When the Salt Attacks the Sea: The Films of Mohammad Rasoulof

By Michael Sicinski

The Islamic Republic of Iran v. Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof: A Developing Story

Over the past month, there have been a number of promising indications that the heinous, unjust situation in which Iranian filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi are ensnared might change. Although at this point most members of the cinephile community around the world are well aware of this situation, and I do not wish to belabour it here (better to think ahead, to the future, and what might still be done), a brief recap is in order. On March 1 of last year, Rasoulof, Panahi, and 17 others were arrested. At the time of the round-up, the filmmakers were supposedly making a film in support of Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the pro-reform Green movement. (According to Panahi, the film was a domestic kammerspiel focusing on “a family and the post-election developments”; no further specifics having been determined.) All present at the time of the raid were taken to Evin Prison. Rasoulof was released 17 days later, but Panahi remained in detention until his May 25release on bail. On December 20, both Panahi and Rasoulof were sentenced to six years in prison, along with a 20-year prohibition on leaving the country, talking to foreign press, or writing or directing any films. Their official crime: “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”

A sense of guarded optimism remains mixed with frustration and more than a little confusion, since it still remains unclear whether or not the Ahmadinejad regime will actually carry out the sentences against these men. On January 19, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, reported to several internal media sources that the Iranian president was opposed to the filmmakers’ sentences, finding them unduly harsh. (He also commented that the matter was in the hands of the judiciary, and not an executive decision.) Despite this stray comment, Ahmadinejad has made no further indication that he will directly intervene on the men’s behalf.

However, as Anthony Kaufman reported (IndieWire, Feb. 9, 2011), the full complexities of the situation are only beginning to be understood. As of his report, neither Panahi nor Rasoulof were actually in prison, both were actively engaged in an appeals process, and Rasoulof had even received preliminary approval to begin work on a new feature film. This information, from scholar/filmmaker Jamsheed Akrami and echoed by anonymous sources close to the filmmakers in an earlier story in Variety, suggested that hardliners and not-so-hardliners in the judiciary were at odds regarding the verdicts. While legal and political face-saving would not allow for an outright commutation of the sentences, some lessening of them, or a replacement of jail time with a hefty fine, might be possible. These reports indicated that international support for the filmmakers was making a difference.

But then, at the start of the Berlinale just a few days later, Panahi, who had been invited to serve on the jury despite (really, because of) his travel ban, issued a sobering open letter. In it, either for rhetorical purposes or out of sincere personal belief, he made it quite clear that he was going to prison, and would not be able to work for 20 years. And so we find ourselves once again understanding less about the Panahi/Rasoulof situation the more we learn.

International outcry is mounting, and as we have seen from Ahmadinejad’s schizophrenic positions, he simultaneously wants to behave like a dignified head of state and be perceived as standing firm against Western, especially American, pressure. This means we have no way of knowing whether the filmmakers will truly be made examples of, whether the mullahs will take it to the brink and then commute the sentences as a warning against free expression, or, worst of all, if Panahi and Rasoulof will be sent down the hole just as the regime becomes more closed off, more paranoid, in the face of this bold wave of popular uprisings in autocratic Muslim states.

It seems that one of the most concrete contributions to the cause of Panahi’s and Rasoulof’s free expression would be fully to exploit the fact of living in societies in which their films can be freely shown, disseminated, and debated. In recent months there have been widespread tributes to Panahi, which stands to reason in light of his high international profile. His empty jury seat on the Cannes 2010 jury prompted a poignant homage from Juliette Binoche; this year’s Berlinale screened four Panahi films (Offside [2006]; Crimson Gold [2003]; The Circle [2000]; The White Balloon [1995]), one in each of its four sections; and he will receive the Golden Coach award for lifetime achievement at the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar this year in Cannes.

By contrast, the coverage of Rasoulof has been rather secondary, given that he is a director of lesser stature. This is regrettable, particularly because his most recent work finds him going from strength to strength, and his latest film is one of the finest Iranian films in recent memory. In light of this, what follows is an in-depth analysis of Mohammad Rasoulof’s four feature films. Together, these films provide a picture of an artist increasingly at odds with his society’s inability to find room for its misfits and free thinkers, an artist employing elemental imagery to turn the merely sociological into the near-mythic. If the imams have their way, and effectively end this burgeoning career, the loss would be immeasurable.

