Film Review: “Gilaneh” (Rakhshan Bani Etemad and Mohsen Abdolvahhab, 2005)
by David Shasha
In his brilliant book The Great War for Civilization, the intrepid journalist Robert Fisk spends a great deal of time recounting and trying to contextualize the Iran-Iraq War as a central factor when trying to understand the current quagmire in Iraq. While many Americans routinely mouth the many platitudes of the current Bush administration about how Saddam Hussein was gassing his own people and committing all sorts of mayhem in the 1980s, the Iranians who suffered during that war continue to remain incredulous. Why is it that the Americans funded and armed Saddam during that war, while the very same political functionaries in today’s Washington - Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest - are pretending that they had no role in the carnage?
In their 2005 film “Gilaneh” filmmakers Rakhshan Bani Etemad and Mohsen Abdolvahhab return to 1988 and with a canniness that is truly astonishing, bring the story of the Iranian trauma into the present tale of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.
“Gilaneh” is a film split into two halves: the first part of the film tells the story of Maygol, a young resident of Tehran who has had to return to her mother who in turn was forced to settle, like many other Iranians, in the countryside where they could escape the relentless bombs of the Iraqis.
Maygol, now pregnant, has left her husband Rahman in Tehran and is now deeply worried about his fate. “Gilaneh” opens with the troubling images of Maygol having nightmares and screaming for her husband. She insists that she must go back to the front-lines of the war to find him and bring him back to the countryside where he will be safe. This first part of the film follows Maygol and her mother Gilaneh, a woman who has lost her own husband and is now taking on the responsibility of providing for her family, as they inch their way to Tehran on the back of a truck, on foot and by bus.
The images of wounded and half-crazed soldiers and frenzied, out-of-their mind gentry take the viewer into a world of quiet despair teetering on the brink of madness. Maygol and Gilaneh are leaving the relative safety of the countryside and returning to where the violence is most pronounced. It is not made clear why others are doing the same. But on the bus there is a young soldier named Reza who is clearly hysterical and who screams and cries out of the depths of his soul.
And here “Gilaneh” serves to humanize the effects of war in a way that is rare in contemporary cinema.
The classic Hollywood films of the 1940s and 50s were similarly concerned with showing how war affects ordinary people. In their masterpiece “The Best Years of Our Lives” director William Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn achieve a dramatic poetry that was perhaps the most successful portrayal of the subtle and often heart-breaking ways in which human beings experienced war after the war was over. In “Gilaneh” we see the effect of war on those who are living in its margins and those who have left the eye of the storm, only to find themselves disfigured and maimed as they grapple with returning to “normal” life.
All over the Iranian countryside we see families struggling to conduct their lives with some dignity, but often see their attempts undermined. A wedding celebration that has been canceled, a family vainly looks for lodging after having left Tehran, a sick passenger on the bus desperately needs to go to the bathroom; all these vignettes are told in a very matter-of-fact style.
The directors strive to create haunting images that recall the films of the Russian social-realist tradition. Faces become poetic markers of the desperation that these people are living through. Daytime scenes are filmed in shimmering golden wheatfields and lush greenery while the people scramble and struggle to get their daily bread and to make sense of what has happened to them; while night brings an ominous luminosity filled with thick fog and hallucinatory colors. The film’s palette of colors is frequently carnivalesque and belies the impoverishment and desperation of the characters’ lives.
The journey of Maygol and Gilaneh back to Tehran is both heroic and tragic at the same moment.
Gilaneh feels obliged to protect her daughter at any cost - even as what she’s doing makes no logical sense. Her loyalty to her family is at times overwhelming and the march to the big city is filled with pathos and sorrow. It shows the ways in which ordinary Iranians suffered through a brutal and cruel war.
Both parts of the film take place on the eve of the Nowruz holiday, the Persian New Year. The tragedy of 1988 is marked by the discovery that Maygol’s husband Rahman has been conscripted and is now a soldier who will in all likelihood never be seen alive again. Maygol’s psychological breakdown as she comes to this realization is marked by the frenzy and madness that has gripped those trying to get out of the way of Saddam’s bombs and gas-infused weaponry.
The second portion of the film brings the story into the present - the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Gilaneh’s son Ismael who we saw in the first part as a popular, robust and handsome young man who was about to be married, has now become an invalid who has lost control over many of his bodily functions. Like Maygol at the beginning of the film, Ismael is haunted by the war and by what he has undergone as a soldier. We are not shown any battle scenes, but are left to ponder the brutality and madness of war as we view the degeneration of human beings and how they struggle to remain healthy and adjusted. Often this will be impossible. It is remarked in the film how those who have been killed are better off than those who returned home maimed.
The ironies of American invasion of Iraq are thick: the Iranians welcome the invasion as they finally get a belated chance to wreak their vicarious revenge on Saddam and what he did to them. But the Iranians know well that the Americans are certainly not doing this on their behalf and continue to worry that after Iraq is done, the Americans will cross the border to get them.
