“Iron Island” - Mohammad Rasoulof (2005)

Mohammad Rasoulof’s second feature film, Iron Island (Jazireh Ahani, 2005) was a bold and creative offering even for the Iranian film climate, where films often have a deeper philosophical perspective to them. In this case Rasoulof fashioned an allegorical fantasy, without the benefit of in-studio architectural fabrications or computer-generated imagery.  However, despite the film’s clearly allegorical suggestiveness, there have been different interpretations concerning the overall message of Iron Island.

Though only in his early thirties at this point, Rasoulof signaled with this film the coming of a potentially major film artist on the Iranian film scene.  His next film after Iron Island was the fascinating documentary, Head Wind (Baad-e-Daboor, 2008), which described the Iranian people’s widespread efforts, in the face of the autocratic government’s severe media censorship, to get information from the outside world via the use of officially prohibited satellite dishes. Regrettably, Rasoulof was arrested after the disturbances following the 2009 Iranian presidential election.  In 2010 he and major Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi were sentenced to six years in prison, plus a 20-year prohibition from leaving the country, talking to the press, or participating in filmmaking [1].  So Iron Island’s themes of autocracy and liberty take on  added poignancy in light of these subsequent events.

Most of the story of Iron Island takes place on an abandoned oil tanker off the Persian Gulf seaport of Bandar Abbas.  Captain Nemat operates the boat as something of a live-in work commune, managed solely by himself, for destitute locals who need a place to live.  The locals belong to the Sunni Arab minority that lives in this part of southwestern Iran, and many of them are severely impoverished.  Nemat takes them in and gives them various jobs to do in the collective.

In fact Captain Nemat manages everything on his ship.  He carries around a notebook in which he keeps account of all transactions.  There is no monetary currency exchanged; the residents work, and then their lodging charges are deducted from their wages in his notebook.  Everything works OK, as long as everyone operates according to his instructions.  The destitute residents of the ship buy into Nemat’s benevolent dictatorship, because he seems to be a reasonable man making decisions for the collective good.  So the ship represents a microcosm for an entire society managed by an autocratic elite.

When it comes to optimizing material benefits, Captain Nemat’s approach may seem plausible.  But sometimes there are other needs and desires that come into conflict.  In this respect other figures on the boat symbolize such alternate needs and generate the underlying tension of Iron Island.  The film narrative goes through approximately four stages as it proceeds to unwind these elements.

1.  Introduction
The opening section of the film introduces the viewer to the floating apartment building that the ship represents. People come and go to the ship by means of a motorboat that is part of Nemat’s equipment set. Early on Captain Nemat escorts a newly arrived family to their quarters on board and shows them around the premises.  This includes:
  • an on-board bakery
  • a burqa factory staffed by the women on the ship.  (The burqas in this community include a decorative face mask for women when they are in the company of men.)
  • a classroom for the children (it has both boys and girls together)
  • a mobile phone rental service
  • men who dismantle various metalwork on the ship and sell it ashore for scrap.
Nemat manages the entire supply chain for all operations. When, for example, cooking oil or medicine is needed, he supplies it.

But we are also introduced to a conflict.  Ahmed and another boy get into a fight, because Ahmed had sent a message to the other boy’s sister.  Of course family “honor” is at stake for the other boy, who feels he must control his sister’s contacts for reasons of pride.  In fact the film’s pre-title sequence showed Ahmed at night using a lantern to secretly signal someone.  In the interests of maintaining order, Captain Nemat sternly warns Ahmed to stay from the girl (we’ll call her “The Girl”).  The notion of amorous love has no place in Nemat’s scheme.

2.  Extractive Materialism
The story then moves on to elaborate what was initially shown in outline.  Captain Nemat’s society operates according to extractive capitalism. They are slowly dismantling the ship, but they are not really producing much, except the burqas.  The ship’s schoolteacher, who symbolizes a society’s intellectual class, timidly points out a “truth”, to Nemat – that the ship is slowly sinking into the water and has sunk two meters over the couple of years.  Like current global climate change skeptics, though, Nemat dismisses this news as an event that is too far off into the future to worry about.  What matters to him is current profit and loss.

In fact we learn that Nemat, while publicly making his case that he operates for the common good, is a schemer and profiteer. 

  • He has all the residents’ identity cards collected so that he can use them to acquire and then resell “green cards” on the black market.  This he can do, because as Ahmed points out to a skeptic, Captain Nemat “knows lots of people”.
  • The father of The Girl, who serves as a sailor on another ship, stops by on one of his bi-weekly visits to express his concern about his daughter.  He is worried about his “honor” and asserts that he will kill her if she threatens his manly pride. But Captain Nemat calms him down and promises that he will arrange a lucrative marriage for The Girl – the side effects of which will mean extra bonus payments for both Nemat and the father. 
  • The men on-board manage to drill into the tanker’s oil tanks and are then able to pump out some oil that remains there and partially fill some barrels. These barrels are then dumped off the side of the ship so that the ships’ boys can swim along side and shepherd the floating barrels to the shoreline, where they can be collected and sold. The filming of this sequence, incidently, is skillfully performed, but it must have been dangerous to carry out.
When the ship’s owner (Nemat’s business relationship with this person is not clear) notifies Nemat that his group intends to scrap the entire boat, Nemat protests that the residents cannot be turned out.  “What will happen to them?”, he protests.  But we know that he is looking out for his own interests, too.

