1980, Abadan, the most important oil metropolis and port city in Southern Iran, one year after the revolution that eventually led to an Islamic republic. Posters of the Ayatollah look down from the walls in the city centre, which pales in comparison to the mighty oil refinery. Fourteen-year-old Omid is playing a game of football with his friends, unsuspecting of the hell to come. Just when Omid tries to stop a penalty kick, Abadan is startled by an Iraqi missile attack on the refinery. Iran and Iraq are at war, and Abadan becomes one the martyr cities where many civilians refuse to give up their homes. Omid holds his own by taking over tasks from a hospitalised delivery man. Until he discovers a lenj, a traditional Southern Iranian ship that may well become Abadan's Ark.
After both militant documentaries and fiction films, The Siren is the first animated feature by Sepideh Farsi, who has been banned from Iran since 2009, partly due to Tehran Without Permission (2009), a docu shot on a Nokia mobile phone because filming was not allowed in the capital. Farsi and screenwriter Javad Djavahery lived through the early war years as teenagers, before leaving the country for various reasons.
As in the thematically related Persepolis (2007), The Siren uses animation to keep violence at a bearable distance, but the choice was also a practical one. On top of the fact that both Farsi and Djavahery are not welcome in Iran, the city of Abadan was largely destroyed and then rebuilt - which results in a different city nowadays. In colourful 2D animation, shifting between magical realism and a horrifying war reality, Farsi shows the dichotomy between hope and despair.
"Music is stronger than a bullet", Djavahery said at the premiere in Berlin, and this really shows in The Siren. The score by French-Swiss trumpeter Erik Truffaz is a striking mix of Western genres and traditional Iranian music, played on the Dammam (drum) and Ney-anban (a type of Iranian bagpipe). Not only the soundtrack refers to the richness of the Iranian music scene. The character of Elaleh, a jaded dive no longer allowed to perform since the revolution, is also an ode to the unifying power of music. Her waning star power makes no distinction between the civilians in Abadan and the Iraqi soldiers.
"A soulful animated adventure set during the Iran-Iraq War, The Siren creates a story rich with dimensional detail and riven with the tragedy of war. Much like Marjane Satrapi did with 2007's Persepolis, Farsi uses animation as a way to set the acutely painful civilian experience of the Iran-Iraq conflict at enough of a remove to make it bearable: From a distance, like a floating overhead angle or a wide cityscape vista, even smoke clouds and flying ruble can acquire a sort of beauty. In a soothingly simplified animation style, under Erik Truffaz' lovely, traditionally-inflected but also jazzy score, all the characters are sketched with a loving eye for their eccentricities." - Variety
Mina Kavani, Hadmidreza Djavdan
Isabelle Manquillet, Grégoire Sivan
Sébastien Onomo, Vanessa Ciszewski, Annemie Degryse, David Grumbach, Richard Lutterbeck
Les Films D'ici
Lumiere Publishing NV
Belgium, Germany, France, Luxemburg
The World Is My Home (1998), Homi Sethna, Filmmaker (2001), Dreams of Dust (2003), The Gaze (2006), Harat (2007), Tehran Without Permission (2009), The house under the water (2010), Red rose (2014), 7 Veils (2017), I Will Cross Tomorrow (2019), The Siren (2023)