Black screen: indistinct voices: the sound of laboured breathing. Cut to the image of a young man, Ismael (Bahram Radan), his body writhing uncontrollably, overtaken by a sudden violent seizure. An old woman, Gilaneh (Fatemeh Motamed-Arya), Ismael’s mother, rushes to his side to comfort him and to protect his body from further injury, but she is herself struck with such force by Ismael’s flailing arm that she is propelled out of the shot. The camera remains steady, forcing the viewer to watch over and to witness the trauma of this violently convulsing body. Undaunted by the injury inflicted to her own head, Gilaneh struggles to lift her son back onto the bed from which he had fallen during the seizure. Unblinkingly, the camera observes the heaviness of his dead weight as she wraps her arms around his body, hugging him tightly, and proceeds to heave this awkward and helpless body with all her might, with every ounce of strength left in her own stooped body weakened by age. Her pain is palpable, but her duty to her son’s care is greater than any pain she could possibly endure. In the next shot we see her hobbling out into the cool dawn air to wash his soiled clothes. Life goes on.
The above scene opens the second half of the film Gilaneh (2005), co-written and co-directed by Rakhshan Bani Etemad and Mohsen Abdolvahab. Never before in a post-Revolutionary Iranian film have I witnessed such intensely embodied performances. In fact throughout the film, bodies — male and female — are foregrounded as sites not only of pain and suffering in the face and aftermath of war, but also of ideological struggle, and the construction of very powerful gendered symbolism around the wounds inflicted on the Iranian nation — land, body and consciousness — as a result of the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted eight long years. In order to understand more fully how Gilaneh engages in this ongoing struggle, it is necessary to situate the film in the context of discourses around shifting conceptual configurations of, and emotional force underpinning, the concept of vatan (homeland). In addition, the material and ideological effects of the war and the treatment of these in other recent Iranian war films must be considered. It is my contention that Gilaneh evokes a particularly matriotic concept of vatan in order to emphasise not only the ongoing effects of the Iran/Iraq war, but to highlight the duty of care needed to tend to the nation’s wounds. In the genre of Iranian war cinema, Gilaneh presents a perspective that is ostensibly new and remarkably different in both the task of mourning and in its critique of the state of the nation in the early 21st century. Importantly, through its complex allegorical approach, Gilaneh reflects not only upon the effects of the Iran-Iraq war, but provides a meditation on war more generally by setting the second half of the film on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. This more effectively opens the film up to a broader, more global or universal view of war, which is significantly different from the inward looking, patriotically unifying and mobilizing visions of war commonly represented in Iranian “Sacred Defence” cinema.
The Sacred Defence Genre and the Logic of the Wound
There can be no doubt that the Iran/Iraq war generated incalculable suffering on both sides. In terms of Iranian national discourse, representations of the war were predominantly filtered through Islamic ideology – primarily what Hamid Dabashi refers to as the “Karbala paradigm.” This ideology was aimed at justifying and sanctifying the war as an “imposed war”, but one around which Iranians could unite in defence of the homeland – the newly formed Islamic Republic of Iran. Metaphorically, such moments of crisis may be described as “wounds”, which contribute to the founding myths of new and vital phases in a nation’s becoming. For example, according to Chris Berry, within Chinese revolutionary discourse, the logic of the wound became a powerful way of transforming “local stories of personal suffering into collective narratives of blood and tears.” Furthermore, “it simultaneously constructs nation and subject, blending individual stories into collective memory that claims – or counter-claims – to be ‘truth written in blood.’” In such cases, national history tends to be “imagined” “as beginning from some sort of low point of crisis when integrity and survival of the national body comes under threat.” Indeed, the martyrdom of Husayn, his family and companions fighting on the battlefields of Karbala against the Ummayad caliph Yazid and his army is the most persistent and defining personal story to be transformed into an enduring “collective narrative of blood and tears” for Iranian Shi’ite Islam. Furthermore, the numerous wounds suffered by Husayn prior to death are generally described in rich and bloody detail in the Shi’ite sources about these events, which effectively prepare his body for collective mourning and emulation for martyrdom. Husayn’s personal suffering is collectively remembered in the traditional mourning ceremonies on Ashura (the tenth day) during the Muslim month of Muharram, and this story provides the central narrative for Iranian taziyeh theatre. Through its repetition, according to Hamid Dabashi, this traumatic event has helped to construct an “injured” Islamic-Iranian identity that may be poised against a “hostile Other.” Since the 1960s, argues Haggay Ram, the Karbala paradigm has shifted from an “ethos of passivity and accommodation” to an “activist-revolutionary approach” drawing upon the heroic aspects of Husayn’s martyrdom to provide a model for the “Shi’ite-Iranian self…to take vengeance…against the oppressive Other.” In part, therefore, the invocation of the Karbala event during the revolution of 1978/79 may be seen as a collective performative act drawing inspiration from the wounds of the past and binding together the Shi’ite community in the present. The significance of this paradigm as a unifying event was further heightened when Iraq transgressed Iran’s territorial borders, thus beginning the Iran/Iraq war, which is generally referred to in Iran as the “imposed war” or the “Sacred Defence.”
