"A Time for Drunken Horses" - Bahman Ghobadi (2000)

Kurdish Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi grew up during the devastating Iran-Iraq War, which killed several of his relatives. After starting out in photography, he began attracting attention in his twenties from his short documentary films about Kurdish life. After serving as Abbas Kiarostami’s assistant director on The Wind Will Carry Us (d Mā-ra- Khāhad Bord, 1997), he expanded the theme of one of his short documentary films, Life in Fog, to make his first feature film, A Time for Drunken Horses (Zamani Barayé Masti Asbha, 2000). The film, about the harsh circumstances of an impoverished Kurdish family near the Iran-Iraq border where the local economy subsists around the dangerous smuggling trade, was an immediate sensation and multi-award winner, including the FIPRESCI critics prize and the Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Kurdish people live mostly in Kurdistan, a mountainous region of the Middle East that covers parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. For them the national boundaries that separate their people are artifacts of past political processes that excluded their participation. But paradoxically these same artificial boundaries that close off free exchange have presented a secondary, though fraught with danger, economic opportunity: smuggling. A Time for Drunken Horses tells the story of an orphaned family trying to survive in these perilous conditions.

The film was shot on location in the rugged mountains of Kurdistan with local, nonprofessional actors who were essentially playing themselves. Incredibly under these rough production circumstances, the film displays remarkably high production values, with superb cinematography and well-executed camera setups that support smooth, dynamic editing. As a consequence, the visual narrative has a natural, gripping flow that maintains the continuity of the storyline and the dramatic developments. In fact the cinematography and narrative flow in this, Ghobadi’s first feature, are superior to those of his subsequent efforts, Marooned in Iraq (Gomgashtei Dar Aragh, 2002), Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhtha Parvaz Mikonand, 2004), and Half Moon (Niwemang, 2006).

The story of A Time for Drunken Horses follows the fate of a family of young Iranian Kurds living near the Iraqi border. Ayoub is a twelve-year-old boy and the principal protagonist of the story. He has three sisters, Rojin, who is maybe about sixteen or seventeen, and Ameneh, who is perhaps eleven and who provides the narrative voice-over at the beginning and in certain other parts of the film, and a young toddler who stays at home and is barely seen in the film. Ayoub’s older brother, Madi, is fifteen and is a severely handicapped dwarf, with deformed legs and stunted arms. Despite their dangerously meager circumstances, the siblings are all extraordinarily close and loving towards each other, and this was evidently a Kurdish value that Ghobadi wanted to place in prominence. In particular, they all look after and try to amuse the crippled Madi, who requires constant care and medical attention.

The plot can be sectioned into four parts, each of which involves a trip, or attempted trip, across the Iran-Iraq border:
1. Introduction (28 minutes). At the beginning of the film, Ayoub, Madi, and Ameneh are seen already working at odd jobs in a market town on the Iraqi side of the border. They do things like wrap consumer goods in newspaper for shipping on mule trains that will cross over the mountains into Iran. To manage the mules in the steep, icy mountain range, the herders have them drink vodka (hence the term “drunken horses”). It seems that most the goods shipped are part of the smuggling trade. Madi doesn’t work, but Ayoub and Ameneh apparently take him along with them so that he can see the hustle and bustle of the town. We learn that their mother had recently died in childbirth and that their father has the dangerous job of a smuggler who guides goods-laden mules over the treacherous mountains passes and must avoid landmines, border guards, and bandits.

On their return to the Iranian side, the truckload of kid workers is stopped by the Iranian border guards, who abusively search the children. The viewer discovers that even taking blank school-exercise books into Iran is prohibited by the authorities. So their truck is impounded, and the kids have to walk the rest of the way back to their home village. When they get there, they discover that their father has been killed by a landmine explosion. Twelve-year-old Ayoub now has to drop out of school and be the family breadwinner. At this point Ayoub is also informed by a local doctor that Madi’s medical condition is terminal: he must have an emergency operation within four weeks, and in any case he can’t be expected to survive more than about eight months.

2. Ayoub Takes a Job (17 minutes). Ayoub manages to get a job as a porter, accompanying the smuggling mule train carrying mostly truck tires over the snowy mountain pass. The work is tough, with porters are often getting cheated out of their fees and disputes leading to fistfights. Meanwhile Ameneh is diligently studying in school and learning about faraway things, like the wonders of airplanes. The ambivalent blessing to the Kurdish people of air power is a theme that will be picked up again in Ghobadi’s follow-up movie, Marooned in Iraq. After two months of backbreaking work, Ayoub still hasn’t made enough money for Madi’s operation, but he gets a break when his uncle breaks his arm and loans him his mule, which can draw better porter fees. However on his next trip over the pass with the mule, the team is ambushed by bandits, and the smugglers flee in panic. It is not clear in this scene whether Ayoub recovers his uncle's mule or not.

3. Rojin Gets Married. (18 minutes). Over Ayoub’s heated objections, the uncle arranges for Rojin to get married into a Iraqi Kurdish family. Rojin agrees to the match, because the groom’s family agrees to pay for Madi’s operation in Iraq. Again a passage over the mountains into Iraq ensues. But when they arrive, the family reneges on the deal and only offer a mule, instead.

