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Can I Hug You?

average rating is 5 out of 5


William Hemingway


Posted on:

Oct 1, 2023

Film Reviews
Can I Hug You?
Directed by:
Elahe Esmaili
Written by:
Elahe Esmaili
Hossein Behboudi Rad

Since the death of Mahsa Amini almost exactly one year ago there has been a massive surge of civil unrest amongst many communities, but especially amongst the women, of Iran. Of course there had been many other protests previously, speaking out against the restrictive regime and the heavy handed brutality of the state in enforcing specific laws – again mostly those affecting women and in particular the wearing of the hijab in public – but Amini’s death at the hands of the state, whilst in police custody, was the spark and the driving force behind a brand new movement which is still gaining momentum today.


The uprising and continued protests which began one year ago caught the attention of the international community and it is largely this which we in the West consider to be the defining cultural change which is attempting to take place in Iran. There are, however, other voices who are fighting to be heard; who are facing the same persecution and restrictive thinking imposed by the state as well as from those who would enforce it. In amongst all of this we find Hossein and his story, lovingly captured by his wife Elahe Esmaili, which opens up a whole new perspective on just who is rejected and marginalised by the ultra-religious leaders and followers in Iran.


Hossein is now thirty and married, although without any children. In his childhood, when he was very young, Hossein suffered terrible crimes of sexual abuse from several older men in his community. Unable to speak about what happened to him, after opening up to his mother about it one day and having his confessions ignored and dismissed out of hand, Hossein then kept quiet and never revealed his terrible secret to anyone ever again. That is until one day when his wife asked him innocently what his earliest memory was and whether or not he enjoyed his childhood. Soon a whole host of memories and emotions came flooding back to Hossein as well as a realisation as to why he constantly moved from home to home and country to country trying to find somewhere ‘safe’ to live.


In Can I Hug You? we find Hossein back with his family, surrounded by aunties, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces, ready to face his trauma back on the same streets where it happened and also hoping to confront his parents about what he experienced as a child. From the beginning the tone of the film tends to be one of joy and of hope and this helps paint a deeply affecting and intimate portrait of Hossein’s journey to adulthood. For what is undoubtedly a horrific and difficult story to tell, Can I Hug You? manages to soften the trauma for the viewer very effectively, bringing us into Hossein’s family and his life to feel as though we are a part of the process of his healing.


Much of this is down to the way that Esmaili expertly handles the focus of her film, tending to highlight the love, tenderness and joy which is felt throughout the entire family but especially in the way Hossein interacts with the children. There are moments of quiet, gentle mocking which Hossein receives for the fact that he hasn’t had any children of his own yet, but still these are presented as regular, loving moments between family members who, of course, are unaware of the trauma which he has carried along with him all these years.


A simple animation brings us back to Hossein’s childhood, using a tried and tested technique from other similar films of oppression to express the difficult memories from his past; the music throughout the film from composer Nir Perlman is light and gentle and never imposing, carrying the viewer from scene to scene with and uplifting feeling; and the editing from Deliram Shemirami moves us seamlessly around the family home, offering shots from a variety of angles cut together to provide a holistic view while the sound editing keeps us within a single time and space. All of these elements, along with Esmaili’s direction and Mohamad Hadadi’s cinematography, are executed with the same gentle tenderness that we feel Esmaili shows towards her husband, with the tone of the film being encompassed beautifully in the scene where she asks him, ‘Can I Hug You?


At just over half an hour long, Esmaili’s documentary is a window into a different world. It is a beautiful and tender portrait of one woman’s love for her husband as well as a devastating showcase for how certain sections of society can still be ignored or shut down even by those closest to them. It is hard to think of a more intimate and honest documentary which treats its subject in such a respectful and moving way. Can I Hug You? in itself feels like one big, warm hug, which like all the best hugs do, allows the emotion to seep out and helps make the healing process seem a whole lot brighter.

About the Film Critic
William Hemingway
William Hemingway
Short Film, Documentary, World Cinema
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