‘A Revolution on Canvas’ Review: The Personal, the Political and the Painting

‘A Revolution on Canvas’ Review: The Personal, the Political and the Painting

Midway through “A Revolution on Canvas,” one of the documentary’s directors, Sara Nodjoumi, receives a warning from a friend. She and her father, the painter Nikzad Nodjoumi (commonly known as Nicky) have been trying to discover if his paintings — left behind at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art when he fled Iran in 1980 — are still in the basement archives of the museum. By video chat, a friend counsels caution. “It’s just a film,” he says. “You don’t want to risk your life.”

That’s not hyperbole. An element of danger hangs over “A Revolution on Canvas,” which Sara directed with her husband, Till Schauder. The film’s goal is to locate Sara’s father’s paintings and, hopefully, bring the work to the United States, where father and daughter both live. But the political situation that drove her father away from his homeland and from his protest paintings puts their quest, and anyone who helps them in it, in danger.

Nicky Nodjoumi moved to New York in the 1960s, arriving after the artist Nahid Hagigat, whom he’d met as a student in Tehran and who would become his wife. Yet Nicky returned to Tehran in the late 1970s, feeling a pull to criticize the reign of the Shah through his art. It’s remarkable work, blending pop art techniques, classical Persian painting, illustration and a bold vision for criticizing not just the Shah but all kinds of ideologies. Seeing his art — which is sprinkled liberally throughout the film — makes it clear why he was a figure of danger in Iran.

A few stories battle for attention in “A Revolution on Canvas”: Sara’s family history, Iran’s political history and the search for Nicky’s lost paintings. The braiding of these can be bumpy, and a little frustrating. It’s not always clear why we’re jumping from one strand to the next.

Yet each strand on its own is fascinating. The film ably explains the history of midcentury Iran before the revolution through the stories of Sara’s parents, and in particular her father’s solo show at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art just after the Iranian revolution. The threats he and the museum received were the impetus for his return to New York, without his paintings. He and Hagigat split up years later, but their time together was filled with activism, child-rearing and art.

Sara’s conversations with her parents about their lives and their relationship pulls focus repeatedly from the ongoing quest to reclaim the artwork, and at times, this can be frustrating. Yet it’s necessary, given that Sara’s calls (some of which are redacted) to contacts in Tehran often end in what feel like dead ends. Nearly everyone is afraid to say too much and risk their own livelihoods or, they seem to think, their lives. It’s not at all clear what will happen, but as with most investigations, it requires a lot of sitting around and waiting for people to call back. The more personal and historical strands are left to pick up the pace.

The strongest parts of “A Revolution on Canvas” don’t really deal with the hunt for the art at all — they’re the frank admissions from Sara’s parents about the joys and difficulties of building a life around art and activism. When Sara asks her father if he missed her when he returned to Tehran to protest the Shah, he bluntly says, “No.” Art came first. Later, her mother becomes so emotional when her daughter recounts a memory that she has to walk out of frame. It’s often said that the personal is political, and for Nodjoumi’s parents, both the personal and the political are wound inextricably with their art. But that leads to both hurt and compromises, and sometimes it takes the distance of years to realize what the picture you’ve spent your life painting really means.

A Revolution on Canvas
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. Watch on Max.

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