4. Ayoub’s Mission for Madi (12 minutes). Without permission, Ayoub now takes Madi and the uncle’s mule on another mule train caravan over the mountain pass. The intention is to sell the mule in Iraq, where there is a better market for mules, and use the money for Madi’s operation. Again there is an ambush, and the caravan scatters, but Ayoub somehow recovers the mule and escapes with Madi. The final scene shows Ayoub and Madi making their way over the barbed-wire-marked border into Iraq. Their never-ending struggle continues.
The final shot of the film, which holds for several seconds on the barren, barbed-wire border fence after Ayoub, Madi, and the mule have exited screen right, provides an abrupt ending that stirs reflection and lingers in the memory long afterwards. The grim, fatalistic determination of Ayoub in the face of overwhelming forces against him is reminiscent of the similarly hopelessly doomed closing of Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal (1957). In the face of a dark destiny, we can only admire those who go on, no matter what the odds.

A significant theme that is always in the background of the film is the constant threat to human life from the widespread dispersal of landmines over all areas in this region. It contaminates farms, villages and wilderness areas with insidious "products of human civilization" that are designed to maim and kill civilians. The concern for landmines is picked up again in Ghobadi’s subsequent film, Turtles Can Fly.

As already mentioned above, the cinematography in A Time for Drunken Horses is exceptional, especially for what must have been difficult shooting conditions in the Kurdish winter. I particularly liked Ghobadi’s use of short-focus photography (i.e. shooting images with a shallow depth-of-field), which highlights his subjects from their situated backgrounds. This was a technique also employed to excellent effect by Michelangelo Antonioni in his films. In addition the Kurdish music in the film effective: non-obtrusive but evocative. Kurdish music seems to be a personal passion for Ghobadi, and its presence is accentuated, and is even sometimes a major theme, in his later films.

The pathetic and deformed figure of Madi is a key icon in this film. His utter helplessness and doomed condition provide a metaphor for a stunted and ultimately hopeless existence. And yet his family’s solicitousness and loving affection for him is extraordinary. Ayoub and Ameneh are constantly caressing him, buying him presents, and administering medicine to him at all times. This image of loving family bonding for a figure whom other people might pity but still shrink away from is a lasting one and a compelling tribute to Kurdish values. Ameneh and Madi are probably brother-and-sisters in real life, because they have the same last name, Ekhtiar-dini. Indeed there are five credited cast members in the film with that last name. The appealing figure of Ameneh is also a key image in the film. She is the sympathetic, affectionate watcher, the representative of universal innocence that deserves a better and safer future. We can all relate to Ameneh’s plight and to this film.
★★★★

"The White Balloon" - Jafar Panahi (1995)

After studying directing at a film college, making several documentary films, and serving as Abbas Kiarostami’s assistant director in Under the Olive Trees (Zire Darakhatan Zeyton, 1994), Jafar Panahi made his directorial debut in 1995 with The White Balloon (Badkonake Sefid). The film was co-scripted by Kiarostami, who would later also write the screenplay for Panahi’s Crimson Gold (Talaye Sorkh, 2003), and the film followed the customary pattern of Kiarostami’s productions by employing almost exclusively nonprofessional actors essentially playing themselves. But even in this first production, Panahi displayed a mastery for visual narrative and humanistic portrayal that distinguished him from Kiarostami. This distinction is also manifested in their two contrasting camera styles. Kiarostami’s cinematography has often employed static, long-take close-up shots depicting lengthy statements by individual characters, which were frequently intercut with very wide shots depicting the environmental landscape. From the outset, however, Panahi displayed a more fluid and dynamic visual style. He uses moving camera tracking shots so skilfully that they compare to studio shots undertaken on camera tracks, and his dynamic editing maintains an interactive narrative discourse without interrupting the “realist” setting. When you watch The White Balloon, you are seeing the camera work of someone who has already mastered the craft.

Filmmaking in Iran is undoubtedly fraught with extra difficulties, and Iranian filmmakers have always wrestled with the severe restrictions imposed on them by government censors, particularly during the years outside the relatively tolerant and humane period corresponding to Mohammed Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005). In many cases the safest option was to tell stories about children, which led to some creative productions along these lines, such as Kiarostami’s Khane-ye Doust Kodjast? (Where Is My Friend’s Home?, 1987) and Majidi’s Children of Heaven (Bacheha-ye-Aseman, 1997). Panahi’s The White Balloon and his subsequent The Mirror (Ayneh, 1997) were additional entries in this Iranian film genre. In the case of The White Balloon, we have almost a textbook case of how one can make a film of interest out of everyday, mundane events. The key to The White Balloon and what makes it charming, though, is that while the events are mundane from an adult’s perspective, they are highly dramatic, with huge ups and downs, from the perspective of the child protagonists.

The story is set on the day before the Iranian New Year (“Nowruz”) and concerns a seven-year-old girl, Razieh, who wants her mother to purchase a colorful goldfish for the festivities. The Iranian Nowruz takes place on the first day of spring and is the principal holiday period in Iran, with the Nowruz holiday season lasting two weeks. It can be compared with Christmas in Western countries, since it is the major gift-giving holiday. This ancient holiday tradition is pres-Islamic and celebrates the annual rebirth of nature. The mythical figure of Nowruz is “Haji Firuz”, who is usually colorfully dressed and in blackface. During this period one often sees figures dressed as Haji Firuz on the street, dancing gaily and making raucous music with tambourines. Iranians traditionally decorate their home with a “haft sin” table that features seven food items that begin with the letter ‘s’ (in Farsi, ‘sin’) which have the symbolic meaning of renewal and good fortune for the coming year. The table also traditionally includes a goldfish in a bowl, symbolic of life. Thus in the spirit of the traditional holiday festivities, Razieh wanted the family haft sin table to display a truly grand goldfish for the occasion.

