You know that good festival buzz, where you pick a film because it looks pretty and sounds interesting, fully aware that this is like like going on a blind date, and you sit down to watch it, expectant, slightly nervous, trying not to think of that other time you picked a film at random and it was 124 minutes of men in giant hats walking around each other, frowning for reasons that were never made clear? (Yes, I do have a specific film in mind.) And two hours later you’re walking out slightly dazed, because you’ve just seen something so beautiful and so haunting that you know you’ll never forget it? I have that good festival buzz.
The White Meadows is the most purely beautiful film I’ve seen in a long time. It was shot by the Iranian cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafori; I’d never seen one of his films before, and I would walk over hot coals to see his others. His camera pays such searching attention to the play of light on water; I could watch his wide shots all day. Every time the film cut away from one, I felt bereft. And yet his studies of people are equally good.
I know now, because I rushed home and googled it, that Iran has the third largest salt-water lake in the world: Lake Urmia, near the Turkish border. The film is entirely set on its waters, shores and islands, and this is not really relevant knowledge for watching it, because the landscape’s role is to move us out of realism and into the world of myth. It does this extraordinarily well. Visually, the film is mesmerising. Everything is salt-encrusted: white on white, against grey-white waters almost indistinguishable from the grey-white sky. Seen from any distance, the film’s people, in their traditional black robes, look like perfectly composed chess pieces on a marble board.
I knew, going into the film, that its writer/director, Mohammed Rasoulof, was sentenced to six years in prison last December and banned from making films for two decades. It was still a good two-thirds of the way through The White Meadows before I had any real sense of what the Iranian government might have taken exception to. The story follows a quiet, dignified man called Rahmat, who at first appears to be a sort of low-level imam or perhaps undertaker, going from island to island in his little boat and helping the locals with their funerals and other rites. Rahmat collects tears from grieving villagers, who believe he turns them into pearls and in doing so releases their burden of sin. “Tears should be treated with respect,” he tells the stowaway boy who becomes his apprentice. “They’re valuable. It will take you a long time to realise how difficult this work is.”
The villagers complain to Rahmat about how hard it is to make a living. The lake is too salty; nothing will grow. Tears, of course, are salty. The dream-like air of folk tale which clings to the film makes it easy to suppose that perhaps Rahmat is helping the people by taking their tears away, easing their sorrows by physically depriving the lake of salt. Yet the more we see of the island villages, each of which seems to have a different guiding mythos and a different rationale for sacrificing its innocents, the darker the film feels. Rahmat becomes less and less plausible as a redemptive figure.
You need a willingness to look slightly sideways at this film. It works through metaphor rather than literal statement. But its metaphors are not at all opaque; by the end, it would be very hard to miss the fact that this is a pungent political allegory, and the Iranian government clearly did not. In one sequence, we meet an artist who has painted a picture in which the sea is red. It’s a very beautiful picture; but the sea, complain the villagers, is not red. The picture is a lie. The artist is forced into the lake, where the concentration of salt is so high it can cause blindness; he’s made to stare at the sun. Animal urine is poured into his eyes. “Just tell them what they want to hear,” hisses Rahmat. “Say the sea is blue.” The artist insists that he sees what he sees. Whatever else you say about a government whose response to this portrayal of censorship is to lock up the man who wrote and directed it, you have to admit they’re not afraid of seeming unsubtle.
The last I heard, The White Meadows was not looking like getting a general distribution deal in New Zealand, meaning that the World Cinema Showcase screenings may well be your only chance to see it on the big screen. Its power is very much a function of its visual impact. See it in a theatre if you possibly can.
THE WHITE MEADOWS, directed by Mohammed Rasoulof.