Saturday, January 3, 2015

Iron Island (2005)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***

Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who helmed the poetic and heavily allegorical "The White Meadows" (2009) had created something to similar effect earlier in this interesting 2005 drama, "Iron Island" (aka Jazireh Ahani). This is yet another fable-like tale, a veiled allegory full of visual metaphors and symbolism that one can instantly connect to the general sociopolitical environment in contemporary Iran.

Old man Nemat (Ali Nassirian), with his commanding presence, replete with a thick moustache, and a turban has harboured an entire community of needy individuals and their families on an abandoned old oil tanker in the middle of the sea. The locals who need shelter are provided one on this ship along with a small-time job in a self-contained small industry of sorts on board. Useless metal parts of the ship are disassembled and sold ashore as scrap. Women on board engage in making what they call burqas, but they are actually eye masks! 

Other young men do odd jobs around with no payment, but their wages compensate for their rentals in a way, all duly accounted for in Nemat's diary. It's like a whole cult of squatters all thriving under the kind shelter of their messiah, Nemat, who is, not surprisingly referred to as The Captain (of the ship, of course!). A single mobile phone is kept on board, and calling services are rented out to the inhabitants.

Nemat is the self-appointed leader of his offbeat crew. Admired and respected, but also feared, he isn't really tyrannical or ruthless. In fact, he appears to be a father figure with a polite demeanor. Exceptions are some stray incidents that invoke his wrath. It is then that his leadership starts to resemble an authoritarian autocracy. But he also looks after his crew, as is evident from some phone calls, albeit not without a hint of some personal gain as well.

It is one terrific characterization that keeps the persona of this figure deliberately ambiguous. The display of altruism is not an unorthodox one. The man has his rules. As long as they are followed and things go his way, it all proceeds smoothly. Thereby, Nemat is like the perfect balance between a dictator and a messiah! He even offers to bring good marriage alliances for the daughters of families on the ship. Only when there are errors, such as disobedience or amorous activities against his will, then there is the wrath! The guilty aren't let off easily. There are consequences, there are punishments!

The ship has its share of a motley of strange characters, that represent the byproducts of an environment of repression. So if there is a dictator, there has to be a rebel. One youngster, Ahmad (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh) who falls in love with an engaged girl on the ship and attempts to flee becomes the epitome of resistance in this case. What befalls him as a consequence represents the plight of any liberal thinker who dares to speak against a fascist government body. 

There is one little boy fondly named Baby Fish! He collects fish who stray into the ship's hold and sets them free by releasing them into the sea. He is the epitome of liberty, the symbol of freedom. On one instance Nemat catches him doing this task of releasing fish in the sea. Nemat is alarmed; he just takes the fish from the boy's hands and throws them back inside the hold. "When they grow bigger, we will catch them and eat them", he says! A statement that pretty much echoes and sums up the exploitative tactics of this old man, feeding off the blind faith of his followers.

And then there is this quirky old Uncle Sadegh, who spends his entire time staring with great expectations in direction of the sun, looking for something. He claims he has spent a lot of time doing it, but still cannot see anything. What is he looking for? A ray of hope perhaps? A light that would lead them out of the darkness and suffocation and into the light and fresh air?

The vessel in which these people thrive is a direct metaphor for a trapped existence. It serves as a microcosm of a claustrophobic, controlled environment from which there is seemingly no escape. And what's more, this ship is gradually sinking, as the sole teacher on board points out with his new scientific invention. It is a genius literal reference to the systematic deterioration of a society in a controlled atmosphere of fundamentalist tendencies. Of course, Nemat promptly poo-poos the teacher's claim away! 

The teacher is the voice of reason, the only independent thinker, also stifled by the iron hand of Nemat. The teacher eventually does make some attempt to get his voice heard, by including subliminal warning messages in his teachings imparted to the kids on board! Isn't this what liberal thinkers do? Educate, criticize, and awaken through their books, through their art, through their films? How ironical then, that this teacher makes his own writing chalks with the aid of empty rifle cartridges!

In the end, if the teacher says, the ship will sink some day, then it will! So, does old Nemat have a plan in place for saving his beloved crew? It seems so, when an exodus from sea to the land eventually occurs and Nemat promises them a town, their own promised land, which when we finally see, raises a lot of questions. The group waits for their leader to arrive, and as the guide of the crowd looks towards the road, awaiting his leader, the old uncle continues staring at the sun again, in an awe-inspiring composition, in a single frame. He is clearly the wise one, the cynical one in an environment such as this!

While the old man continues his search for the light, another rebel takes birth as Baby Fish chooses to not follow their leader and runs towards the sea, at a future uncertain. The voice of liberty and freedom walks away from the herd, much like the filmmakers and artists of Iran who chose a self-imposed exile rather than have their voices shoved back into their throats by the powers that be!

"Iron Island" isn't as haunting a cinematic experience as "The White Meadows" but it certainly merits a viewing and much more recognition as a brave and clever work of cinema from a talented filmmaker.

Score: 9/10

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