Uncommon Beauty

The White Meadows

Iran, 2009

written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof

A woman whispers her sorrows into a jar. The words are indecipherable, but the sound of her pain as it breathes against the glass aches. She quickly seals the words. A brief pause, then she opens the jar again, now confessing furiously into the emptiness' ears. Her words become sobs. The curtain is thrown back and the tears are carefully collected into a small, twisted vial. The man at the door who tends the jars—some already full, others waiting to be filled—shouts, "Next!"

Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) gathers tears. He rows solemnly between islands made of salt on waters so salty that they hover in some state between solid and liquid, as if the lands dotting the water yearn to become sea and the sea land. In this eerie archipelago, he is the only one with a boat, free to leave and return, but condemned to his duty, a humble, modern Charon1 ferrying grief to and fro. Amidst the atmosphere of salt, he appears as an insignificant speck gliding across an infinite ocean as he approaches some equally incomprehensible and barren Gibraltar. But this effect only emphasizes his irreducible subjectivity and the weighty necessity of his tiny task of turning tears into pearls.

Mohammad Rasoulof's The White Meadows is impossibly stunning. If we momentarily bracket the political elements surrounding the director’s recent imprisonment, the film stands on its own as a great narrative and cinematographic achievement. Together, Rasoulof's writing and directing, Ebrahim Gafori's camera work, and Iranian New Wave pioneer Jafar Panahi's editing have delivered a masterpiece not just of Iranian cinema, but of global cinema. Much like Alejandro Jodorowsky's bizarre allegory El Topo (1970), the individual moments of The White Meadows are full of playful surprises: a dwarf wearing a suit of jars; a blind man scouring the shore like a crab in search of a sandal; a bearded warden and his dog whose charge is to weight the dead with stones so they may be buried at sea.Yet these unexpected moments hang together, each vignette adding emphasis to the scenes before and after, preventing the story from slipping into some kind of solipsistic private language of obscurantism. Similar to Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (1964),2 in which sand is as much a character as the actors, the salty elements of this film, are palpable protagonists: salt, in its brute facticity, is unavoidable and deadening. As you leave the theater, you can feel the irritating dryness in your throat and on your skin.

As Rahmat arrives at each island, the various inhabitants greet him with familiarity, joy, and relief—they know he has come to take away their pain. He disembarks from his fragile raft, weary but determined, his worn suit dusted with the powder of the landscape. In his tattered briefcase, the simple tools of a tear-harvester: a jug of water, a small vial to catch tears, a larger jar to hold them, various cloths to clean the vessels so that they remain unadulterated for each new cry. He is hurriedly escorted to each village center where some new curse awaits.

A bleak scene from the impossibly stunning film, The White Meadows.

 

A snapshot of Rahmat's rounds: the most beautiful girl has just died, her precious body preserved in a mound of salt for eight days. Rahmat must carry the corpse away lest the young men pillage her grave. Alone at sea with her dead beauty, he tries to resist the temptation to pull back the shroud for a peek at her lips. At another island, he lands on a shore peppered with hundreds of dead crows, their black bodies stark against the white rock. A fairy that lives at the bottom of a well has cursed the island with an imbalance of fresh and salt water—she must be appeased by the collective confessions of the community, delivered to her at sunrise by some unfortunate messenger. Elsewhere Rahmat gathers the fearful wails of a virgin whose flower is to be offered to the sea. She screams, "I don't want to die!" as a shaman sets her adrift upon a glamorous raft, a marriage bed-coffin adorned with delicate red sheets. Her mother weeps as her daughter disappears into the horizon. Finally, he is called to help an artist who insists on painting the sea red. He is being "rehabilitated" by his brothers, forced to stare into the sun and endure eye drops of monkey urine. His family pleads: "What color is the sea now? Just say blue. Just say blue!" But the artist is unable to utter what he does not see to be true. "Cry," Rahmat insists, “It will make your eyes better." The ferryman is resigned to his commission, though he reveals through the occasional, subtle, sideward glance that he is aware of the sacred necessity of his task, as well as the profane pointlessness of the whole thing. Slowly, the jar fills.

