IRON ISLAND (Mohammad Rasoulof, 2005)

An allegory of a political minority’s precarious, isolated existence, the Iranian film Jazireh ahani, written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, suggests a fusion of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, John Ford, Herzog, Rossellini.
     The setting is a dilapidated off-shore oil tanker that’s occupied by a community of Sunni Arabs. The ship demonstrates division of labor; it has its own school and burqa factory.
     The owners are preparing to appropriate the ship. Meanwhile, the ship is also slowly sinking. Captain Nehmat thus evacuates the ship’s tenants, preparing them for the town that he announces they will build in the desert. A small boy’s release of a little fish to the sea ends Jazireh ahani on a note of fragile optimism.
     We take in individuals and their activities from the dark, dank bowels of the ship to the teeming, sunlit deck. (It’s fascinating to watch the process by which the teacher silently makes schoolroom chalk.) Acting as her father’s surrogate, Nehmat arranges a marriage for a girl that allows him to exert more control over Ahmad, the workhorse whose love for the girl is being dismissed. Much of the film revolves around the boy’s misery over the girl’s marriage to someone else. During the wedding ceremony, Ahmad takes the Captain’s motorboat and is returned in shackles. Why did you do this? Nehmat asks; but Nehmat is surely feigning ignorance of Ahmad’s motive: to get away from what was happening. Nehmat publicly subjects the boy to near-drowning—punishment that amounts to sustained torture. He explains that if he doesn’t do this there will be “chaos” onboard the ship.
     In this, Nehmat somewhat resembles Herman Melville’s Captain Vere. His ambiguous motives—where does his concern for community end and authoritarianism begin?—imply both the chicanery and self-delusion involved in wielding political power.


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