truth. His preference aside, Kimiavi demonstrates the incompetence of a merely scientific project in exposing an afflicted soul like Darvish Khan, as the imperfections of the documentary structure in his second film on this subject bear witness.

Both films give the viewer cues enabling him to discern how Kimiavi regards Darvish Khan as an intuitive artist who suffers from being misunderstood, even by those closest to him. This is emphasised more in the second film, where people speak to the camera and occasionally describe him as an artist. Here the director takes advantage of a direct testimony to convey his own position. Such a take on the lonesome shepherd is evocative of the generic image people associate with ingenious artists whose lives have been afflicted by the unbearable overflow of their inner talents. This presentation is complemented with Darvish’s difficulty in communicating and establishes an image of eccentricity. In both films Darvish Khan is shown in a marginal position, which in turn harks back to the discourse of sanity as a criterion with a hegemonic end. According to this notion, the majority code deviate behaviour with the label of insanity, and through this process obtain the authority to marginalise the ‘deviant’ minority. To speak of the phenomenon of unreason, I draw on Michel Foucault’s discussion of insanity “as the empirical form of unreason.” 25 Foucault observed a tendency in the Middle Ages in Europe –as his studies covered the phenomenon in the western culture– for showcasing “insane” people to the public and raising them to the level of a spectacle, although the advent of the age of reason put an end to this tradition. 26 As rationalism took over, social order concealed insanity from the eyes of the public by confining it. In this situation, madness “if present […] was under the eyes of a reason that no longer felt any relation to it.” 27

By extrapolation, a similar trend of banishing eccentricity could be anticipated in any situation governed by rationality, including the modernising project. Having said that, the hero of The Garden of Stones seems to be at loggerheads with the modernity. Indeed the friction induced by the invasive force of modernity in a country like Iran has been addressed at length in two feature films the director made before and after The Garden of Stones. 28 Darvish Khan’s distance from modern life is in part displayed by comparing him with his son, in particular during the scene where he prays after installing the first tree while his son indifferently rides circles around him on his bike. But his conflict with modernity is more pronounced in his act of cutting telecommunication wire to use for connecting the blocks of the stone to the branches. As such, he interrupts the modern phenomenon and defines a ritual application for it by consigning it to the domain of unreason. Of course, this act of defiance demands a sacrifice; as he cuts the wires, he spoils any opportunity for sparing his son from getting drafted. Of course one can claim that Darvish Khan –with his disrupted communication– has already distanced himself from the rest of society by tending to his garden. All the same, by the end of the film, the outside world does not tolerate this peripheral individuality and assails his garden to subjugate him to its own principles.

In both films, Kimiavi brings to the fore a kind of personality led by forces that remain outside common knowledge; in consequence this character is branded as eccentric. But Darvish Khan’s marginality is not limited to his relation with modernity, for the director simultaneously draws a line of separation between him and the superstitious villagers and the cleric who all try to defile his work. The film openly brings up the villagers’ attitude when Darvish Khan’s younger son complains to his mother about his father being called a lunatic. It is worth noting how in The Garden of Stones, Darvish’s marginal position finds religious resonance, although the sacredness of the garden lends itself more to a mystic interpretation of the religion than the official and traditional version embodied by the unwelcomed mullah. In his writing about image of the insane, Foucault takes us as far back as 17th century, when madness was sanctified and imbued with a religious function. 29 Even though Darvish’s experience of awakening stems from a completely disparate cultural background, one could hardly lose sight of this similarity in elevating the unreason. 30

In order to mark the difference of Darvish’s spirituality with the superstitious traditions, the director adds a parodic, almost cartoonish effect to the scene when the cleric enters the garden: as the mullah – shot in a somewhat exaggerated low angle composition– tries to steal the stone, we hear the sound of thunder on the soundtrack while the stage starts to revolve. We are already familiar with this revolving stage at the centre of the garden from earlier scenes, but here the resulting effect is quite different. As for the villagers, their religious views are shown impure and smeared by their greed, for the money that Darvish’s wife and son hang from the branches easily tricks them into visiting the garden as pilgrims, and the moment this deception is disclosed they direct their anger towards the garden by spitting on its trees. The Old Man and His Garden of Stones on the other hand is almost bereft of these religious hints, and this connection to spirituality is only implied through Darivsh Khan’s kissing the stones and prostrating as he adds a new stone to the trees.

