VERDICT: Hossein Tehrani’s gently melancholy first feature about poor farm laborers, which won Tokyo’s Asian Future competition, reveals a strong new Iranian voice.
Set in the 1980’s in the aftermath of Iran’s drawn-out war with Iraq, World, Northern Hemisphere (Jahan, Nimkoreh-e Shomali) describes the harsh but still hopeful life of a fatherless family in the remote southern province of Khozestan, and the many obstacles they have to surmount in their daily lives. Shot with near-documentary realism and unhurried pacing, this carefully observed debut by Hossein Tehrani slowly involves the viewer with its well-drawn characters and their elemental struggle to survive economically. Some loose ends are a bother, and the enigmatic final scenes leave the viewer with a puzzle, but the overall sensitivity of the direction points to a talent worth following. The film won Tokyo’s prestigious Asian Future competition and has played at the Chicago Intl. Children’s Film Festival.
Little Ahmad (Reza Shohani) is a tough kid — a plucky, enterprising boy who might be 12. In a wonderfully concise intro, he gently strokes the wings of a white pigeon, one of a handful of birds he has brought to an outdoor market to sell. Tehrani lingers on the colorful stalls of fish and clothes and trinkets; then a man with a rooster approaches Ahmad and rips the head off his beautiful pigeon for no apparent reason. It looks like a case of the strong arrogantly overpowering the weak. But — surprise — without a word, the boy takes his revenge and runs off through the crowds.
Judging by this scene, he is every inch his mother’s son. Mom (Saideh Albaji), clad in black from head to foot, has the severely weathered features of a lifetime farmer, yet behind her severity lies a woman with a vision. Tired of working for others, she has bought a field full of thorn bushes to farm on her own. In any other context, her demand that Ahmad cut school to help her clear the land would be reprehensible, but considering he’s a very lackluster, unmotivated student who cuts classes anyway, it doesn’t seem like that much of a sacrifice. And the field is the family business.
The turning point comes quietly, without fanfare or particular emphasis, while a hired tractor is plowing the field and Ahmad finds a small bone – a human bone. Though his mother angrily dismisses it as “not Iranian”, the boy seems deeply upset. The assumption the viewer makes is that it is a body part from the recent war, though this is not explained. Later it turns out that the authorities will confiscate any land where war remains are found, probably because there could also be hidden land mines. This is why Ahmad’s mother is so anxious to hide the shard of bone. But just as drama dictates that a gun, once it appears on screen, has to be fired, so this piece of bone will come back to haunt the family.
Directing his own screenplay, Tehrani is very solid handling scenes that reek of cliché, like the forced engagement ceremony in which the landlord’s 30-year-old foreman Nemat (Mehran Atashzay) asks to marry Ahmad’s 14-year-old sister, who wants nothing to do with him. Concentrating on the reaction of the mother and the groom’s supporters, Tehrani makes the scene convincing.
But he struggles in places with the narration. The sad story of a friend of Ahmad’s who lost his father in the war (the body has never been recovered) dovetails into a big, confused message about all men being equal despite differences in race, language and nationality. Ahmad’s capacity to embrace such deep-held beliefs ennobles him, but whether he actually acts on his ideas in the final scenes remains dramatically unclear.
Shot with very few close-ups and an emphasis on dusty farmlands by cinematographer Morteza Moghaddasi, the film conveys a surprising feeling of realism, reinforced by the minimal dialogue.
Director, screenplay, producer: Hossein Tehrani
Cast: Reza Shohani, Mehran Atashzay, Saideh Albaji, Abolfazi Aghakhani, Mohannad Esmaeili, Khaton Albaji, Zahra Baji
Cinematography: Morteza Moghaddasi
Production and costume design: Mehrnaz Akbari, Kowsar Khorram
Editing: Mehrdad Akbari
Music: Babak Khangholi
Sound: Erfan Ebrahimi
Production company: Tehran Film (Iran)
World sales: 7th Art (Iran)