Certainly, coinciding so closely with the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Iran/Iraq war played an important role in consolidating the Revolution and in forming a collective consciousness around a set of Islamic values that were reinforced in official discourse during the war. According to Farhi, the Shi’i values of martyrdom, mourning, purity, devotion and “spiritual rewards in the afterlife” were propagated on the home front through loudspeakers, radio and television broadcasts, “that literally brought the details of the war into people’s living rooms every night” and with these details came the “encroachment of the values of the war front into the daily lives of all Iranians.” Given the educational importance placed on film by the leader of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini as a means of helping to consolidate the revolution, it is not surprising that cinema was accorded a key role amongst these other media in the attempt to form a collective public consciousness and unity around these values. Indeed, according to Roxanne Varzi, the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG) established the War Films Bureau in 1983 in order to show the “truth” about the Sacred Defence by employing and training directors who had experience at the front. Varzi argues that following the establishment of the War Films Bureau, the films came to be dominated by spiritual, rather than military themes, with cultural producers appropriating in particular the “history of martyrology and the practice of mourning in Shi’ism”, the ghosts of which, she says produced a “space of haunting” yet another kind of “wound.” Varzi continues: “This move from action to narrative films is marked by the presence of Islam, which serves to promote the war as Sacred Defence rather than as a matter of cold-blooded strategy.” (157) This is carried on into the post-war films, which take up the task of mourning using images, writes Varzi “to beautify and spiritualize a war-torn environment.” (164-165). She continues:
While presenting the nation with its deaths in a beautiful and artistic way, war cinema opens up a whole new, safe realm for mourning. It is a project in controlling images, controlling emotion and regulating the boundaries of the nation – that place of ultimate return, dead or alive. (165)
I would add here that cinema also serves as a site where bodies are also highly regulated, not merely in terms of the war, but more broadly in terms of the regulation and Islamicization of post-revolutionary Iranian cinema. These regulations pay particular attention to the control of relations between the sexes, but also serve to promote appropriate Islamic role models for men and women. In the terrain of some recent Iranian war films to be discussed below, we may see strong metaphorical parallels emerging between this regulation of the boundaries of the nation and that of ideal Islamic bodies. Of particular interest here are how, if at all, these films deal with the nation’s wounds or whether they merely “beautify” and “spiritualize” them for the purposes of turning the threat to the “national body” into a proudly worn wound, endured for the greater good of the Islamic nation.
By contrast, a few socially responsible films have sought to address the very real and material nature and aftermath of the war. Gilaneh is exemplary in this regard, paying close attention to the need for Iranian society to “tend” to the much-neglected physical, psychological and social wounds inflicted by the war. The current trend, however seems to closely reflect the policies of the new government led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad elected in June 2005 on the platform of returning Iran to revolutionary values. Since 2006, this return to films that perpetuate the glorification and spiritualisation of the war has been facilitated by government incentives led by Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance (2005-2009) and designed to promote and support Sacred Defence cinema. This became evident at the 25th Fajr International Film Festival in February 2007 where Sacred Defence and spiritual films dominated the official selection.
Here I shall compare Gilaneh to two of these recent films examining the various ways in which a sense of the metaphorical national body is evoked through two key Iranian concepts: the homeland (vatan) and the “pure soil of Iran” (khak-i pak-i Iran).
Gender, Vatan and the “Sacred Defence” Genre
The three films Gilaneh (2005), The Third Day (Rooz-e zevom, Mohhamad Hossein Latifi, 2007) and He Who Sails (Anke Darya Miravad, Arash Moayerian, 2007) all evoke diverse variations on the Iranian concept of vatan (homeland) and the duty of all Iranians to protect vatan. All three films also establish a variety of gender roles in relation to the protection and preservation of khak-i pak-i vatan (the pure soil of homeland), forming distinct literal and metaphorical clusters around soil, gender, territory and what might be described as the “geobody” of the nation.
The concept of vatan, which literally refers to “one’s birthplace, homeland, town or province” has undergone many important shifts of meaning throughout Persia’s long history. Afsaneh Najmabadi has traced the shifting meanings of the term from its use in Sufi thought through to the early twentieth century. An important aspect of Najmabadi’s study is to identify the developing and shifting relationship of vatan to both gender and nationalism. Najmabadi explains:
Vatan in Sufi thought […] was an allegorical concept denoting the world beyond the material and the mundane, the spiritual world, the abode of unity with the divine […]. Some defined it as the otherworld. Others wrote of the grave as one’s vatan: the return to earth, to one’s original substance, marking the beginning of the return to the divine. Here the Sufi concept touched the concept of vatan as mother. The grave/earth denoted the mother to which one returned (100-101).
The dual material and spiritual meaning of vatan persisted into the nineteenth century, however, as the modernist movement – and with it the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1909) – began to gain momentum toward the latter half of that century, the term tended to shed its spiritual aspects and came to refer primarily to “its concrete, earthly materiality.” “The modern vatan was to be the actual territory of Iran” (101). The concept of love of one’s vatan is retained, but this love is secularized and translated into a duty of Iran’s citizenry (millat) to protect their country against foreign transgression. Failure to protect vatan would lead to a loss of honour. “People who understood vatan in these terms, united as one soul against invasions, would sacrifice all that was dear to them to regain their rights and reclaim their honour” (102).
As both Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi and Najmabadi have shown, during the 19th century, a crucial shift in the metaphorical configuration of vatan took place. Tavakoli-Targhi writes: “In the official nationalist discourse, vatan was imagined as a “home headed by the crowned father.” This was contested by a counter-official matriotic discourse that imagined vatan as a dying 6000-year-old mother suffering from a variety of potentially fatal diseases. The feminisation of vatan as a dying mother figure during the modern period enabled the metaphorical extension of the highly affective dimensions of filial love within the family into discourses around nation, providing for the possibility of the “fraternal bonding of male citizens” who all became “sons” of a common female vatan and whose duty was to protect their vatan as they would protect their own mothers who had given them life.
According to Farhi, drawing upon the work of Tavakoli-Targhi, this re-fashioning of national identity in terms of “6,000 years of presumably uninterrupted history” during the modern period came at the price of dissociating “the people of Iran (mellat-e Iran)…from Islam and creator.” Farhi further asserts that “[T]his attempt at re-fashioning Iranian national identity was of course set upside down with the 1979 revolution.” Indeed, the term vatan was mobilized by the leader of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini to refer not merely to Iran, but more broadly to the concept of a great Muslim nation “vatan-i Islam, Homeland of Islam”, thus re-reinvesting the term with spiritual significance.
At this time, the deeply emotional patriotism expressed as a love of one’s vatan becomes inextricably fused with Islamic identity. The widespread and all-encompassing nature of this fusion may be evidenced, for example, in the revision of school textbooks designed to provide children and youths with spiritual training in this particularly Iranian-Islamic identity. One often cited example may be found in a third grade text book from 1985. The verse “Iran: My Homeland” (Ey Iran, ey vatan-i man) clearly expresses the inseparability of religion, homeland and citizenship espoused by revolutionary discourse. The following lines also clearly draw upon both the wound imagery of the Karbala paradigm and the concept of pure soil: “Your clean earth (khak-i pak-i to) which is red with the blood of the martyrs is sacred to me. I kiss the red tulips which have grown from the graves of the martyrs.” While the personification of Iran is not gendered, the suggestion of a familial (maternal or paternal) connection to the geobody of the homeland is present in the line “I look at your mountains to remind me of the courage and honour of your children” (63). The verse finishes with a clear call into action that cannot be read without evoking the war with Iraq, which was raging at the time this passage was introduced into the curriculum: “with anger and hate I will destroy your enemies” (63).
