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The Wastetown (Shahere Khamoush)

Iranian filmmaker delivers magnificent piece of black and white, slow cinema about a mother released from prison and desperate to be reunited with her son - from the Official Competition at the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


The companion to Ahmad Bahrami’s critically acclaimed The Wasteland (2020) will not disappoint fans. The narratives of the two films are not connected. What they have in common is the main topic: the encounter between a worker in precarious conditions with the woman whom he loves, and its possibly disastrous repercussion. The two films also share the meditative pace and the intricate and delicate aesthetic sensibility. Just sit back and allow yourself to feast your eyes and your ears on Iranian poetry.

A 30-something woman called Bemani knocks on the gates of a car cemetery. The vast site is littered with disused vehicles, scraps and a large pressing machine. All the cars end up inside the device, crushed to the size of a small box. The guard doesn’t want to let her inside: “my boss will fire me if he sees a woman inside”. She eventually bribes her way in and encounters a man called Ebi. He lives inside an abandoned bus. She asks him about the whereabouts of her 10-year-old son Parsa. We then find out that the woman was just released from a 10-year prison stint because she murdered her husband, who also happens to be Ebi’s brother. She is convinced that he knows the whereabout of the child, whom she has forced to give up for adoption eight years earlier, after bringing him up in prison for the first two years of his life.

She is threatened with violence several times, but manages to survive by hiding under the scrap, and by bribing further people with the money that she collected by working while under custody. At one point, she nearly convinces someone to take her to her child, but Ebi is concerned that that could be a trap to kill Bemani. The woman remains obstinate: she will do anything in order to see her son. Ebi is quietly infatuated with his former in-law, and attempts to help her, but they too have to overcome a number of obstacles.

The entire film takes place in the car cemetery completely isolated in the rural mountains. The conversations are extensive, the performances low-key, and the atmosphere eerily quiet. A constant panning camera emphasises the vastness of the landscape, while also revealing the never-ending quantity of cars awaiting their fate in the large crusher. The photography is entirely in black and white. There are no close-ups. These aesthetic and narrative choices give us the impression these characters are inseparable from the landscape. The scraps surrounding them are barely distinguishable from their fractious life. The crushed cars are an omen of what might happen to them if they accidentally make a mistake. The incessant and vigorously blowing, rustling wind caters for a permanent sense of tension and fear, while also conveying a sense of determination, in a film with gingerly craft sound engineering. Bemini will not budge, despite knowing the consequences that she could face.

This deeply lyrical movie is a harrowing tribute to motherly devotion and also a moving portrayal of those living at the margin. A magnificent piece of slow cinema that will both inspire and disturb viewers. The ending is probably the most powerful scene of the entire Festival in which it premiered. Heart-wrenching. Gut-wrenching. And shockingly devastating. A real cinematic marvel.

The Wastetown premiered in the Official Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. Its predecessor was scheduled to premiere at Tallinn two years ago, before being selected by both Venice and San Sebastian, the director settling for the former a-list festival.

By Victor Fraga - 25-11-2022

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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