It is a bizarre world (filmed at Lake Urmia in Iran) that is somehow absolutely believable, as though it has been predicted by our own best hopes of the possible worlds that our grief may unconsciously construct. A world of absurd rituals where the individual must succumb to the logic of the collective will, where to stand out as a unique presence—either from some physiological fate (beauty, ugliness) or some conscious act of will (artistic defiance)—is to sin, is to disrupt the harmony created by unquestioning acceptance of the status quo. To right the imbalance, all of the pain must be placed onto the backs of these individuals, scapegoats who are both angels and devils at the same time: the pearl skinned green-eyed virgin, the eyebrow-less dwarf who cannot walk correctly, the defiant artist who by a sheer act of will infuses a colorless world with vibrant hues: “The sea is red.” ("Ceci n'est pas un pipe." "Let there be light.") To create is to become courageously mad, like a god. To speak "is" potentially unsettles the is; in other words, to speak is to disrupt the perceived harmony of the State or the accepted order of a divinely created world—the status quo. This is precisely why Plato was so worried about the poets in his ideal city-state. It is also the fear of Iran’s Ayatollahs.

The film addresses the eternal themes of human struggle in a world without meaning, a world governed by indifferent natural and supernatural forces. Viewers need not know the specifics of the current events in Iran to be provoked by the film. Where do our tears go? Back to the sea, becoming indistinguishable from other fluid with a similar molecular structure? Do they someday turn into pearls that we can string together to make some sense of our pain? Or does God use them to wash his fragile feet, soothing his varicose veins with the byproducts of our misery?

A Revolutionary Film

An awareness of the internal political strife and tensions in Iran does, however, serve to make the film even more poignant and provocative. Perhaps the politics of the film are not so veiled, but they are certainly not didactic; the film is even more revolutionary precisely because it forces the viewer to actively engage with the many questions at play. Propaganda is monological and closed; art is dialogical and open. Rasoulof's film reveals a world of deep suffering in a way that exposes the injustice and senselessness of oppression more than any explicit diatribe or manifesto ever could. His film stands diametrically opposed to the propaganda of today's despotism.

The revolutionary filmmaker, Mohammad Rasoulof (Payvand.com).

 

The fact that both Rasoulof and Panahi are serving six-year sentences and have been banned from making films for 20 years is only a testimony of the power and beauty of their work. And so, the absurdity of The White Meadows becomes an allegory for the current reality. Just as the uncanniness and terror of Kafka is not found in the construction of an unbelievable world, but rather in the reportage of reality so concretely that it seems to be unreal, so too does Rasoulof reveal a reality in and through the seemingly fantastic. But to say that it is simply unbelievable and fantastic is to repress the reality. There is nothing more concrete than tears. The Iranian sea is salty and red, full of the cries and the blood of those who have insisted, "The sea is red!" It is not surprising that a simple story of a man who gathers all-too ubiquitous tears is perceived as a threat and an insult to a regime that insists there are no tears, that commands the people to shout in unison: "The sea is blue!"

Nietzsche notes that there is an inverse relationship between punishment and strength: the weaker a person or a regime is, the more violent and vehement the punishment of the transgressor need be. The noble, the confident, the healthy, and the strong are the only ones with the right to truly forgive and the power to have genuine mercy. "What are my parasites to me?" writes Nietzsche. "May they live and prosper: I am strong enough for that!"3 We can only hope that such a reactionary punishment against these brilliant artists reveals a deep weakness inside a mad and draconian state, one that knows it is crumbling from the inside.

Perhaps, though, the film's message is not one of hope, but of despair. Nonetheless, it is a sign of vitality that great art manages to slip through the fingers of the cowardly bully's clenched and fearful fist. For where there are tears, there is feeling. And where there is feeling, there is life, there is the spirit to feel, to cry, to laugh, and to paint possibilities with new colorful palates despite the bleak pigments one may have been given.

The White Meadows is a teardrop that we have been allowed to catch. In this single tear is refracted a spectrum of tears, not only of Iranians and other oppressed peoples, but of anyone who tries to construct solid worlds from the fragile liquid of their cries. Indeed, these islands are fleeting footholds, but if we are able to stand only a moment such that we see the horizon, such that we can imagine other worlds, then so be it. Rasoulof has given us a small foothold to peek into pain, crystallizing the tears of the oppressed into a pearl. May the grains of salt from this film irritate us all such that we cannot help but produce our own gems to be strung alongside other precious stones in the great necklace of existence and hope.

February 10, 2011

1. Charon was the mythical ferryman who carried the souls of the dead to Hades.

2. The film is based on the novel of the same name, which was published in 1962.

3. from On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic (1887).

Eric Anthamatten received his Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research in New York City. His work focuses on philosophy, education, and social justice, more specifically on issues surrounding education in marginal, non-traditional, and non-academic settings: the prison, adult education, the homeless. Eric received an M.A. in Philosophy from Texas A&M University as well as a Bachelor of Science in Political Science and a minor in electronic music.