In an act of protest against the conditions of their lives, a group of Iranian women are determined to kill themselves. A government official tries to stop them. This is the premise of About 111 Girls, one of the first films to be shown in 2013’s Edmonton International Film Festival. Going into it, I was expecting either a political drama about Iran’s misogynistic culture or an Ingmar Bergman like tale of soul searching. Essentially a film of haunting beauty albeit a bit bleak. It turned out to the most pleasant surprise of the Festival. It was haunting and beautiful, but directors Nahid Ghobadi and Bijan Zamanpira take the film in unexpected directions in their extraordinary debut.
The girls of the title come from the isolated area of Iranian Kurdistan. Conditions are causing the male population to sharply decrease, leaving many women doomed to lives as spinsters.1 sending a flag with red finger prints and strands of hair; they give Iran’s president an ultimatum: Bring us help in four days or we’ll kill ourselves. In a surprising turn, the women are almost never seen in the movie. The film begins with a close-up of a woman amongst a crowd of blurred faces. Beyond this, they serve more as a spirits haunting the desert roads that surround the film.
The center of the film is Nezom (Reza Behboodi), a government official assigned to talk the women out of it. He is introduced as a businessman, standing alone in the middle of the desert road. Accompanied by his driver Sadeghi (Mehdi Saki) and a little boy (Amin Sadeghi) as his guide, Nezom begins a race against time to find the women before it’s too late.
What Nezom gets is a trip down the rabbit hole of Iran’s screwed up society. They encountered a village resentful of the Government’s broken promise to get rid of the mines surrounding their city. They encounter motorcyclists carrying cargo bigger than they are. They can’t even change a tire without a car chase going by.
What is surprising about the film is its choice of tone. It goes for surrealistic satire where most filmmakers would choose bleak drama. There are scenes where they find the outrageous and ironic. Considering he is being guarded by a little boy, Nezom should have seen this coming. I won’t give too much away because it has to be seen to be believed. I will talk about is a man covered waist up in a sack. Over and over, they see this guy running across the road, still wearing the bag. At one point, he runs into their truck. In a way, it serves to make the horrible conditions more bearable and to ridicule the authority figures.
Nezom serves as the straight man of the film. He is almost as in the cold about this world as the audience is. The strength of Behboodi’s performance is he is not the stereotypical woman hating he man but an everyman, demanding authority yet empathetic. As the trip progresses, Behboodi show increasing frustration at the confusing policies while displaying an understanding ear to the resentful villagers.
Through the Pythonesque, there is a spiritual subplot from the Driver, Sadeghi. While he lies down in a waterhole for a casual smoke, he seems to encounter the women in apparent spiritual form. In lesser hands, this would have created a tonal whiplash in the film and yet the directors manage to keep it within the universe. Sadeghi encounters this spiritual connection in areas of his journey.
The tone is helped by the beautiful cinematography courtesy of Hamid Ghavmi. The camera looks at this world from a distance, taking in the desert hills, rock buildings and dirt roads as the heroes drive on. The close-ups are used sparingly, creating more impact with the image of Sadeghi smoking a cigarette as a blurred woman descends down the stairs.
In the short 79 minutes of film, I am glad that this was my first film of the festival.
It’s a haunting art film, a surreal satire and a thrilling road movie rolled into one delightful little movie. It should be noted the film may have been changed to 111 Girls.
1) I know this premise portrays women as being dependent on men despite it being codirected by a woman. Considering this film comes from a country that considers stoning an acceptable punishment for adultery, I would consider this film a step forward.