This film is called BAD MA RA KHAHAD BORD in Iran. The language spoken is Farsi, but it is labeled as “Persian” for more appeal; even though nothing has been Persian in the Middle East for several hundred years. Abbas Kiarostami is the director, producer, writer, and editor of the film. He functions as both innovator and diplomat in those capacities. Since the 70’s, he has directed 37films. He has developed a style that is minimalist and existential. He is a graduate of Tehran University’s Faculty of Fine Arts in Painting. So he is trained and well versed in painting, graphics, book illustrations, sculpture, and photography. The French began to “discover” him in the 1990’s. His most famous film, TASTE OF CHERRY (1997), won the Palm d’Or at Cannes that year. 1997 was a good year for him. He also won the UNESCO Fellini-Medal in Gold for achievement in film, freedom, peace, and tolerance. Presently, he is a professor, living in Paris, who also directs films in Iran.

Kiarostami belongs to a small band of creative rogue directors, like Peter Greenaway and Lars Von Trier, which are endeavoring to expand the parameters of cinema. He breaks away from conventional narrative, and usually works without a script. He writes as he goes, improvising, composing, matching dialogue to landscape, and then later edits it. It gives this film a documentary feel, and this permeates and is pushed even further in some of his other films. He utilizes mostly non-actors and a small crew. In some of his films, he will show himself and the crew, often on video, shooting the actual movie being seen. There is no wall, no sense of suspended belief, and no sense of an omniscient artist just out of sight creating some kind of tight polished piece of cinema. Most editors would have felt a need to recut his films to attempt to make them more cohesive. He is not concerned with the girdle of convention and genre. He creates something else, something “new”.

He wants to challenge the audience’s role as passive viewers. He is a modern Joshua, and he is out to knock down walls. He wants to provoke the audience to engage their imagination. He refuses to do all the work for us. He has been quoted as saying,” The audience member should be responsible for the clarity he/she expects from the film.” So it seems that he is nagged by no obligation to present crackling literary narrative, non-stop action, or unbridled sensuality. He produces instead something he calls,“plotless cinema”; like SEINFELD on television, it becomes a film about nothing, and yet we find ourselves mired in the nothingness as residents and participants. It is as if, through his techniques, we are able to successfully discover a specific space to immerse ourselves, a welcoming niche wherein we can interject our own persona, dropping down into a quiet barrenness of what feels like a real place in real time. This unique metaphysical inhabitation does not happen, however, for each viewer. Many are not open to it, or do not recognize the opportunity. “What was the film about?” they ask. Nothing, yet everything, comes the gentle response.

“Why did so much of the action happen off-screen? It made me crazy!” they might utter. Yes, the camera’s point of view (POV) was mostly static, locked in on the solitary lead figure. Mostly we watched Behzad Dourani as the Engineer, or was he a filmmaker? He tended to talk to other characters in the shadows, in dark rooms, off-camera, and in ditches. As characters in a film, they became things felt but were mostly unseen. That quality of the importance of things unseen was reinforced constantly.

Kiarostami played with that notion, that celluloid lack of convention. We had to invent faces for the voices of his two-man crew, the ditch digger

[Or was he a gravedigger? One critic postulated that the digger was preparing the ground for a cellular tower.], and various villagers. Yet, sometimes, as a prank or accident, the director would let us see the characters, like when Behzad picked up a man on the road, and drove him to the school. That scene was shot conventionally as two-person, with reaction and close-up shots. Once, while in the Jeep, Behzad was talking with his crew off-camera, along the road as they pursued the perfect strawberry, and we had a glimpse of their two backs, just two distant figures in the rear window as the Engineer drove off. Perhaps Kiarostami could have used reflections more often. It would have neatly fit into his maze of nonconformity; the car’s rearview and side mirrors, windows and water. That might have been an interesting touch.

When asked about his creative influences, the director stated,” An artist finds his material from what’s around him. [Like good writers that write about the world by describing things and places that they know well.] I have never met a movie star on the streets. I just find that regular human beings with their real faces and problems are the most important raw material of any film.” In this movie, the people of the village seemed real, as if he had just captured them in medium and long shots. He used very few close-ups; except with the village boy who served as host and guide. One had the sense that these villagers were just going through the tasks of their day, impervious to him as he pointed his camera at them. What plot or story there was had to be weaved seamlessly into the living fabric of those people in that village. This methodology is not necessarily new. Robert J. Flahery employed in as far back as 1922 with his silent classic, NANOOK OF THE NORTH; and more recently there was THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL. These were narrative documentaries that seemed to transcend convention; just real people who are captured midst crisis, solitude, labor, and joy.