Within the metaphorical terrain of some recent Iranian war cinema, we find a range of variations on the concepts of vatan and khak-i pak-i Iran. The diversity of approaches between the three films I shall discuss here is not only suggestive of the heterogeneity of approaches to the war in recent films, but marks a significant shift of perspective consistent with political developments in the country.
Vatan as Woman in Need of Protection: The Third Day
In The Third Day, Latifi draws upon the concept of vatan metaphorically figured as a female figure under threat of “rape” by an enemy force and in urgent need of protection by the sons and, more importantly, brothers of vatan who ultimately offer their own bodies as martyrs of the Islamic nation. The film is set in 1980 during the last three days of the battle for the western section of Khorramshahr, one of the most significant battles of the Iran-Iraq war. As such the film tends to mythologize this particularly successful moment of the war, providing an ending that at once suggests a “victory” of sorts as well as producing the martyrdom of its hero. The film’s central protagonist, Reza (Pouria Pursorkh) is a young Iranian volunteer fighting to re-claim the city from Iraqi forces. At the beginning of the film, we see him attempting to help his injured sister Samireh (Baran Kosari) flee the family home, which is about to be ransacked by the Iraqi army. Samireh’s broken leg, however, prevents her climbing the high wall behind the house. Reza decides the safest option is to bury her in the courtyard and return later to retrieve her under the cover of darkness. As Reza hastily digs a shallow “grave”, Samireh gathers a few sparse provisions — water, potatoes, a flashlight – to see her through her temporary entombment. Metaphorically, we may read this scene as Reza entrusting Samireh’s safety to the pure soil of the home/homeland (khak-i pak-i vatan). Furthermore, the grave metaphor is suggestive of the Sufi understanding of the earth as the beginning of one’s return to the mother and the divine. A series of point of view shots from Samireh’s perspective allow the viewer to identify with her as Reza covers the hole with a slatted wooden blind and a loose covering of soil and leaves to camouflage her earthy hiding place. These point of view shots are important, as they position the viewer as similarly vulnerable, and in need of rescuing by the hero. This is heightened, as Latifi frequently positions his viewers alongside Samireh in her grave-like hole as Iraqi soldiers arrive to ransack, and ultimately occupy the house. Several times, Samireh comes close to discovery, with tension building every minute Reza is delayed, failing to return that evening as he promised. The ransacking of the family home clearly functions as a metaphor for the invasion of Iran by Iraqi forces. The camera surveys the interior of the home, to show overturned furniture and broken photograph frames clearly signifying the impact of the war on the intimate sphere of the home and family. However, this is further complicated with the arrival of an uncharacteristically sympathetic Iraqi officer, Foad (Hamed Behdad) on the scene.
Inexplicably, Foad insists that the soldiers who had ransacked the home restore it to its original, tidy state. We soon learn, via a few brief flashbacks, the meaning behind these strange orders. Prior to the war this officer had been raised in Khorramshahr, taught alongside Samireh in the local school and had hoped one day to ask for her hand in marriage. The threat (and fact) of territorial invasion that began the war is now transposed to a highly personal and affective level now bearing the threat to Samireh’s body and her chastity, and by implication the family’s honour. Ironically, it is initially Foad who protects Samireh from rape by one of the other Iraqi soldiers, who has discovered her in her shallow grave. As Samireh emerges from her hiding place, a shot over Samireh’s shoulder shows the approach of the Iraqi soldier unbuttoning his shirt. Suddenly, a shot rings out and a brief cut to Samireh’s face shows her horror (has she been shot?) before the reverse shot shows the soldier falling to the ground and reveals Foad as her saviour. Foad protects her so that he may continue his own advances toward her, however in an Iranian film of this genre, such an alliance is intolerable and as such presents the next narrative problem that must be suitably resolved in an ideologically correct way by the end of the film.
Samireh’s emergence from beneath the earth (khak) further adds to the symbolic meaning of such a union, for the condensation of the signifiers “woman” and “earth” suggests the parallel defilement of the khak-i pak-i vatan/Iran, and the purity of woman’s body and the threat of her defilement by the “other”, in this case the treacherous Arab-Iranian, who has joined the enemy forces invading Khorramshahr.
The rather conventional cinematic approach of The Third Day, is dominated by a hero-centred narrative that unfolds in the present tense, placing the viewer in the midst of the fighting and aligns them with the Iranian family, while exploring the duplicitous nature of the “enemy,” who, it is suggested, emerged from within. Furthermore, despite the film’s many graphic scenes of war, death and horrific injury, there is a general idealization of war, rather than a concern with tending to the nation’s ongoing wounds. Instead, the bodies of the hero and the woman-victim function symbolically and produce well-worn clichés that effectively inhibit rather than encourage critical reflection. This is true not only of the female body of Samireh, which remains incapacitated throughout the film. She is constructed as victim to be saved, although in some small concession to the empowerment of Iranian women, it is she who finally shoots Foad while being floated to safety by one of Reza’s fellow combatants. However, this production of clichés is most evident in the cinematic construction of the hero’s scene of martyrdom. After a long, climactic battle scene, Reza finally falls to the ground, fatally wounded. Just before he dies, we see him draw from his breast pocket a small, tattered photograph of Ayatollah Khomeini, which clearly signifies his entry into the ranks of the war martyrs. Interestingly, this scene is constructed primarily for the benefit of an ideologically aligned viewer, as the photograph is turned outward toward the camera (and the viewer), rather than toward Reza himself. Through this act of interpolation, it is suggested that Reza’s body, Khomeini and the viewer are thus united in the symbolic wholeness of the Islamic nation, a wholeness embodied in the act of martyrdom.
