Foreign in much more than language, alien in far more than setting, the Iranian production Iron Island interrupts the assumptions of Euro-American cinema much as a rock interrupts a window. See the effect on my categories of thought: I cannot tell whether this story is based on real incidents or a filmmaker's fantasy, whether it's an allegory or an anecdote, to what degree the central character is a crazy philanthropist or a heartless schemer. I admit up front that I do not understand Iron Island; and maybe I don't want to, since I'm rarely faced with such a blast of fresh air.
The sensation of wind on the face is in fact one of the first impressions the film offers. Speeding across a vast, calm body of water as if standing in the prow of a motorboat, you rush toward the motionless bulk of an oil tanker. A man's voice comes from behind, saying something about how "the rent is reasonable"; but you don't yet glimpse the speaker, or the party he's talking to. For the moment, you see nothing but the immense hull of the freighter, rearing up like the ocher wall of a canyon.
Only when you reach the deck does the speaker climb up in front of the camera, so that you see who's conducting this tour. Dressed in a white head scarf, dark suit jacket and loose ankle-length robe, the guide is a plump man with a plump white mustache and a chin tucked far behind his nose. He is called Captain Nemat (Ali Nasirian), as you soon learn from the dozens of people who return his vigorous greetings, apply to him for supplies or hurry to carry out the orders he sprays in all directions.
For the first few minutes of Iron Island, you might as well be a member of the mute, shuffling family that Nemat conducts through the ship--prospective residents of the grounded oil freighter--as he introduces them to ragtag people doing baffling tasks on a three-dimensional labyrinth of rusting metal. Everything earns Nemat's praise. On the deck, men are hauling away chunks of steel that have a freshly ripped-up look. "I'll give you a job!" Nemat cries to the man trailing him. "No rent! It's deducted from your pay!" Past boys tending a goat and girls doing laundry in metal basins, Nemat comes to a woman who runs a shipboard bakery, when she's got any flour. That reminds him: "You have daughters!" he calls to his new tenant. "I'll find them good husbands!"
In one of the gloomy holds, a bearded man with the slack expression of a psychiatric patient is drawing on the walls with chalk: an exercise for the clump of fly-specked children who sit on the floor, studying a spelling lesson that involves words such as "enemy." Nemat is moved: "Education is more important for your children than bread! They can start right away!" Up ladders and along gangways, Nemat leads the family into a cold, raw chamber. "I'll get you some blankets, and you can divide the room! Now you can get on with your lives!" As Nemat exits to the left, the camera pans right, to show another family standing in the same room.
The writer-director, Mohammad Rasoulof, claims in a written statement that "I have lived with the people of the Iron Island and know them well." Does this mean that squatters actually took over a grounded, abandoned tanker in the Persian Gulf and set up a makeshift community? Or does it mean that Rasoulof has lived among the kind of people you see portrayed so vividly in his film: impoverished Sunnis of Arab descent, known in Iran as Bandaris? Anyone with reliable information, please contact The Nation. All I know is that Rasoulof triumphed over the extraordinary logistical problems of filming on this singular location, and did so with a large and overwhelmingly nonprofessional cast. The mere existence of Iron Island is a wonder.
More wonderful still, the film's figures of political allegory--or perhaps the hints of such figures, since Westerners like me can merely guess at their presence--never weigh down the story but instead speed it along. You're always watching for the next moment's insane detail.
And you're watching for the ship to sink. Early in the film, the schoolteacher uses a homemade instrument to demonstrate that the tanker is taking on water--a process no doubt accelerated by Nemat's zeal in stripping the holds for scrap metal, and also drilling through the metal to recover whatever oil was left in the tanks. Although Nemat waves away the evidence that the ship is going down, a certain urgency governs the plot from this moment forward. Later, this race against time becomes doubly severe when a legitimately constituted authority shows up and insists that the ship be evacuated. One way or the other, a multitude of helpless, destitute people will soon need somewhere else to live.
Is Nemat trying to hold his charges together and lead them to safety, or is he just squeezing the last rial out of them? The answer is undecidable--though your attitude might be influenced by Nemat's treatment of a penniless young tenant, Ahmad (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh), who contributes a major subplot to Iron Island by falling for a marriageable girl. These things can happen even on a grounded shipboard, even when the girl is kept veiled and sequestered--but the father isn't happy about it, and neither is Nemat, who has made a lucrative match and won't let an idiot boy interfere.
A selection of several major festivals--most recently New Directors/New Films, in New York--Iron Island obviously can satisfy an international audience. It does so, in part, through the deft use of widely recognized conventions: the ticking clock, the thwarted lovers, the dubious leader, the extralegal moneymaking scheme. It also employs specifically Iranian conventions that have become familiar to moviegoers around the world: classroom scenes, an ethnic minority cast, a spectacular and elemental setting. So you can place Iron Island, up to a point. Beyond that point, the film places you. Here you are, breathing norms and beliefs that inhabit you and surround you like the air itself; and over there are the people of Iron Island, who may elicit curiosity or sympathy, but in the end are irreconcilably different from you, and to some extent unintelligible.
"Strange, how those people live," goes the conventional dismissal. To which the rocklike truth of Iron Island replies, "Yes, it is."