Kiarostami cast the landscape as a character. Working with his cinematographer, Mahmoud Kalari, they set up golden and ochre panoramas of village and countryside. This conformed to the respected tradition of many of the great Japanese and Asian directors, using the landscape as a living thing and not merely as a static backdrop. Kiarostami would hold a shot double long, and just let things happen within it. When the Engineer would drive in his Jeep out of the eye of the lens, herds of goats and people would spill across the stillness of the frame. Once an old man with a cane was walking toward the camera. The shot was held static until he walked into the foreground and then past the camera. It takes a certain about of courageous obstinence to “let things happen”, and then to present them simply, raw and unrefined. This obliterates any narrative through line. It slays the pace, and it conjures up stifling boredom from the impatient viewers.

A tableau would be presented, a village street, a winding road, a field of waving grain, and the actors would pass through it, only inhabiting it for a brief moment. We as viewers would have the sensation that that scene near the buildings, on that street, in that field, was real, immediate, almost eternal, captured and inhabited both. The director would heighten this sensation by letting the lens of the camera assume a human point of view. As we watched, people and animals and vehicles would pass from sight behind a hillock, or in a dip in the road, and then reappear. The camera would never track with them. It was never on a crane, or rails. It remained on someone’s shoulder, or on a tripod. There was one marvelous moment I recall where the Jeep drove, once again, out of the village. It dropped down the steep hill that led up to the village, and it passed out of our line of sight. The camera held fast and waited patiently. Animals and villagers wandered across the shot, and they never felt choreographed or staged, like those countless crowd scenes in countless movies where the crowd and the traffic is “atmosphere”. In the distance we could see the upper part of the road, where it began to climb up another hill, but for several moments in real time we were forced to wait until the Jeep reappeared, barreling up slope, rolling up thick red dust. Oddly, for me, this was my exact moment to “enter” the mock-reality of the film. From that second on I felt the sun, smelled the goats, swatted the flies, tasted the strawberries, and crawled laboriously up through the steep streets, ladders and steps of the village.

Kiarostami made Nature palpable, a breathing entity; everything, the red earth, the verdant fields, the ripe crops, the rolling hills, the solitary trees, and all the villagers going through their daily routines. The Engineer stood alone, juxtaposed against this natural rhythm, the one in denims. The villagers all wore the traditional garb; baggy woolen pants and slacks. He was the only one with a cellular phone, and the only one with an SUV; just the man from Tehran, living a few weeks in the village, being forced to accept the vibrations, the realistic undulations, the dance; its heartbeat. Symbolically, he was the City, representing technology and urban insensitivity and dishonesty. I was very impressed with the graciousness and politeness of all the villagers. They seemed perfect hosts, honest and open and without agenda. Yet as polite as they were, they kept their distance. The film was devoid of sex and nudity. Everything was implied or kept behind closed painted doors.

As in WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964), the closer one came to Nature, the more balanced was his life, pure in its simplicity, unbiased, and uncluttered. Modern man, with all his technological trappings is presented as foolish, rude, unattractive, vain, and dare I say—unnatural. It brings to mind the vigorous conflict between the natural and civilized man in Akira Kurosawa’s DERSU UZALA (1975), whereby the rugged Asiatic hunter could not adapt or fit into the sordidness of city life.

We all know these truths—they are absolutely self-evident. Before I studied Metaphysics in 1993, and before I had my close encounter of the second kind, my UFO sighting at 03:00am on the barren high deserts of Southern California, a five minute flight from Area 51, near the China Lake Naval Weapons Center at Ridgecrest in 1983, I too was conflicted about the nature of the universe. But I was drawn hard to the throb of Nature, climbing and hiking in the Cascades, and beachcombing the coasts every chance I got.

At that time, if you had asked me what my religion was, I would have said that I was a proud agnostic pantheist; a passionate lover of nature, and nothing more; an outsider to the elitist organizations of religion strewn about the planet. Certainly however, I was a rejecter of wars and the stink of the great cities. While in the Navy, in 1967, while on a weekend sojourn up into the thin forests along the Angeles Crest Highway, near Big Bear Lake, sitting on a log above the smog, I scribbled some verse that encapsulated how I felt. I went something like this:


Since the dawn primeval,
When the great green trees
Blacked out the sun,
And all the forests were dense,
There have been wrinkled old men who knew
Where to find the sky.

Even the tiniest of children know
About wood magic;
From gargantuan ice glaciers to rocky coasts,
Even squatting in the tameness of parks,
People prowl around
Putting live green things
Into their mouths.

Giant winged birds
And hairless rodents
In cages
Have memories of it;
The tangy taste of green
Moss and leaves and grass
And flower stems.

Life is green.
Green is life.
Nature’s essence is not red,
It is absolutely green,
Like penicillin and ivy,
Ferns and fungus.

Chew a leaf,
Sucking the pulp out of it
Like a cannibal.
Stuff grass in your mouth,
Masticate alfalfa and rye,
Crush a flower in your hand,
Sleep in a tree.

