Going By (Az Kenar-e Ham Migozarim, 2001) was the debut feature of writer-director Iraj Karimi, whose previous contributions were in the areas of short works, documentaries, and film criticism. It tells a fragmented story of four disconnected groups of people travelling by car from Tehran to the northern part of Iran. The four groups traveling northward are
- A man and his young son of about eight or nine years of age. The son appears healthy, but we are told that he will soon die of the same strain of cancer that killed his mother two years earlier.
- A man driving a hearse, with a passenger who is a peasant man in his forties. Their cargo in the back of the hearse is the corpse of the passenger’s 92-year-old father.
- Two women in another car. The driver is a young widow whose husband recently died of cancer one month earlier. The passenger was the dead husband’s lover and was unknown to the widow prior to her unwelcome appearance at the recent funeral.
- A father and his two sons, one about 8 or 9, and the other in his late teens. The father is concerned about the life prospects of both sons. The younger one has just recently failed his year in school, and the older one has aspirations towards the not-very lucrative career of a film critic (Karimi’s original profession).
As the film proceeds, the viewer is naturally motivated to see what may connect the four groups. This takes time, though, because there is the oft-used technique of slow disclosure at work here, where significant pieces of information are only revealed in tantalizing bits and pieces during the lengthy car journeys (the film mostly consists of dialogue among the excursionists).
Given the serious life issues associated with the four groups and the likelihood that the journey will be a driving metaphor of the narrative, one looks for kind of allegorical overtones that often appear in serious Iranian films. Indeed there appear to be affinities between this film and those of Abbas Kiarostami, for example, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), which also depicts travelers on something of a spiritual quest. This connection is likely no accident, given the fact that writer-director Karimi wrote a book about Kiarostami, (Abbas Kiarostami, the Realist Filmmaker).
In fact in the early stages of the film, we see a film crew at work photographing a scene involving that same hearse (one of the four vehicles to be followed for the remainder of the film). At this point the viewer may wonder if he or she is about to see the sort of reflexive narrative that Kiarostami sometimes uses to show the filmmaker at work making the very film that one is watching. In this case, though, this filmmaking depicted early on in Going By appears to be part of the fictive story and not a direct diegetic reference to Karimi’s own filmmaking. Nevertheless, Karimi’s narrative does seem to try to maintain a certain ambiguity about the narrative process throughout, with reflexive insinuations scattered all the way along. There are continual references to filmmaking and film criticism in the story, and there are several discussions among the participants concerning the differences between realism and fantasy in both art and films.
There are also some clearly symbolic gestures in the film. For example, an elderly man with a tire is occasionally seen along the side of the road, and he is sometimes seen attempting to hitchhike with it to some unknown destination. At other time he is seen rolling the tire down the run and running along rapidly behind it. Perhaps he represents the never-ending and mindless flow of time that drives us towards our fatal destinies, but one is only left to draw his or her own conclusions about what it all means. In addition, the hearse driver serves as something of a Greek chorus in connection with the film’s assumed themes of fate and death. At one point the driver philosophically remarks that there is a significant difference between the professions of acting and driving a hearse. Acting, he says, inherently involves a degree of love and dedication; while hearse-driving is just a job. This suggests that unless we are somehow passionately and lovingly involved in life, we are, each of us, just doing the routine "job" of driving our own hearse (that is, our own body), towards our own eventual funeral. This, for me, was the one moment of revelation in the film.
With those various philosophical allusions and intimations always present, there is promising material here, but unfortunately, “Going By” doesn’t live up to its promising expectations. There are a number of serious weaknesses.
- For one thing the acting in the film has some serious limitations and inconsistencies. Only the boisterous hearse-driver seems to project a real character. The other actors seem woefully inadequate to the dramatic demands of their roles, which may reflect Karimi’s inexperience. Other film directors who have used amateur and first-time actors have evidently restrained the narrative demands made on the performers so that the acting stayed within believable bounds. But this was not the case for the players in Going By, many of whom are dealing with bereavement and other serious emotional concerns, and this leads to a disappointing dramatic result. There are also some noticeable technical inconsistencies with lighting and editing continuity in the film. These rough edges are unfortunately made more conspicuous by the explicit discussions in the film by some of the characters about techniques of sound dubbing, back-projection, and realism, which call attention to the technical details of the production.
- Of greater concern is the fact that each of the four groups should have its own narrative direction and movement. But this doesn’t happen. Each of those groups just drifts along aimlessly. The man with the doomed son seems distracted, occasionally showing interest in his son or the young widow, and at other times drifting away into his own world. The father-and-two-sons subnarrative is just a long argument littered with scatological dialogue. The hearse-driver subnarrative is not a subnarrative at all and goes nowhere. Only the subnarrative of the two women shows some movement, but it’s all rather quizzical. Why are we prevented from seeing the dead husband’s paramour for almost half of the film (she is frequently just out of frame)? Why does the young widow run away and abandon her car to the paramour at the end of the film?
- The four groups do finally come together at a road café on their journey to the north. But though there is some teasing interaction among the travellers, there are no serious connections made. There had been a discussion along the way about the difference between landscape painting and portraiture, and this is explicitly brought to our attention at the café, but whatever point Karimi seems to be making on that score was lost on me.
At the end of Going By, there has been no resolution made at the narrative level or at the thematic level. It all just comes to an inconclusive ending when the final credits roll on the screen.