JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The film begins calmly and quietly, with sounds of gently lapping water, birds, and a shot of a small boat surrounded by blue sea, then a voiceover begins as we see shots of the lifeless body of a boy inside the boat:

“When you stand at the sea, the sea is blue and sometimes green, but there is another color… which can only be seen by the ones lost at sea. They don’t come back to tell the color of the angry sea. The local people of this place believe that one lost at sea only comes back when an innocent person waters a dried tree, so that the dried tree may give the life that sleeps in it to the shore wind, and the wind delivers it to the man lost at sea.”

So far, the tempo of the editing, the sounds of the water, and the story of the voiceover — all of which immediately connect the story to the tradition of the “village film” —  all these share the hallmarks of what one could arguably call generic characteristics of both Neo-neorealism and New Iranian cinema. Then, as suddenly as one of Vertov’s trains bursting onto the screen, this lilting and poetic scene is interrupted by the enormous roar of motorboats crashing through the waves, each one piloted by a “masked man”— their faces wrapped in the keffiyeh – and almost immediately the film has become something else. Who are these men? For Western viewers in particular, the keffiyeh-covered man is instantly associated with the stereotypes conjured up, readymade, by the nightly news — the Palestinian militant, the Islamic terrorist, the Somali pirate. The montage of these “floating” signifiers, combined with the rapid cutting and the sonic roar of the five fishing boats, with their high-powered Yamaha engines racing toward their destination, have more in common with Eisenstein than De Sica. But there is one pilot without his face covered, whom we immediately recognize as the lifeless boy from the boat in the opening shots. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, the boats all come to a rocky halt, leaving only the sound of the water once again. Without a word among them, the pilots wait (a pregnant pause in the tempo) until one after another of the packages they’ve come to retrieve come bubbling up to the surface. (“They use a salt ballast that evaporates at a specific time,” explains Lavafipour). Next question — what’s inside these file-cabinet-sized, plastic-wrapped bundles? Again, the question for the viewer is rhetorical (“What do you think is inside?”). There are as many answers as the multitude of fears and preconceived notions of the Western viewer, and these linger on in the post-Bush era.

Back on the decrepit fishing village’s beach, where in contrast to the high-powered boats out on the water, we see the remains of a fishing industry long-since abandoned — rotting wooden boats, unrepaired fishing nets, etc.. The mise-en-scene dwells more on the signifiers of the effects of late-capitalism on the Third World (but one less frequently emphasized in mainstream media than those images of men in keffiyeh). Here the tempo is once again slow (or “natural”), lending a sense of normalcy. Such pacing harkens back to the temporal and spatial strategies of both classic Italian neorealist and New Iranian films, as a young boy stands lookout atop a typical plaster-and-thatched-roof house. As he casually attempts to spit olive pits into a bucket at the bottom of his ladder, the film cuts back to the smuggler’s boats, racing back in the direction they came from, then cuts back again to the boy at his lookout post. It’s a textbook example of Eisenstein’s temporal, even overtonal, montage techniques. There’s a layering of moods, messages, and rhythmic intensities in stark contrast to one another, as though we were witnessing a New Iranian “village film” about to be invaded by a Western “action movie.”

But in the ensuing shots, as the lookout sees the approaching boats and whistles to alert the villagers, Lavafipour demonstrates that these two, seemingly disparate genres, can in fact harmoniously coexist in one film, particularly a film which meshes the aesthetics (and politics) of both to reveal the desperate situation of those left behind the economic curve of late-capitalism. As the boats begin to hit the beach without slowing down, sliding to a halt in the sand (and coming shockingly close to the camera), we witness the arrival of the women, in their colorful robes and with their faces covered by the traditional batoola “mask,” bolting out of their courtyard doors and running toward the beach (with the hand-held camera right behind them) to help unload the smuggler’s cargo. With the maritime police in hot pursuit, these women (incidentally, in a radically different representation of traditional Shi’a women than usually seen in Iranian film) hoist the large packages of smuggled goods (as we learn later) upon their shoulders and race back through the alleys toward their homes, while the men dock the boats and scatter as quickly as possible. One by one we watch them. The women disappear back behind their courtyard doors as quickly as they appeared, their privacy gates latching behind each of them in succession, before the film cuts to another man running with his load through a narrow alley and behind the safety of another closed courtyard. One after another the doors close upon the camera, leaving only the keffiyeh­-less boy left for the viewer to follow inside. Once safely behind closed doors, attempting to catch his breath, the boy looks to his mother engaged in weaving and seemingly oblivious to the frenzy of activity outside. Suddenly we have entered back into the tempo of the “village film,” so commonly associated with New Iranian cinema.

