Saturday, April 22, 2023

279. Iranian film director Mohammad Rasoulof’s second feature film “Jazireh Ahani “ (Iron Island) (2005), based on his original screenplay: Brave cinema focusing on the travails faced by the common citizen, using allegory to bypass hawkish national censors

ohammad Rasoulof is different from most filmmakers. He does not adapt written works—he writes his own original screenplays stitched together from what he observes and hears from Iranian compatriots. He has made a modest tally of seven fictional feature films to date and these have picked up a Golden Bear at Berlin, a Golden Peacock in India, a Gold and a Silver Hugo at Chicago and three major awards at Cannes’ important  Un Certain Regard section, among 36 prestigious awards and prizes won globally. The seven feature films do not include his two feature-length docu-dramas/documentaries—Intentional Crime (2022) and Head Wind (2008).

Rasoulof loves to encapsulate the human condition of present day life in Iran and the aspirations of its population in realistic tales that avoids direct criticism of the Iranian government. Unlike the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who never made a film that was obviously critical of the government, Jafar Panahi  (once Kiarostami’s assistant) has evolved into an Iranian filmmaker winning praise, on his own merit, making feature films in which couched criticism of the lack of freedom in contemporary Iran is comparably more forthright. Rasoulof, in turn worked with Panahi on Panahi’s films initially, until Rasoulof, too, became an equally world-renowned filmmaker winning awards worldwide. The Iranian government has not been happy with  Rasoulof ever since he made made his second film Iron Island. Today, both Panahi and Rasoulof are in prison because of the contents of the films they made and their social activism. While Rasoulof’s first film Gagooman (2002) did not ruffle feathers, in spite of the fact that its two principal characters are prisoners serving time in an Iranian jail for minor crimes. That film was widely appreciated within Iran went on to win the Best First Film award at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran. Then came Iron Island (2005) and the spate of problems for the director from the Iranian government sprouted for each subsequent film he made.

The Captain (Ali Nasirian) warns the lad, Ahmad,
not to pursue the unmarried lass on the ship

The unmarried lass, with her face partially covered,
as per certain Muslim traditions, is living on the tanker
and shows interest in Ahmad

The film Iron Island is not about a real island; it is merely a description of a disused oil tanker anchored off-shore, a vessel that is gradually sinking. Rasoulof transforms the disused tanker, awaiting eventual shipbreaking, into a contemporary Noah's ark, providing refuge for homeless poor Iranians, young and old, under the care of a seemingly benevolent "Captain," who is able to provide food and medicines for the refugees her brings on board. He is able to buy provisions and medicines by gradually selling off metal parts and oil on the ship that the young men are made to identify and rip off the ship each day. The Captain is a veiled representation of the Iranian Government, which is dictatorial and brutal to those who step out of line, while appearing to be benevolent to others. The same benevolent Captain, in the film, also mercilessly tortures a lad, who escapes the ship when his beloved, an unmarried girl with a partly masked face, is given away in marriage by the Captain to someone else living on the mainland (a process that makes the 'Captain' richer). The lad is caught and brought back to the “iron island” all tied up in a boat.  The 'Captain' teaches the errant lad a tortorous lesson that leaves him almost dead.  The motley refugee group on the “iron island” represents the innocent folk with little or no income, who accept their fate without being able to question their benefactor’s (the Captain’s) motives or actions out of a combination of fear and gratitude. 

The boy called Fish, ultimately is made to leave the tanker for the shore but resumes his pastime, searching for small fishes, this time trapped on the sandy beach. He picks one and throws them back into the sea as he used to while on the tanker, little realizing that there are fishermen’s  nets set up in the water to catch such fish. 

The lovers on the tanker who were forcibly separated by the Captain are brought together by fate even though the lad is lying in a mosque recovering from his recent torture ordeal and his beloved is married to a rich person who owns a car and employs a chauffeur. The viewer is left to figure out the outcome of that possible meeting which is never shown on screen. Similarly, the viewer has to figure out the allegory of the Captain’s angry action of throwing out the working TV the boys had painstakingly made to work.

The "Captain" intervenes in a skirmish between
two lads as an elder and peace prevails

The "Captain" collects passports of all adults on the tanker
as precursor to collecting their signatures,
the purpose of which is never revealed, even when questioned.
The viewer has to conjecture the purpose. 

Rasoulof’s films provide punches but the endings of each film are deliberately left open-ended. He does it intentionally; his films have to pass the national censors. It is unclear how many of his films have actually been released in Iran and, if released, how much is censored. Iron Island may not be as sophisticated as Rasoulof's later films but it makes you think beyond the obvious tale. Rasoulof is definitely one of the finest and the boldest filmmakers in Iran, if not the world, now languishing in prison. His crime--he made films that were indirectly critical of lack of freedom in Iran in recent decades and his social activism. The bravery and the acclaim of his films cannot be equalled by most other filmmakers, currently alive and making films. 

The "Captain" is attired more like an Arab rather than a typical Iranian
but speaks Farsi the language of Iran

We live in a world where filmmakers cannot tell the truth without offending the governments in power, even though the respective governments criticised are often "elected" democratically. There are brave filmmakers who present the truth using allegory and fables, to bypass hawk-eyed Government censors. In Russia, film directors Andrei  Zvyagintsev, Andrei Konchalovsky  and Alexei German ,Sr., have made allegorical films. Raul Ruiz made films made films in exile with despondent references to his native Chile. When they do make such films they often win major awards at reputed film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Locarno, among others. Contemporary Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof, and Mohsen Amiryousefi are three prominent talented filmmakers who have made films that made the Iranian government uncomfortable often banning their release within the country. Panahi and Rasoukof  have been sentenced to long jail terms and are released for short periods for medical or other reasons, after which they have to return to prison and complete their sentences. It is not clear how many citizens in Iran have seen the completed works of these filmmakers in public screenings and, if so, whether the films were shown without cuts by the censors. 

Iron Island is merely a harbinger to Rasoulof’s later films. His later film Goodbye is an extension of the young lad’s decision to leave the tanker and the oppressive environment in Iron Island. His film Man of Integrity, a film on corruption within Iran and on intolerance of minorities is glimpsed by the Iron Island’s Captain’s actions of collecting signatures of the refugees without adequate explanation and sale of the ship’s parts without the knowledge of the real owners, who innocently believe he is doing a good deed for the refugees. What is quite evident is that Rasoulof has improved further technically with each film, ultimately reaching world standards in There is No Evil, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival. Panahi, Rasoulof and Amiryousefi need the support of cineastes who value filmmakers who use the medium creatively for improving the freedom within Iran and promote the aspirations of its citizens..


P.S.   Iron Island won the Golden Peacock award for the best film in competition at the International Film Festival of India (2005); the Cinema prize and the Script prize at the Avanca Film Festival (Portugal) (2007); the Special Jury prize at the Gijon International  Film Festival  (Spain) (2005); Screenplay award at the Montreal Festival of New Cinema (Canada) (2005; and the Critics prize at the Hamburg Film Festival (2005). Three of Rasoulof’s later films Goodbye (2011), A Man of Integrity (2017) and There is No Evil (2020) have been reviewed on this blog earlier. So are Zvyagintsev's The Return  and Leviathan; Konchalovsky's Shy People, The Postman's White Nights and Paradise; Ruiz'  That Day, all films with subtle bits of allegory on politics and its effects on the common citizens. (Please click on their names in this post-script to access those reviews) 

No comments :