Stateless Memoirs

A Screenplay by Shahin Parhami

by Lara Braitstein Volume 25, Issue 11-12 / November 2021 9 minutes (2014 words)

In 2006, Shahin Parhami finalized a screenplay entitled Stateless Memoirs. Largely autobiographical, it takes place in multiple locations, from Iran, to Turkey, to Canada. Each of the settings, in its own way, is a liminal space for the characters placed there. There is no final destination. There is only a journey.

The story follows the dramatic escape from Iran of Shahab, the fictionalized ‘self’ crafted by Shahin. We witness his near-death experience of crossing the mountains on foot, the utter insecurity and uprootedness of the young men he makes the journey with, life in Turkey as a refugee, the alienation and racism experienced at the hands of the dominant settler culture of Canada, all while discovering layers of solidarity and deep friendships with fellow travelers in the course of his journey. Though he integrates the difficulties into his narrative, he doesn’t focus on them as obstacles. Rather, he reveals the multilayered richness of the experiences he underwent, and uses them to open creative spaces throughout. This is captured beautifully by the insertion of two of the artists he admired most in this world as characters in his script, even though both were dead before he was born: Sadeq Hedayat and Forough Farrokhzad. Hedayat was a brilliant Iranian writer and intellectual whose influence on modern fiction transcended linguistic and national boundaries. Born in Iran in 1903, he died of suicide in Paris 1951. Farrokhzad was born in Tehran in 1935 and died in a car accident in 1967 at the age of 32. An extraordinary poet, painter and filmmaker, she has left an indelible impression on Iranian artistic culture. In addition to that she was a fiercely independent, strong, and passionate woman. Both Farrokhzad and Hedayat were very present figures in Shahin’s life, their portraits adorning the walls of his office where he did all his editing. Their presence as characters in this autobiographical tale are testament to their importance in his life.

I find the dialogue in the screenplay to be witty, brilliant, incisive, and at times hilariously crude, as the voices of all the young Iranians from every stratum of society Shahin met in the refugee camps of Turkey in the 1980’s are brought to life. The scenes you read below that take place in the mountains and in the smuggler’s truck are precise accounts of Shahin’s journey as he recounted it to me, and I am certain to many other close friends. Here are the first few pages of Shahin’s screenplay Stateless Memoirs. Though the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec generously funded his research and writing, he was not able to fund the production of this film. What a bittersweet pleasure it is to share some of this treasure here.

Lara Braitstein

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EXT. FOOT OF A MOUNTAIN (SOMEWHERE ON THE BORDER OF IRAN AND TURKEY) – 1986-WINTER-NIGHT

In complete darkness we hear a slight sound of breathing along with the sound of the winter wind and footsteps on the snow. After a few seconds we can hear someone is slapping someone’s face.

P.O.V. of YOUNGER SHAHAB opening his eyes to the snowy hills and mountains surrounding him. The peasant SMUGGLER (whose face we cannot see) is trying to help him to stand on his feet.

SMUGGLER (in a mixture of Kurdish and Persian)
Hurry, hurry up… You’re lucky the other kids made me come back to get you. Otherwise you would’ve frozen to death here. Fast, fast get up! I’ve had friends who got shot right on this spot, let’s go, fast.

SHAHAB makes an effort to stand to his feet. He is clearly not feeling well. The SMUGGLER takes his hand and they climb the snowy hill. When they reach the peak, the SMUGGLER lets SHAHAB’s hand go and climbs down the other side. SHAHAB, after a few moments, kneels down and starts to roll down the hill as an easier and less energy-consuming way to climb down. When he reaches the bottom of the hill he gets up and stands still like a sleepwalker.

CUT TO:

EXT. FOOT OF A MOUNTAIN (SOMWHERE ON THE BORDER OF IRAN AND TURKEY) – 1986 – WINTER – NIGHT

Close-up of a hand groping through frozen sand and snow trying to find a solid rock to grip. And then close-up of SHAHAB’s young face against the gray sky.

The camera moves back to reveal his situation: with difficulty he is trying to climb a very slippery pass. He looks exhausted, weak and almost desperate. It is hard to read his facial expression since the cold weather has frozen his face. Only his big watery eyes which are darting back and forth between the farthest point of the deep valley under his feet and his frozen hands clinging to the icy rocks indicate the degree of his fear and desperation in the struggle to climb farther.

In the distance on the flank of the next mountain we can see three other men climbing.

CUT TO:

MUSIC SMOOTHLY DISSOVES INTO THE SOUND OF (INTERIOR) THE BACK OF A TRUCK ON A HIGHWAY:

INT. THE BACK OF A TRUCK (CARRYING REFUGEES FROM THE EASTERN PART OF TURKEY TOWARDS ISTANBUL) WINTER – 1986 – DAY

From total darkness, after a few long seconds a patch of light from a flashlight illuminates all the passengers (AMIR a man in his forties, SHAHAB, MEHDI, REZA, ZARTOSHT, and a few other young men in their late teens) who have extended their legs on top of one another’s in the cramped space. The patch of light slowly moves onto SHAHAB’s face. His eyes are closed; it is hard to say if he is enjoying himself or if he is in pain. The light moves slowly towards the left and reflects on a stream of urine.

As the light moves further we see FARHAD’s hands are holding his penis as he tries to urinate into the white plastic container in the corner right beside SHAHAB.

FARHAD
Turn it off, you pimp! You’ve been fucking us all with your goddamned flashlight since last night. Please, Mr. Amir, you tell him something.

AMIR
Mahyar, for god’s sake, let the man piss. This is no stage that you can put the poor guy’s dick under the spotlight!

MAHYAR
I’m just helping illuminate the bathroom corner, saving our Shirazi friend’s head from a possible splash.

