The Political Economy of Urban Beauty – Slog

It’s SIFF season! Seattle’s favorite film fest returns this month with 262 films over 11 days (April 14–24) screening both in-person and online. We’re rounding up some of our favorites. Every day, expect two more recommendations on Slog.

Vanishing black boys of Seattle...

Vanishing black boys of Seattle… Courtesy Zia Mohajerjasbi

LA/206 director Zia Mohajerjasbi’s debut feature Know Your Place is a film that everyone in Seattle (and all other major cities) should (must) watch. It is a packed work, and so unpacking it all is nothing but impossible within the obvious attentional limits imposed on blog posts. But, I will begin by saying the star of this film is, above all, Seattle. But this star has two important and different parts. One: the city that’s becoming, class wise, homogeneous. This kind of city has less and less space for the working classes. Two: the city that’s losing its color. Black Americans were the first to go. Now it’s black Africans. Next will be East Asian Americans. Know Your Place takes place in the now.

This used to be your town, too.

This used to be your town, too. Courtesy Zia Mohajerjasbi

The story of Know Your Place is profoundly black African. It’s the odyssey of a 15-year-old (Robel Haile) who is tasked with hand-hauling, from one end of the city to the other, a huge and heavy suitcase to a family friend who is returning to East Africa. I can attest to the authenticity of this plot. When an African returns home from the States, they not only take their own things but those of relatives and friends. I once recall taking a long bus ride to Shoreline to give a Zimbabwean friend a bag filled with vitamins for a sick family member in Harare. In the case of Robel, the suitcase he pulls around Seattle (on the sidewalk, onto this and that bus, into a Link train or the trunk of a cab) contains, among other things, medicine.

But impressed on this black African American plot, which also involves Robel’s best friend (Fahmi Tadesse), and the fact that the former is Eritrean and the latter Ethiopian deserves another level of unpacking, is the narrative sensibility of 1990s Iranian cinema—more specifically, the cinema of the late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami; more specifically yet, Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House?which is the first part of a trilogy that ends with one of the greatest films of the 1990s, Through the Olive Trees. But where Mohajerjasbi, an Iranian American, parts with Kiarostami and the Iranian New Wave of the 1990s is his commitment to beauty (or aesthetic realism).

Indeed, apart from the sadness that courses through Know Your Place has as its source an unsaid consequence of the raw displacement of POCs by primarily wealthy white Americans: Not only can POCs not afford to live in the city but, more importantly (and spiritually), they can’t afford to live in a beautiful city . In the pre-gentrification days, one did not need a tech job or large inheritance to access the darkling light of Seattle, its large population of big and leafy-thick trees, its glorious sunsets, and even the calming music of its rain. In this film, Mohajerjasbi presents something that is entirely new (if not revolutionary): a political economy of urban beauty.

Playing at SIFF Egyptian on Sunday, April 17 at 4 pm and at Ark Lodge Cinemas on Tuesday, April 19 at 5:45 pm. Director Zia Mohajerjasbi scheduled to attend.

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