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I noted in my review of the Film Festival Preview, that I was most excited for the ‘Afternoons in Iran’ thread at the festival. Annoyingly, I wasn’t able to manage the whole season of them, but the ones I saw, did not disappoint. I’m particularly hoping that today’s film The Wasteland comes back again at some point in the future.

Hit the Road

Our first Iranian offering is a road trip across Iran, with a family stuck inside an increasingly claustrophobic borrowed SUV not helped by their number including a small child who is necessarily oblivious to the very serious errand they’ve set out on, and the sickly family dog in the back. The family patriarch having his leg in a cast so being unable to drive – and therefore unrepentantly backseat driving – doesn’t help much either. It’s not entirely clear why they’ve had to set out on this road trip, other than that the oldest child needs to be smuggled out of the country – though quite why is kept, perhaps deliberately unclear. Big brother is largely stoic and tense except when the tension occasionally gets to him and mostly takes the form of him resentfully exclaiming that he’s not a child – which of course are the moments when he seems most like one. He keeps trying to convince the rest of the family to turn back, to let him go to meet his fate alone, which he considers safer for both them and him. Perhaps he also feels like he cannot help but fall into this child role on this family road trip, that it would be easier for him to be brave and face the dangers to come, if he were alone.

I saw another review describe the smugglers in their sheepskin balaclavas as comical, but honestly I found them pretty creepy emerging from the mist – if they’d been in the hills of the Lake District instead of Iran, I’d have fully thought we’d side steeped into some strange folk horror film.

This film contained was one of many excellent child actor performances at this year’s festival. Little brother is a vivacious unsurpressable bundle of joy, a much needed antidote to the tension between the rest of the characters on the road trip, but also a complete liability on the very serious errand that the rest of them have embarked upon. There are some deeply surreal moments in the film – including some references to 2001: A Space Odyssey some of which are sublime and some of which are downright bizarre. However little brother provides a handy excuse for these, as it feels as though at those points in the film we – and perhaps, reluctantly, the rest of the characters too – are being pulled into his point of view and being forced to see the world through his eyes, with all it’s strangeness, passions, joys and confusion.

The Iran of this film is also a very different Iran from the one I’ve previously seen on film. The Iran of other films has been a very urban Iran, mostly Tehran but sometimes other cities or large towns. Films were the claustrophobic presence of others – others who you couldn’t be certain if you could trust – close by was part of the atmosphere. This is a film about wide open space, highways through small towns, and villages hidden in the hills, where the absence of other people is the real threat. Our protagonists are in themselves very urban – even the shininess of their borrowed SUV seems to mark them out as outsiders and make them look suspicious.

There is No Evil

This is a film about what it means to live in a country with the death penalty with compulsory military service and where ‘criminal’ can mean anything the powers that be deem it to be. The film is told in four episodes, each one a different perspective on what it means to execute someone

The first episode is a real study on the concept of the mundanity of evil. (The opening in particular really plays with your expectations, and the mundane anonymity of the underground car park, of the urban space that could be anywhere really emphasises the whole ‘this could happen anywhere with a few wrong turns’ element.) Following this man as he brings home his extra ration of rice, collects his wife and daughter from school, his salary from the bank, bickers with his wife in the car, does grocery shopping for the family and his mother in law – the tender care for his mother in law as he takes her blood pressure and helps her back to her seat – eats pizza in a chain restaurant that could be anywhere in the world. The mundanity of his night shift as we struggles with the early hour, makes his coffee and presses the buttons that control the machines that do his job, and then the grim revelation of what that actually is all the worse knowing that this is just a normal day at the office for him.

The second episode involves half a dozen men sharing a bunk room, at first it seems as though they are prisoners, condemned men, and in a way they are. They are all on military service but the duty that they have been assigned, and which they are taking seemingly arbitrarily assigned turns, is to be the one who pulls the stool away at executions. (For which they are rewarded with three days of leave.) All the men are archetypes in their way and the arguments between them run the philosophical gamut of those around the death penalty, military service, the nature of crime and punishment, how the personal and the law collide, free will and personal responsibility. (Added to the mix and the tension is the part where one of the men had previously refused to do it and has been punished with the doubling of his service, something that has visibly traumatised him.) What will he do when the call comes in the morning? Ah, well, that would be telling.

The third episode revolves around a soldier on leave – significantly three days leave – visiting his girlfriend intending to celebrate her birthday, and ask her to marry him, only to find the family preparing a funeral for a family friend and neighbour. The friend, a beloved and respected part of the community, was a political activist who had been been in hiding from the government for many years, and until his death the family had hidden his existence from the solider. (Whether because they didn’t trust him or because they wanted to protect him from having to make a difficult moral choice is left ambiguous.) This one also features a very different Iran, a lush rural landscape, of forests in which someone could disappear and hide from the state for a long time. This, of course is an episode about consequences, where the soldier has to face that the people he has ‘pulled the stool away’ in return for extra leave, were all real people with real families who miss them and are devastated by their loss. And also for his girlfriend who cannot help but count all the times he’d had three days leave with her and what that might mean for who he truly is as a person.

The final episode is about the long term impacts of these actions, and relies for our sympathy for our protagonist on what we have learned about the system. (He could conceivably be the same man as in the second film, twenty years later.) Unlike the young woman he is trying to make his peace with, the audience knows why he has no drivers license and cannot leave the country, why he lives in the middle of nowhere, practicing as a doctor only to villager who don’t have the luxury of caring that he has no clinic only that his treatments work, and must rely on his pharmacist wife for medicine for his illness. How circumscribed not having completed his military service has made the rest of his life and all the things that he has sacrificed to make a decision that even in the face of her wrath and condemnation, he cannot wish to take back.