"Growing in the Wind": Despite Troubles, an Iranian Feel-Good Movie

in 34th Moscow International Film Festival

by Leif Joley

Aslan is a boy in his mid-teens who’s got a really good head for studying. The problem is, he’s also a member of a nomadic family in Iran’s rural northwest, and as a result has only sporadic education services accessible to him. Teachers who’ve met Aslan are convinced that he’s got a bright future if he continues to study. Aslan’s father chooses to see this as quite another kind of problem: that hours spent in school takes time away from the much more important — and necessary — things in life. Aslan is expected to carry on work as the family shepherd; to learn to read and write and count is for other children, not for a boy born into circumstances like his.

The director at work here is 51-year-old Rahbar Ghanbari, a veteran of Iranian TV and a prolific maker of shorts; he has also helmed two features prior to Growing in the Wind (Rouyidan Dar Bad), both unseen and unheard of by me. Ghanbari may be a filmmaker with weighty things on his chest, but he does not shy away from the notion that movies can not only be informative but also entertaining and moving. Chances are that his third full-length feature will be his entrance ticket to a much wider audience. If that will be the case, it’ll coincide with the fact that this is a depiction of life in the area where Ghanbari has his own roots. It’s not clear whether the filmmaker is descended from nomads, but he is cited as claiming that the number of insufficiently educated Iranian adolescents is ten thousand — just in this particular region.

For outsiders looking in on Iran through cinema, the theme of Growing in the Wind may seem much less daring than other outings from directors working within the theocratic dictatorship. There’s no doubt that the filmmaker wants to address what must be considered a major internal problem in a country with a largely young population, and also an issue in a nation which is struggling to balance fundamentalist traditions with obvious ambitions to be seen as a modern, high-tech nation within the Islamic world. But even though the picture of Iran in Ghanbari’s film might not be especially flattering, the problems discussed in it could domestically be regarded as shortcomings of fathers who should know better – or perhaps regional leaderships which have failed to deal with illiteracy in backward areas.

So, what we’ve got instead of a politically charged affair is a rather wonderful little film that drops into the world of Aslan and his family; a sort of “coming of age” film about illiterates who are on the move from one place to another almost all of the time. This is not entirely unknown territory for those who have seen a few Iranian films over the last twenty years, but that’s not any argument to diminish Ghanbari’s achievement — that he’s telling a highly engaging story very well within 84 dense and fast-moving minutes. Perhaps aware that Growing in the Wind could be in danger of being labelled as sort of a “problem film”, it seems that Rahbar Ghanbari chooses the option to stress the humanistic side of it all and not dig too deep into, or overblow, the central conflict between Aslan’s aspirations and his father’s reservations about these. Yes, the clash between father and son is carefully worked out and executed, but the father’s objections to a surrounding society’s will to have its young citizens schooled is understandable in the context of the family’s poverty — and moreover, the father is never portrayed as a monstrous human being. Ghanbari’s ensemble finds the right notes — it’s hard to not be delighted by the charm and charisma of Gohar Kheirandish in the lead role and to appreciate the nuanced acting in the supporting parts. This incorporates a romantic and humorous strand involving Aslan’s older sister and another shepherd, who is in need of some good advice on how to behave as a presumed boyfriend — from Aslan, no less.

Ghanbari’s movie is an absorbing, never mean-spirited piece of work that treats its characters with respect and, in regard to the father, with a forgiving eye. As in many Iranian films, the landscape is of great significance; and as in many Iranian films, the cinematography is also of no small importance. Ereydoun Shirdel’s camerawork and the compositions are thoroughly splendid, and in at least one case unforgettable: an outdoor scene with young students writing a test in the company of a flock of sheep succeeds to capture the whole plot in one single, magnificent image.