WCS 2011: White Meadows, We Are What We Are

Film as social critique at the World Cinema Showcase.

On seeing the elegiac White Meadows, one critic was compelled to proclaim its director, Mohammad Rasoulof, as “one of the most vivid cine-folklorists since Sergei Parajanov.” While the stark and arresting beauty of Rasoulof’s images justifies the comparison, since the film’s release, a more alarming point of reference has emerged. Just as Parajanov was persecuted and incarcerated for his art under the Soviet regime, Rasoulof now faces a six-year jail sentence and twenty-year ban from filmmaking alongside fellow Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi for “assembly and collusion” against the Islamic Republic. As one of the most celebrated (and censored) voices in Iranian cinema, Panahi has become an international symbol for the injustice, though lest we forget his peers—Rasoulof included—who have also been subject to arrest and detention by authorities. (Cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafori, responsible for White Meadow’s breathtaking visuals, and Mehdi Pourmoussa, assistant director on the illicit underground music feature, No One Knows About Persian Cats, to name two caught up in the ‘sting’.)

Centred on the travels of a solemn, middle-aged man (Hasan Poursharizi) crossing by rowboat between villages to collect the tears of mourners, there is an element of sober self-reflection in the fable’s lone protagonist, who might as well be standing in for Rasoulof. A quiet, sympathetic witness to the heartache and sorrow of the people he encounters (on islands dotted around the eerily still waters of Lake Urmia), this noble character is a proxy for the director as solitary artist—or Greek chorus—through which symbolic yet bluntly effective examples of Iranian repression are observed and critiqued. Among the metaphors to rise from the narrative, there is the funeral of a young girl whose body, even veiled under a burka, was considered too alluring for male locals; the offering of a virgin to the gods by a community suffering severe drought; and most pointed of all, an artist buried neck-high in sand for dissidence. This strong-willed, if carefully couched scrutiny of female oppression and cultural conservatism proved too on the nose for the Iranian government, and may have sealed Rasoulof and Panahi’s fate. (Panahi edited White Meadows, and the pair was collaborating on a new film about political protest in Iran prior to their imprisonment. Both are now free on bail and fighting their convictions.)

However, in striking contrast to the immediacy of Panahi’s neo-realist portraits of Iran, Rasoulof’s film employs allegory in a way that both challenges conformity and speaks of the ambivalence in a society wedged between tradition and modernity. Indeed, what’s mesmerising about White Meadows is not necessarily its formal beauty, but its devotion to the practice of ritual and ceremony. Pride and value is conveyed in the many scenes of devout worship, and they are a meditative, if uneasily hypnotic counterpoint to the film’s lament. In Rasoulof’s final message though, even sacrament has its pitfalls: as evidenced in the barbarism and mob mentality of acts involving a man who is dropped to his death after failing to deliver jars containing the grief of villagers to the bottom of a well, and the brutal stoning of a 15-year-old boy, who naively attempts to save a girl from religious sacrifice.

*  *  *

Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are also posits a critique, if not satire, of society at large. Set amidst the squalor of Mexico City’s slums, it frames a social commentary within the borders of a horror movie and dysfunctional family drama. After the death of their father and breadwinner, three feral teenagers face the task of “bringing home the bacon.” When a prostitute they’ve beaten to a pulp won’t do for dinner, the eldest sibling—a closet homosexual—peruses the menu at a gay nightclub. The victims are women and gay men—not “clean” enough for the mother of the household to consume, apparently—and the film makes no apologies for the tactlessness in which it delivers keynotes on the state of things: that even the underclass prey on those beneath them; that immoral indifference is rife among the Mexican populace; that society has become impassive and corrupt. The film’s unpleasantness might’ve been easier to stomach had it tempered the grotesque with black comedy, yet apart from the sideshow of two keystone cops—who, upon learning that a finger was discovered inside the body of the dead father, make farcical tracks to hunt down the flesh-eating brood—it’s largely humourless as far as movies about transgressions in the family go. (It’s no Dogtooth or The Quiet Family, that’s for sure.) Grau overestimates both the political potency and comedic value of his final product in that respect; it’s neither a contemporary Los Olividados, nor a mordant George Romero homage. What it is, rather, is an artful genre piece scrupulous in style. Though grimy and underlit like its torture porn peers, We Are What We Are somehow manages to avoid the inevitable question on everyone’s lips: when will these cannibals get to chow down? Several ghastly instances notwithstanding, a horror film that never quite arrives at the money shot—in an era when every horror filmmaker goes straight for the jugular—is okay in my book.

‘White Meadows’, Dir. Mohammad Rasoulof
Iran, 2009; 93 minutes
‘We Are What We Are’, Dir. Jorge Michel Grau
Mexico, 2010; 89 minutes
The World Cinema Showcase 2011 opens in Auckland (SkyCity Theatre, April 1-18), followed by Wellington (Paramount Cinema, April 14-30), and Dunedin (Rialto Cinemas, May 5-18).

Tim Wong is the founder and editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012.


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