Gilaneh has, like the peasant she now is, become a veritable “salt of the earth” matriarch who is taking care of her roadside stand as well as being a nurse and companion to Ismael. Gilaneh is a fascinating character whose faith and mystical assurance makes her that much more tragic and that much more attractive to the viewer. Her superstitions and her guilelessness are signs of a pure spirit that refuses to be crushed. Even as she sometimes breaks down and cries and shows the strains of the harsh life she has lived, she is indefatigable and hopelessly bright and cheery when it comes to Ismael and her hopes for the future.
A passage from Philo Judeus’ “Questions and Answers on Genesis” struck me when I read it a few days after I wrote the first draft of this essay:
What is man? Man is a being which, beyond all other races of animals, has received a copious and wonderful portion of hope; and this is as it were inscribed on his very nature, and celebrated there; for the human intellect hopes by its own nature. (80)
Such is the nurturing sense of hope that is shared within the very cultural fabric of the Middle East.
In the second portion of the movie Maygol has her children and has remarried and seems to be somewhat stable. It is now Ismael who was once such a life-force who has been overtaken by the nightmares that once haunted Maygol. Through it all, Gilaneh remains a constant force of nature; a superhuman dynamo to whom life’s tragedies are those given to her by Allah, whose perfect love of humanity is never questioned.
The role of religion in the film is straightforward and transparent: religion means living in the world God has created for us and where we are always waiting for His blessing. Whether or not we are favored with happiness and success, God is supreme and His will is to be followed.
A quiet mysticism permeates “Gilaneh”; a mysticism that accepts what it means to be human whether or not the blessing comes or whether tragedy comes. This sense of Religious Humanism is not purely fatalistic nor is it simply a naive optimism. It is, as Emmanuel Levinas has famously said, a “difficult freedom” where human beings are left to their own devices to do the best that they can and where they must never treat God as if He were some slot machine.
Life in “Gilaneh” is hard and tragic. God is never seen as anything less than perfect even as man commits acts of unspeakable cruelty to his fellow man. All this is taken in stride as humanity is secondary to the glory of God. The tragedies are accepted with the harsh realization that pain is misery even as we must find ways to elevate ourselves from the wounds that tear our bodies and souls open.
The film’s landscape is unsparing and often unkind. People try to find ways to bond with one another and provide acts of kindness and grace to each other in times of sorrow. The doctor who treats Ismael has himself lost an arm as he diligently and with selfless devotion makes his rounds in a world that has been devastated by the after-effects of war; a war that seems to be perpetual.
In “Gilaneh” we are shown a kaleidoscope of human suffering amid the rubble of man’s inhumanity to man. This suffering is filled with pain yet is ennobling in some sense. The self-abnegation of a character like Gilaneh who does not question the ways of God is a profoundly moving case study of the ways in which human beings face their traumas. As in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Gilaneh” looks at the ways in which war devastates human beings and marks them for life. There is no escaping the mad screams and the silent suffering that suffuses the lives of those who struggle to overcome their nightmares, who just as often are left bereft of all hope and joy.
The landscape of “Gilaneh” is that of a Middle East that has seen too much bloodshed and too much hate. In the quiet calm of hearth and home - again, the parallel with “The Best Years of Our Lives” comes to mind - there is a simple dignity that can be found, but it is a dignity that is fed by confusion and sadness.
“Gilaneh” is that rare film that sets out to teach us that suffering is part of what it means to be human and where we cannot change what has happened to us, only to act in ways that reflect the dignity of what it means to be a disciple of the one God.
Both parts of the film take place during the Nowruz holiday as did that other masterpiece of Iranian cinema, Jafar Panahi’s “The White Balloon.” While “The White Balloon” was the simple story of a young child who lost her family’s Holiday money under a street grating, “Gilaneh” is an epic study of human tragedy in the face of war. It clearly shows the link between what happened in the 1980s, while America armed and cheered on Saddam Hussein, and the more recent battle of Baghdad where America has been bloodied and bruised. The film makes no political statements one way or another; it just tracks the human experiences of ordinary people who are simply looking to live their lives as best as they can.
The Iranian cinema resembles in this way the plaintive social realism of the early Soviet cinema and that of Italian Neo-Realism. Its faith is pointedly Muslim, but its universalism is profoundly humanistic. “Gilaneh” is a brilliant example of the ways that we experience life’s complexities. It is a stoic, humble and often quietly heroic film that does not traffic in the hate and vice of war and violence, but tenderly recounts the stories of some ordinary and simple human beings who are doing their best just trying to survive.
It is in the starkly reflective humanism of such a cinema that can teach us how to better live and how to better care for each other as the traditions of the Middle Eastern religions have so eloquently preached.