The seventh Human Rights Watch International Film Festival rolls into town and amongst the very many documentaries and feature-films to be screened, including a large number of UK premieres, there are three very different films that take a particular, and insightful, look at everyday life in post-revolution Cuba and Iran.

Balseros (Carles Bosch and Josep M. Domenech, Spain, 2002) tells the stories of seven Cubans determined, along with many thousands of fellow nationals throughout much of the 1990s, to leave Cuba for the Florida coastline, just a tantalising ninety miles away across the ‘Straits of Death’. The title of the film literally translates as ‘rafters’ – the name given to those who would risk their lives in attempting to cross the seas on homemade rafts of wood, zinc slats and rubber inner-tubes.

But rather than paint a picture of desperation and despair, the film allows an insight into the honest motivations and difficult decisions made by people only wanting a better life for them and their families – dreams of freedom to ‘make it’ in the US (‘a house, a car, a good woman’) are mirrored by the desire to work hard and send money home, to assist the families of those caught in a Cuba whose revolutionary zeal has definitely waned and whose dependence on the former Soviet Union has viciously exposed it to the vagaries of the international economic situation. Yet it is one of the many strengths of the film that no potted history is offered, no political posturing or distracting focus on the ironies and tragedies of US-Cuban relations; just real people deciding to leave the land they love but cannot live in, families separated by the hope of food on the table and the promise of eventual reunion.

The aesthetic of the film does much to carry the viewer along in the wave of existential threat and adventure. The editing is fast-paced and the music/soundtrack excellent throughout with the film-makers themselves remaining ‘behind the scenes’; the style is effectively observational and the simple tales of dreams realised and dashed are beautifully captured, allowing the drama of the central human experiences of exile and migration to come to the fore. The most powerful images involve families watching footage of those who have left them, whether from temporary internment camps in Guantanamo Bay after being picked up by the US Coast Guard and before awaiting their entry into the US, or after arriving safely in the US. These scenes are mirrored by those who have made a home in America watching footage of mothers, daughters, estranged wives who have not been seen for years. These visual communiqués lend a feeling of ‘real-time’ experience to the film and the lives it documents, and make vivid the distance that separates friends and families. In capturing a slice of the life lived by so many thousands of exiles desperate to improve their lot, Balseros is truly exemplary documentary film-making.

A very different approach to the nature of exile and transnationalism is Seven Days in Tehran (Reza Khatibi, France/Iran, 2002), a feature film that uses a highly naturalistic style to tell the story of a documentary film crew posing as television journalists filming a report on contemporary Iranian youth, and in so doing is an enigmatic and rewarding exploration of the control of images through various visual media in the complex context of diaspora and return.

As with many films about the filming of a film, narrative development is necessary at both levels. The film succeeds in portraying both the difficulties of Reza, our hero-director, in coming to terms with just what it is he is willing to see and wishing to show on his visit from France after fifteen years, armed with camera and crew and a naïve expectation that post-revolutionary Iran can be exposed without things becoming ‘too personal’ or ‘too political’; as well as a subtle underlying plotline involving the film’s ‘presenter’ and a prominent protagonist who are involved in questions of self-censorship. Though a little frustrating to begin with, as the film appears intent on portraying the crew as cultural dullards who cannot cross the roads let alone avoid offending their hosts at every turn, the film does develop in interesting ways, helped by the simple yet effective devise of seven ‘chapters’ that take us, day by day, into the divergent personal journeys of the crew. Yet all this becomes carefully embedded in the Iran of the ostensible film report: despite Reza’s best intentions to keep from having the little authorisation he has for filming being taken away, those interviewed for ‘French TV’ are all too eager to tell of the constraints and injustices suffered in Iran today, even with recent reforms. Through a sensitive and elaborate suggestion of many central issues of identity, loss and memory, Seven Days in Tehran alludes to very important issues involved in the ethics of documentary film and the politics of representation. But more than this certain moments, interestingly all involving the heartfelt embrace of two men, superbly capture the pain of separation and the need and hope for reconciliation.

Iran, Veiled Appearances (Thierry Michel, Belgium, 2002) takes a much more ‘head-on’ look at the police state that is today’s Iran. This excellent documentary begins with the funeral of a prominent writer and poet, one of many hundreds of intellectuals murdered by the authorities for speaking against the theocracy that keeps a firm grip on any developing civil society and freedom of expression. Tantalisingly, however, this opening scene, like many in the film, are showed with the minimal and considered voiceover commentary delayed, long enough for the viewer to question their assumptions of what is seen, before explanation. The film takes as its central question, ‘today, what is left of the revolution?’ In giving opportunity for apologists of the governing regime, teachers of religious schools extolling the virtues of martyrdom, and proud mothers of sons lost to the war with Iraq each the time to defend their way of life, it is clear that the influence of Khomeini was enormous and to a great extent lives on today. Archive footage and more contemporary shots manifest a study in group-think – thousands of chanting men in the streets and battalions of chador-clad women with AK47s ready to die for the Motherland, the Defence of the Faith always the highest goal.

Yet in interesting ways the film erodes such certainties and paints a much more complicated picture of an Iran once more at the crossroads of its own history. The contradictions of Barbie Dolls on sale in Tehran shopping malls is a stark image; so too a group of teenagers who have just lost their ‘minders’, religious police guarding against boys and girls meeting together. More interesting is an extended sequence in the hills around Tehran, a popular spot for the youth of the city to breath freer air – here conversation is more relaxed and men and women intermingle with greater laxity. A striking scene shows one young man eloquently describing the generational gap – their parents were passionate, they believed in the Revolution, but their legacy has been little short of disastrous for him and the youth of today. And in perhaps the most powerful sequence, a group of theatre students are seen performing exercises in a pertinent demonstration of artistic freedom. Cut to the group talking freely and passionately about the confusions they experience: neither wishing to identify fully with conventional practice nor wanting to follow the opposite extreme of Western hedonism, they speak of being caught in the middle, unsure of which path to follow yet very much aware that their generation are at the helm of a society in freefall. In looking beyond the simplistic notions of fundamentalism and threat, Iran, Veiled Appearances succeeds in showing a country at a critical point in its history, attempting to negotiate democratic reform within an explicitly Islamic context, looking to the future while safeguarding the achievements of the past. In so doing it is a timely look at a society that undoubtedly remains repressive yet one whose youth are seeking a middle path and are demanding a lowering of the veil that has kept them from expressing their desires.