Ann Marie Fleming’s blushing hand-drawn feature “Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming” finds the titular character, a 20-something Canadian fast food clerk, on an unexpected trip to her absent father’s homeland of Iran to perform at a poetry festival in Shiraz. Rosie (voiced by Sandra Oh, also an executive producer) would rather make her debut in Paris, home of her idols Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Her self-published collection, “My Eye Full, Poems by a Person Who Has Never Been to France,” is an ode to the land that she romanticizes as the pinnacle of culture.
Rosie is disconnected from her Eastern roots—her father left the family to return to Iran when she was young, and her Chinese mother died shortly after. Raised by her protective maternal grandparents, she has barely left her hometown and inherited an affinity for Western art from her fellow Francophile grandmother.
Unlike her more detailed counterparts, Rosie is rendered as little more than a stick figure with a pink triangle for a skirt (soon to be covered up by a traditional Iranian chador) and two slants for eyes, a go-to avatar Fleming uses elsewhere (she too is Canadian and partly of Chinese descent). Embodied as a reductive representation of both women and Asian people, Rosie’s infinitely more dynamic character challenges the caricature imposed upon her; at the same time, the sparing presentation suggests a person not yet fully developed, simple but unfinished.
Though her naivete introduces her to a series of embarrassments and cultural gaffes, Rosie’s humility and limited exposure to non-Western culture work in her favor, to an extent. She is more open and therefore adaptable than another visiting festival performer, a perpetually-scoffing German literary mansplainer who collapses when his non-Western audience finds his consumer-critical poem distasteful for its depiction of women dining with dogs.
But though she’s no more informed of the real story behind her father’s disappearance than she is of his homeland, Rosie’s open-mindedness does not lend itself so much to entertaining the possibility that her father was not simply a neglectful man who abandoned his family. To Rosie, he is a spectre easier to bitterly reject than to understand; reconstructing that part of her personal narrative is a bigger hurdle than expanding her aesthetic vocabulary.
Rosie quickly learns that Shiraz is as much a poetry capital as Paris, if not more so—Shiraz is the capital of the Fars Province, the origin of the Farsi language and the birthplace of the legendary poets Hafez and Saadi. The people of Shiraz carry the words of their city’s poets as if they were part of their everyday lexicon. Poetry is alive here, and while Rosie learns about the lives and work of the powerful men who authored it, she also becomes aware of the underrecognized influence of women along the way.
Beyond a coming-of-age tale, “Window Horses” serves as an intro to Iranian history and poetry, with about a dozen guest animators taking turns to illustrate different dives into the country’s past and literary figures, as well as pieces performed by the festival’s featured writers. The shifts in the film’s visual language are distinct yet cohesive, maintaining a kind of fluorescent buzz beneath a collage of rich textures and borrowing jewel-like details from Persian miniature paintings (which were influenced by Chinese art, so an apt example of cultural intersectionality here). One highlight: Guest artist Bahram Javaheri animates the mythic biography of the poet Hafez (who, as Rosie notes while others too quickly overlook, fucked over his wife in the process of becoming a great big important poetry man by keeping a mistress his muse) as a quasi-3D wall carving in motion with embellishments culled from illuminated manuscripts—the result is decadent.
By bringing on a range of artists to reinterpret poetry and history, Fleming mirrors the exchanges her own heroine undertakes when she attempts to translate a poem given to her by a fellow performer, a Chinese expat who enlightens Rosie with pieces of history from her mother’s country. He titles his poem with a flexible Mandarin word meaning “horse, mother . . . a bridge from one world to another,” piquing the interest of his horse-fixated, motherless, wanderlusting new friend. Unable to read Mandarin, Rosie visits a bookstore in Shiraz seeking a Mandarin-English dictionary, but leaves instead with Mandarin-Farsi and English-Farsi dictionaries.
What begins as a meticulous process of translating the poet’s words from Chinese to Farsi and then from Farsi to English becomes a creative pursuit of Rosie’s own, revealing the spaces between cultural non-parallels where bravery like hers is particularly useful. She does not merely take artistic liberties; she fills the gaps understood to divide civilizations with her own identity, where those histories and the words that shape them overlap, and letting it take new form.
“Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming,” directed by Ann Marie Fleming, screens at the Creative Alliance on Jan. 11.