THE WHITE MEADOWS
Director of Programming, Austin Film Society
Tears should be treated with respect. – Rahmat
For 30 years Rahmat has been rowing his boat from village to village, doing favors, delivering messages, but primarily gathering tears – to ease people’s sorrows and perhaps absolve them of their sins. These tears are carefully poured from a small pitcher into a larger stoppered bottle, which Rahmat wraps in a cloth and tenderly places into his briefcase. Not until the end of THE WHITE MEADOWS do we realize that these thousands of tears have a disturbing destiny.
Rahmat travels through a harsh, barren land seemingly carved out of salt – treeless, bushless, grassless. The lives of the people seem equally empty and joyless. In only one village do we see people laughing as a humanized monkey performs at the beck and call of its trainer. In that same place of momentary mirth, Rahmat is introduced to an artist who is suffering harsh punishment for painting the sea red. His brother, the village elder, and the rest of the community insist that since all know the sea to be blue, he must paint it blue, not red. The elder hasn’t told the man not to paint, just to paint correctly. For his impressionistic explorations of color, the artist is buried up to his chin in salt and offered freedom only if he will promise to paint the sea its “true” color. After several “cures” are forced upon him, the painter sweetly and honestly insists that the sea is yet another color today, not red, not blue, but a different, equally beautiful color. He will not relent. He is an artist and sees things in his own way. Fearing that his “sickness” is contagious, the elder has decided that the painter must be taken from this community by Rahmat in order to protect the others from getting “bad eyes.”
Such has been the plight of many artists everywhere throughout time, particularly those who free themselves from the traditional ways of thinking, seeing, hearing, imagining, and creating. It is especially true for the director of THE WHITE MEADOWS, Mohammad Rasoulof, and his gracious editor for this film, Jafar Panahi. On 1 March 2010 Iranian police arrived at the home of director Jafar Panahi and arrested Panahi and his wife, their friend and film collaborator Mohammad Rasoulof, cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafori, and over a dozen others. Most were released 48 hours later, but Rasoulof was detained in prison for over two weeks before getting out on bail. Panahi was kept for three months until his hunger strike and international attention secured his temporary release until trial.
The charges against the two filmmakers? “Illegal assembly, collusion, and propagandizing against the regime.” Panahi’s outspoken activism against the fraudulent elections of 2009 and his support for the Green Movement had already greatly angered the Ahmadinejad regime. Although Panahi’s films were more often focused on the plight of women and girls in Iran, Rasoulof attracted governmental ire for his feature film about a tyrant aboard a rusty oil tanker (IRON ISLAND) and a documentary about government attempts to prevent outside information reaching Iranians through satellite and web. THE WHITE MEADOWS, though presented as an allegory, was interpreted as an even stronger attack on the government.
Panahi’s and Rasoulof’s show trials in December 2010 resulted in prison sentences of six years each and 20 years prohibition from writing scripts, directing films, granting interviews, or leaving the Islamic Republic of Iran. These were unspeakably harsh sentences revealing deep fear of the power of these directors. Thus, they were to be artistically silenced as well as physically punished.
Reportedly neither director is in prison at the moment but can be taken from their homes at any time in order to begin their six year sentences. They are, in essence, under house arrest in the meantime. Knowing that the police van can arrive at any minute would be constantly unsettling, so that simply adds to the mental punishment.
Although 50-year-old Jafar Panahi is the better known of the two directors because of numerous international awards for THE WHITE BALLOON (1995), THE CIRCLE (2000), CRIMSON GOLD (2003), and OFFSIDE (2006), his 37-year-old friend and fellow artist Mohammad Rasoulof rightly gained international praise with IRON ISLAND (2005). Now THE WHITE MEADOWS is gathering even higher praise from critics and the various festivals where it has been seen. Everyone is awe-stricken by the astounding cinematography of Ebrahim Ghafouri, who discovers a bleak beauty in the setting along the shores of Lake Urmia in northwestern Iran. While IRON ISLAND depicted a tyrant and his community of refugees living in an abandoned, rusting, slowly sinking oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, the scenes of isolation and control in that film appear almost idyllic in comparison to the barren lives and stark-white settings in THE WHITE MEADOWS. With this striking new fable, Rasoulof has depicted, tried, and condemned the very government and religious leadership that is trying to silence him.