Note that the Iranian calendar is slightly more accurate than the traditional Western Gregorian calendar, and the moment of New Year takes place precisely at the moment of the vernal equinox. This means that it can happen at any time of the day on the eve of Nowruz. In The White Balloon the viewer is informed that the New Year will begin in less than two hours on that afternoon. The film then proceeds in real time, in the sense that the film duration parallels diegetic time. Thus in the first shot of the film, Haji Firuz clowns are seen on the street while the viewer is informed by an offscreen radio voice that the new year will begin in seventy-eight minutes, and at the very end of the film the same radio voice announces the beginning of the new year..

Although the storyline may at first seem to be somewhat ad hoc, it is actually organized into six structured episodes:
  1. Introduction – Wanting a Goldfish (18 minutes). Razieh is seen tagging along after her mother on the street and nagging her about getting a nice, “chubby” goldfish for Nowruz. This scene provides the background for the family home, which is in a compound close to a local bazaar. Razieh’s mother is played by newcomer Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy, a superb, natural actress who would later star in The Circle (Dayereh, 2000) and Café Transit (2005). Razieh has an older brother, Ali, who is about ten or eleven, and has a rather demanding father, who is heard but never seen onscreen in the film. Razieh’s mother is busy with holiday preparations and sees no point in purchasing a new goldfish from the market when the family already has a goldfish pond full of fish. But Razieh whines that she is not satisfied with their own ponds’ population of “skinny” goldfish, she wants to buy a chubby one that she saw in the market. Finally after strenuous remonstrations, Razieh gets her way and is given a 500-toman note and told to buy the desired goldfish for 100 tomans. (The “purchasing value” of 500 tomans at that time might have amounted to a couple of dollars.) The task goal for this episode was to get permission to buy the goldfish, which was accomplished The goal is now to go out and purchase the goldfish.
  2. The Snake Charmers (7 minutes). Razieh, now wandering towards the bazaar on her own, succumbs to the forbidden temptation of watching two scruffy snake charmers performing in front of a crowd of idlers on the street. The snake charmers immediately incorporate the frightened Razieh into their act and snatch her 500-toman banknote as part of their show. This is a charming scene, and it shows the strange and threatening world outside home, as seen by a young child. After more tears and protests from Razieh, she gets her banknote back and moves on. The goal of this episode was merely to survive the events in tact, and that at least was accomplished. The goal remains to go out and buy the fish.
  3. Losing the Money (16 minutes). Razieh makes her way to the fish shop and identifies her “chubby” goldfish, but now another disaster strikes: she has lost her banknote somewhere on the way. A kindly matron offers to help the again-tearful girl, and they retrace Razieh’s steps from the time when she last remembered having the money. They do manage to find it on the street, but it has fallen through a drain grating in front of a closed-up shop. The lady talks to the shopkeeper next door, a busy tailor named “Bachtiari”, who agrees to assist Razieh. But after the lady leaves, Mr. Bachtiari is too preoccupied with arguments in his shop to attend to Razieh, and she doesn’t know what to do. The goal of this episode had been to find the lost money, which was accomplished, but now the remaining task is to retrieve it somehow from the drain.
  4. Ali Comes to Help (13 minutes). At this point Razieh’s brother Ali, who has been looking for her, finds her on the street. The older and more assertive Ali tries his hand with Mr. Bachtiari, but he doesn’t make much headway. After a failed attempt to fish out the money from the drain, Ali is merely instructed by Mr. Bachtiari to wait until after the Nowruz season is over when the neighbour shopkeeper is likely to return. This might make sense to an adult, but to the two children it would spell absolute disaster if they were to return home to their demanding parents without the money. Ali then goes off to see if he can find the address of the owner of the closed shop that has their money under its drain grate. So the goal is now to find the missing shop owner.
  5. The Soldier (13 minutes). Razieh is now approached by a drafted army soldier from the provinces, who wants to chat with her. This is another scary episode for Razieh, who, like most well-bred young children, has been instructed never to talk to strangers. Indeed the soldier’s motivations are unclear: he might simply be bored and lonely; he may be after the banknote; or perhaps there is something worse on his mind. Gradually he wins Razieh’s confidence against her will, but Ali returns to the scene to terminate their colloquy, and the soldier moves on. Again an uncertain distraction has been dispatched, and the goal remains to recover the money from the drain.
  6. The Afghani Boy (11 minutes). Now they spy an Afghani boy selling balloons on the street, and after a scuffle over the boy’s balloon pole, they begin working together to use the pole to retrieve the money from the grating. It is agreed that chewing gum stuck on the end of the pole should do the trick, and Ali is momentarily tempted to steal some gum from a blind street seller. But he changes his mind, and in the meantime the Afghani boy has bought some gum. Quickly the money is then retrieved, and the problem has finally been solved. Their goal achieved, Ali and Razieh joyfully run off to get their goldfish. The final shot shows the abandoned Afghani boy standing there with his one, unsold balloon, a white one.
The charm of The White Balloon is that the “small” world of children is presented precisely in the dramatic way that it is perceived by them. The camera framing and perspectives are entirely from the level of the children and what they see. The narrative mood is sustained by Aida Mohammadkhani’s determined performance as Razieh, which presumably was carefully managed by Panahi. Her tears in the snake-charmer’s scene appear quite genuine, just as do her sudden flashes of joy when she sees her fish or when her lost money is discovered. All the other performances by the nonprofessional cast also have the look and sound of authenticity. Panahi’s well-crafted mise-en-scene and cinematography make this small story come alive. Although his techniques are different from those of the Italian neorealists, the comparison of this first work of Panahi’s to theirs is apt: they both sought to uncover the humanity of the everyday.