Despite all care given to evade the pitfall of creating an exotic image of Darvish and his outlandish character, Kimiavi’s follow up documentary still demonstrates moments in which Darvish Khan’s portrayal lends itself to a primitiveness we witness in the canonical ethnographic films. As an instance, when he and his herd return back we see them drinking water from the same container. Later in the film he imitates the sound of animals –although the narration tries to explicate it for the audience– and near the end, donning a strange dress he entertains his granddaughter by pretending to be a wolf, just before beating a retreat into his solitude in the ‘Garden’. One might be intrigued to attribute this tendency for exoticising the otherness to the almost pure documentary format of the second film which does not permit the identification to the level achieved in the first film through the director’s subjective and dramatised representation. Foucault points to the analogy between unreason and bestiality that rationality established. In describing how the society viewed the confined prisoner, he writes “those chained to the cell walls were not longer men whose minds had wandered, but beasts preyed upon by a natural frenzy,” 31 and concludes that “The scandal of madness showed men how close to animality their fall could bring them.” 32 By following this argument, our attention is guided to the cold and logical glance of a pure documentary form –informed by the epistiphila– which by virtue of its roots in rationality defines the unreason as otherness and exiles it to the domain of primitiveness, where it is examined in a distanced manner that leaves no room for the intimacy with the subject. Presumably it is due to this inherent coolness of the epistiphilic glance that the director in the The Old Man and His Garden of Stones refuses to fully abide by its rules and ends his film with the enunciation of its failure in exploring Darvish’s mentality. With respect to the tendency of documentaries for constructing an alienated image particularly in cases that readily accommodate such an inclination, Kimiavi’s alternative treatment of otherness and his deviation from the straightforward documenting in The Garden of Stones, can be seen as an attempt to give vent to unreason and pay tribute to an unruly spirit which strays from the criteria laid out by either modern or traditional perspectives.

Aside from the perils posed by taking a mere scientific, distanced stance in dealing with this sort of character, we can think about the efficiency of a mixed approach in picturing a life devoted to creativity, where the turbulence of the soul avoids getting captured directly by the neutral non-interventional gaze of the camera. This line of thought sounds more relevant in Darvish Khan’s case because in a sense the art has been integrated into his whole life. Darvish Khan’s engagement with the garden extends well beyond the installation of each piece. As the second film shows, he communicates with the stones in his unique way and treats them as animate objects with which he shares some memories. The Garden of Stones also captures his ecstatic dance in the middle of the garden. 33 The Old Man and His Garden of Stones also features old Darvish Khan’s wandering in the garden to suggest this refuge as the place he in essence belongs to. His overall image as conveyed by both films is one of a person whose overwhelming obsession with this creation has fully haunted his stream of life.

Of course, even before setting up the garden of stones, a performative quality already marked Darvish Khan’s life, albeit not with the same aesthetic implication, but instead as a means of necessity. Due to his lack of speech, he had no other option but to resort to gestures in order to express himself. The fact that expressive gestures have been habitually associated with performance, makes the performance as an indispensible part of his personality. In his book Beattie articulates the relation of documentary with rationalism and drama with aesthetics. 34 This aestheticised/performative life of Darivsh Khan resists a scientific interpretation and consequently renders the director’s intervention into his account of life, even if it entails the inclusion of dramatic impulses that transcribe the real event into a fictional account, a sound choice. By choosing a fictional structure for The Garden of Stones, the director invites us to experience the real world in a less direct and more mediated manner, which in some respects parallels Darvish Khan’s altered interaction with the outside world.