Many international directors and actors have spoken out against the harsh sentences passed down on the two directors. Petitions for their freedom are available online. One website, The White Meadows Project, provides an avenue for other filmmakers to post short films in support of Panahi, Rasoulof, and artistic freedom. At the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 the awards ceremony included onstage an empty chair with a sign designating “Jafar Panahi,” who had been invited to be a judge even before his arrest. Isabella Rossellini read Panahi’s statement to the stellar festival audience calling for freedom of expression throughout the world.
The idea of petitions to request/demand freedom and change is mirrored in Rasoulof’s allegorical film. To make the barren land verdant and fruitful once more, one village visited by the tear-gatherer offers a beautiful young girl – chaste, of course – as a bride (sacrifice) to the sea, so that it will release its salty water into the clouds, where it will be purified and allowed to fall back upon the land and make it green once more. They wish to prosper, to have sustenance, and to be free of their harsh conditions. Using natural symbols of sea, rain, clouds, and hopes for a green land, Rasoulof has very cleverly introduced the idea of the pro-democracy Green Movement into his film. His symbols are not heavy-handed or didactic, but they grow directly out of the barren land of his characters and their dreams of a better life. His allegory also has roots within the legends of Persia and Arabia.
Another village is fearful of the water becoming saltier and increasingly undrinkable. As Rahmat gathers their tears, the people are also whispering their requests or prayers into jars which are then sealed. The village dwarf, that staple of legends world-wide, is summoned to take all these jars, strapped to his body like suicide bombs, and be lowered into the well where he will deliver their petitions to a “fairy” (more likely, a jinn or genie). But he must do so before the sun rises or all the prayers will become void – unheard and unheeded by the all-powerful fairy.
These pre-Islamic prayers, rituals, and beliefs are desperate attempts to overcome the dread that has befallen the people of these various God-forsaken villages. Their land is dead. The young are dying. The desire awakened in men by a beautiful young woman must be quenched through her death. A boy who wishes to see the world and find his father is punished for tampering with a sacrificial rite. In such a land it therefore seems necessary that an artist be blinded rather than go on seeing colors no one else can perceive and infecting them with his unacceptable visions. If not blinded or killed, he most definitely must be imprisoned.
To that end, Rahmat, his surrogate son Nassim, and the rebellious painter arrive at a tiny island with a huge rock formation, atop which sits a one-room shack. The “warden” of this prison isle is going insane from loneliness. Crying many tears, he unknowingly helps Rahmat complete the task of filling his bottle with many sorrows. Rahmat tries to cheer him up by saying, “At least you will have prisoners to guard.” If the old man knew the identity of one of them, he would be heartbroken once more.
As Rahmat rows away the next day, the wild-haired, long-bearded warden is putting the renegade artist through his paces. He blows on a drill sergeant’s whistle and makes the painter run, climb, and jump, while constantly yelling at him, “What color is the sea?” This is torture and mind-conversion designed to finally destroy the will and independence of the prisoner until he says exactly what is demanded of him. As Rahmat pulls farther out to sea, he is looking back at a microcosm of the treatment of free thinkers and rebels within Iran or any other totalitarian state. It is a chilling image, one which a year after making THE WHITE MEADOWS would become all too true for Rasoulof and Panahi. And what of the thousands of tears gathered so arduously from so many people by Rahmat? Their fate will chill you to the bone.
Howard Schumann, THE WHITE MEADOWS (review)
Amnesty USA article on Panahi and Rasoulof
Amnesty International Petition for Panahi and Rasoulof
Article about the directors' prison sentences