The Twilight (2002)

At the risk of damning with faint praise, every young filmmaker has to begin somewhere, and even though the problems with Rasoulof’s debut feature are numerous, its conceptual starting point is very much on target. Like many of the most esteemed Iranian films of the past 30 years, The Twilight is a fiction/documentary hybrid, based on real events and cast with the individuals to whom those events occurred. The film begins with a prison fight between protagonist Reza (Ali-Reza Shalikaran) and another inmate, oddly staged before the camera in a chanting circle of men in front of a flat wall of bars. A career thief serving out a medium-length sentence, Reza is summoned by the prison warden (Ali-Reza Madaviyan), who has a bold new idea for rehabilitation. With the help of Reza’s mom (Farajollah Shalikaran), an inmate in the women’s prison block adjacent to the men’s unit where Reza is doing time, the warden plans to marry the wayward thief off to a young female inmate. The logic: a marriage, even one conducted behind bars in once-a-week, supervised conjugal visits, will ground Reza, and put an otherwise useless female criminal to good use.

After awkward introductions and matriarchal wheelings and dealings, Reza is married off to Fatemeh (Fatemeh Bijan), a young girl serving a life sentence. The couple has a child. Fatemeh is released, and later so is Reza, and they attempt, with little success, to lead a normal life in the straight world. Rasoulof’s condemnation of sexism and social hypocrisy, as well as the avuncular authoritarianism of the prison system, is unmistakable. Undoubtedly, having these unfortunates recreate their own sad tale adds a certain layer of anti-representational frisson. But instead of the cinematic meta-commentary and sublime re-engagement with an anguished past that one finds in masterworks like Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) or Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence (1996), Rasoulof’s work with non-professionals and direct reality comes across as a kind of liability. The Twilight exhibits a blocky staging and stilted didacticism that, together with its consumer-grade videography, seems more of a piece with activist documentary, or even a de-melodramatized Nollywood. But despite its clear limitations on the formal front, The Twilight already displays the fundamental basis of Rasoulof’s cinema of social engagement.

Iron Island (2005)

In three short years, Rasoulof solved many of the major issues that hobbled The Twilight, and he did so through a complex set of dialectics. Iron Island works on a spatial canvas that is just as bounded as that of Rasoulof’s previous film, arguably even more so. Apart from a brief sojourn to a scrapper and the eventual evacuation at the film’s end, the entirety of Iron Island takes place on board a decommissioned old oil tanker off the Persian Gulf coast. (In television terms, Iron Island is an extended “bottle episode” of sorts.) However, this narrower physical focus is conjoined with a broader, more expansive social tapestry. The film is a portrait of a community, bonding and fraying, held together both by their precarious minority status and, not unrelatedly, by the charismatic authority of one man.

This man is Captain Nemat, and he is the de facto mayor of the “iron island,” the tanker in the middle of the gulf that is part makeshift apartment block, part Arab Quarter, and part rust-bucket fiefdom. (The Captain is played by Ali Nassirian, a veteran actor whose earliest credits include Dariush Mehrjui’s 1969 classic The Cow.) We see him bringing a new family onto the ship, taking them around to the various work stations, the small classroom, the various neighbours, as he is accosted at every turn by tenant-citizens needing something—more flour for the “bakery,” a new light bulb, or some plumbing assistance. At this stage in Iron Island, Rasoulof provides an uncertain image of the Captain, but he comes off as a cross between a real-estate huckster and a harried film-director type, familiar from Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) or especially Truffaut’s La nuit américaine (1973). What we do know right off the bat, however, is that the Captain is autocratic: the middle-aged schoolteacher, who exhibits a certain urbanite affect, is repeatedly ignored when he tries to provide hard evidence that the ship is sinking.

Rasoulof’s depiction of this insular community is multifaceted and quite bold for a number of reasons. First of all, the “islanders” are Sunni Arabs, part of the small minority who dwell on Iran’s Gulf coast. Iron Island shows them stuck out on the ship, surrounded by the deep blue with only one link to the larger Persian nation—the bilingual Captain, who owns the motorboat to the mainland, holds their passports, and eventually demands that they sign over their power of attorney. What’s more, Rasoulof’s command of mise en scène and visual texture has grown exponentially. The hulking mass of the ship, cutting a lonely figure against the sky, is continually contrasted with the dark cavities and differentially light-strewn portals of the interior, off-white panels and massive stretches of rust. Recurring locations have minor characters identified with them; social relations are subtly echoed in the movement through light and dark, visibility and invisibility; and, eventually, large portions of the tanker are welded off and thrown overboard, Rasoulof showing increased in-group anxiety becoming literal ballast.