While Kimiavi’s first film on this subject makes itself distinct through the stylised imagery, the second film also presents moments of stylization (though less pronounced); such as the way Darvish Khan’s presence in his garden is framed to enhance the visual quality. The main intervention of the director in the second film entails the use of lenses with shorter focal lengths mostly at the garden of the stone, which allows the camera to take a bigger picture of the garden in its view and at the same time confers a distinct identity upon the installment by altering the plastics of the image.

In reference to the creative procedure, the two films are marked by a demonstrable difference. Whereas The Garden of Stones is aimed at recounting the creation of a project, The Old Man and His Garden of Stones attempts to document the present status of an existent collection. This distinction inevitably necessitates a difference in the mode of presentation, and therefore we should not be surprised to find more images of Darvish Khan’s domestic life included in the second film. This however directs us to a more significant difference between two films. Through re-enacting the creation of the garden and erecting the first tree in The Garden of Stones, the director himself interferes in the creation of what is shown on the screen as the artwork. This level of intervention possibly prods us to make a comparison with Nanook of the North (1922, Robert Flaherty) and the way Flaherty directed his subject to recreate the scenes as confirming to his own ideals about a way of life untouched (and unspoiled) by modernity. We even have a long take of Darvish, toiling to roll a big block of stone to his garden. However Kimiavi apparently moves in an opposite direction to Flaherty, as he does not intend to pass off the invented image for the real or the past for the present.

We should however agree that The Garden of Stones also works towards setting up a romanticised image, in this case one belonging to a naïve artist. Romanticising seems to be a common tendency in representing artists on screen, while writers like Kerrigan and McIntyre believe in an alternative model of representation that distinguishes the creative activity from the artwork as its final product. According to them “romanticism commonly fails to distinguish between a creative art product and an individual’s creative process, and it also fails to perceive creativity as a rationally accessible phenomenon, instead perpetuating the myth that creativity is a trait that is only found in individual artists”. 35

This definition holds true of the portrayal of Darvish Khan in the first film. Despite the critique of these authors, one can argue that in the special case of Darvish Khan, for whom the creative process is not a separable part of his personality, this romanticism is the best option the director could come up with. 36 For Darvish Khan, the creation of the garden does not make sense aesthetically and as an extra activity, but seems to constitute the essence of his life. What seemingly drives him to take on this task are mystical forces, which by their definition do not surrender to logical scrutiny. Given the mystical roots of Davrish Khan’s activity –on which only an external beholder can bequeath a creative dimension– Kerrigan and McIntyre’s advocated distinction doesn’t seem pertinent. In the second film, this romanticised image is somehow subdued, but the film eventually shows that the project of demystification is almost to no avail.

In The Garden of Stones the director’s intervention takes place at two levels, one of which is not uncommon in documentaries and more specifically in docudramas. Given the nature of Kimiavi’s project to chart an event of the past, albeit real, he is left with no option but to re-enact what happened prior to the presence of the camera. On another level, the director has accompanied his subject in creating the artwork showcased in the film. Not only did the director instruct Darvish Khan to set up a single tree in order to recreate the genesis of the garden, he goes on further to alter the materiality of the garden by putting a revolving stage on which the visitors of his garden sit, so as to imply the wonder they experience in visiting the garden. But the director’s main intervention takes place at the final scene, showing the gas-masked invaders that squirt white colour onto the trees of the garden, an invasion that leaves Darvish Khan desperate and emotionally broken, hanging from a tree in the last image of the film. If we hold the accounts behind the production of the film in trust, and take into account the close relation between Darvish Khan and the director as the imperative for execution of these scenes, the collaborative nature of the film will not evade our grasp. The Garden of Stones constitutes a subjective narrative required by its complex character, but this subjectivity is the fruit of the collaboration of two artists who belong to two disparate cultural planes (A director educated in France and a villager who unknowingly created a piece of art). Needless to say, this approach can engender some objections regarding the genuineness of the displayed work of art, due to the fact it is by and large attributed to the featured artist. One cannot also help speculating to what extent this modified image corresponds to the concerns of the presented artist, especially such a problematic case whose means for communication is restricted.

