The Long and Windy Road

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This essay was first published in Underline Issue 2, February 2018. The theme of the issue was ‘Journeys’.

In terms of the geographical space covered, one might not readily consider Willow and Wind (Beed-o baad, 1999) to be a film about a journey – the action being restricted to a sparsely populated Iranian village. But in its protagonist’s race against time to get from point A to point B, in its exploration of locale, its visual emphasis on the distances travelled between a few local landmarks, and the emotional shifts experienced in between, Mohammad-Ali Talebi’s children’s tale plays like a road movie of sorts – with several roadblocks along the way, and an eventual return.

It follows an unnamed young boy’s attempt to source a pane of glass, with which he must glaze a window at his school that he broke during a football game. He is pressed for time. Having left the task unattended for two weeks, hoping his father would make amends on his behalf, he faces expulsion. Unaided by his teacher, who does not accept his excuses and expectations of help, the boy must find money, reach the glazier’s shop before closing, and then carry the glass frame back precariously through his home village, in the midst of howling winds, making sure not to break it.

Two other boys become involved in the task. They each have a practical sense of what must be done, who can help and how to manage priorities. Moreover, there is an acceptance that all one’s efforts might be in vain, as the film’s final moments underscore. Willow and Wind could be viewed as a children’s take on William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), a gruelling, atmospheric cinematic realisation of Georges Arnaud’s novel Le salaire de la peur about the joint efforts of four men in undertaking a potentially fatal transportation through jungle terrain.

The film was written by Abbas Kiarostami. As with several of his own films, particularly Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987) and the sombre and philosophical Taste of Cherry (1997), the movements made to complete a task are foregrounded, so as to go places even within a restricted context. This movement is often slow, or even circular – typically roaming a single Iranian city or village by car or on foot. But what is also conveyed is the sense of an emotional trajectory. Resolutions are not guaranteed, however, or else may be accompanied by unexpected negative consequences. The same elements are found in other Iranian filmmakers’ works, a more recent example being Jafar Panahi’s Taxi Tehran (2015), a film determined by the director’s own legal restrictions on movement, in which the end of the cab driver’s journey is soured by a theft, witnessed only by the viewer.

In English speaking cultures today, the metaphorical sense conveyed by the word ‘journey’ is increasingly common. Especially in the UK, one is used to hearing of the journeys undergone by others. Not recollections of recent trips but rather accounts of personal experiences and particular difficulties overcome. This tendency, a side effect of important campaigns to lessen any stigma surrounding mental health problems by promoting awareness of acute psychological conditions and encouraging sufferers to seek help for stresses and strains, regularly gives the impression of a whole society lacking will and resilience; having little or no sense of another, stoical attitude. It has come to seem an expectation to account for even relatively commonplace matters of life in terms usually reserved for a mythical story, with a premium placed by publishers and broadcasters on conveying the most ordinary experiences of loss, regret and pain as having been uniquely felt, and heroically overcome. How much many grown-ups could learn from the experiences of the children in Willow and Wind.

Of course, in the context of the film’s production in Iran, such an attitude might be read as an internalisation of a sense of invisibility, powerlessness, or hopelessness. And there are likely to be those who, in keeping with the turn described above, see in Willow and Wind only neglect and cruelty – from an uncaring adult world that instils a fear of failure in youngsters. References to the boys’ fathers are characterised by a sense of absence, or of limited time spent with their sons owing to work obligations. But consider the way in which the school teacher allows newcomer Ardakani to leave his mathematics class to watch the rain, which he has never seen before. Talebi gives us a moment, too, to revel in the physicality and sensation of the rain – more distracting because of the broken window – before the boys move off. Ardakini’s father is happy to assist when he is asked for money, although he is busy on an engineering project. And the glazier treats his customer with fairness.

Talebi’s film encourages a necessary practicality, responsibility and self-reliance in the face of difficulties that ought to appeal to many audiences, young and old. For a national film industry diminished by problems of censorship, much of Iranian cinema, including its children’s cinema, is unsparing in its view of the travails of living and the need to find ways forward in the most testing circumstances. The young boys in Talebi’s film must negotiate their own contracts, resolve their own problems, make reparations. “True the rain is beautiful,” the maths teacher tells his students. “But everything must be done in its proper time.” Even the other schoolchildren, whose studies are being disrupted, have their say: “Glaze the window!”

Certainly, one’s sympathies are sharpened when the realisation dawns on the protagonist that he has the wrong piece of paper, after he has sought out the measurements his father has written down. And one frets with him as he is carried unsteadily on the back of a fellow boy’s motorcycle, terrified that the successfully acquired glass is going to shatter. His attempts to get the attention of a teacher in the school grounds while he is struggling to install the glass is also moving. But despite everything there is admiration – at the unwillingness to abandon the task, and the instinct and empathy the boys show to one another.

Talebi here also gives us a powerful metaphor for the difficulties of the creative process in general, and filmmaking in Iran in particular: the necessity of carrying a frame through which the world can be viewed, undamaged, through numerous trials and obstacles; to secure it, and to share it with others.

As the director told film writer and researcher Neil McGlone in an interview in 2014:

‘Filmmaking in Iran today is like carrying that piece of glass on an uneven landscape… If you want to make a film in Iran, you will see some old men who talk very slowly and make long speeches, and the bureaucracy, which becomes insane. You have to be patient for every shot you shoot. That’s why I think Iranian filmmakers are the most patient, stubborn filmmakers in the world. Only after finishing the film, like bringing the piece of glass to the classroom, the main troubles begin, such as not being able to distribute the film or problems with censorship and that’s when they have to start all over again.’ [1]

The sense of a resolution that is sought in all accounts of personal journeys is not a given here. The journey of the filmmaker, and of the boy whose task remains incomplete at the end of Talebi’s film, just as with the personal experiences that we each face, is if anything without end. Willow and Wind reminds us of this truth in a visceral, simple way.

Notes:

[1] Neil McGlone, ‘To the Wonder’ in Vérité, July 2014. Available to read online at https://issuu.com/veritefilmmagazine/docs/verite_july_2014/27

The current issue of Underline is available to download for free via the British Council.

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