But upon reflection, this small world of children is not really so small, after all. It includes all the fears of the bizarre and the threatening, as well as the anxieties concerning financial ruin and punishment. It also includes the joys of opportunistic encounters and fleeting friendships that all-to-quickly pass away before we know it. It is the same world of human values and experiences that we all live in, whether on the city streets in a country far away or in your own local neighbourhood.
★★★½ 

"Taste of Cherry" - Abbas Kiarostami (1997)

Taste of Cherry (Ta'am-e-Gīlās, 1997), a film produced, directed, written, and edited by Abbas Kiarostami, won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and has been hailed as a masterpiece by major critics and media outlets. In addition it has drawn fulsome praise from iconic film auteurs, Akira Kurosawa and Jean-Luc Godard. But it may not be to everyone’s taste.

The structure and story of the film follow Kiarostami’s stylized and minimalist aesthetics. Shot in his usual quasi-neorealist style and with nonprofessional actors, the film follows a middle-class man, Badii, as he drives around the outskirts of Tehran in his expensive SUV, looking to hire a working-class labourer for a job he wants to have done. Note that although Homayoun Ershadi, who plays the role of Badii, had no professional acting experience, his restrained but intense performance was sufficiently effective that he went on to appear in a number of other films, including Mehrjui’s Derakhte Golabi (1998) and Forster’s The Kite Runner (2007). Given the contemporary social environment of Iran, there are practical reasons why shooting movie film of people inside motor vehicles is convenient, but Kiarostami has become the specialist, par excellence, of this mode of visual expression. His film, “10” (Ten, 2002), for example, was shot entirely inside an automobile. In Taste of Cherry most of the footage comprises lengthy medium close-up shots of the driver or his given passenger as they engage in rather drawn-out discussions. These claustrophobic close-up shots inside the car are intercut with extreme long-shots, showing wide open spaces, of the same vehicle as it meanders through the back roads and sometimes desolate landscape outside the big city. Another characteristic Kiarostami technique is the use of slow-disclosure: it takes a long time for the viewer to figure out what Badii is up to, because, as usual, no real backstory is provided. In fact, in common with the subsequent Silence of the Sea (2004), by the apparently Kiarostami-influenced Vahid Mousaian, the key motivational information for the principle quest in the film is never provided.

As the film begins, Badii is seen driving around urban areas where unskilled workers gather looking for jobs. It soon becomes clear that he wants to hire someone, but he appears uncertain as to what kind of person he wants. Ultimately Badii will approach five different people to do the job, and with each successive encounter, he will have a deeper and more significant interaction. He is willing to pay 200,000 tomans for a day’s work (this would amount to a several hundred dollars, which would be very substantial for a lower-class labourer), but he is evasive concerning exactly what the job entails. The first person he talks to is suspicious of Badii’s evasive behaviour and dismisses him as a weirdo or a deviant. Following that brushoff, Badii looks for less-suspicious, more provincial types. He next approaches a young man from provincial Lorestan that he finds picking over rubbish heaps, but the man shies away and won’t get into his car. Only at this point, ten minutes into the film, does the film title sequence appear on screen, and the audience still doesn’t know what Badii wants to have done. The remaining three encounters with candidates for his job constitute most of the rest of the film.

Badii’s third encounter is with a young soldier from Kurdistan whom he picks up along the road and offers a ride. The soldier is reserved and polite, so Badii does most of the talking and leads the halting conversation as he finally outlines what he really wants done, now fully twenty minutes into the film. His intention is to commit suicide. He will take an overdose of sleeping of pills and then lie down to sleep in a deep hole in the countryside and have someone shovel twenty spadefuls of dirt into the grave the next morning. But he explicitly leaves a curious alternative in this specification: if by chance he is still conscious in the morning, his hireling is instructed to help him out of the grave.

The Kurdish soldier, who had gradually been growing more friendly with his driver, is naturally horrified to be involved in such a macabre operation, and he flees the scene at the first opportunity. Badii next offers a ride to an Afghani seminarian, to whom he also presents his bizarre proposition. This conversation is more engaged and involved than the one with the Kurdish soldier, but it is also more psychologically distant and analytical: the discussion with the Afghani seminarian turns to the Islamic strictures opposed to suicide. The Afghani refuses to abet such a sinful activity and offers his polite reasons for refusing to cooperate.

Finally Badii propositions an elderly and loquacious man of Turkish descent, Mr. Bagheri, who agrees to do the job requested, because he needs the money to assist his ill son. Mr. Bagheri is a thoroughgoing pragmatist; he will do the job for the money, but he urges Badii not to throw away his life. In an eloquent passage that represents the high point of the film, Bagheri recounts in his rustic fashion how he almost committed suicide thirty-seven years earlier. Due to his troubles at that time, he had intended to hang himself from a mulberry tree, but when he climbed the tree to secure the rope, he happened onto some mulberries and ate a few. Then he began noticing the sunrise and the abundance of the natural world around him, including young schoolchildren who asked him to give them some mulberries. With his mood thoroughly changed, he abandoned his morose plans and returned to life.