In contrast, The Old Man and His Garden of Stones presents the garden as it exists, as if the director who asserts his worries about the destiny of the garden, this time decided to register it in its pure form and document it visually so as to preserve its legacy. Therefore even in case of the addition of a new tree to the collection, the scene is pictured in a distanced and observational mode, with no attempt to glamorise or dramatise this event. In keeping with this logic, Kimiavi ends his second film with the camera circling around the garden; in doing so the camera tries to circumscribe the garden with its gaze. The confession of the voice-over to the impossibility of accessing the mystery of the garden over this imagery is indicative of the priority of preserving the garden in lieu of any futile effort to decipher it; and this is the plan Kimiavi seems to follow in this documentary sequel.

Kimiavi’s two films denote his attitude towards filmmaking as an act of challenge. He not only assumes the daunting mission of bringing the stories of difficult of people to the screen, but also defies the filmic boundaries many filmmakers have habitually respected. He questions the mutual exclusivity of fact and fiction by interweaving them within a twisted network of a subjective, semi-diegetic narrative. He has an eye towards approaching inner feelings and thoughts, which in their unusual external expression casts their owners as cultural others, as decreed by the hegemonic function of rationality. To defy the distinction between fact and fiction sounds as revolutionary as his decision to lend his voice to people branded insane; in fact the former aim serves the achievement of the latter. Although in his second film Kimiavi relinquishes his stylistic intervention in favour of a purer documentary language, presumably due to financial limitations of the smaller scale project, he does not fully succumb to the rules of the game and brings to our attention the loose knits of a structure that boasts an exclusive relation with truth. The comparison of the two films shows that fiction and fact may lose their respective associated meanings of falsehood and truth, especially in cases where the focus of the film is an inner reality only accessible through hard to decode external manifestations. In such cases, applying an imagined reality, inasmuch as it shares its origins with the force of creativity represented by the film, could be a more powerful tool than pure factual images. Above all, these two different representations remind us of the myriad of expressive opportunities the cinema, in its totality, offers for exploring subjects that stand outside our daily experience of the world.


1. The Garden of Stones. Dir. Parviz Kimiavi. 1976.

2.The Old Man and His Garden of Stones. Dir. Parviz Kimiavi. 2004.


Amini, Ahmad. A Hundred Selected Films of the Iranian Cinema. Tehran: Sheida, 1993.

Beattie, Keith. Documentary Screens: Nonfiction Film and Television. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.

Eitzen, Dirk. “When is a Documentary?: Documentary As a Mode of Reception”. Cinema Journal. 35. 1 ( 1995): 81-102.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Trans. Richard Howard, New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Juhasz, Alexandra and Jesse Lerner. “Phony Definitions and Troubling Taxonomies of the Fake Documentary.” F is for Phony: Fake Documentaries and Truth’s Undoing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Kerrigan, Susan and Phillip McIntyre. “The ‘Creative Treatment of Actuality’: Rationalizing and Reconceptualizing the Notion of Creativity For Documentary Practice”. Journal of Media Practice. 11.2 (2010): 111-130.

Naficy, Hamid. A Social History of Iranian Cinema. Volume 2. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.

Paget, Derek. No Other Way to Tell It; Dramadoc/Docudrama on Television. Manchester, UK; New York: Manchester University Press; New York: Distributed exclusively in the USA by St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Ponech, Trevor. What is Non-fiction Cinema?: On the Very Idea of Motion Picture Communication. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999.

Rosenthal, Alan. Writing, Directing and Producing Documentary Films and Videos. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007.