Like films of the first phase of Iranian war cinema (those made during the war), the film functions primarily as a celebration of the virtues and justification of heroic martyrdom wholly consistent with the current government’s renewed interest in promoting revolutionary ideology. This serves to promote an uncomplicated, mythic view of the past.
Returning to the Sacred Earth: He Who Sails
Another recent example of this genre is Arash Moayerian’s He Who Sails. Unlike The Third Day, which presents itself as a “historical” war drama and lacks a sense of the war’s aftermath, He Who Sails is a lyrical and cinematically complex film set partly in the present day, but lapsing ever frequently into flashbacks set during the war. Like The Third Day, He Who Sails is also set in the crucial south-western border region; this time in the vicinity of Abadan island. The premise of the film is quite simple, an Iranian expatriate – a former soldier and now a scientist – has returned to Iran to work on a project to bring “sweet water” to Abadan and the surrounding countryside. As he wanders through the devastated landscape, he is flooded with memories of the time he spent as a soldier in the area. This premise of a returning expatriate has, in itself rather complex metaphorical possibilities in terms of tending the wounds of the nation, for, not only does it engage in imagining the repatriation of the diaspora – the literally absent bodies – it also strongly folds together the logic of the wound and the concept of khak-i pak-i vatan, which has literally been “soiled” or “scarred” and is in need of cleansing and repair. Indeed, there is a very concrete impetus behind this premise, for Abadan and the surrounding region was subjected to severe chemical weapons attacks by Iraqi forces during the war. This premise, however, serves as something of a red herring, as it does not provide for the film’s major narrative trajectory. Just as the film’s central protagonist becomes swamped with memories of the war, the narrative too comes to be dominated by a spiritual journey he undertook during the war.
Like the framing premise of the film, this spiritual journey is about purification and revives a sub-genre of the Sacred Defence film that was popular in the 1980s, the “special-mission” film. According to Sadr, the heroes of these films embody apparently contradictory characteristics: “physical toughness” and a philosophical “religious sensibility” which “aims to demonstrate the inseparability of war and religion.” Set during Ramadan, the protagonist, a young soldier, is asked by his commander to take a journey to Abadan (a distance of about 25km indicated by shots of a road sign riddled with bullet holes) so that he may break his fast early and therefore be strong enough to take part in a special operation. He takes with him a bottle of water, not to quench his thirst on his long and arduous journey, but in order to perform his ritual ablutions before prayer. Along the way, he meets a range of characters, who cause minor delays to his journey, and significant depletion of his water supply. The diversions do little, however, to distract the soldier from his sacred task. By the end of his journey, signalled by the extra-diegetic call to prayer on the soundtrack, he almost collapses, dehydrated and disoriented amidst a thick dust storm. After performing his purifying ablutions, he finally drops to the earth to pray, barely visible in the thick dust. In the process of becoming one with God, the film suggests also that he attains a sacred one-ness with the land, thus affirming the concept of the Sacred Defence.
As in The Third Day, where Samireh is temporarily entombed within the earth, the soldier in He Who Sails is similarly enveloped by the pure and sacred earth from which he emerges as spiritually cleansed and ready for battle. Unlike The Third Day, however, the land is not metaphorically gendered as a helpless woman in need of saving and keeping pure. Rather, with the help of the framing premise, the task of maintaining (defending) the purity of the earth khak-i pak-i Iran and by association the broader concept of the Islamic homeland (vatan-i Islam) becomes paramount. This purity is clearly less material than spiritual despite the opening premise, which brings the expatriate back to his homeland, for it is the past in the form of the soldier’s memories, which are privileged by the narrative, rather than the project of bringing sweet water to the region, which seems to fade from view. In fact, at one point, the returned expatriate says to a police officer (in the present) “I have come for my memories.”
Indeed, throughout the film, his memories frequently intervene in the present. This is evident in the way the film has been edited. On the sound track, Moayerian frequently uses a sound bridge to introduce the flashbacks. At times these sound bridges (voices, radio broadcasts of poetry of martyrdom, sounds of helicopters, gunfire etc.) seem to be semi-diegetic in nature, audible at least in the mind of the central protagonist in the present. At other times, features in the landscape (signs, buildings, flags etc.) serve to evoke an image from the protagonist’s past. At another point, a shot-reverse-shot/point of view structure is used to produce the effect that the central protagonist is looking directly at the past from the present, before the past comes to fully engulf the present. This use of point of view places the viewer within the protagonist’s deep visualisations of the past, having the effect of interpolating us into these memories and hailing us to accompany him on his spiritual journey. The film is beautifully shot and poetically edited, and is reminiscent of the tendency “to beautify and spiritualize a war-torn environment” in earlier Sacred Defence cinema. The requisite theme of martyrdom is also linked closely to this poetic vision, expressed towards the end of the film as the central protagonist washes the dust from the grave of his commanding officer, who we learn, was martyred during the special operation. Thus we see that the opening premise of bringing sweet water takes on one final metaphorical purpose closely tied to the conventions of the Sacred Defence genre, that of cleansing and purifying memories of the martyrs, revivifying their importance in the current revival of post-revolutionary discourse. Like The Third Day, the memory of war is elevated to the realm of myth, with the effect of effacing the wounds still felt in contemporary, social reality.
The structural and narrative neglect of the framing premise of bringing sweet water to the region is significant, for this enables the spiritual journey in the past to take precedence over the process of physical and material renewal in the present. This neglect of the contemporary social significance of healing the material wounds of the nation suggested at the outset functions as a promise that is never ultimately fulfilled for the viewer, who becomes instead fully immersed in the past and, like The Third Day reflects a revolutionary discourse where love of homeland is inseparable from devotion to Islam and takes precedence over material and social conditions provided by the legacy of war. While both films aim to recollect the past, the past’s ongoing legacy in the present is not explored.
The Scattered Wounds of War: Gilaneh
In contrast to the two films already discussed, Gilaneh consciously reflects upon these contemporary social conditions and the painful legacy of war. The first half of the film takes place during the last days of the Iran-Iraq war when, as we are told in a title card “Iranian cities were subjected to severe Iraqi missile attacks on the eve of the Iranian New Year. Many people who did not feel safe in the cities fled to the country.” By contrast, the second part of the film, which takes place on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, allows the film to establish parallels and comparisons between the two eras. In doing so, Gilaneh is at once intensely concerned with provoking a meditation on national wounds, but also interested in turning the viewer’s attention to more contemporary global concerns.