At the end of these opening scenes, it is clear that Lavafipour’s film marks a radical departure from the generic expectations of New Iranian film (particularly for Western critics and viewers), while returning again to those very same aesthetic and tonal strategies for his neorealist-inspired narrative: the plot revolves around a boy (Motoo) who must grow up quickly and take on the dangerous mantle of his father, a smuggler recently lost at sea. Yet despite the film’s aesthetic and tonal departures, Be Calm and Count to Seven is inherently “Iranian” in its scope, combining a palpable authenticity of place (shot on location in the fishing village of Qeshm island, and casting primarily villagers and non-professional actors in the key roles) with a formidable evocation of “the present day” in it’s mise-en-scene: a devastated fishing village (where fishing is no longer a viable source of income) has been forced to accept the smuggling goods as a means of survival. What’s most interesting is how seamlessly the film is able to shift continually between the spatial, temporal, and narrative strategies associated with Rossellini and Kiarostami, and the energetic, dramatic, and suspenseful scenes of smuggling, which more closely align the film with the break-neck editing of Eisenstein and the handheld aesthetic of Greengrass. What Lavafipour has achieved is no easy feat, keeping one foot planted firmly on the ground provided for him by hisNew Iranian contemporaries, and combining the very aspects which critics have employed to define the films by their absence of these techniques, using aesthetic strategies of both the national and dominant cinemas to achieve something entirely new in Iranian film. The smuggling sequences suggest that the rapid editing and handheld camera — most often associated with Western cinema and even Hollywood film — are also neorealist techniques, depending on where you live and what you have to do to survive. And the temporal and spatial relations so characteristic of Kiarostami, Majidi, and other films of the New Iranian cinema are not the only way to tell a story about “village life” in contemporary Iran.

Yet while some viewers and critics could be forgiven for locating the “time-pressure” rhythms of Tarkovsky or Italian neorealism’s long-takes within contemporary Iranian cinema, there are many others who are already well aware that these themes rise out of Iran’s pre- and post-Revolutionary past, rather than from a primordial connection to European art film. But if Godard is correct, that “tracking shots are political,” the fact that Lavafipour only puts the camera on a tripod for two brief scenes (of a young woman, watering the mythical tree mentioned in the voiceover), his reliance upon hand-held shots suggests an urgency and immediacy to the situation that could not be achieved through a carefully choreographed long-take achieved via dolly-shot, or even a Steadicam. Kiarostami’s camera glides along at a pace that many dominant cinema viewers might find glacial, yet for others his camerawork is almost spiritual in its transcendence over the confines of Western cinema and the temporal rhythms of the “montage of attractions.” For these viewers, and especially critics, slowness is at once a virtue and a quasi-political statement, a stance that defines itself within a negative space, in opposition to both Hollywood and the “society of the spectacle.” Such viewers might agree with Bresson’s psalm-like advice to the letter:

“Against tactics of speed, of noise, use tactics of slowness, of silence.”[2] [open notes in new window]

With his remarkable debut film, Lavafipour does not seek to draw Bresson’s line in the sand, but rather than simply allow New Iranian cinema to be defined as a filmmaker / cinephile’s recalibration of the neorealist traditions of the European avant-garde. In what is a sweeping indictment of the speed and noise of commercial cinema, this New-New Iranian director seems to suggest, “Why can’t we have both?”

In 1368, at the height of his popularity and his poetic powers, Hafiz was forced to flee his beloved Shiraz, abruptly and under the cover of night, after the new ruler, the Shah Shuja, had taken over the city after an 11-month war. Over the next four years of exile, the poet of “spiritual romanticism” exhibited a new tone in his poems, expressing homesickness and bitter longing for the city of his birth.

In 2010, for those villagers of Iran’s southern islands and elsewhere, struggling to maintain their way of life but left to fend for themselves, among the harsh realities and barren fishing waters of late-capitalism, sometimes “village life” must necessarily resemble the “action movie.” Lavafipour revitalizes both traditions while simultaneously breaking new ground for Iranian cinema with the timely and relevant Be Calm and Count to Seven.

   
   

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