Thursday, April 16, 2009


A blurry and mystical sunrise somewhere in desert along the edge of a body of water, either the sea or a very large lake. It’s still nearly dark so mostly just color stripes the sky, no sun. A low growling. You wait and wait. Pretty soon from the top right hand corner comes a faraway small plane with its lights blinking. When it is close, something parachutes out but doesn’t land where the camera is.

“Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch.” A tiny figure comes from down left, plodding slowly and sometimes staggering with a huge box. It goes diagonally across the empty space, stopping to take a breather next to what is evidently a bunk bed out in the open. Then carries the box on through to somewhere. The man, in military uniform and with a rifle over his shoulder, puts the wooden crate down next to a tent and with a small crowbar pries off the lid. He takes out a piece of paper and sits on the dirt to ponder it, then puts it back.

More scrunching back over to the bunk bed. There’s someone sleeping. The man who has read the paper wakes him and prepares to sleep in the same place. He says an agent is coming to oversee an election and that they are ordered to guard this election. They are incredulous. This is Iran. They have no precedent. They are supposed to be guarding this shore against smugglers.

That’s the setup. When the agent who arrives by small motorboat turns out to be a young woman, entirely draped but wearing khaki trousers underneath and VERY determined to do things right, you’ve just about got the whole story. The wakened guard, who seems to be a little thick-headed, takes the shared rifle and wristwatch, and drives the “agent” -- all the time protesting that she should be a man -- in a vehicle about the shape and tinny quality of a breadbox -- around this back country to collect votes.

The result is an excellent precursor to a college course in the difficulties of democracy. What is a “secret” vote? Why do they have to vote for candidates on a pre-determined list of people they don’t know? What difference would it make in a world that still does what it’s been doing for thousands of years? And in one case, where a “granny” runs everything very well, thank you, who needs a government anyway? And what do you say to the old man who votes for God?

The odd couple putt-putts along, strewing confusion, injustice, and helpful favors among fishermen sheltering a runaway sweetheart, a camp of women who have just birthed a baby, an old man in an impressive but decrepit technical station where a solar array makes enough electricity in the day to light up the night when the old man sleeps anyway and enough heat with a giant parabolic dish to make hot water in a tiny teakettle.

All along the soldier queries what the rules are while the young woman tries desperately to make them fit situations for which they were never designed. The results are often funny. We in Montana would appreciate the stop light in the middle of nowhere that is stuck on red, which causes the soldier to stop and wait. . . and wait. . . and wait. At one point he is so exasperated that he leaves what they call a “jeep” and starts to walk home. The young woman simply gets into the driver’s seat and follows. While they argue, a huge yellow dump truck arrives, loaded with women who want to vote. But one is twelve -- she must be sixteen to vote. “Why?” the women demand. “She can marry at twelve, so why can’t she vote?”

The adobe cubes of the almost-settlements and homesteads are enlivened by collections of brightly colored plastic tubs and buckets, scattered every which way. The women wear many yards of bright, thin, printed fabric, draped and wound ingeniously. One woman has a plastic visor over her face with opaque color except for a strip of sunglass material to see through. When the young prospective bride doesn’t like the soldier’s questions, she simply pulls her drapery over her head, disappearing for all practical purposes.

When I went to to check out other reactions, I was surprised to see how many comments there were. The pace is definitely Third World -- clockless -- and the subtleness and subversiveness, the existentialism, of the whole thing is nearly Beckett. I was reminded of a Chinese movie (and in my usual senile fashion I can’t remember the title) in which the young woman’s husband is kicked in the balls by their landlord. Highly indignant because she considers children a crop and thinks the family “seed” has been damaged, she goes to the authorities. Of course she is stone-walled, so she appeals to the next level up. Same result. She goes the next level up. Eventually she gets to the top and gets satisfaction. The determination of energetic young women can change the world no matter how repressive or primitive governmental provisions may be.

That’s one conclusion of this film and a good one. But also there is a lesson in the subtle attachment that develops between these two unlikely people, rather like the American Western plots that play off nuns or schoolteachers being thrown into a common cause with outlaw hardbitten cowboys. Cooperation and growing understanding don’t lead to romantic attachment, but they certainly do form small strands of affection and familiarity. These two people will never see each other again, but one hopes that four years from the election portrayed here, the next agent will arrive to find soldiers who aren’t so blind-sided.

I don’t know why I put this movie and “Landscape After Battle” on my Netflix list -- it was a long time ago. But I wish someone would make movies of this thoughtful quality about contemporary high prairie. Maybe they do, but I just don’t know it. The major cost of modern media is not in the actual shooting and editing of a movie -- it’s in the advertising so that you know it exists. That means “branding” and hyping to a predetermined audience defined by someone sitting in a major city: who THEY “think” will like the movie. They’re often wrong.

There’s another twist to this. Iranian is a repressive country that keeps the lid on education, but this movie was made by an Iranian who lives in Toronto. What is the relationship of diasphoric members of an ethnic community to those who stayed home? Is it disruptive or is it a call to the future?

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