A Funny Thing Happened in the Mountains

in 61st Locarno International Film Festival

by Dana Duma

Frontier BluesThe best discovery I had at the 62nd edition of the Locarno Film Festival was Frontier Blues, the debut movie of a young London-based Iranian director Babak Jalali. Why? Maybe because it both confirms and takes a distance from the usual Iranian cinema (as seen at international film festivals), being a light black comedy with a personal tone.    

Shot in the Golestan Province, a multi-ethnic zone, on Iran’s northern frontier with Turkmenistan, it follows the everyday life of four bizarre characters. One is Hassan, a young Persian whose main occupation is  taking care of a donkey fed on newspapers, stealing car licence plates and listening to old French songs (like Françoise Hardy’s Tous les garcons et les filles de mon age). The second is his uncle who owns a clothing shop with items of one size that never fit anyone. Another is the young Turkmen Alam, a worker on a chicken farm who is learning English in order to go to Baku (an oil capital, where he thinks everybody speaks English) and dreams of marrying a girl who ignores him. There is also a 55-year-old minstrel who becomes the subject of a photo album made by a photographer from Teheran that asks him to pose in “exotic” attitudes.            

What links these weird figures is their loneliness, their nostalgia, the secret desire to leave this place where nothing happens. They also share the absence of women. Hassan was abandoned by his mother who left for France, the uncle is a bachelor, Alam is in love with a girl whose family rejects him and the minstrel tells everybody how his wife was kidnapped by a shepherd in a green Mercedes thirty years ago. One could find here a metaphor of the almost invisible presence of women in Iranian society.            

The sad deadpan humour of this movie reminds us sometimes of the special comedies of Aki Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch. A subtle irony aimed at representations of the clichés of Iranian society enriches the humour. Beautifully shot in wide screen, the movie chooses the aesthetics of stillness to convey the rhythm of life in this mountainous frontier region.            

We can assume, the characters and events come from the young director’s own memories of his homeland, where he lived for the first eight years of his life. He declared: ‘The characters are fictional but they are composites of people I remember from when I lived there… People feel forgotten and cut off from the rest of the country’. It was here that he discovered ‘the everyday absurdities that constantly occur to normal people’. I believe this special relation of the filmmaker to his own biography nurtures the very essence of the movie. Jalali seems to have been obsessed with Iranian identity since his graduation movie, Heydar, an Afghan in Tehran, nominated for the BAFTA Best Short Film category. Truffaut’s idea about the right of the filmmaker to bring his biography on screen is confirmed by the evolution of this 31-year-old director. He has already created a recognizable universe and a personal tone.  

Edited by Ronald Bergan