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.”
In an era when most big studio releases lack even a single idea, Inside Man has two. One comes from the screenwriter, Russell Gewirtz, who thought up a devilishly clever title and a theme to go with it. The other comes from Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment, which could easily have made Inside Man from the standard white man’s point of view but instead hired Spike Lee to direct. Yes, Lee did a contract job–but that doesn’t mean he slapped his coat of paint onto someone else’s house. Chronically alert to social divisions in general and the racial divide in particular, Lee heightened the existing tensions between characters and possibly added a few of his own–choices that contributed not just to the style but to the meaning of Inside Man.
The theme is spoken directly into the camera at the beginning of the film, in close-up, so nobody can later claim that Inside Man is merely a bank-heist movie. “Listen closely to what I say,” states Clive Owen, calmly but quickly. “Not everyone in a cell is a prisoner.” The full import of this adage must not be revealed–although I may be excused for explaining that Owen’s character, one Dalton Russell, does in fact rob a bank, in the course of which crime he becomes a prisoner of a sort. He and his crew, disguised as house painters, take hostage a large number of bank employees and customers but then are discovered in mid-robbery by the cops. Russell is surrounded and shut in; but as police detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) begins to understand, this confinement may actually be a part of Russell’s plan.
I do not think I’m turning Inside Man into a Rorschach blot when I say that Frazier, too, is a man in a tight spot, who needs to figure out which of his constraints he ought to embrace. On the personal level, he feels cramped by his lover (who wants to get married) and by her low-life brother, who bunks down just outside the bedroom door. On a professional level, he feels he is routinely put in a box, whether by Internal Affairs (which makes him the first suspect when cash evidence goes missing) or by the average white captain on duty (Willem Dafoe), who sees a black detective, second grade, and reflexively ignores him. The options for Frazier draw tighter still when a mysterious fixer named Madeleine White (Jodie Foster, dressed in a crisp suit accessorized with a shark’s smile) shows up at the crime scene with the mayor in tow to explain that she will be given full co-operation. To do what, only she knows.
Frazier’s animosity toward White would not have been so keen, his desire to break rules so pressing, his routine disbelief of people’s stories so openly satirical, if he had not been played by Washington, with Lee directing. The combination of actor and director intensifies every aspect of Gewirtz’s screenplay, including Frazier’s evolving relationship with the increasingly enigmatic bank robber. Thanks to the film’s ability to be in two places at once, we see moments that are denied to Frazier–odd events that make Dalton Russell seem surprisingly humane, or even benevolent. When Russell at last shows this side of himself to Frazier, offering him a piece of good advice, the detective responds with instinctive sarcasm; but as the film plays out, we also sense that some understanding has passed between these two men, both of them smart outsiders forced to hole up.
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In a town called Kumba in Cameroon, several different traditional societies have come up against modernity in the form of women wielding judicial power. So I learn from the documentary Sisters in Law, directed by Kim Longinotto with Florence Ayisi: a feature-length account of some of the cases handled in 2004 by state prosecutor Vera Ngassa and court president Beatrice Ntuba.
Two of the matters were historic: successful prosecutions of spousal abuse, brought by astonishingly brave women from the Muslim community. Others were merely heartbreaking: the rape of a 9-year-old by a Bible-thumping neighbor, the brutal beating of a tiny girl by the guardian who was “correcting” her. How did Ngassa and Ntuba come to have power to deal with these things? Unfortunately, the film gives no context. But the women–all of them–are so compelling, and the sense of justice so satisfying, that I can’t imagine any audience resisting Sisters in Law. It premieres theatrically April 12 at New York’s Film Forum.