The film’s title character Gilaneh is an old woman, a war widow, whose life has already been profoundly touched by the long war. Not only is she the widow of a war martyr, her pregnant daughter Maygol has fled her home in Tehran to the relative safety of Gilan, a fertile region in the north of Iran bordering the Caspian sea. Maygol not only appears to suffer from disturbing dreams of being bombed, but frets for the safety of her husband, Rahman, who had remained in Tehran in order, presumably, to defend his home. Furthermore, within the first few minutes of the film, Gilaneh’s newly-engaged son Ismael leaves to join the war effort, much to Gilaneh’s dismay and despair. Following a few brief introductory sequences, the main action of the first part of the film involves Gilaneh and Maygol taking the long and dangerous journey to war-torn Tehran in search of Maygol’s husband and against the grain of Tehran’s middle-class residents, who had the means to flee the bombing, seeking safety in the provinces. Many sequences in this first half of the film serve a dual purpose. First, they work to lament the many losses and to bring into focus the enormous human suffering inflicted by the war and second, they serve to foreshadow the events that are to take place in the second half of the film. The primary conceptual thrust of this section is to set up Gilaneh as a kind of “ideal” mother figure, who takes on multiple metaphorical values. Her name, after the rich and fertile region of Gilan allows her to function allegorically as a maternal, life-giving vatan and the khak-i pak-i vatan that at once protects and is in need of protection. By the second half of the film, however, Gilaneh becomes the allegorical embodiment of a maternal vatan, not unlike the 6,000 year old dying mother of a century ago, suffering for her people but neglected and in dire need of love and care. Prior to this, however, the film brings our attention to the effects of war on the home front, placing emphasis on the fragmentation and dispersal of the family. In contradistinction to the two films previously discussed, very little emphasis is placed on the heroic martyrology of the Sacred Defence. Although the film contains a few fleeting references to Gilaneh’s husband as a war martyr, the film instead emphasises the very material and visceral effects of war and its aftermath.
The opening title sequence of the film is crucial in setting up the conceptual antinomies that run throughout the film and provoke what may be referred to as “allegorical ways of seeing.” For Walter Benjamin, these allegorical ways of seeing or “allegorical intentions” refer to the multidimensional perspectives contained by, and employed in, reading any allegorical work. In the cinema, this may refer to moments of rupture in narrative structure or cinematic language that opens up the possibility of conventional signs and symbols being used for emblematic purposes. The viewer is asked to adopt an allegorical way of seeing; cued to read beyond the obvious meaning of such symbolism and, in some cases a range of sometimes contradictory meanings may emerge. The division of the film into two episodes taking place in different eras (1988 and 2003) is perhaps the most obvious signal that the film might be functioning on numerous levels. Between these two episodes, the use of foreshadowing and backshadowing produce echoes that resonate, provoking correspondences across time. In the later period, the past is ever-present, and viscerally felt through the very material suffering of bodies.
The film opens with a black screen, over which the sound of an air raid siren may be heard. The sound continues for several seconds before the title of the film – Gilaneh – appears on screen. The title fades to black and the sounds of bombing and screeching may be heard, finally blending into the sound of a woman screaming. The first image appears on screen. It is night, Gilaneh and her daughter Maygol have been sleeping. Gilaneh emerges from the darkness to comfort Maygol, who has been calling out in her sleep: “Rahman! I’m scared. Fire! Smell of burning! Rahman! I’m scared.” Gilaneh responds, “Don’t be afraid dear. It was only a dream.” Maygol replies: “I have to go. I can’t take it anymore.” The camera follows Gilaneh, panning slightly to the left as she reaches for a jug of water, and pauses momentarily on a pomegranate, which has been torn apart, its small, juicy seeds glistening in the half-light.
In Persian culture, the pomegranate, a fruit, which is native to Iran and Afghanistan, commonly symbolises fertility, and in Zoroastrian mythology King Isfandiyar is said to have become invincible after eating a pomegranate. Indeed, as we soon learn, Maygol is pregnant and she is characterised by an invincible determination to return to war-torn Tehran to find her husband. But, I would ask, is this apparently clear and straightforward symbolic meaning really so “readable” or obvious? Is this conventional sign of hope, possibility and prosperity perhaps being used for other purposes? In times of war, when lives are turned upside down, the stable signifiers that structure our lives and provide meaning may also become destabilized. Here, therefore, amidst the trauma of the opening title sequence, the pomegranate could be read as an allegorical emblem that foreshadows the loss and destruction that pervades the film. I am reminded that the pomegranate has also, ironically become a signifier of modern warfare, bequeathing its name (Old French pommegrenate) to the hand grenade, its shape, size and seeds bearing a resemblance to shrapnel-filled hand grenades of the early 20th century. A grenade is not a precision weapon, rather it is designed to “scatter” destruction in many directions at once. Through its main characters and their encounters with incidental minor characters, Gilaneh attempts to show in a very complex way just how the effects of the Iran-Iraq war have left their deep physical and emotional wounds that are now scattered throughout the nation.
These scattered wounds are evidenced during the first half of the film through the various people Gilaneh and Maygol encounter along the road during their journey to Tehran. After walking for many hours through the lush, fertile fields of Gilan, the two women board a bus. The further they travel towards Tehran, the more the lush landscape gives way to dry, barren earth. Throughout their journey, they pass a steady stream of traffic travelling in the opposite direction, families fleeing the bombing of Tehran, their cars heavily laden with the few possessions they have managed to rescue from their homes. All around her, Gilaneh witnesses lives in disarray. To some extent, Gilaneh’s journey serves a purpose far greater than the telling of her individual story, for her presence enables a diverse array of experiences to be vividly depicted for the viewer. These draw our attention not to the grand, heroic events of war, but rather to the quotidian but far from insignificant moments experienced by the general population. Gilaneh’s trajectory, against the flow of traffic, lends her an allegorical quality of standing slightly apart from the people she encounters. She becomes something of an observer, a witness to events, rather than a full participant in them, but within these small fragments of the lives of others, are contained the seeds of her own past and future, backshadowing what has been and foreshadowing what is to come.
