"WELCOME TO THE LAND OF HEART-break and tractors!" That's the ironic introduction to Iran's far northern border with Turkmenistan in Frontier Blues, the film debut of Iranian writer and director Babak Jalali, who was born in Gorgan, the capital of Golestan Province, where his film is set.
"The reason I wrote that line was because the film is essentially about men wanting to get somewhere, but it never quite happens for them," he told The Middle East. "It's about men longing for something and the overriding sense of melancholy I find when I'm there." And Frontier Blues is suffused with an overwhelmingly strong sense of its remote setting. "It does feel different from the rest of Iran in a lot of ways. It's calming, slightly bleak--but the bleakness doesn't depress you, it just gives a sense that it's a bit mysterious."
Jalali's family came to England in 1986 when he was seven, but he still has close relatives in Gorgan. He read Balkan and East European studies at university in London before going to film school. Although he did not return to Iran until he was 22, he had a great affection for his birthplace, many memories and a lot of enthusiasm.
"When the idea came to make a feature film, I wanted to make it not only in Iran but in that region. It's a strange place--it doesn't look very Eastern, it feels Central Asian as well. You can drive for 30 minutes and be in four different countries. You have the mountains, the Caspian Sea, the steppes, the forests. It is very green but it also has desert with camels, so it has a lot of different landscapes next to each other and the ethnic composition of a lot of Central Asian people--Kazakhs, Turkmen predominantly, besides Persians and Armenians." The film's dialogue is in Farsi and Turkmen.
Frontier Blues is a droll, deadpan, often absurd series of fragments from the everyday existence of five characters whose stories entwine. It is comic yet sensitive. Noaz Deshe's atmospheric music is haunting. Scenes are framed and static. Life is at a standstill: there are no weddings or funerals. The frontier is a remote place where people are looking for love, yearning for more and their inner life is conveyed with looks, not words.
Jalali says, "It was written based on what I saw, what I heard and what I did. It's the story of longing, waiting, remembering: desperate men and absent women. It's about not quite getting there. Wherever that may be." It's an intriguing and...