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Dog Sweat: Denver Film Festival Review

I know about as much about the cinema of Iran as you do. That is, unless you are some kind of expert on Iranian movies, in which case you probably know a lot more about Iranian cinema than I do. So I'd like to apologize upfront that I am poorly equiped to place Dog Sweat within the context of a national tradition. On the other hand, as a rabid consumer of movies big and small, from near and far, I feel very confident recommending Dog Sweat as a tense, engaging piece of entertainment, with plenty of food for thought for us westerners seeking a peek behind the curtain of daily life in Iran.
Dog Sweat weaves a series of disconnected stories about youth in the Iranian capital Tehran. In one story, Forough secretly records a song in a professional studio. She wants to release it, but there's a catch: it's illegal to be a female recording artist in Iran. Her mother arranges for her to be married, and her new husband Homan faces his own problems. He's gay, and trying in vain to sublimate his unorthodox desires. Elsewhere in the city, Massoud and his American culture-loving deadbeat friends party all day and all night with black market booze and music. Their party comes to a halt when Massoud's mother dies in a car crash. Finally, Dawood comes back from college in the U.S., and stifles under the rules and traditions of his conservative home country. His story is the most lighthearted, basically a series of vignettes where he and his new girlfriend try with growing desperation to find a safe place to get laid. His sister Katie's story is much more harrowing, as her ideas about open, “feminist” sexuality send her spiraling down a dark path. Dog Sweat's greatest asset is that none of these characters react to these situations melodramatically. They are not surprised or offended by the weight of oppressive tradition the way a Westerner would be. This is just life as usual.

The Dog Sweat of the title refers to bootlegged alcohol some of the characters attempt to steal early on in the movie. It's not an essential moment, but it comes to represent the fleeting, petty freedoms that westerns take for granted. It's the little stuff... being allowed to drink, being free to practice your sexuality the way you want to, being a female musician. These kids are doing all the same stupid coming of age shit that kids all over the world do, but in this case the sewing of wild oats could wind you up in jail or dead. The best part about Dog Sweat is that it's not as high-minded as all that. It presents the scenarios, and you are free to draw your own conclusions.

Director Hossein Keshavarz borrows liberally from the style and setups of Amores Perros and Babel director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Like Iñárritu, Keshavarz captures the stories of these doomed youth from the fate-decisive moment through to the unfortunate but inevitable fallout. I do Keshavarz a disservice my making this comparison, as Dog Sweat doesn't push it's characters and scenarios quite as far as Iñárritu would. It's like the Diet Coke version of an Amores Perros. But Keshavarz is a young moviemaker, and Dog Sweat is a promising debut, especially considering how dangerous it must have been to make. Keshavarz and his crew shot this movie in Tehran secretly and incognito. Unwitting extras casting suspicious looks at the camera from the sides of the frame are a clear and powerful indicator that many in Iran would not be happy to discover the subversive criticism being filmed right under their noses.

-Ben

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