‘Iron Island’ shows a society just barely adrift
July 7, 2006
The inhabitants of the Iron Island, in Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof’s film of the same name, are adrift in more ways than they know.
There is no mistaking, of course, how physically castoff they are. Their home is a decrepit oil tanker anchored in the Persian Gulf. For some of the younger ones, it is the only home they have ever known. If there were any doubts that the people, like the ship, have been abandoned, land is visible from the home on which they float; Iran is just a few hundred yards away.What the residents – a hundred, or maybe a few hundred, the group is never organized enough to provide a clear picture of their numbers – probably don’t suspect is how badly they are being cut adrift by their own leader. Captain Nemat (Ali Nasirian) conveys all the authority of being fully in control of his ship. Much of the first of “Iron Island” follows Nemat around as he casually – but thoughtlessly and often with obvious contradictions – dispenses advice, instructions and encouragement to his charges. Nemat also hands out ointments and pills to those complaining of various maladies. These medicines are produced from the pockets of his sports jacket, giving the impression that they are placebos, or worse.Captain Nemat is not the supreme onboard authority that he projects, however. He doesn’t own the ship, but is himself a mere renter. The true owners have informed him that they plan to retake possession, an eventuality he doesn’t readily share with his tenants. Beyond the property laws of man, there are the laws of nature to contend with: The ship is sinking, a problem which Nemat both denies and frets over.Instead of dealing head-on with reality, Nemat makes sure that his microcosmic society continues running, with utmost efficiency, toward inevitable disaster. The crude economy is built on two assets in dwindling supply: the tanker’s oil reserves and the scrap metal stripped from its innards, both of which are sold to on-land buyers. The process by which they do this is comical; indeed, there is a thread of absurdist humor that runs through the film. Education is handled with a similar lack of long-term thinking; the classroom is packed, supplies are minimal, and Nemat’s support of the school consists mostly of lip service.
The justice system can be brutal, as evidenced in the punishment handed out to a young boy who has shown romantic interest in the wrong girl. Health care is an afterthought. The communications system consists of one communal cell phone.If this general picture rings any bells, it should. “Iron Island” is a critical allegory, particularly of Iran and the Middle East, but applicable to most any modern society. The ship’s residents, on the bottom rung of society, are utterly powerless to improve their lives. They are kept in the dark by a leader – himself manipulated by outside forces – who gains his sense of power not by opening up opportunities, but by keeping a closed fist on everything that happens under his watch. The two great paths forward – education and the economy – are maintained as dead-end roads. Meanwhile, the daily requirements of the common people are kept just barely satisfied.The flip side of “Iron Island” is its revelation of the will to adapt and survive. The ship’s residents are deprived. Yet they remain orderly, reasonably productive, and even hopeful and trusting.In fact, Nemat does lead his people off the ship. With money gathered from his tenants, Nemat arranges the purchase of a plot of land – a barren piece of Iranian desert. His people, displaced from their floating abode, shrug and begin the process of scratching out a life and building a society out of the new scraps they have been given.
“Iron Island” shows Sunday, July 9, at Paepcke Auditorium in the SummerFilms series.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com