One such event occurs at a busy roadside inn where a wedding party is attempting to continue their celebrations after having fled their bombed village. The young bride laments the fact that she will not spend her wedding night in her hometown, her vatan. Through Gilaneh’s longing looks at the young bride, we are reminded of the hopefulness contained in one of the early scenes of the film. In the skeletal framework of the family’s new home (which is also to become a restaurant), Ismael tenderly adorns his fiancé Setareh with a beautiful new scarf, a farewell gift before he goes to war. Somehow, the fragmented and chaotic nature of this roadside wedding at once backshadows the literal and metaphorical incompleteness of the family home in the earlier scene and foreshadows the fact that Ismael’s own wedding shall never take place, due to the horrific injuries he is to sustain as a result of the war. We may also be reminded of the absence of Gilaneh’s husband, himself a war martyr, a fact reinforced later when Gilaneh reminisces over old family photographs.
Signs of suffering continue to accumulate around Gilaneh – television images of victims of war; overheard conversations about the use of chemical weapons and reports of the bombing of a children’s hospital. Although she does not take an active part in these conversations, Gilaneh’s presence at the crowded inn allows the viewer to hear snippets of these conversations, which provide not only information and opinion about the destructive effects of war, but also provide ominous premonitions of her own future, which is to be dominated by her attempts to alleviate Ismael’s suffering.
During one crucial sequence, Gilaneh is positioned in the foreground of the image, while two women converse in the background. They talk of the horrific injuries caused by chemical weapons: “The ones alive look as if they have been boiled in oil…their skins come off in one piece.” Ever so slowly, the camera zooms in on Gilaneh, tightening the shot on her face and with it the sense of foreboding. This is further consolidated by a shot of a television screen showing images of the wounded, accompanied by the sounds of a wailing baby. Here, we are presented with a series of sounds and images that continue to resonate throughout the film, pointing both to the fate of the central characters, and also to the broader consequences of the 2003 US-led war on Iraq. On the one hand, the wailing baby reminds us of Gilaneh’s role as a mother, and on the other it foreshadows the tumultuous world into which Maygol’s baby (Gilaneh’s grandchild) will be born. Furthermore, these cries also serve to lament the fact that Ismael’s injuries will prevent him from fathering children and the television images of maimed children provide Gilaneh with a premonition of Ismael’s own devastating injuries. Significantly, these mediatised images of war return during the second half of the film, with television broadcasts of images from the US led invasion of Iraq closely echoing the suffering of the earlier war. These images, which remain largely in the background and barely acknowledged by the characters tend to produce what Varzi (2002) called a “space of haunting” where the past returns to provoke mourning in the present. But this is not mourning in a beautified and spiritualised mythic/heroic register. This is a mourning of a far more material kind and expressed primarily through the fragmentation and loss of the family.
Together with the obvious care-giving role Gilaneh adopts for her own children, further events during the first half of the film help to reinforce Gilaneh’s allegorical role as a care-giver to the nation that is carried into the second half. On the bus to Tehran, Gilaneh and Maygol encounter two young soldiers returning to the battlefront. One of them is suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder, indicated by his violent and irrational behaviour towards the other passengers, at one point screaming “they’re taking us to the killing fields.” To emphasise the source of his trauma for the viewer, non-diegetic sounds of bombing, similar to those used in the opening scene may be heard on the sound track. These serve to link the soldier’s trauma with that of Maygol’s in the opening sequence and remind us of the wider ramifications of the war among both the military and civilian population alike. Just as she did with Maygol, Gilaneh responds with her maternal instincts, calming the distressed soldier by gently stroking his head, as one would a baby. Later, in a more lucid moment he apologises for his outburst, addressing Gilaneh as moddar (mother) thus reinforcing her broader metaphorical role as a national mother figure or moddar-i vatan. Here we see a distinct reversal of the gender dynamics presented in a film such as The Third Day in which the woman was vulnerable and dependent upon the heroic soldier/brother to protect her and by implication the nation. Here, Gilaneh becomes the temporary caregiver to the vulnerable soldier, and he in turn comes to foreshadow the more permanent fate of Ismael and, by implication the nation more generally.
A Crippled Nation
If, during the first half of the film, Gilaneh is constructed metaphorically as a mother figure to the nation, it is during the second part of the film that her metaphorical value becomes fully embodied and viscerally laden with meaning. This is evident right from the crucial transitional scene between the two halves of the film. At the end of the first part, Gilaneh and Maygol have finally arrived in Tehran to find Maygol’s husband missing and the furniture removed from her home. Shortly after their arrival an air-raid siren sounds. As the residents run for cover an intense bombing campaign begins, accompanied by the pap, pap, pap of machine gun fire. As a bomb hits Maygol’s building the two women duck for cover and as the screen fades to black Gilaneh’s tender voice calls out “Ismael, where are you sweetheart.” This is immediately followed by the scene described at the beginning of this article that takes place on the eve of nowruz, Persian New Year 2003 just as the US are about to embark on the campaign in Iraq. Not only does the black screen function as a conventional temporal ellipsis, the ambiguity of whether Gilaneh’s words are located in the past or the present functions to directly connect these moments in time, cueing us to read each allegorically against the other. I would argue, however that these words function as more than a cinematic sound bridge used in conventional film editing to connect two consecutive scenes, here Gilaneh’s words and the sound of bombing, are effectively situated both in the past and the present and serve to produce what I have elsewhere called an “allegorical image,” a virtual point of confluence between past and present. The allegorical image may be thought of as a very specific kind of time-image as theorised by Gilles Deleuze. It brings together Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “dialectical image” with a cinematic rendering of time as simultaneity: past and present coalesce, the one folded into the other. The past is never simply past, but returns to lay claim on the present. In the second part of Gilaneh what we see when the image returns are bodies weighed down by time and the traumatic past they have experienced: Ismael is literally paralysed, and Gilaneh hobbles with a stooped posture, as though she bears the weight of the last 15 years on her shoulders.