But most significantly, although the film’s combination of anthropological distance and dramatic intrigue apparently helped the Sunnis appear “other” enough to satisfy the Shiite establishment’s censors, Rasoulof’s broader allegory regarding absolute power is unmistakable. The Captain’s young ward, Ahmad (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh), is in love with a young girl on the ship (Neda Pakdaman), but is deemed by all to be an unworthy suitor, not least by the Captain himself. When push comes to shove, the Captain exacts brutal punishment on his surrogate son as a public ritual. The schoolteacher pleads for clemency, but the self-appointed despot contends, “If I let this happen here, the entire ship will slide into chaos.” Rasoulof frames this scene and its illogic on the ship’s edge, amidst a wide, empty sea, a clear correlative for the cultural and national isolation that such thinking guarantees. And, before long, the Captain is boldly leading “his people” into the middle of nowhere.

Head Wind (2008)

Both The Twilight and Iron Island begin with the customary title card of the Bismillah (“In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Compassionate”), signalling that these were films that Rasoulof had pretty much successfully squared with the official Iranian film agency and its censors. There was obviously no such attempt with Rasoulof’s third feature, the medium-length guerilla documentary Head Wind. Shot with consumer-grade video that makes The Twilight look luxurious by contrast, with a low-key but exacting professionalism that nevertheless eschews needless aesthetics in favour of direct engagement, this is the Rasoulof project where the gloves come off, so to speak. If the filmmaker wasn’t on someone’s enemies list before this film, he certainly was afterward.

Building, implicitly at least, on a brief scene in Iron Island in which the young kids hook up a rusty pirate satellite dish, only for the enraged Captain to throw it, tuner, and TV overboard into the drink, Head Wind is a study of Iran’s pirate satellite industry. Cable and satellite TV are illegal in the Islamic Republic, but what we learn here, and what everyone including the clerics seems to already “know,” is that citizens everywhere, from inner city Tehran to the goatherding boondocks, are breaking this law. Where do these satellite dishes come from? Rasoulof, ever the materialist, includes a brief but thorough, Farockiesque interlude where we see tinsmiths fashioning the dishes out of sheet metal, alongside their pot and pan production. They’re then slipped out the back and sent down into the black market. But some people just make them out of old scrap flaked with orange rust. Rasoulof introduces us to a couple of very busy pirate TV dealer/installers, one more of a mercenary capitalist, the other with a somewhat larger sense of purpose regarding availability and access. “I show them how I block all the ‘inappropriate’ channels,” he says. (This isn’t porn he’s talking. It’s non-Iranian news programming, Indian TV…basically anything not censored by the regime.) “Then when I leave they can climb the roof and unblock it.”

A few commentators have compared Rasoulof’s film to the work of Errol Morris, and in some ways this is apposite, not just because the film employs necessary re-enactments (a police dish confiscation; people buying cable who would not want to appear on video breaking the law). The real interviews in Head Wind display a Morris-like knack for catching the moronic doublethink of social repression as it begins to work against itself. Straight-faced clerics tell Rasoulof that the dishes are a problem in all the other villages, but not in theirs. Pious men say they’ve never seen the foreign filth, and proceed to describe it in detail. A woman coyly hints at the salacious Hindi programming she watches in secret, obviously more titillated by talking to a strange man about her habits than by the surreptitious viewing itself.

By the end, Rasoulof expands the frame, showing how ordinary citizens, including young people, use remote servers to bypass internet censorship, or how the simple act of reading foreign newspapers or pirating the BBC World Service can help stranded intellectuals retain a sense of cosmopolitan connection. Head Wind begins as a humorous look at how Iranians steal glances at the movies and football matches their theocratic government deems anathema. But at its core, it’s a film about technology and the fruitless attempts to contain it. Less well-travelled on the festival circuit than Iron Island, Head Wind nevertheless drew praise disproportionate to its actual exposure. This is not just because it is a fine piece of documentary activism. It’s that Rasoulof’s investigations through the dirt-poor Iranian hinterlands and the labyrinthine housing blocks of Tehran lead him to the exact same conclusion as the champions of Pirate Bay, open-source code, and net neutrality, the WikiLeakers and the international revolutionaries communicating via Live Tweet. No matter where you are, information wants to be free.

The White Meadows (2009)

“I come from a country full of contradictions and suffering, where there is a dictatorship. …The conditions were very difficult, we had trouble getting permission, our budget was very limited…It was a clandestine, underground film.”—Rasoulof, on The White Meadows, at the San Sebastian International Film Festival press conference

After the rather direct ironization of social control in the Islamic Republic, Rasoulof took a different tack for his fourth film. In a bold move that is quite the opposite of what we see from too many concerned filmmakers on the left, Rasoulof joined his increased anger and frustration not with greater literalism or artlessness, but with a shift into the allegorical, mythic register. While the bitterness and protest underlying The White Meadows—currently showing across North America in the Global Lens series—are crystal clear, the film explores the state of Ahmadinejad’s Iran through a series of absurdist horror vignettes, staged against an unforgiving Lake Orumieh, and witnessed by a man condemned to merely observe and chronicle, but helpless to intervene.

