A witty Iranian film about four men who try to topple a big rock has audiences wondering about political allegory and hidden messages at a time of growing tension between Washington and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
But the director of "Men at Work," Tehran-based Mani Haghighi, says sometimes a story is just a story, so don't hold him responsible for whatever message you might read into it.
The film, which was showing at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, is a comedy about four middle-class, middle-aged men on a ski trip who happen across a pillar of rock by the side of the road above a lake. They decide to push it over, but that turns out to be more difficult than they think
"When I was in Berlin, the radical political opposition there came up to me and said, 'Really good work, that was the Islamic republic and those guys finally toppled it,"' Haghighi told the audience after a New York screening this week.
"Back in Iran, the people from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance came to me and said, 'Really good work, the will of God vs. the weakness of man,"' he said, declining to answer questions about what the message of the film was for him.
Haghighi said it was a cultural characteristic of Iranians to speak in a roundabout fashion, with poetic language that often has layers of meaning.
He said the natural opacity of the Farsi language was often compounded by a desire by artists not to incur censorship that has been a constant factor in Iranian cinema since the 1979 Iranian revolution, and even before that.
"There's this tendency whenever you encounter any kind of cultural artifact to look for hidden layers, which makes it difficult for people like me who are just trying to tell a simple, straight story," Haghighi said.
Even as a straight story, the film shows a side of Iranian life that is very different from the stereotypical images of Iran often seen in Western media of women in headscarves, poor children or clerics calling for the destruction of America.
Peter Scarlet, executive director of the festival, said he chose several films that show unexpected sides of life in Iran to help Americans understand more about a country that President George W. Bush has dubbed part of an "axis of evil."
"I felt it was important even before the headlines got bigger and blacker and more ominous," Scarlet told Reuters. "Clearly this is a place that Americans or Westerners in general don't know enough about."
Iran and the United States have been involved in diplomatic saber-rattling in recent months over Tehran's nuclear program, which Iran says is purely peaceful but which the United States suspects is aimed at developing nuclear weapons.
Scarlet said "Men at Work" offered a sense of the middle class in Iran unrepresented in most Iranian cinema, while two other films on the program, "Inside Out" and "Siah Bazi: The Joy Makers," were about, respectively, transsexuals and a troupe of political satirists in a traveling theater.
Amir Hamz, the director of "Sounds of Silence" about the underground music scene in Iran, which features hip-hop and rock artists who distribute their music on the Internet, said his aim was to show an unknown side of his country of origin.
"You wouldn't expect it from Iran due to the biased media coverage in the West," said Hamz, who grew up in Germany.
"It annoys me that the media always shows this side of Iran that pretty much matches the current situation with the nuclear plans, but not the contemporary side that there are people just like you and me doing this sort of thing," he said