If the first half of the film was dominated by a journey, by movement – albeit against the grain – then the second half of the film is characterised by stasis and waiting. Gilaneh waits for the doctor who eventually arrives to administer medicine that will temporarily alleviate Ismail’s pain. She waits for Atefeh, a young war widow whose husband was buried in Gilan and whom Gilaneh hopes will one day marry Ismael. Her crippled son will never marry. She has been waiting 15 years for the highway to be built to bring customers to her restaurant, which she never managed to open. Instead, her days are punctuated by the odd passer-by stopping to buy lollies or cigarettes from her little roadside stall. Signs of urban progress pass her by, lying just out of her reach. When a couple stop in their car blasting loud music, Gilaneh asks to borrow the man’s mobile phone to call the doctor, but she is interrupted by Ismael, who calls her away by ringing a bell.
Mirroring the role of minor characters as the bearers of speculation and opinion in the first part of the film, here too, minor characters serve to comment on wider contemporary events and to speculate on the implications for Iran. Once again, Gilaneh witnesses conversations, rather than participating directly in them. We overhear the man with the mobile phone talking about contracts: “If a missile drops on this side, things will change…prices will go through the roof.” Such economic speculation returns later during a rather flippant but poignant discussion between a group of middle-class young men, reminding the viewer of Ismael before he went to war. They pull up in a jeep playing loud contemporary music. One buys a packet of Winston cigarettes from Gilaneh’s stall, calling back to the others, “Guys, they aren’t cheaper yet, the US has to come first.” Another replies: “They’ll be done with Iraq in a week, then we’re rescued.” The conversation continues: “When they come, you could go fight and get killed or something.” This last remark attracts Gilaneh’s attention, turning her head to look at them as another adds: “but in your will leave us all your veteran’s benefits.” They depart laughing amongst themselves. The juxtaposition of the flippant attitudes of these young men with Gilaneh and Ismael’s story serves a variety of purposes. First, it suggests that, although these men belong to a generation born during the Iran/Iraq war, they seem to lack a consciousness about the consequences of war. Although they do not mention martyrdom, it is suggested that some economic (rather than spiritual) benefit could be gained. Second, although spoken with a clear degree of irony, the idea of being “rescued” speculates openly about a possible desire for social, economic and political reform. However, they represent a class and generation of materialistic urban Iranian youth, who have little interest in politics or with the past. They drive off carelessly, their music blaring into the future.
What the viewer comes to understand through this scene is that the present, and indeed the future are inseparable from the past; for it is the past’s contours that shape the present and the future. These contours, however are commonly shaped by the dominant discourses through which the past is narrated and remembered. If the wounds suffered by a nation are narrated into heroic mythologies, with tulips springing from the earth where the martyrs have fallen, then who is left to tend to the actual wounds of the fallen, the maimed and those left behind to mourn absent family members? This is Gilaneh’s role as primary caregiver to her wounded son. Of course there are social services for veterans, but Gilaneh will not have her son taken from her. At one point, when a friend remarks that Ismael may be willing to go to a disabled veteran’s centre, Gilaneh retorts: “You think I found this child?” indicating at once her acute sense of dedication to the needs of her son and suggesting the inadequacy of available social services. However, in a private conversation with the doctor – himself a wounded veteran – Ismael does express his desire to go into State care for the sake of his mother. He barely manages to aspirate the words “it’s killing her!” At this point, Ismael is confronted with images reminiscent of his own past through the mediatised images of the new war taking place in Iraq. On the television we see images of bombing, children, helicopters, women, devastated by this new war. The film cuts to an extreme close-up of Ismael’s face, beads of sweat collecting on his brow. This is followed by a series of shot-reverse-shots of Ismael and the television screen. We are made aware of his laboured breathing, which is mixed with a low rumbling sound. This might just be thunder, but we cannot help being reminded of the ominous sounds of war.
Gilaneh as 6,000 year-old dying mother
One of the most striking features of Gilaneh is the way it resists being drawn into the mythic/heroic register of much Iranian war cinema. This resistance is largely due to the highly embodied nature of the performances and the emphasis placed on the physical and material effects of war, rather than on spiritual justification and sanctification. In addition to functioning on this very grounded, material level, the film also works on an allegorical level to produce a meditation on the urgent necessity of attending to the nation’s wounds, rather than effacing them through the discourse of martyrology. This is expressed most emphatically through the body of Gilaneh herself, who may be seen as an allegorical manifestation of vatan. Through her old, stooped and frail body we may see a manifestation of vatan as a 6,000 year old dying mother trying in vain to care for her children, the people of Iran who have themselves been ravaged by war and its aftermath. But clearly, she too is in desperate need of loving care and attention. In contrast to earlier nationalist and revolutionary conceptions of vatan, and the discourse of martyrology which is perpetuated by recent films like The Last Day and He Who Sails, Gilaneh does not figure a threat from the outside as the cause of her ailments, but rather suggests that her symptoms have been generated by general neglect by her people, who, like Ismael may feel powerless to act, or like the middle-class urbanites simply want to forget. At the end of the film, Gilaneh sits quietly, clearly exhausted looking out over the countryside, which is blanketed in mist. This scene and the film as a whole, I believe asks the viewer to contemplate her fate, and the future of the nation whose wounds cry out to be tended.
 Although vatan (or watan) is an Arabic word, the term, along with its Farsi equivalent mihan is still used in everyday speech, as well as in poetic discourse in Iran.
 Hamid Dabashi. Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. (New York & London: New York University Press, 1993).
 Chris Berry. “From National Cinema to Cinema and the National: Chinese Language Cinema and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s ‘Taiwan Trilogy’” in Valentina Vitali & Paul Willemem eds. Theorising National Cinema. (London: BFI, 2006): 151
 Haggay Ram. “Mythology of Rage: Representations of the “Self” and “Other” in Revolutionary Iran” History and Memory 8.1 (1996): 71-73.
 Dabashi. Theology and Discontent, 5.
 Ram. “Mythology of Rage”, 74.
 Farideh Farhi. “The Antinomies of Iran’s War Generation” in Lawrence G. Potter & Gary G. Sick eds. Iran, Iraq, and the Legacies of War (New York: Palgrave, 2004): 104.