This man is Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi), an empathetic traveller by boat whose long-term charge has been to pay regular visits to the coastal villagers along the lake, bear witness to their woes, and collect their teardrops in a ceremonial vial. His itinerant sorrow-work is, of course, a mythological premise, which allows Rasoulof the opportunity to construct numerous scenarios based on prejudice, superstition, or the excesses of Sharia law. In his first stop, Rahmat is to collect tears at the funeral of a young girl. He soon learns that she was very likely murdered by a fellow villager, and that this is common knowledge. “The way she moved her body excited all the men unnaturally,” he is told. In fact, only women are allowed at the funeral, and Rahmat has to dispose of her body, because her overpowering sexiness has instilled a fear of necrophilia.

As it happens, a young boy named Nassim (Younes Ghazali) has taken the place of the corpse (now presumably being ravished), because he wants to find his father who left the village some years ago. Pretending to be a deaf-mute, Nassim joins Rahmat on his further stops along the somewhat literal sea of tears. There are frequent comments that the level of salinity has continued to increase, either causing or further contributing to the greater misery of life. To solve this, one small village “marries” their most beautiful young virgin to the sea, sending her off on a raft to drown in a full-on wedding ceremony. (She pleads to Rahmat, “I don’t want to be a bride!” and Nassim tries to steal her, but to no avail.) In another cruel incident, which recalls Shirley Jackson by way of Buñuel, the people of a small town enter a booth and speak confessions into baby-food jars. These 50 or so glass jars are then strung around the neck of a diminutive man who has but a few minutes to climb down a well, deliver these oaths to “the fairy,” and get back out of the well. Needless to say, he collapses under the weight, another citizen of difference sacrificed to collective ignorance.

But in what has perhaps become the signature sequence in The White Meadows, for several reasons both intrinsic to the text and regrettably situational, Rahmat encounters an old acquaintance, a painter (played by documentary filmmaker Mohammad Shirvani) who has run afoul of local authorities. His crime: depicting water as red in a painting, when it is obviously blue. If he will just admit his error, and agree to paint normally, with his right mind, everything will be fine. But the painter is stubborn—he looks out and he sees a red sea. And so, in an effort to “cure” him, the imam’s thugs hold his eyes open and force him to stare directly into the sun until he is blind. They also “wash” the offending visions out of his eyes with monkey urine. Ironically, when he is given one more chance to gaze at the water and describe it as blue, his optical ordeal has provoked even more dazzling Impressionist sensations. “I see so many different colours now!” In the end, Rahmat is forced to take him to a Beckettian prison island, where he is the sole inmate (and Nassim’s missing father, surprisingly, is the lone jailer).

Despite the plot-heavy, anecdotal nature of The White Meadows, Rasoulof weaves this tale of interlocking allegories through visual as well as dramaturgical means. This is a strikingly beautiful film, simultaneously lush and austere, characterized by expansive, elemental landscapes and seascapes. Within these broad fields, human forms are enveloped, knocked hither and thither, struggling to maintain balance and dignity. In an aerial shot, we see jailer and painter on a dead-end rock, the former putting the latter through half-blind calisthenic paces. (“Run! Hurry! The water is blue! Go, go!”) We see the saltwater bride recede into a floating buoy of nothingness. But Rasoulof also provides intimate images, particularly as related to Rahmat’s mysterious profession. Single tears roll down weather-beaten cheeks, but they are not allowed to moisten these leathery faces. Rahmat’s fluted glass and decanter bears the sorrow away.

And in the final scene of the film, when Rasoulof shows us what these tears are actually for, The White Meadows reveals a new, final facet to its quiet rage. Yes, in their fear and ignorance, the poor will set upon one another quite easily, and often use fundamentalism to do it. But sitting back, watching the sideshow and benefitting from it are the powerful, the untouchable, the unseen. Rasoulof shows us in no uncertain terms that every driftwood marker in The White Meadows’ floating cemetery—a picture as agonizing as it is unforgettable, a glowing white expanse punctuated by irregular, dark signposts of the dead—is not just a fellow citizen lost to tyranny. It’s a strike at the wrong target.


michael.sicinski@cinema-scope.com Sicinski Michael