Badii listens to Bagheri’s testimony attentively, but remains on his suicidal mission, although he urgently reiterates the instructions about waking him up in the morning in the event that he is still alive. After leaving Bagheri at the natural history museum (where he works in support of the laboratory instruction), Badii returns to his apartment and prepares himself. Then he watches his final sunset before going out to his grave hole in the mountainside outside of town, where he smokes his last cigarette and then settles himself into his grave to await his end. The camera holds for a long time on Badii lying in his grave, illuminated only by moonlight or occasional lightning flashes. Finally the screen falls into complete blackness for a full minute, and only the sound of light rainfall is heard. With such a long hold on stillness and darkness, the viewer may become thoughtful or restless at this point. Then there is a fade-in to the same hillside, but with an entirely different and jarring perspective. The scene shows Kiarostami’s film crew actively working on a shot showing soldiers marching and chanting along the hillside road (associated with the Kurdish soldier sequence). The hillside is now the scene of bustle and activity. It is shot with a handheld camcorder with a smudged lens protector, giving the scene an amateurish, on-the-spot feel to it, and it is further jarred by the background jazz trumpet music of “Saint James Infirmary”. This goes on for a couple of minutes, before the film closes, not with a fadeout, but with a cut to black.

Although Taste of Cherry examines the always-present option of suicide and the countervailing reasons why one might turn away from suicide and live life again, the film, itself, is afflicted with the very same disorder that troubles its protagonist – the intellectual distancing from genuine human involvement. In fact the film appears to appeal primarily to those viewers whose experience and appreciation of film is not direct and intuitive, but must always be mediated by intellectual reflection. Indeed to a certain extent the film illustrates the difference between the aesthetic qualities of film and text.

The film experience, I contend, is something more than a textual reading (although many critics have artificially tried to expand the definition of ‘text’ and ‘reading’ to encompass almost all of mindful experience, thereby skirting the issue). By way of comparison, consider a great text, such as Dostoyevski’s The Idiot, which has sometimes been characterized as a sequence of extended and interesting conversations. Because it is a text, the reader reflects on the richness of those conversations in the context of the story. Taste of Cherry, too, features a sequence of extended conversations, but its conversations, as such, are not so interesting or bipartisan. The only interesting ‘text’ is Mr. Bagheri’s monologue to Badii towards the end of the film. But the rich, interactive, dynamic nature of cinema is not utilized in this film. Instead we have a schematic, artificial situation that engenders a sequence of artificial, non-interactive encounters that are presented for the viewer’s intellectual contemplation. All of this is then followed by an even more artificial coda.

That coda, incidentally, is a further illustration of my overall point. The narrative scheme to the film came to an end with the ending of the character Badii. Within the logic of the narrative, there is a possibility that Badii might survive, but that was apparently incidental to Kiarostami’s purpose, and so he had no use for the character anymore. He has built up the possibility that Badii might survive, but then abandons that thread and pulls the rug out from under the viewer. Instead, Kiarostami wanted to continue his intellectual themes, and so included the artificial and viewer-distancing coda. The shot of the hillside in that final coda scene shows the landscape relatively green, with grass and new foliage, suggesting we are now in a rainy season, which of course displays a vibrant contrast to the somber, gloomy scenery that dominated everything that came before. In fact, given the fateful clock times explicitly mentioned in the film (6 pm and 6 am), which are subsequently depicted to occur in darkness, we can assume that the seasonal period of Badii’s excursion was roughly in the winter time. The final coda, on the other hand, seems paradoxically to be in springtime. Why? It may have been useful for Kiarostami’s intellectual theme to show Badii’s excursion in a dry, dusty, lifeless environment and the coda in a green environment, but this lacks narrative motivation. Similarly, the intrusive, nondiegetic score of “Saint James Infirmary” is more for ironic reflection than for narrative enhancement. It appears that this entirely unnatural final scene is simply put forward to the audience in order to state, “life goes on”. In other words, the whole coda is a stunt put forward only to make a trivial point. Such things are not what constitute either great texts or great cinema.

Admittedly there are elements of the mise-en-scène that buttress the prevailing theme of depressive isolation in the film:
  • The feeling of isolation is enhanced by the many sounds that are dissociated from their images, i.e. the source of the sound is off-camera. This includes the background sounds of nature, particularly the sounds of birds. All of this suggests the richness of nature, of which Badii seems oblivious.
  • The stark contrast between shots showing the confinement inside Badii’s car and the concurrent shots showing the sweeping landscape as his car wheels along mountainous roads is an effective visual metaphor.
  • The numerous shots of heavy earthmoving equipment in the industrial area outside Tehran might suggest both (a) the futility of man’s attempt to alter the course of nature and (b) the religious acceptance of human fate inevitably traversing the course of “earth-to-earth, ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust”.
But as a narrative, what do we really have in Taste of Cherry? It is odd that the initial meeting with Mr. Bagheri is not presented in the film. With all the incidental and trifling activities in the film that are fully played out in every detail, why omit the most important meeting in the narrative? In addition the viewer is never informed of the original circumstances behind Badii’s death-wish. There is no backstory, no motivation, that might help engage the viewer to empathise with Badii’s life context. Perhaps this absence of specific motivation for suicide is undertaken in order to disengage the notion of suicide from any individual circumstances and make it available for abstraction contemplation. But this represents a flight from film and a movement towards text. And in this case, the text isn’t very compelling.

Taste of Cherry has sometimes been compared to Antonioni’s Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso, 1964), but there is a world of difference. Antonioni’s film uses the film medium to convey a more direct sense of alienation and isolation. Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry only presents a schematic outline for intellectual contemplation. Fortunately, Kiarostami would go on to do much better (but with fewer accolades) with his subsequent offering, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999).
★½

"Silence of the Sea" - Vahid Mousaian (2003)

Silence of the Sea (Khamushiye Darya, 2003), the second feature written and directed by Vahid Mousaian, is a somewhat mysterious and meditative film about an Iranian expatriate who wishes to reenter his native country and exhume some psychological ghosts that are haunting him. Like many films from Iran, it implicitly depicts the inner, emotional turmoil of the principal character during the course of everyday activities over a relatively short period of time.

