“Feathers of Fire–The Movie,” Shadow Theater On Film, A Review by Andrea Santo Felcone

Perhaps you have already streamed everything on your movie ‘wish-list’ and are finding drive-in movie tickets hard to come by? (As they sell out at lightning speed.) This scramble for entertainment will most likely be a common thread this summer, but there is some good news. There are talented companies putting creative projects together in ways that families can experience entertainment, easily, and affordably. One such project, is “Feathers of Fire”–a cinematic version of a live animation shadow play.

Feathers of Fire

Simorgh bids farewell to Zaul. Photo by Fictionville Studio.

I knew nothing about shadow plays and shadow theater before I started watching “Feathers of Fire”. By the end, I became so fascinated with shadow theater, I researched a bit more about it. Shadow theater goes back a very long way. Ever since ancient man had been sitting around fire, in caves, he used shadows to tell stories. In today’s world of shadow theater, of course, the art form has expanded, but at its most basic, think of it in this way: instead of actors acting on a stage under lights, the actors perform backstage in front of lights, so the audience sees the performers in shadow.

Ancient cave shadows are a long, long way from what you will see when you watch “Feathers of Fire.” The brainchild of Creator, Director and Artist, Hamid Rahmanian, “Feathers of Fire” is an elaborate production—the most elaborate shadow play ever produced. It includes eight performers, 160 handmade puppets, and 137 animated backgrounds–all synthesized into a live animation experience (now put to film). It takes 1,163 cues to make this work, but it’s seamless once it comes together. When you watch a particular character: you see the actor’s shadowed body from the neck down, but the face you see is not theirs—they are wearing a mask that looks like a 2-dimensional illustration. The masks are actually quite complex and gorgeous. I’m not sure how the actors know where their ‘mask faces’ are in relation to each other, but somehow they do, and everything is seamless. For research, I watched one of the actresses interviewed and she said you have to exaggerate all of your movements in shadow theater. Somehow through this exaggeration (it strikes me this type of acting is very closely related to dance) they are able to fully express the storyline.

Feathers of Fire

Backstage view: Sindokht and Mehrab. Photo by Fictionville Studio.

What deserves emphasizing is that, as you get lost in the story of this film, you start to see only 2-dimensions, as if you are watching any other animated movie, like Disney’s “The Jungle Book” (which shares some themes here). Then, once this film is over, there’s a big reveal at the end, where the stage is reversed to show the production’s technical construction and you get to see the actual actors in their costumes. After watching the show for its hour and 10 minutes running time, this ‘reveal’ at the end is breathtaking–who are these people standing before you dressed in black, wearing laced capes, feathers, and colorful masks/headdresses? Oh, yes, those are the actors in this remarkable production!

It would be very easy to spend all of my time here analyzing how “Feathers of Fire” was created–because it’s so fresh and surprising–but what is the storyline? Well, that too, is fascinating. The story of “Feathers of Fire”, will capture your imagination just as much as the magic of its production: Hamid Rahmanian, is not only the creator and director, but also a 2014 Guggenheim fellowship-winning filmmaker and visual artist. Originally from Iran, Rahmanian adapted the story of “Feathers of Fire” from Shahnameh—the Persian Book of Kings. It tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers of Old Persia. When I watched “Feathers of Fire” for the first time, I focused on the love story of Zaul, the outcast albino boy raised by a mythical bird in the wild, (she’s exquisite), who, later, as a young man, falls in love with Rudabeh, the beautiful princess and granddaughter of the dreaded Serpent King. Zaul himself has much to overcome personally in this tale, and his union with Rudabeh is also put to various tests. Ultimately, the two are blessed with a child, Rostam, “the Hercules of Iran”.

Feathers of Fire: Zaul and the Sea Monster

Zaul and the Sea Monster. Photo by Fictionville Studio.

This beautiful Persian story was new to me, and as I watched, I wondered what children would think of this theatrical experience put to film. Would it hold a child’s interest? So, a few days later, I watched the entire movie again, this time with my 10-year-old son, and I saw it through his eyes: an action-packed film filled with strong heroes and warriors. The theme of perseverance (especially appropriate right now) felt good to reflect upon. My son, like many children his age, enjoys mythology, so that was an added bonus. The Iranian music, using traditional instruments, was beautiful and something new for us to discuss.

In the end, “Feathers of Fire” is “Romeo and Juliet” meets “The Jungle Book” with a touch of “Rapunzel” tossed in as you learn about Persian mythology and Iranian culture. (It came as no surprise that Rahmanian worked for a time at Disney on such projects as “Tarzan” and “The Emperor’s New Groove”) before starting his own production company, “Fictionville Studio”.

Feathers of Fire

Hamid Rahmanian with puppet. Photo by Fictionville Studio.

So, try for those drive-in movie tickets later, for now, pop some popcorn, gather your family, and watch “Feathers of Fire” on-demand on Vimeo, for only $4.95. (A very affordable experience that will make you feel good as proceeds will go toward Rahmanian’s next project: “Song of the North”, a live animation shadow play that picks up where “Feathers of Fire” left off, and its accompanying pop-up book. This material would lend itself brilliantly to a pop-up book!)

“Feathers of Fire” will entertain “all ages”, and can be purchased here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/feathersoffire.

If you are anything like me, after you watch, you will want to stay in this world and learn more about how this film was made. Included here are some interesting interviews by KCET-TV (LA) and Teen Kids News on that topic: https://www.kingorama.com/feathersoffire.


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