Sunday, 8 August 2010

frontier blues (w&d babak jalali)

Jalali's film is a deceptively smart piece of filmmaking set in Gorgan, the filmmaker's hometown, on the Iranian-Turkmeni border.

Gorgan a kind of nowhere-ville. The film focuses on three characters. One wants to get married to an Iranian woman he never speaks to (one of only two women in the film, the other being her mother). A second, who later joins the first working in a chicken factory, is inseparable from his donkey, and pines for the mother who left him for his youth to go to Paris. The last, perhaps most adroit of the three, is a Turkmeni minstrel who is taking an Iranian photographer around. His contempt for the photographer is made clear, with the photographer constantly seeking out 'authentic Turkmeni' shots, which have no authenticity at all. On one level this leads to hilarious results, such as the staged wrestling match; on another it generates a poignancy, with the photographer constantly asking the minstrel to take him to a wedding or a funeral, only to be told that these things don't happen anymore. No one dies and no one gets married. At one point a character is asked where he wants a lift to. He replies 'nowhere', and his told to hop in, they'll take him there. Slyly, the film critiques our need to view exotic locations as romantic: with its muted cinematography, Jalali seems to be suggesting there's nothing exotic about his location at all. Instead, the carefully composed shots capture the banality and hopelessness of life in this dead-end town, only it does so with a dry, comedic tone.

Perhaps its because of its refusal to romanticise its locale in any way, (in contrast to Strickland, for example), that Frontier Blues has been slated by many British critics. As far as I'm concerned, that's an indictment of our criticism rather than the film. Frontier Blues is a slow watch, but it's peppered with moments of guile and humour which only a tired soul could fail to enjoy. Furthermore, it manages to achieve a poignancy in its depiction of the dead-end lives of its protagonists. From the shopkeeper trying to sell an oversized jumper to a boy to a man learning English so that he can communicate with people in Baku, the film is riddled with humane detail which helps to bring this obscure part of the world to life. Jalali clearly knows his world, and his portrait of it blends affection with honesty.

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