In contrast to the extractive materialism that occupies Nemat’s every waking moment, there are other people on the ship looking at things differently. 
  • An old man, Sadegh, stares every day at the Sun, looking for some unnamed deliverance.
  • A young boy known as “Baby Fish” spends his time rescuing little fish that have gotten trapped inside the ship’s hold and throwing these fish back into the sea.  He is a lifesaver. 
  • Ahmed pursues his clandestine romance with The Girl and secretly exchanges temporary gifts with her by lowering a rope into her quarters after dark.  In a touching scene, he tenderly gives her his red shirt to hold, and she gives him her burqa mask in return.
3.  Maintaining Order
Captain Nemat shows that he must exercise discipline in order to avoid chaos.  After a pregnant resident woman dies in labor, Nemat subsequently discovers that the ship’s boys were clandestinely watching TV at the time.  So he tosses their TV and satellite dish over the ship’s side. 

Later, when The Girl is married off to the rich suitor in accordance with Nemat’s deal-making, the disconsolate Ahmed steals the ship’s motorboat and heads off. But Nemat "knows lots of people" ashore, and Ahmed is quickly captured, bound, and delivered to Nemat.  Then, in front of the entire tanker community, Nemat cruelly subjects Ahmed to a water torture (presumably like waterboarding), which utterly breaks the boy down.

4.  The Promised Land
With the ship’s scuttling imminent, Nemat makes another deal.  He gets all the ship’s residents to grant him their “power of attorney” and arranges to acquire land on their behalf in the desert, where he proposes to build a new community.  He still has big plans.  But the film’s ending reminds us of the other narrative strands.  The longings of Sadegh, Baby Fish, Ahmed, and The Girl remain unfulfilled.

Iron Island’s presentation, cinematography, and mise-en-scene are remarkably well done.  Rasoulof has taken that oil tanker and made of it a true microcosm.  Veteran actor Ali Nassirian, in the role of Captain Nemat, is excellent, even though he was over seventy years old at the time of filming [2]. Rasoulof uses Nassirian’s unique countenance and posture, along with his iconic head scarf to maintain a striking visual motif of the leader throughout the story. All the other actors were nonprofessionals who were recruited from the local region. 

The enigmatic suggestiveness of Iron Island has led to multiple interpretations.  The idea of people on a ship’s journey led by a charismatic leader has appeared many times, from Noah’s Ark to Captain Ahab’s Pequod.  However, the ship is only a metaphor here, and we could be just as well be comparing Iron Island’s community with those led by Moses or Mohammad.  In fact Rasoulof’s originally conceived story did not even take place on a ship; he changed his story when he happened upon the oil tanker in the Persian Gulf and altered his script [3]. 

The question is what to make of the charismatic Captain Nemat?  Is he a benevolent figure?  Certainly Captain Nemat is not a draconian ruler. He seems to operate sincerely according to his worldview, which seeks to optimize material resources.  Even when he tortures Ahmed, he explains that this must be done in order to avoid social chaos. (Of course, using the bogeyman of disorder to justify authoritarian punishment is counseled in many quarters around the world, from Iran to Singapore to China.)  Sympathetic to Nemat's sincerity, a number of critics have seen the social contract under which Nemat operates in a positive light.  Accordingly, they feel that the “journey” of Nemat and his people is ongoing and still has a bright future at the end of the film, if the people will only just all cooperate under his leadership.

However, I do not go along with such an optimistic interpretation.  The extractive system of Nemat has a finite lifetime, just as does a nation’s economy that is entirely dependent on the extraction of resources under the ground.  At the end of the film, the people are out in the middle of the desert with nothing at all.  Nemat proclaims that they can build a city, but these people don’t have the knowledge or the means to do it.  They simply trust that their leader will tell them what to do. Whenever he is not present, they just sit idle in the desert. There is no sense of independent industriousness. The seemingly only independent figure among them, the teacher, makes his own blackboard chalk, but he is isolated from the rest and is not integrated into an interactive community.

Everyone on the ship is instructed to hand over whatever autonomy they have so that Captain Nemat can perform his optimizing operations.  When the ship’s schoolteacher timidly asks to examine for himself the document concerning the handing over his power-of-attorney to Nemat, he is brushed off by the Captain and told that he can read it at a later date.  Similarly the teacher was brushed off when he meekly protested the water-torturing of Ahmed.  The intellectual community, represented by the schoolteacher, is unable to have any effect. 

This is the general problem with autocratic, extractive leadership, and Rasoulof has done well to present the problem without demonizing the figure of Nemat.  Captain Nemat is sincere and pragmatic, but that can only take you so far. For a nation to prosper, it must go beyond extraction and offer the opportunity for creative production.  And such production arises when people have the opportunity to interact in their own newly discovered ways, not just by following orders.

Near the end of the film as the tanker is abandoned, Captain Nemat sees Baby Fish with a bucket of fish that the boy has found in one last rescue effort.  Nemat tosses the fish back into the ship’s hold and tells him to let the fish grow bigger, “then we’ll catch them and eat them.”  Baby Fish sees the fish as vital, alive, wonderful; Nemat sees them as food. In the final scenes, Ahmed and The Girl encounter each other, Sadegh is still looking to the sky, and Baby Fish runs off into the sea.  They do not have answers to the pragmatic demands of material existence, but they know there is something else beyond all that.

  1. Michael Sicinski, “When the Salt Attacks the Sea: The Films of Mohammad Rasoulof”, http://cinema-scope.com/features/features-when-the-salt-attacks-the-sea-the-films-of-mohammad-rasoulof/.
  2. He has appeared in several films directed by Dariush Mehrjui, including Gaav (1969) and The Cycle (1978). More recently Nassirian appeared in the rabidly anti-Jewish Iranian-produced film, The Saturday Hunter (2011).
  3. Chale Nafus, "IRON ISLAND (JAZIREH AHANI) Program Notes", Austin Film Society, http://www.austinfilm.org/page.aspx?pid=720

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