The SOUND of the truck’s engine slows down giving the impression that the truck is going to stop.

REZA
(whispering)
Are we there?

MEHDI
(whispering)
Of course not, dummy!

AMIR
Is either for gas, police, shit, or food.

REZA
So when are we getting there? This Zoroastrian guy is not feeling well. I don’t think he can make it.

FARHAD
He was dead anyway!

MEHDI
Nietsche was talking about God, smart-ass! Not Zoroaster…

AMIR
Quiet guys, we’ve got at least seven hours to go. And if it stops don’t forget to be completely silent. Can you please turn that flashlight off?

The light moves and passes on other passenger’s exhausted and nervous faces (some are almost sleeping, a couple of them are just spacing out, one or two show their silent reaction to the annoying light). All that can be heard is the SOUND OF THE EXHAUSTED ENGINE.

The PATCH OF LIGHT pauses on the wall at an angle allowing us to see the texture of the wall more clearly. It seems that the walls are basically columns of used tires enclosing a small rectangular room in the back of the truck.

CUT TO:

EXT. ALLEY – OLD PART OF TAKSIM – ISTANBUL – DAY

FOROUGH, an attractive woman with big black eyes, chin length dark hair and strong features in her early thirties. She is wearing a long dark raincoat and carrying a worn-out leather bag.

CLOSE on her right hand as she closes and locks the old metal door of her apartment building. Her fingers are covered with ink stains.

She walks rapidly through the quiet alley. As we hear the AZAN (call to prayer) filling the air, a woman in a chador carrying a basket of groceries passes her. FOROUGH turns onto a busy street.

In a close medium shot we see her cutting through the crowd until she reaches a café with some tables on the sidewalk. She pulls out an old wooden chair and sits down. SADEQ, wearing his 1940’s outfit, is sitting at a corner, just beside hers. He is staring into space as he calmly smokes his cigarette. After observing the crowded street for a few moments, FOROUGH beings talking to him.

FOROUGH
I remember my mind often used to be preoccupied, my heart depressed.
I was tired of being the audience. In my solitude, all of a sudden I would realize that my day in the crowds of impermanent objects – that were not from me or of me – had been wasted and lost.

SADEQ
(smiles)
So what did you do after these great moments of realization?

FOROUGH
I’d wished that I could die and become part of the infinite.

SADEQ
(taking his hat off and putting it on his table)
Very optimistic of you!
Sometimes I used to get fed up with everything, lose interest in anything possible. During the day I just killed time and at night I would drown myself in alcohol then bury myself. I even spat on my grave a couple of times. But my other miracle was that I got up the next morning and walked again! … I don’t think you should have been so concerned, your epiphanies don’t sound nearly as depressing as my miracles.

FOROUGH
I wanted to die to be part of the infinite, because then I could be anywhere that I wanted to be.

SADEQ
Well indeed, that’s a cheap way to travel!

FOROUGH
(laughs)
I wanted to be finished, or should I say, to be continued that way. There was always some kind of a force or energy in the soil that attracted me.
You know, going up or forward didn’t seem important at all. I really wanted to sink, I wanted to sink with all the things that I loved. And with all the things that I loved, yearned to dissolve in an unchangeable whole. I thought that was the only way to run away from futility and annihilation.

A crowd of old European tourists pass by their table and blocks them from view.

CUT TO:
INT. BACK OF A TRUCK (SOMEWHERE ON A HIGHWAY CARRYING THE REFUGEES FROM THE EASTERN PART OF TURKEY TOWARDS ISTANBUL) WINTER – 1986 – DAY

REZA is sitting beside ZARTOSHT and trying to wake him up. He doesn’t get any response.

REZA
(shocked but in a low voice)
I swear to Ali he is dead. He is not breathing. (beat)
Hey Zartosht! Can someone check his pulse…?

AMIR
Leave him alone, let him rest.

Sound of a knife cutting thick fabric. MAHYAR turns on his flashlight. In a dim light we see FARHAD cutting the canvas above their heads which functions as their ceiling. After a few seconds a beam of lights comes through.

REZA
What if they see us, you fucker?

FARHAD
Don’t worry, chicken. I know what I’m doing.

FARHAD cuts the canvas and reaches out to see the daylight. The beam of light moves to the worried and exhausted faces of the passengers as FARHAD moves his head through the slat.

FARHAD
It looks just like the north. Trees, mountains and fog.
(beat)
Hey man look at those babes…

REZA
Do you see people?

FARHAD
Yeah, dummy! Two women! No…!
A man and a woman walking.
No, no (disappointed) they are both men.

REZA gets up and tries to look through the slat. His P.O.V. shot is the panoramic view of Istanbul from the BOSPHORUS BRIDGE (ONE OF THE BRIDGES BETWEEN ASIAN ISTANBUL AND EUROPEAN ISTANBUL). The sky is gray, and the BOSPHORUS’ turquoise water shines in the morning light of this overcast winter day.

(p. 2-8 of Stateless Memoirs by Shahin Parhami, 2006)

Stateless Memoirs

Lara Braitstein is Associate Professor of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University. Her areas of research interest include Indian and Tibetan/Himalayan Buddhist literature and historiography. She is author of Saraha’s Adamantine Songs (2014), a translation and literary analysis of a set of three long esoteric poems composed in the 9th century. She is also the translator of Shamar Rinpoche’s book Path to Awakening (2009 and 2011). From 2013-18 she was Principal of the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute (New Delhi). She has been a regular visiting professor at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute (Kathmandu), and in 2018 she was the UBEF Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Sydney.

Volume 25, Issue 11-12 / November 2021 Artist’s Page   autobiography   scriptwriting   shahin parhami  

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