"The Virgin Suicides": 111 Girls

in 17th Busan International Film Festival

by Jake Wilson

It sounds like a legend or a folk-tale.  In a wartorn land, the surviving young men have headed off to seek their fortune. and the young women pine for suitors.  In desperation, a group of them – 111, to be exact – send a demand to the far-off government: supply us with husbands or we will all commit suicide together.

Can such things be happening in present-day Kurdistan?  The search for the answer is the subject of this satirical-rhapsodic road movie, billed as an Iraqi production but not far from Iranian cinema in spirit.  Previously known for short films, the first-time feature directors are Bijan Zmanpira and Nahid Ghobadi – both born in Iranian Kurdistan, the latter the sister of the established Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi (A Time For Drunken Horses) who’s credited for the “original story” and as a producer.  The film posits that the Iranian president has, indeed, received such a message from 111 Kurdish girls, and has despatched a team from the city to fix the situation.  So here come our heroes, tearing over the desert in their four-wheel drive, raising clouds of dust like cavalry riding to the rescue.

Leading the mission is a pompous but conscientious bureaucrat (Reza Behboodi) who looks as if he’s wearing a Groucho mask, gives weight to his speech with finicky gestures, and insists upon his official status at every turn.  Like Groucho (or K in The Castle) he’s accompanied by two assistants: his comparatively sensitive driver, and a young boy who serves as interpreter and guide.  It’s never clear exactly how they plan to stop the suicides, or if this is really the main aim, as opposed to stopping the story from getting into the international media.   The initial challenge is simply to track the girls down – that is, presuming they exist in the first place.

The truth isn’t easily come by, given that the locals, understandably, are almost as hostile as the terrain.  Shot on rough-looking video, with lenses that exaggerate the space between the main characters and their surroundings, 111 Girlssuggests a TV news broadcast from an alien planet.  The depiction of Kurdish communities on the verge of collapse appears to contain as much documentary as fiction.  Schoolchildren stare into the lens without shyness; it’s hard to tell if the spokesman for a group of older men is acting or for real when he asks if the scene is done and they can leave.  

The quest theme is a familiar element in Iranian cinema, as is the uneasy comedy generated by the culture gap between the city and the sticks.  The official recalls the boorish anti-hero of Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, not least in his ongoing struggle for reception on his mobile phone. In comparison with such precursors, however, 111 Girlslooks deliberately blunt and offensive, reducing the vaunted “humanism” of Kiarostami and his followers to bad-taste burlesque.  Sacha Baron Cohen would admire the literal running gag of the condemned prisoner who escapes the firing squad and pops up from time to time with a bag over his head, racing back and forth across the empty plain.

But rather than keeping to black farce, the film makes a point of veering from one tone to another.  The appearance of realism is interrupted not only by slapstick but by more poetic interludes: a roadside montage shows a line of Kurdish women with heavy packages on their shoulders, trudging past the camera at a slow, hypnotic, unchanging rhythm.  Wandering away from his companions, the driver has a series of lyrical visions which could come from another film again: he sees the girls as ethereal, drifting corpses out of a Nick Cave video clip, or as a cluster arranged in a semi-circle, gazing down at him enigmatically from the top of a well.

Up till the end, the girls remain figures to be dreamt about rather than encountered directly, except for one self-declared spokeswoman who delivers the film’s keynote speech while veiled in shadow, her face initially turned from the camera.  Maybe it’s true, as she appears to concede, that the letter’s demand for husbands was merely rhetorical.  Still, any form of rhetoric is surely justified if it draws attention to the Kurdish plight.  Kurdistan, she says, is Iran’s mother.  “Won’t you respect your mother?”

There’s nothing ambiguous about the question. Yet back in the daylight, the gravity of the situation continues to be obscured by trivial yet frantic procedural squabbles, particularly once the Turkish government intervene and offer a solution of their own.  With the clock ticking and suspense mounting, 111 Girls to resemble one of those Iranian movies – like Jafar Panahi’s Offside– in which the characters find themselves racing between locations while remaining on the edge of the main event. 

Everything is driven by rumour and supposition, and the film’s interest in how information circulates – whether in face-to-face conversation, by phone or online – has a resonance that feels both ancient and modern.  If the premise suggests a myth, it’s also what would now be called a meme: a catchy notion which, thanks to the Internet, can fly around the world while the spin-doctors are still getting their cover story together.  The letter which sets things in motion is supplemented by a brief video in which the camera tracks between the seated “girls” like a stream winding between rocks; this goes viral, or so we’re told, and ends up playing every five minutes on CNN.  In another dreamlike scene, the driver peeps into a literal underground cinema to discover a crowd watching Avatar– which in one of 21st-century cinema’s central ironies qualifies as a powerful anti-imperalist myth in its own right as well as the ultimate culturally imperialist spectacle.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  Highly effective as agitprop, 111 Girlscan also be understood as a reflection on what it takes, in this day and age, to get your voice heard or your image seen. Its ideal partner on a double bill might be Armando Iannucci’s brilliant Anglo-American political satire In the Loop, which depicts a series of farcical wrangles during the lead-up to what is presumably the war in Iraq.  In Iannucci’s film, the country to be invaded goes unnamed and its inhabitants are never shown; here, by contrast, those who would usually be ignored insist on asserting themselves, while official statements and decisions have visible and frequently dire consequences.  Equally important, however, is what stays offscreen or out of focus – reminding us that this tale has yet to reach its end.

Jake Wilson