It’s no surprise that Sheeple (Maghz-haye Koochak Zang-zadeh), a zany plunge into parodied violence Indian-style, won the audience award at Iran’s national film festival this year. Written and directed by out-of-the-box talent Houman Seyyedi (13, Confessions of My Dangerous Mind), it’s his most accomplished work so far and the most exciting genre film on show in the film market at the recent Fajr Film Festival. The pic is well-deserving of exposure to international audiences who, however, will have to adjust their ideas about soft-spoken Iranian drama.
The English title is an amalgam of “sheep” and “people,” which is what the anti-hero Shahin (Navid Mohammadzadeh) thinks of his fellow men. Being the brother of local crime lord Shakoor (a comically domineering Farhad Aslani), he feels he’s royalty. In reality, he’s a bumbling small-time pusher with a loud voice, whose family synthesizes crystal meth in a barn-like structure on the urban fringes. His identifying mark is a round bullet-hole in the middle of his forehead, which he tries in vain to cover with his hair; it is later explained as the scar left from a cruel punishment by his addict dad (Farid Sajjadi Hosseini) when he was a kid.
Explosively focused comic violence from Iran.
Despite the hideous grunge, this down-and-dirty environment is a source of pride to the locals. The action kicks off with a flash-forward to a face-off between two chain- and club-wielding gangs, a clear warning to the viewer not to get attached to the characters, because blood is going to flow. And it does, in well-choreographed and sustained action scenes. Considering the mayhem, the injuries inflicted are not very realistic and have more amazement value than shudders, like the over-the-top violence in Gangs of Wasseypur or any given Tarantino film.
Mohammadzadeh, who made his mark as an out-of-control wild man in films like I’m Not Angry! and Lantouri, is an inspired choice in the role of the brainless bully Shahin, and his rapid-fire dialogue is a nervous delight. His ear-piercing braying can be trying at times as he attempts to shout down every other opinion. Even his best buddy (played as a lovable oaf by Navid Pourfaraj) is the target of some bitter yelling and cuffing.
It’s abundantly clear that big brother will never entrust him with anything remotely important in the family business, so Shahin turns his wrath on his sister Mona (Marjan Etefaghian). She’s a hairdresser whose ponytail is said to be seven different colors. When someone tapes her sitting in a car with a guy and — horrors — pulling down her headscarf to show him her ponytail, all hell breaks loose.
The video of this outrage ends up on the internet, and Shahin starts a gang war over it. The film’s big set piece is an ultra-violent battle with the police, who raid Shakur’s headquarters in a hair-raising sequence of explosions and gunfire. The whole family takes part in the mayhem, including Shahin’s younger brother (Mahyar Rahat-Talab), who looks barely 13 but is a scarier, more implacable killer than any of the rest.
The other standout in the colorful cast is Etefaghian as the sister, whose life is a shambles after the ponytail incident. Run to ground, she is ready to let Shahin kill her, but first tells him off in a masterful shouting match that introduces a more serious side to the story.
The ending also returns to the swarm of orphans who are being raised by big brother as slave workers. Their similarity to chickens in an overcrowded pen packs considerable shock value, and can only be contrasted to the many images of abused kids in Iranian cinema.
Cast: Navid Mohammadzadeh, Farhad Aslani, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, Marjan Etefaghian, Navid Pourfaraj, Nazanin Bayati, Ladan Zhaveh Vand, Mahyar Rahat-Talab
Director-screenwriter: Houman Seyyedi
Producer: Saeed Sa’di
Director of photography: Payman Shadmanfar
Production designer: Mohsen Nasrollahi
Costume designer: Maral Jeirani
Editors: Mehdi Sa’di, Houman Seyyedi
Music: Bamdad Afshar
World sales: Iranian Independents
Venue: Fajr Film Festival (Film Market)