The story concerns Siavash, who had left Iran years ago and gone to Sweden, where he married a local woman and has raised a family. At the start of the film he has apparently rather abruptly decided that he must return to Iran, after so many years, and settle something in his mind. The entire film is about his attempt to return.

Stylistically, the Silence of the Sea has affinities with the work of Abbas Kiarostami, such as in, for example, The Wind Will Carry Us. There is a focus on one person and his reaction to his surroundings, as well as the use of cell phones to evoke the notions of “communication”. In addition the technique of “slow disclosure” is used to plunge the viewer into a strange situation and only very slowly provide scraps of information, bit by bit, that reveal the context and what is going on. Kiarostami pushed this technique to an extreme in The Wind Will Carry Us, with slow disclosure extended throughout the film. But Mousaian has gone even further with Silence of the Sea: many presumably significant things are never disclosed in this film. This will be either intriguing or maddening, depending on your taste. Fortunately, the lead role is ably played by Masoud Rayegany, who has also appeared in Kheili Dour, Kheili Nazdik (So Close, So Far, 2005) and Ali Santouri (Santoori, 2007). His under-stated performance maintains continuity and reasonably well sustains our interest during the cryptic proceedings.

The story begins with seven minutes of point-of-view shots, which are evidently meant to depict the mental recollections and reflections of the main character, to whom the viewer has not yet been introduced. During this sequence one learns that Siavash has a Swedish wife and two children and that his own aged mother and father had sent him a video tape of themselves reproaching him for leaving them all alone back in Iran and never returning. Finally, after those seven minutes, the mental reflections are broken up, and the viewer sees Siavash on a small boat heading for his destination port: the island of Qeshm.

Qeshm is a large island a few kilometers off the southern coast of Iran in the Straits of Hormuz, near the port of Bandar Abbas. A part of Qeshm (about one-fifth) is a free zone, which means that you can go there without a visa, and this is crucial to the story. Apparently Siavash left Iran illegally years ago, and he cannot safely return to Iran, but he can enter the free port and speak to the local people there in his native language again.

In the early stages of the film, Siavash amiably enjoys taking in the local Iranian culture and activities in Qeshm. He befriends a local boatman and tout, Abdo, who sells him a cell phone. As most people know, this is what one needs to do in order to communicate clandestinely: buy a cell phone with a new SIM card in order to retain your anonymity; then throw away the SIM card after your telecommunications are completed. Siavash calls his wife back in Sweden and then calls an old friend inside Iran, Hussein (he is never shown in the film), with whom he converses concerning how they can safely meet later, inside Iran.

A little later Siavash takes a walk along a deserted area of the Qeshm shoreline and sees a number of people in a boat struggling to make it ashore while dodging gunfire from some pursuing police boats. Siavash meets one of these refugees on the shore, Faramarz, who reluctantly explains to him that he and his colleagues are all innocently trying to get out of Iran, but that the authorities won’t let them. Note that Iranian citizens need an exit visa to leave Iran. One cannot legally leave the country while still under certain obligations, such as the requirement to serve in the military. In this connection one might speculate that Siavash might have left Iran years earlier in order to escape the devastating and traumatic Iran-Iraq war, which took some 700,00-800,000 Iranian lives. If Siavash had avoided his military service in this way, he would still be liable for arrest if he were to return. Possibly supporting this conjecture is the fact that throughout the film, there are low-flying aerial photography images that apparently reflect Siavash’s memories or dreams of some past situation. It is not clear what the images mean, but to me they suggest a view from a military aircraft. In any case it is clear that Siavash sees a mirror image of himself in the young Faramarz. Faramarz borrows Siavash’s cell phone and calls his mother, explaining to her that he only wants to leave Iran in order to go out in the world and make something of himself. This apparently reflects Siavash’s original ambition for leaving Iran, too.

After this encounter, there is another cell-phone call with Hussein, during which Hussein admonishes Siavash for leaving Iran in those old days. The conversation is cryptic concerning what those original circumstances were, but Hussein explicitly condemns Siavash for having abandoned his parents. Afterwards, the guilt-driven Siavash attempts suicide by wandering into the ocean, but a local fisherman rescues him and brings him back ashore.

Then Siavash considers taking a ferry to the mainland, but he loses his nerve when he sees how closely the officials examine all the passengers’ identification papers. From this point, there are a few scenes depicting some bizarre local color:
  1. Because his cell-phone reception is unreliable at times, he tries using a local community phone, which is operated by a beautiful young woman who is the dream girl of all the young men in the area.
  2. Siavash goes out in a boat with Abdo along the coast and once more sees Faramarz and the other refugees immersed in the water, holding on to inner tubes, while hiding in the local marshes. Precisely what these refugees want to do at this moment or where they want to go is unclear to me here, but Siavash's encounter with them and his sympathies for their plight causes him considerable anguish.
  3. Later Siavash is out in the Stars Valley of Qeshm and has a vision of himself as a young boy in a caravan of traditionally-dressed travellers on horseback that is being led by his father and mother. Although the cavalcade presents the young Siavash as a capable boy fulfilling his filial obligations, the precise meaning of this colorful vision, in which the "real" Siavash is oddly able to intermingle with the travellers, is unclear.
As his new friend and subject to customary Iranian hospitality, Abdo is also letting Siavash stay with him and his mother at his home. One evening while Abdo is out, Siavash talks to Abdo’s mother and learns about her worries concerning Abdo’s dangerous activities. Later she prays for his safety. Then Siavash has another cell-phone conversation with Hussein, during which they become philosophical. Siavash says:
“There is always a person who likes you as much as you like him, but you have to find him. I found him, but I lost him too soon.”
To whom Siavash is referring is unclear – his parents, Abdo, Faramarz, Hussein, someone else? In any case the next morning there are grim images of an empty boat and Abdo’s forlorn mother that suggest Abdo may be dead.