 Richard Tapper. “Introduction” in Richard Tapper ed. The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation, Identity. (London & New York: I. B. Tauris, 2002): 6.
 Roxanne Varzi. “A Ghost in the Machine: The Cinema of the Iranian Sacred Defence” in Richard Tapper ed. The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation, Identity. (London & New York: I. B. Tauris, 2002): 157. Following references to Varzi appear as page numbers in the text.
 For a detailed discussion of the Islamicization of Iranian cinema see Hamid Naficy’s seminal article “Veiled Vision/powerful presences: women in post-revolutionary Iranian cinema,” in Rose Issa & Sheila Whitaker eds. Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema. (London: National Film Theatre, 1999.): 44-65.
 See Hamid Reza Sadr Iranian Cinema: A Political History. (London & New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006): 217-223. According to Sadr during the 1990s war films began to depict the effects of war more candidly. He cites films such as Snake Fang ( Dandan-e mar, Masud Kimiai, 1989) and The Glass Agency (Ajans-e Shisheh-i, Ebrahim Hatimikia, 1998). Another film that is concerned with the social and emotional consequences of the war is Bashu, The Little Stranger, (Bashu, gharibeye koochak, Bahram Beizai, 1989) although the war itself is not mentioned directly. Significantly, like Gilaneh this film is also set in Gilan province and primarily uses the local dialect.
 Evidence of literal wounds may be found in the wealth of medical literature on the on-going physical and psychological traumas suffered by both the military and civilian populations, with much focus on the long-term effects of chemical weapons (primarily mustard gas) used by the Iraqi military against Iran. See, for example: Farnoosh Hashemian, et.al. “Anxiety, Depression, and Posttraumatic Stress in Survivors of Chemical Warfare” Journal of the American Medical Association 296.5 (2006): 560-566. The authors write: “According to Iranian government estimates, Iran sustained approximately 387 chemical attacks (via rocket, air, or artillery) during the 8-year war, which resulted in high rates of medical morbidity and psychological distress among an estimated 60,000 Iranian survivors.” (560). See also Shahriar Khateri, et.al. “Incidence of Lung, Eye, and Skin Lesions as Late Complications in 34,000 Iranians With Wartime Exposure to Mustard Agent” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 45.11, (2003): 1136-1143.
 Michelle Langford. “Iranian Cinema Looks Inward: The 25th Fajr International Film Festival” Senses of Cinema 44, 2007. http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/festival-reports/fajr-iff-2007/ (Accessed 19 July, 2012).
 These last two films were produced during 2006 and premiered at the 2007 Fajr International Film Festival. The Third Day was in fact the first of a series of Sacred Defence films to be produced by the “Martyrs and Sacrificers Foundation.” It won Best Film at Fajr in 2007 and ranked eighth at the Iranian box office in that year. See, Mohsen Beig-agha. “Economic Report of Iranian Cinema in 2007: The Year of Comedies” in Film International: Iranian Film Quarterly 14.2 (2008): 40-45.
 Afsaneh Najmabadi. Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005): 98. Further references appear in the text.
 Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi. “Going Public: Patriotic and Matriotic Homeland in Iranian Nationalist Discourses” Strategies 13. 2 (2000): 175.
 Najmabadi. 110.
 Barbara Allen Roberson. Shaping the Current Islamic Reformation. (London: Frank Cass, 2003): 33.
 Jamhuri Islami Iran, Wazarat Amuzish wa Parwarish (Islamic Republic of Iran, Ministry of Education and Training). Farsi, Sal Sawwum Dabistan (Tehran: 1364/1985): 101-2. Cited in translation in M. Mobin Shorish (1988, 62-63). I am grateful to Professor Shorish for providing me with the original Farsi version of this verse.
 Cited in Shorish. 62-63. Further references appear in the text.
 Najmabadi. 100-101.
 Through the character of Foad a sense of the betrayal of some Arab-Iranians, who joined the Iraqi forces is plainly felt.
 Sadr. 196.
 It is relevant to note that in Iranian Shi’i Islam, in the absence of adequate water, it is permissible to perform one’s ablutions with earth, as earth is considered to be naturally pure.
 Varzi. “A Ghost in the Machine” 164-165.
 Roxanne Varzi. “Iran’s Pieta: Motherhood, Sacrifice and Film in the Aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War” Feminist Review 88, (2008): 88.
 See Walter Benjamin. The Origin of German Tragic Drama trans., John Osborne (London & New York: Verso, 2003): 166, and “Central Park” trans., Lloyd Spencer, New German Critique, 34, (1985): 32-58.
 I have elsewhere elaborated on this concept of allegorical ways of seeing. See Michelle Langford Allegorical Images: Tableau, Time and Gesture in the Cinema of Werner Schroeter (Bristol: Intellect, 2006): 53-88.
 Ismael appears to bear some of the physical and emotional scars commonly caused by chemical weapons such as mustard gas, which have been recorded in the medical literature. The most pronounced being the extreme difficulty he has breathing. He also appears to have suffered some discolouration and scarring of the skin and displays some signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly experienced by combatants and civilians alike.
 It is perhaps worth noting that due to Iranian censorship regulations, Gilaneh would be prevented from actually touching the soldier, so she strokes the soldier with his woollen hat in her hand. In apparent contradiction of censorship regulations regarding physical contact between men and women, we do see Gilaneh clean Ismael’s bare feet, and at one point Ismael rubs moisturiser into Gilaneh’s hands. Following a screening of the film in Brisbane 2006, Fatemeh Motamed-Arya told me that this did not cause any issues with censorship.
 See Langford. Allegorical Images, 54.
 Negar Mottahedeh has also used the Benjaminian concept of the “dialectical image” with reference to Iranian cinema as well as to explain the complex messianic temporality of traditional Iranian taziyeh theatre. See Negar Motthadeh. Representing the Unpresentable: Historical Images of National Reform From the Qajars to the Islamic Republic of Iran (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2008): 86-87; Negar Mottahedeh. “Bahram Bayzai’s Maybe…Some Other Time: The un-Present-able Iran” Camera Obscura 43, vol. 15, no. 1 (2000): 180.