Written by Anna Harrison
Maya starts as the story of a relationship between a tiger, Maya, and her keeper, Mohsen Teyerani, a taxidermist-cum-zookeeper at the Mashhad Zoo in Iran. Mohsen hand-raised Maya as a cub, and home videos reveal her frolicking around his house, playing with his wife and children; eventually, she moved to the zoo, where she and Mohsen have become an odd couple celebrity: he is completely at ease with the tiger, calling to her and petting her like she’s a dog rather than a 300-pound feline. Zoo guests can even get in the cage with Maya as Mohsen looks on.
It’s a simultaneously touching and unsettling sight. Mohsen clearly adores Maya, and she seems to adore him, yet her cage is small, the flooring is concrete, and there is nowhere to hide from the guests; we watch her pace restlessly up and down the fenceline, bright golden eyes glittering. Directors Jamshid Mojaddadi and Anson Hartford, while they give commentary elsewhere in the film, only use the camera to show us this, condemning nothing but allowing viewers to take in the strange dichotomy found in Mohsen and Maya’s relationship: he loves her, but is that love enough?
Mohsen takes Maya out to the fields of the Caspian Sea for a film, and there she experiences the outdoors for the first time, becoming the first tiger seen in the area for 60 years after the Caspian tigers were driven to extinction. Mojaddadi and Hartford craft some beautiful shots as Maya prowls the grasses, and it’s clear that she is far more comfortable here than her concrete cage. Mohsen knows this too, but knows that she can’t be released into the wild, either, and so they have to go back to the zoo. “If Maya could talk,” Mohsen tells the camera, “she would tell me that I gave her false hope. It was like a short-lived dream. ‘You showed me a whole new world, I got used to it, I learned to love it, then you took it away from me and brought me back to this horrible place.’ These are the things she would say to me, and I wouldn’t know how to answer that.”
After her sojourn to the Caspian Sea, Maya evolves into something else when news of tiger remains found at the zoo comes to light. Suddenly a whole lot more ethical questions pop up, and some of them implicate Mohsen; while he claims innocence, at one point, the phrase “just following orders” arises, which unearths a set of very thorny questions. Questions of power and economics come into play, government employees investigate the zoo and rattle off canned lines about protecting the environment and the animals, and the stress causes Maya to lash out in various ways. While some of these questions were gently posed at the beginning of the film (so gently in fact that you would be forgiven for forgetting these elements, which would have more weight had they been brought up with more frequency), they are thrown into sharp relief here; by and large, Mojaddadi and Hartford leave the audience to come to their own conclusions, and while they occasionally offer their own thoughts, the most effective moments come when they let the camera do the talking. The second half proves more interesting than the first as Maya wades into some moral quandaries, many of which pose tantalizing questions that are left unanswered, but the film proves a quietly affecting piece, even if it’s better at raising questions than addressing them.