  1. According to Hamid Naficy, such an obsession could be traced back to director’s young days as a high school student.
  2. A few years ago, Kimiavi was contemplating shooting another documentary on this figure before finding out about his death, just at the time he was to be officially decorated by the ministry of defence in acknowledgement of his dedicated undertaking.
  3. Ahmad Amini, A Hundred Selected Films of the Iranian Cinema. Tehran: Sheida, 1993, p. 238.
  4. Even one rumour has it when the agrarian reform deprived him from some of the lands he owned, the deaf and mute Darvish khan began creating this garden to express his pent-up anger and resentment.
  5. Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010, p.131.
  6. Derek Paget, No Other Way to Tell It; Dramadoc/Docudrama on Television .Manchester, UK; New York: Manchester University Press; New York: Distributed exclusively in the USA by St. Martin’s Press, 1998, p.14.
  7. Dirk Eitzen. “When is a Documentary?: Documentary As a Mode of Reception”. Cinema Journal. 35. 1 (1995): p. 82.
  8. Ibid, p. 94.
  9. Paget, p.134.
  10. Qtd. in Paget, p.131.
  11. Alan Rosenthal, Writing, Directing and Producing Documentary Films and Videos. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007, p.298.
  12. Ibid, p.299.
  13. Qtd. in Amini , p.240.
  14. Paget, p.135.
  15. Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner, “Phony Definitions and Troubling Taxonomies of the Fake Documentary.” F is for Phony: Fake Documentaries and Truth’s Undoing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006, p10.
  16. Ibid, p.8.
  17. Ibid, p.12.
  18. Ibid, p.18-21.
  19. Beattie, p.19.
  20. Ahamd Reza Ahmadi, the contemporary Iranian poet has been given the credit for this.
  21. Beattie, p.18.
  22. For someone more acquainted with the Iranian cinema, these brief interviews might be perceived as a nod to Kamran Shirdel’s renowned short documentary, The Night it Rained (1967) which captures contradictory views on a newspaper report about the purported heroic act of boy in saving a train from collision.
  23. Amini, p.240.
  24. Nichols, p.40.
  25. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Trans. Richard Howard, New York: Vintage Books, 1988, p.72.
  26. Ibid, pps. 68-70.
  27. Ibid., p. 78.
  28. The Mongols (1973) and OK. Mister (1979). For the further discussion of the latter, you can see : http://www.filmintelligence.org/ok-mister.htm.
  29. Foucault, p. 81.
  30. We should not ignore the fact that the noble position of unreason also has its resonance in Sufist traditions –which have left a strong impact on Iranian culture. According to this school of thought, abandonment of the accustomed logic serves a transcending function and enables the individual to step in the realms of the higher spiritual order, the entrance to which is encumbered by a fully present mind. In Rumi’s school, madness is considered an aspect of love (Love as one of the most advocated concepts in his teachings in turn stands for one of the required steps along the way of attainment to God). As William C. Chittick in his book (The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983) explains: “The sign of the man of intellect is sober rationality and cold cognizance of his own situation and that of the world. But the lover is bewildered, distraught, and mad (p 226). Here is an example of Rumi’s works in praise of insanity: “Be mad and distracted like you were! Why have you become rational and sober? Thinking is for the sake of acquisitions – but you have become bestowal from head to foot (D 280080-01)” (Qtd. in Chittick, p 230).
  31. Foucault, p 72.
  32. Ibid, 81
  33. This scene is reused as an image from the past in the second film where the voice over reiterates its peculiarity.
  34. Beattie, p. 130.
  35. Susan Kerrigan and Phillip McIntyre. “The ‘Creative Treatment of Actuality’: Rationalizing and Reconceptualizing the Notion of Creativity For Documentary Practice”. Journal of Media Practice. 11.2 (2010): p.113.
  36. The director ends The Garden of Stones with an image that could be indicative of the unity of the artist and the artwork. In this scene Darivsh Khan, who has failed to protect his garden from the masked spray painter, hangs himself in agony upside down from a tree, as though he is taking on the position of the stone and merging with his creation.

Fact, fiction and eccentricity in Parviz Kimiavi’s images from “the garden of stones”

Referring to himself as a cine-aficionado, Ramin S. Khanjani obtained his Master’s degree in Film Studies from Carleton University, Ottawa. His writings and reports have previously appeared in the Iranian publications, Film Monthly and Film International. He is the author of Animating Eroded Landscape:The Cinema of Ali Hatami (2014).

Volume 19, Issue 6 / June 2015 Essays   documentary   experimental cinema   iranian cinema   parviz kimiavi