Although poet-filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad and her landmark documentary short from 1962, The House Is Black, which helped pave the way for the Iranian new wave of the sixties and seventies, have rightly been accorded the status they so richly deserve, little is known about other pre-revolution Iranian women directors and their work. It may surprise a few, especially given the amount of female directors that have come to prominence in the ostensibly more restrictive post-revolution era, but only three features were made by women prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
It appears that both the first, Shahla Riahi’s Marjan (1956), and the third, Kobra Sa’idi’s Maryam and Mani (1979), were official productions and saw the light of day in Iran at one point or another. That can’t be said for the second, writer-director Marva Nabili’s masterful The Sealed Soil (Khak-e Sar Beh Mohr), which was shot clandestinely during a six day period some time in 1976 before being smuggled out of the country for post-production. As far as I know, it has never been shown in Iran.
Nabili has had an interesting life and career. She studied painting at the Tehran University during the early sixties—in this case, her compositional sense and a keen eye for the quotidian suggest an affinity for Vermeer—before appearing as an actor in Siavash in Persepolis (1965) for the French-educated Fereydoun Rahnema, reportedly another key yet little-known contributor to the new wave to whom Nabili has dedicated this film. She subsequently studied cinema in London and New York before returning to Iran in the mid-seventies to helm a series of hour-long television films based on traditional folktales. This opportunity allowed her access to the equipment and the location (the village of Ghalleh Noo-Asgar, according to the film credits) required for the film.
An austere, emotionally muted yet deeply affecting portrait of a young woman caught between tradition, modernization and her own growing sense of self, it focuses on an 18-year-old named Rooy-Bekheir (Flora Shabaviz) who lives with her parents and an adolescent sister in a small village largely bereft of even the basic amenities of modern life. A sense of change is in the air, however, as the villagers have been asked to leave their mud homes and relocate to apartment dwelling in order to make way for a medical clinic.
Rooy-Bekheir, though, has other things on her mind. She is considered way past marriage age—the village elder once reminds her that her mother was wed off at age 7 and had already given birth to four children by the time she was eighteen—and is being coerced to consider a proposal She is told, in so many words, that she is in a much better position than women of earlier generations. In a telling moment late in the film, she quietly takes offense when the modern, western-attired teacher of her sister asks her whether she happens to be the mother of one of her classmates (an earlier shot depicted her clandestinely learning how to read). The kind of change that would benefit Rooy-Bekheir is clearly not in the offing.
The film opens with a Camus quote that anticipates the protagonist’s troubled and conflicted state of mind. Visually, Nabili and DP Barbod Taheri convey this impression by often situating her at the mouth of the village and capturing her through the opening. Other than a couple of brief panning shots, the film is primarily rendered through static tableau compositions, which again suggest a sense of stagnation and frustration. Even though Nabili had already been exposed to world cinema, the influence of Sohrab Shahid Saless’s 1974 Still Life on her stylistic apparatus should not be underestimated.
In the film’s most striking scene, especially in the context of Iranian cinema, Rooy-Bekheir takes off the top of her traditional dress during a rainstorm, cherishing a brief moment of release. At another point, however, she attempts to harm the domestic pets and starts crying in a hysterical fashion (this episode lands her a visit to the local mystic healer, whose methods provide the film with its only comedic element). In a sense, she is a bit like a Naruse Mikio heroine who may not have any control over her fate but still tries to make room for moral victories along the way.
Although its extent was governed by the conditions under which the film was made (it was shot MOS or “without sound”), the exaggerated sound-design reminds one of Robert Bresson (the impassive performances do so as well). The only non-diegetic sound used in the film is a folk song that on one occasion briefly accompanies the protagonist during her daily journey to the nearby stream.