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'Fifi Howls From Happiness': Portrait Of A Gay Iranian Artist In Exile

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Bahman Mohasses in 'Fifi Howls From Happiness' (Courtesy of Music Box Films)
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Bahman Mohasses is a relative unknown in the world of art (his Wikipedia page consists of merely one sentence), but Mohasses himself is culpable in his own obscurity. A misanthrope who sees only devastation and pain within humanity, he sees so little value in having others appreciate his own art that he actively destroys his paintings and sculptures. An Iranian television special from the '70s shown as archival footage in the documentary Fifi Howls From Happiness captures the artist as a young man saying that his art is a "condemnation of humanity." His work, usually inspired by current events as war massacres or oil spills, often features grotesque bulbous humanoid figures or dying fish in a twisted depiction of the agony of existence. But Mohasses is not the gloomy type; he thinks himself more as the jester and is laughing alongside us.

Director Mitra Farahani, an Iranian filmmaker living in Paris, somehow manages to track down the elusive artist, who now lives in an anonymous hotel in Rome. Living in self-imposed exile since the Iranian Revolution, the openly-gay Mohasses is warm and receptive to the inquisition of the young woman despite what his philosophy would lead one to think. He may not have use for much of the world (especially his own native land), but he is more than welcome to share his mind, if not his art, with any guests. Farahani avoids making Fifi a staid, talking head-type documentary that serves to give merely an overlook of the artist's life and work. Instead, Fifi is a quasi-personal essay film (for both filmmaker and subject) with modernist flourishes that turn the documentary into its very own objet d'art.

Aside from his own misanthropy, Mohasses is fueled by his own death drive and this inevitability serves as the engine of the film. Even at age 79 and with an inhaler to assist his weary lungs, he seems to smoke at least a pack a day during the film. The film's title, we learn, is taken from a painting that Mohasses still keeps as a personal favorite and a perfect summation of how he lives his life in the face of an end that is coming. This remarkable and moving film ensures that even decades of self-inflicted obscurity can't keep a voice as bold and defiant as his from going out quietly.

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Fifi Howls From Happiness is now playing at the Laemme Royal in West L.A.