Monday, March 16, 2015

Willow and Wind (1999)

Willow and Wind

The tragic news reached me last night: the young son of the master of children cinema Mohammad Ali Talebi has died in a car accident on his way from north Iran to Tehran. Adding to my immense sadness and disbelief was the fact that April would be the first anniversary of Mr. Talebi's visit to the UK and his three-film tour around the country which put the two of us on the road for nearly 10 days.

Talebi with his piece of glass on the hills of Scotland. [©Ehsan Khoshbakht]

While sending Mr. Talebi my deepest sympathies, for reminding the love and affection he has always shown for children, I'll republish a short programme note I wrote to his masterpiece Willow and Wind, the story of a young boy's quest to carry a piece of glass through the windy hills of north Iran which now can be seen as the perfect metaphor for this unbelievable loss. Ehsan Khoshbakht

Willow trees bend easily in the slightest breeze, but even the wildest wind cannot uproot them. That is, more or less, the story of children in Mohammad Ali Talebi’s cinema; they are affected by every turn, every event, each nuance of the adult world, but they never fall down or stop fighting.

Willow and Wind is Talebi’s greatest cinematic achievement, both in terms of narrative and visual style. It tells an amazingly simple, sometimes absurd story. Like a Persian miniature, it is expressed through fine details. It depicts the efforts of a young boy to carry a large piece of glass some distance across country, to reach the school where he has broken a window during a football match. He’s not allowed back into class until he mends it.
It is Laurel and Hardy, without Hardy. It is Samuel Beckett, interpreted by children. It is the bus sequence of Hitchcock’s Sabotage, without the explosive – although Talebi has confessed that he wanted to convey exactly the feeling that the boy is carrying an explosive! Willow and Wind is pure suspense from beginning to end. What a Hollywood film does (or does not do) with $100 million, this film accomplishes with a pane of glass and a classroom of child actors.

The script was written by Talebi’s mentor, Abbas Kiarostami. In return, Talebi dedicated the film to his fellow master filmmaker. “I wanted to get close to Kiarostami’s universe as much as possible,” says Talebi. He has also explained his long-standing interest in making this film, which he calls his favorite among the films he has directed, by reference to his passion for nature:  “I always wanted to make a film about nature, but my first attempt, in Barahoot, turned out to be a disaster. Even in my city films, I tried to create moments of interaction with nature, like rain pouring and things like that. [For this film] I wanted to capture certain moments in nature, the poetic moments of it.” Willow and Wind is truly full of these moments.

Talebi compares his style in this film, quite accurately, to abstract painting, and himself to the Yasujiro Ozu of Ohayō – more interested in supposedly insignificant moments of life, which leave a lasting impact on children. As he puts it, Talebi proves himself to be “more interested in the picturesque potentials of the story, rather than the story itself.” There is much evidence on the screen to confirm this interest, such as the long glass-carrying sequence, or the still more breathtaking scene of the boys trying to fit the glass in the wind-blown classroom. The wind has rarely been used to such dramatic effect since Victor Sjöström’s The Wind.

Willow and Wind is a significant, sadly neglected gem from the flourishing Iranian cinema of the 1990s. In the following decade, owing to the political climate of Iran and its ever-tightening censorship, many of Talebi’s fellow directors went into exile, or couldn’t make their films the way they wanted to. In this context, the climax of Willow and Wind, with all its ambiguity and its vague sense of hope for the future, sadly marks the end of an era in Iranian cinema.

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