I’m going to break from my usual pattern here and cover a short film, Farhad Delaram’s “Tattoo.” This is fifteen minutes of bureaucratic hell, of prodding and obtuseness and petty power plays; that’s the kind of material that can tilt easily towards either comedy or horror, and “Tattoo,” spare and realistic, ends up being the bleakest horror. It’s Orwellian: “Imagine a boot stamping on a human face–forever.” Clearly just the sort of thing you should watch over your lunch break, if you have a moment.
The film keeps a tight focus on a young Iranian woman (Behdokht Valian) who is renewing her driver’s license but must, she is told, have a doctor certify that her crushed finger is no obstacle to her handling a manual transmission. But this is just an excuse to humiliate her with an intense, ostensibly impersonal scrutiny that is always demanding that she expose herself, physically and psychologically. Her tattoos, everyone implies, indicate that she’s unstable, and surely she can see that they can’t turn control of a large, dangerous vehicle over to someone that? And what about the scar on her wrist? How did that get there? Why doesn’t she have medical documentation to prove her story? Why is she being so hostile?
She starts the film with energy and authority, and as it’s agonizing to watch her slowly realize that she’s trapped in a vise designed to press in tighter and tighter until all the selfhood is squeezed out of her. Clear answers avail her nothing, because the questions are meaningless and slanted and the people asking them aren’t listening anyway. The only logic at work is the emotional logic of power, which says that since she dared to feel some sense of control over her own life, some sense of internal value separate from whatever value was assigned to her by the state, she must be cowed and crushed.
It’s concise and powerfully handled, and it avoids being nothing more than a dark shot of misery. It’s more proof that short films would benefit from being culturally treated like short stories, with occasional anthologies and single-director collections to found them up so they can get wider exposure. In lieu of that, you can find this streaming on the Criterion Channel.