Even the sky can be
Like the reptiles
From the dank depths
Of a greenish gray sea,
Who tired of the eternal swimming,
And squirmed up onto the land,
Stood erect,
And claimed the whole planet
For themselves,
And for all those others like themselves.

Green, as well,
Is the life after death;
Tarter on dead teeth,
Mold on sun-bleached bones,
And rot
As flesh and wood decompose
And make their way back
To the earth’s green womb.

In its myriad hues.
Spread like a virus.
My God,
Everything is green!
Vegetables and paper currency,
Christmas and the moon,
Emeralds and frogs,
Jungles and lawns,
Infection between your toes,
All green.

While you are treading
Along the Yellow Brick Road,
That golden infinite stretch of highway
The goes nowhere
And returns angry;
Take the time
To step off those hot bricks
And lie peacefully
In the green
Fields of grass and dewy clover,
Heart bursting with green
Arms wide open to a green
Just let those goddamn legions
Tromp by,
With their silver armor clanking,
Their pilum held high,
Because Christ
And the ladybug knows,
Hell and war
Are certainly not

Glenn Buttkus (1967)

Was there a plot in this film? Well, there was, kind of. Behzad Dourani, called the Engineer, masquerading as an anthropologist, or a treasure hunter, who is probably a filmmaker [alter-ego for Kiarostami], drove 450 miles north of Tehran to a small Kurdish village. Some call that remote area of Iran, Kurdistan. He, inexplicably, had a contact in the village, which had alerted him to a special ceremony that would occur when an old lady, a village elder, dies. He has come to loiter deathside, and film the rare ceremony. It was discussed late in the film. The woman, deep in their lamentation, would carve up gashes in their faces with the knives of sorrow.

His immediate contact, and guide within the village, was a small boy. The boy became the chorus, the voice of the village. Behzad requests that when asked the boy tell folks that he and his crew were there searching for treasure. No one believed that absurd fabrication, but it did not matter to any of them. The strangers were guests, and as such, they were made welcome, whatever their mysterious intent. The old woman, however, did not comply. She lived on and refused to die. Days became weeks and the old woman clung to the pale edges of her life.

A running joke in the film, a broad slap in the demon face of technology, was the Engineer’s cell phone. It would ring several times a day. Invariably he would be deep in the village. He would habitually answer it, and there never would be any service. He would yell into the phone for the person to wait, or to call him back while he scrambled to his Jeep and drove hell-bent for higher ground. The highest point nearest the village happened to be a cemetery. Once up into it, he would hop out of his vehicle and conclude his call. This maneuver became a ritual, a routine, repeated incessantly every day.

He seemed mostly to be talking to his superiors in Tehran, the network or magazine or newspapers moguls who had sent him there, and was paying for him and his crew to stay there. No, he would say, she has not died yet, but she should—any day now. Many viewers were fatigued, even upset by the sheer repetitiveness of these scenes. The Engineer’s, “Allo, allo,” echoed in our cranium. There was the Jeep roaring up the hillside, always the same, yet always slightly different. It was humorous at first, and then it became grating and onerous.

But after several trips up there we began to realize that that parched pinnacle, that trodden-down garden of death, was the only place where the man could go to clear his head. Standing there with the wind rippling his hair, he could see for miles across the vastness. I think it would have been a hill that I would have climbed often, for perspective and insight. And it was, after all, where he met the man in the ditch, or grave, or hole; or at least the voice of same. Ironically, it was this silly ritual of the cell phone that placed the Engineer on that very hill when the hole caved in on the digger, providing a climax, of sorts, balancing out the random tedium of the long days in the village.

That hill was also where the Engineer would catch glimpses of the fleeing milkmaid, the mysterious girl in red. It is suggested that she journeyed up there to visit with the digger—perhaps. The engineer is always asking for milk. Finally the boy informed him that he could just knock on any door in the village, and whoever answered would be glad to share some milk with him. Finally he did so and he was given a pot of milk. He inquired as to the source of the milk, and he was directed to the abode of the milkmaid. He was further directed by her mother to descent into a crude basement barn; more a dark cavernous sub-basement really. The milkmaid met him in the half-light and she lit a lantern. They traveled deeper into the subterranean stable. She never showed her face, even though he requested that she do so.

While she milked a cow, she sang a lyric from a poem written by Forough Farrokhzad. This seemed to inspire the Engineer sitting in the dark, and he recited the whole poem while waiting for his bucket of lactose.

In my small night, alas,
The wind has an appointment with the trees.
In my small night,
There is fear of devastation.

Did you not hear the dark wind whispering?
I look upon the bliss with alien eyes.
I am addicted to the sorrow.
Do you not hear the dark wind whispering?