Finally, Siavash is resolved to go across the border and hires a private dinghy to take him to Iran and meet up with Hussein on the other shore. He gets most of the way there, but his pilot is suspicious about being involved in illegal activity and refuses to take him all the way. This somehow breaks Siavash, and he realizes that his overall mission (whatever it was) has ended in failure.

Silence of the Sea is tantalizing and has some suggestive moments, but, for me, it is a narrative failure. Despite Rayegany’s efforts as Siavash, the individual pieces never add up to anything. It is difficult to empathize with Siavash’s guilt (whether it concerns his parents, a lost love, or some unknown past activities) without having the contextual grounding available. Guilt, longing, isolation, and “making something of oneself” seem only to be abstractions. Whenever there is love, there must be “the other”. Otherwise, one only has solipsism.
★★

"The Wind Will Carry Us" - by Abbas Kiarostami (1999)

Many Iranian filmmakers, reflecting the general inclinations of their Persian culture, make movies with distinctly philosophical themes and undertones. Their films often explicitly confront issues of life, death, and the meaning of existence. Abbas Kiarostami belongs to this grouping, but his films have attracted an additional interest among the more cerebral film-goers and critics, thanks to his distinctive, reflexive style of filmmaking. The fascination lies in the way his films explicitly call attention to the manner in which the world is depicted on film and, by extension, to the way reality is understood by all of us. This adds a further dimension to the philosophical inquiry: under examination is not only the meaning of life but also the phenomenological nature of experienced reality. But this kind of intellectualizing about cinematic reality has the danger of being overly schematic – which is precisely the mode of engagement that Kiarostami would seem to be wanting to overcome. The problem is that the narrative possibilities of film are examined explicitly in these exercises, but they are not exploited in the cinema-viewing experience. Another cinematic exploration precisely along these lines, but one of Kiarostami’s most successful efforts to establish a narrative context and still engage in his thematic inquiries, was The Wind Will Carry Us (Bād Mā-rā Khāhad Bord, 1999). The film, written and directed by Kiarostami and shot with nonprofessional actors, features evocative cinematography of the Iranian countryside by Mahmoud Kalari, who has also worked on Leila (1996), The Pear Tree (Derakhte Golabi, 1998), The Willow Tree (Beed-e Majnoon, 2005), and Offside (2006),. The assistant director was Bahman Ghobadi, who would soon emerge as a first-rate director in his own right and would further propel images of Kurdistan to worldwide audiences.

The story of The Wind Will Carry Us begins with long shots of a car passing along winding roads through the Iranian countryside, while the passengers engage in idle conversation about their itinerary. The film narrative technique of slow disclosure, wherein a setting is established and the viewer is forced to piece together a narrative backstory on the basis of slowly revealed contextual clues, is used here, but Kiarostami pushes this to an extreme. It takes a considerable amount of time before the viewer can piece together what the point of this journey is all about. Eventually, it is revealed (but only obscurely) that the travellers are headed for a remote village some 700 kilometres from Tehran, carved into the side of a mountain in Kurdistan. Their task is to record a traditional funeral ceremony that is anticipated will take place following the death of a very old village woman who is expected to die very soon. Since there are three men in the team driving to the village, the assumption is that this is to be a documentary film about the event, although no cinematic equipment is ever seen in the film, only the still camera of the principal character, Behzad. Funerals are held quickly after death in Iran, so the camera crew has to be on the spot and ready at the time of death.

When the men reach the village, they are greeted by a young schoolboy, Farzad, who has been assigned by the local contact to be their guide. Behzad immediately asks Farzad about the condition of the old woman, Mrs. Malek. It becomes apparent that the sooner this woman dies and the ceremony is held, the sooner the men can complete their mission and return to Tehran. But the woman isn’t quite ready to die, and the men have to cool their heels in the village until she does.

As the film proceeds, it gradually becomes clear that Kiarostami’s story is not really going to be about the pageantry of a death ceremony or the filming of it, but about what Behzad sees and what is on his mind. So Behzad has to wait, and time passes. While idling around, Behzad pokes about the village, talking to Farzad, drinking tea at a local tea house, and looking for some milk to add to his tea. Periodically he is interrupted by cell-phone calls from his impatient producer, Mrs. Godzari, back in Tehran. In order to get adequate reception for the call, Behzad has to jump into his truck and drive up to the top of a local hill where the cemetery is located. On these phone-call occasions at the hilltop, Behzad befriends a ditch digger, Yossef, and has some conversations with him. Yossef, imbued with the characteristic Iranian traditions of courtesy and hospitality, invites Behzad to get some milk from his “woman”, Zeynab (perhaps his betrothed), in the village. So Behzad seeks her out, and he converses with the young lady as she milks a cow in a darkened stall in order to provide him with some milk. Little by little, Behzad is getting involved with the village and its life. Eventually, a cataclysmic event occurs – Yossef is trapped when the tunnel that he has been digging caves in. Behzad rushes to the village and recruits rescuers and summons a doctor to save the ditch digger.

