Videodrone Foreign Affairs: The beautiful desolation of Iran's 'The White Meadows'
Director Mohammad Rasoulof's thinly veiled critique of Iranian culture landed him in prison
The white meadows of Mohammad Rasoulof's "The White Meadows" (Global Lens), a stunning and startling odyssey through the salt marshes of Iran's Lake Urmia, are the desert islands where almost medieval cultures exist in isolated pockets on otherwise dead lands. The salt that coats every beach white has left this place bereft of vegetation, giving it an almost alien, otherworldly atmosphere: a visit to a small planet. And just as the salt chokes the life out of the land and water (there are no birds and precious little marine life), so does it starve the respective cultures, cut off from the rest of the world but for a boatman, Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi), the only outsider welcome in these lands. He is the "tear collector," who comes to hear their woes and take away their sorrows by collecting their tears in a glass vial.
The mythology and cultural practices are more fictional creation than historical reality but they have the resonance of myth playing out in a place that is, practically speaking, out of time, with only stray clues (mostly in the coda) placing it in, more or less, the present. The various islands could be Rasoulof's answer to Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," relocated to an Iranian sensibility and contemporary political and religious reality. Brutal rituals (human sacrifice, politely referred to as a "marriage" and treated as a holy honor by all but the virgin bride) and punishments abound and a culture of conformity and intolerance rules, maintained by an unquestioned patriarchy that keeps the culture locked in a surreal state of blind obedience bordering on madness. Rebels, be they runaways, heroes, or artists with individual visions, don't survive the smothering culture.
That part isn't just metaphor. Just as the artist in "The White Meadows" is punished for his "incorrect perceptions" and imprisoned to prevent his disease from spreading, Rasoulof is currently serving time for his artistic "crimes" (along with other Iranian filmmakers). Rasoulof anticipated his own fate.