copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
Be Calm and Count to Seven — challenging generic concepts of New Iranian Cinema
by Brian Cagle
“In every Iranian home, if there are two books, they are the Qur’an and Haviz. But if there’s only one book, it’s Haviz,”
Ramtin Lavafipour, director of Be Calm and Count to Seven (2008), gave me this characteristically ambiguous yet ultimately revelatory response when I asked him for some insight into the mystery behind the lyrical and poetic approach that has become synonymous with New Iranian Cinema. For Lavafipour, some of the most well-known contemporary Iranian directors’ film techniques spring from the culture’s historic embrace of their most beloved poet, Haviz. But what about those other aspects that have become so characteristic of contemporary Iranian cinema, which have made these films a reliable mainstay of film festivals and art-houses across the globe now going on three decades? For, among critics, it is widely accepted that the current auteur tradition of New Iranian cinema shares an aesthetic approach, if not a genealogy, with the bright lights of the Neo-Realist movement, and as a result these Iranian directors have cultivated a worldwide audience that often brings such expectations to their films. It is in this way that New Iranian cinema, both by example of shared aesthetic strategies among its well-known directors, and the expectations of such by its critics and fans, has essentially positioned Iranian film as a genre, one which exists above and beyond its classification as a national cinema. And it is precisely these generic demands that Lavafipour’s film inhabits, exceeds and ultimately breaks free from. Thus Be Calm and Count to Seven potentially opens the door to both a post-national and a Post-New (or, if you prefer, New-New) Iranian cinema.
Perhaps no other national cinema in recent memory has become so distinguished, so carefully identifiable by shared aesthetic commonalities, than that of New Iranian cinema. These are the post-Revolutionary films considered as heirs to the Iranian New Wave of the late-60s/early-70s; this identification is the source both of the films’ attraction and of their continued success internationally (even while these films remain largely unseen back home). Marquee names like Kiarostami, Majidi, and Makhmalbaf (who are all three torchbearers of the original Iranian New Wave) have had critical and commercial successes over the last two decades of film festival and art-house screenings. As a consequence, in recent years many up-and-coming Iranian directors have continued to find a critical and commercial audience elsewhere. (And who could fault a filmgoer for first giving a film by Bahman Ghobadi a chance, based solely on the viewer’s own transcendent experience with Taste of Cherry?) In this sense, an Iranian film, particularly for the Western viewer (and especially the critic), no longer refers to a nation, cinematically-speaking, but to an artistic legacy and an aesthetic strategy, one in which the spatial, temporal, and narrative concerns are at once Not-Hollywood, Not-Western, and therefore defined in opposition to the dominant cinema in their overall approach.
One problem in this reverence for such tactics is that it is essentially tied to a Modernist, post-war European sensibility. Hence, when a tag of “Neo-neorealism” gets applied to New Iranian films, critical discourse attempts to graft such films onto the family tree of the mid-to-late-20th century European art-film tradition, rather than deal with these films as indigenous inheritors of their own specific cultural and artistic practices. That is, these are films from both a Muslim nation (particularly culturally, rather than spiritually, although where these overlap is admittedly hard to distinguish). They can even be considered as Persian films, from a culture steeped in 3,000 years of art and poetry that has historically extolled the virtues of the quotidian (and the “spiritual romanticism” of Hafiz), the very aspects for which New Iranian films are celebrated.
Another problem is with making a generic association of these films precisely with their difference from the dominant cinema is not only “tarrying with the negative” (Not-Hollywood, Not-Western), but is exemplary of a sort of inverted exoticism among Western critics and viewers. In this case, an old-fashioned orientalism emerges once again, this time within the warm, critical embrace of the film festival circuit. Writing on the success of Iranian films both at festivals and commercially, and of the inherent politics of difference (from the dominant cinema) upon which festivals thrive, Negar Mottahedeh suggests that exoticism, critical praise, and commercial success go hand-in-hand:
“… the selection of films for French, Italian, British, and North American festivals, while formally grounded in the argument of “aesthetic brilliance” is shaped as much by the products’ relation to (or borrowing from) known avant-garde and modernist film traditions as by the potential for commercial profit derived from the films’ attachment to a “national” context.” [open endnotes in new window]
So, as the textual, thematic and aesthetic concerns that characterize these films have inadvertently “branded” them as distinctly and identifiably Iranian, this has to a greater or lesser degree been helpful for a number of up-and-coming Iranian directors, at least those whose work is considered close enough to the tradition of Italian neorealism, yet whose subject matter is located far enough away to “safely” be considered a national cinema.
But, to borrow a phrase from Samuel Beckett, “the danger lies in the neatness of identification.” Because how does a film like Be Calm And Count To Seven fit into this neat categorization of New Iranian cinema? Certainly this film, which in 2009 was awarded Rotterdam’s Golden Tiger, Villadolid’s Best Feature, Dubai’s Best Cinematography, along with numerous appearance on the festival circuit (yet still without distribution), in many ways fits the generic conventions of New Iranian Cinema. It is a breathtakingly beautiful, lyrical film, deftly blending documentary and fiction, which calls forth comparisons to Naderi’s The Runner, Majidi’s Children of Heaven, and even De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. But in the film’s adrenalized opening scenes, it also exhibits the aesthetic DNA of much more commercial films, such as those of Tom Twyker, Paul Greengrassand Alphonso Cuarón, and their works might never be characterized as art-cinema, not-dominant, or Not-Western films, per say. But these latter three filmmakers have all carved a niche for themselves within the dominant cinema through signature stylistic approaches (rapid cutting, visceral hand-held camerawork, etc.). Therefore, as the antithesis to the national, they would seem to have very little in common with the hermetic-yet-aesthetically-brilliant universe of New Iranian cinema. But what connects all these filmmakers is a common ground within the auteur tradition, albeit from radically different approaches, both aesthetically and culturally. And with Be Calm and Count to Seven, Lavafipour succeeds in reconciling these approaches, while calling into question the nascent genre-labeling expectations of New Iranian film in the process.
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.”
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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