After Yossef is saved, Behzad accompanies the doctor on the back of his motorcycle to a larger town in order to get some medicine for Yossef. Along the way they have a signal conversation about what is important in life. Behzad asks the doctor what inflicts Mrs. Malek, to which the doctor replies, simply, “old age!” There is no recovery from old age, the doctor reminds him, but he says there is something worse than old age – death. Behzad remarks that some people assert that after one dies, one goes to a better place. But the doctor points out that noone has ever come back to verify such tales; it is better to get the most of this world, the one in which we are alive. He then quotes a quatrain from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyait:
They tell me the other world is as beautiful as a houri from heaven!
Yet I say that the juice of the vine is better.
Prefer the present to those fine promises.
Even a drum sounds melodious from afar.
When old Mrs. Malek finally does die at the end of the film, Behzad has lost interest in the funeral ceremony. He is more interested in photographing all the women of the village marching towards the ceremony.

Kiarostami employs some accentuated stylistic techniques in the film that steer the viewer in the direction he wants:

1. Slow disclosure. As already mentioned, slow-disclosure is extended throughout the film. The viewer only gets little scraps of information from time to time that reveal some of the goings-on in the village. This works, because Kiarostami has given us one key narrative target for Behzad: the impending death of old Mrs. Malek. This narrative element is what makes The Wind Will Carry Us one of Kiarostami’s most effective film experiences. As we scrutinize all the details for more information about her, we pick up other nuances along the way.

2. Behzad’s Reactions. Films commonly use point-of-view shots, followed by reaction shots of the onscreen observer in order to depict the dialectic of observation. But in The Wind Will Carry Us, we are given mostly reaction shots, without seeing clearly what is going on and what is being observed. Many presumably significant characters are never seen, or at least their faces are never seen, even in conversation. These include
  • Mrs. Malek and her family
  • Behzad’s two film crew companions,
  • The schoolboy Farzad’s father
  • The ditch digger, Yossef,
  • Yossef’s woman, Zeynab
  • The producer, Mrs. Godzari
When Behzad converses with some of the these people, the camera focusses on Behzad’s reactions to what they say. Behzad is different from everyone around him – not only is he the only clean-shaven one, he is the inquisitive one, the seeker.

3. The Watchers Watched. Behzad is an observer, a watcher, and we, the viewers, are observing him as he watches others. In addition, three village people who are shown in full face are, in one way or another, observers, themselves. These are the only people in the film that we really get to see, besides Behzad.
  • The elderly lady who operates the tea house is an outspoken critic on all that goes around her. She admonishes Behzad for expressing surprise at seeing a woman serve him in a commerciall setting, criticises her husband, and rebukes drivers who park their noisy and air-polluting cars near her shop.
  • Farzad’s schoolteacher, who has a conversation with Behzad about the local funeral ceremony, sees things critically. For him the funeral ceremony is not a colorful pageant but a dysfunctional mechanism of the local economy. People use it merely to demonstrate their loyalty to the local landlords and bosses. The ceremony from his perspective is not an expression of spirituality, but simply an opportunity for expressions of fealty to the local “warlords”.
  • Farzad is an observer, too. He’s studying hard at school (and so far, according to his marks, not doing very well) in his efforts to learn more about the world. He innocently reports what he sees and what he hears.
4. Symbols.
  • Clean-shaven. Behzad’s bespectacled and clean-shaven face clearly differentiates him from the other adult males of the area – he is from the more educated, elite portion of society. And this is accentuated by the several scenes showing him in the act of shaving. The villagers respectfully address him as “Engineer”, thereby giving him the appellation of someone presumably technically trained and capable. But the village doctor reminds him not to exaggerate these differences, but to plunge into whirlpool of life.
  • Elevation. Behzad is constantly going up to the hilltop, where there is a cemetery, to communicate with the outside. This might suggest our rituals to find heavenly messages. But this communication turns out to be fruitless. His most effective observations and interactions are in the downward (and down-to-earth) direction, particularly when he communicates downward with Yossef in the ditch and when he converses with Zeynab in the stall.
  • Light and Dark. The people with whom Behazd interacts best, Yossef and Zeynab, are surrounded by darkness, but he is nevertheless reaching out to them and having sincere and meaningful interactions. This idea is highlighted in the title-evoking poem by Forough Farrokhzād listed below.
On the whole, The Wind Will Carry Us is a mission of discovery for Behzad. Little by little, Behzad, the observer and watcher, gradually becomes more enmeshed in the life of the village and feels the need to take action in order to save Yossef. He comes to realize the truth in the doctor’s recommendation that the vital present, not in the ceremonies and treatises on death and the afterlife, is where to find God. And it is with Zeynab that he makes an uncertain contact when he recites to her a poem by the famous 20th century woman poet, Forough Farrokhzād.
In my night, so brief, alas
The wind is about to meet the leaves.
My night so brief is filled with devastating anguish
Hark! Do you hear the whisper of the shadows?
This happiness feels foreign to me.
I am accustomed to despair.
Hark! Do you hear the whisper of the shadows?
There, in the night, something is happening
The moon is red and anxious.
And, clinging to this roof
That could collapse at any moment,
The clouds, like a crowd of mourning women,
Await the birth of the rain.
One second, and then nothing.
Behind this window,
The night trembles
And the earth stops spinning.
Behind this window, a stranger
Worries about me and you.
You in your greenery,
Lay your hands – those burning memories –
On my loving hands.
And entrust your lips, replete with life’s warmth,
To the touch of my loving lips
The wind will carry us!
The wind will carry us!
It is true those are only words, but they point in the right direction: towards life, love, and the present wonder of existence. And as Behzad points out to the 16-year-old Zeynab, it is not necessary to be a scholar in order to write and appreciate words like those in that poem. Forough had only a 9th-grade education, but she published her first volume of poetry at the age of twenty and went on to become one of Iran’s great modern poets before her tragic early death.
★★★½