Now something is happening in the night.
The moon is red and agitated,
And the roof may cave in at any moment.

The clouds have gathered like a bunch of mourners,
And seem to be waiting for the moment of rain.
A moment.
And after that, nothing.

Beyond the window the night trembles,
And the earth will no longer turn.
Beyond the window an enigma
Worries for you, and for me.

Oh you, who are so verdant,
Place your hands like a burning memory
In my hands.
And leave your lips that are warm with life
To the loving caresses of my lips.
The wind will carry us away.
The wind will carry us away.

This lovely scene was done mostly in darkness and it seemed to resonate a kind of existential theme. We, as viewers, were presented with a Moslem puzzle, and it was entirely up to us to piece it together. I suspect each of our finished pictures would be vastly different; some sweet, some frenzied.

There were several subtle, almost hidden themes within the film. One was the inherent decency, the humanity of the villagers; putting a very humane face on the Moslem world. For over twenty years we moved inexorably toward 9/11. Yet when it came, it was devastating, like a rogue act of nature, a tsunami or lahar. In an instant, thousands were dead. Presently we are neck deep in hot sand, echoes of the Koran, the shrill cries of Jihad, and the suicide bombings that are slaughtering our children sent to the Middle East. The media only glosses over our daily losses in Iraq now. A year ago they would spend thirty minutes mourning each individual American military death. Now dozens die daily and our news commentators let those precious lives brush across their tongues glibly.

We find ourselves angry, exhausted, and in constant pain and anguish. It breaks my heart to watch President Bush smile into the camera knowing what he is perpetrating and why. An Arab face is not something we cherish. Young fists are raised in defiance, and young hands hold automatic rifles and rocket launchers, screaming,”Death to American Pigs, Yankee Infidels!” We find ourselves squared off against the many nations of Islam. So like police dogs we lunge at everything Middle Eastern. And then we watch this gentle confusing film, peopled with Kurdish and Iranian faces—portrayed as human beings, not bloodthirsty zealots. We witness Kiarostami as diplomat.

Another theme is the importance of education. The boy always seemed to be carrying some of his textbooks, or excusing himself to study for exams, or get to school. Several times the Engineer had to go to the school in order to see the boy at all. This intense love of knowledge, of math, engineering, literature, and poetry worked itself into the fabric of the non-plot.

Something else explored was death, and the clarification it could provide for all just by its proximity. The old woman was dying. Until nearly the end of the film, we didn’t know from what. After the cave-in, when the Engineer loaned his Jeep to the villagers to take the digger to hospital, he rode on the back of the old doctor’s motorcycle.
“What’s wrong with the old woman?” Behzad asked.
“Nothing,” the doctor replied,” She is just old and tired and worn out, and may have lived long enough.”

The old woman refused nourishment as she withered away. It was her choice. But her family and the villagers were merciless with their love and their daily presentations of soup and food. Somehow, after weeks of denial, the old woman began to eat—and soon she began to recover. What was implied was that she decided not to die, decided that the kindness of those good people was enough of a reason to stick around, to return to the arid land of the living. She would live on—for a while longer. A powerful message is inherent within that decision. As entities, we have a lot more power and control that we realize, and if we so choose to die, or to live—we will do just that. It is the stuff of a Zen parable, a Greek epic poem, or an existential essay.

Something conspicuously missing in the movie was political and religious reference. There did not seem to be any scenes of prayer, no Moslem minaret, no soulful caller to the faith at sun’s set or rise. And there were no specific political references, not even a whiff of East vs. West, or terrorist training camps, or any of the youth being recruited to further fuel the death army of Jihad zealots. All that we are accustomed to seeing and regarding as Moslem was gone. In its place were just the plainness of people; the people of the village.

The primary references and symbols all gravitated toward Nature vs. Technology. While riding on the back of the old doctor’s cycle, zooming along between hill and dale, cutting through the crops and fields, the physician told the Engineer,” To cherish life, every moment of it. That’s all there is!”
“What about the life after life? Isn’t that going to be wonderful too?” inquired Bahzad.
”We don’t know, son. Unfortunately, no one has ever come back to give us the news.”

So we are left with the eternal struggles. What’s life all about? Why are we here? Is there some kind of life after life? Have we lived before? And each of us has to reach back into the recesses of our own consciousness for the beginnings of some answers.

Abbas Kiarostami is considered the most influential, and yet controversial post-revolutionary filmmaker. He is an artist, a teacher, a philosopher, and a film director. His films represent, for me, the essential economy of cinema language. They are movies that inhabit a rarified space that lies outside of the excesses of our mainstream cinema, and they are a welcome, but challenging, alternative to the frenetic same-same that is force-fed to us at the mega-mall Cineplex’s.

I gave this movie a rating of 3.5 stars.
Glenn Buttkus (2005)