Shiva Sanjari’s one-hour documentary Here the Seats Are Vacant focuses on Shahrzad, an Iranian actress and dancer whose career came to a strange and brutal end with the Islamic Revolution. Once a national heartthrob and feminist icon–she was also the country’s first female director–she now scrapes by on a small pension in a house almost denuded of furniture. Sanjari gives her the space to tell kaleidoscopic snapshots of her life story, illustrating it with clips from her old films. They’re flickering black-and-white ghosts, relics of an artistic culture the new regime sought to expunge. It sought to expunge Shahrzad too–even slitting her wrists to fake her suicide–but she’s still here, still thoughtful and sensual and charismatic.
Her story is as depressing as you would expect, including a bleak reminder about how her frenetic, cabaret-filled youth came with its own horrors, but Sanjari smartly paces the film to spend some time just existing in Shahrzad’s life as it is now, after the bulk of obvious, earth-shattering narrative has passed. We watch as she cuddles a goat, makes dinner, picks flowers, puts on makeup, calls her sister. There’s a sense of resilience, and you can tell the movie appreciates both Shahrzad’s hanging-on-by-a-thread contentment and the courage and caution it took to achieve it. It’s a love letter, both to a mostly vanished era and to the woman who embodied it and who, against all odds, dances once again.
Here the Seats Are Vacant is streaming on the Criterion Channel.