The white meadows of Mohammad Rasoulof’s The White Meadows (Iran), a stunning and startling odyssey through the salt marshes of Iran’s Lake Urmia, are the desert islands where almost medieval cultures exist in isolated pockets on otherwise dead lands. The salt that coats every beach white has left this place bereft of vegetation, giving it an almost alien, otherworldly atmosphere: a visit to a small planet. And just as the salt chokes the life out of the land and water (there are no birds and precious little marine life), so does it starve the respective cultures, cut off from the rest of the world but for a boatman, Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi), the only outsider welcome in these lands. He is the “tear collector,” who comes to hear their woes and take away their sorrows by collecting their tears in a glass vial.
The mythology and cultural practices are more fictional creation than historical reality but they have the resonance of myth playing out in a place that is, practically speaking, out of time, with only stray clues (mostly in the coda) placing it in, more or less, the present. The various islands could be Rasoulof’s answer to Jonathon Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” relocated to an Iranian sensibility and contemporary political and religious reality. Brutal rituals (human sacrifice, politely referred to as a “marriage” and treated as a holy honor by all but the virgin bride) and punishments abound and a culture of conformity and intolerance rules, maintained by an unquestioned patriarchy that keeps the culture locked in a surreal state of blind obedience bordering on madness. Rebels, be they runaways, heroes or artists with individual visions, don’t survive the smothering culture.
Rahmat, who charts a careful course through these rocky waters, could be a charlatan and is most certainly a survivor, but he takes his work seriously, like a combination wandering holy man and traveling salesman. He also keeps this culture at a distance and finally returns to a world, where trees and grass grow and a modern culture of money and power replaces, or at least supplements, superstition. Salvation is not to be found here either.
As the audience filtered out after the screening, the gentleman next to me asked if I thought there were any hidden messages in this film. My response was that nothing was hidden in this film. It’s all bravely out in the open. The brutally beautiful satire of authoritarianism, religious extremism, unquestioning conformity and intolerance for anyone who dares question any of it is inseparable from the mad mythos of this odyssey. And yet the simplicity of his filmmaking, his screen carved down to the most primal imagery of black-clad figures on a stark dirty white landscape and the stories delivered as folk tales in a ferocious world, gives his mythology an authenticity in isolation as well. It’s simply up to the audience to make the (to my eyes unavoidable) connection between his surreal portrait and life in Iran. Which I assume Iranian authorities did for themselves, considering Rasoulof’s time in prison (he is currently out on appeal). Just as the artist in The White Meadows is punished for his “incorrect perceptions” and imprisoned to prevent his disease from spreading. Rasoulof anticipated his own fate.
[Editor’s Note: My coverage of the Seattle International Film Festival is cross-posted at The House Next Door.]