The hero of The Wind Will Carry Us is a man from Tehran named Behzad who drives with a camera crew of three to a remote Kurdish village clinging to the sides of two mountains. There they secretly wait for an ailing 100-year-old woman named Mrs Malek to die, apparently planning to film or tape the exotic traditional funeral ceremony they expect to take place afterwards, as part of which some women mourners scratch and scar their faces. Behzad spends most of the movie biding his time in the village, circulating a false story (involving buried treasure) about the reason for his presence and chatting with a few locals − mainly a little boy named Farzad, the old woman’s grandson, who serves as his (and our) main source of information about the village.
Whenever Behzad’s mobile phone rings he has to drive to the cemetery on top of a hill overlooking the village to pick up his caller’s signal. (The first call he receives is from his family in Tehran, and we discover that by waiting for the old woman’s funeral, he will miss a funeral in his own family; all the subsequent calls are from his producer in Tehran – a woman like the producer in Kiarostami’s Zire darakhatan zeyton/Through the Olive Trees ). At the same location he periodically chats with Youssef, a young man digging a deep hole for unstated ‘telecommunications’ purposes (most likely an antenna tower). Behzad tells Youssef more than once how lucky he is not to be working under any boss, and after glimpsing the retreating figure of the digger’s 16-year-old fiancee Zeynab, who brings him tea from time to time, Behzad endeavours to meet her in the village by asking to buy some fresh milk from her family.
In the 7-minute title sequence, occurring roughly halfway through the film, Behzad (played by Behzad Dourani) is directed to a cellar lit only by a hurricane lamp, where Zeynab obligingly milks a cow for him. Over the course of a long take from a stationary camera, Behzad remains off-screen while Zeynab is filmed mainly from behind, though we can see her hands milking the cow. He idly flirts with her and casually remarks, ‘I’m one of Youssef’s friends – in fact, I’m his boss.’ He also speaks to her somewhat condescendingly about Foroogh Farrokhzaad (1935−67) – a writer of erotic feminist poetry who is widely regarded as Persian literature’s finest woman poet and Iran’s greatest twentieth-century poet.
It is important to stress that this poem has never been censored in Iran, and even though Farrokhzaad remains a controversial figure – in part because of scandals involving her volatile love life – she is so adored that there would surely be a public outcry if any of her poetry were suppressed. (Most Iranians refer to her affectionately as ‘Foroogh’.) Another scene in the film briefly and quite incidentally shows us a pair of fornicating cows, yet no Iranian I have spoken to has suggested that this detail might be worrying the censors. In other words, it appears that they consider the viewer’s imagination more dangerous than anything that is seen, and for this reason they find the erotic atmosphere in the cellar unacceptably provocative. It is a scene with echoes in Behzad’s encounters with an older woman who runs a local cafe and some local women he photographs, all of whom seem to see him as an invader and his car and camera as weapons.
In the title sequence of The Wind Will Carry Us absences define presences in numerous ways. In fact, many major characters in the film – including Mrs Malek, Youssef, and all three members of Behzad’s crew – are never seen. Most of the sequence unfolds in semi-darkness, and it is not until the very end of it, after Behzad leaves, that we get to see Zeynab’s face in broad daylight, and then only from a distance. (Her refusal to show him her face, even when he asks her to, is obviously a way of resisting his aggressive behaviour.) Kiarostami’s reasons for leaving things out probably have little to do with censorship and a great deal to do with the viewer’s imagination – not to mention an understanding of what human presence consists of in film, particularly when microphones play at least as important a role as cameras in the overall design. (Kiarostami spent months working on this film’s sound track, which is every bit as creatively selective – and therefore composed – as the images; he told me he studied Robert Bresson’s films for guidance.) Furthermore, Kiarostami’s insistence on throwing us back on our own resources – refusing to take us into the village houses, for instance, except for the scene in the cellar where we can barely see anything – means that we have to become navigators of his elliptical spaces along with Behzad. (In one exterior scene, viewed from a balcony, Behzad accidentally drops a green apple to Farzad (played by Farzad Sohrabi), who is on a lower level; it rolls this way and that on a magically unpredictable course – a zigzagging pattern repeated throughout the film, effectively charting the opening shot as well as the last. The recurrence of such patterns in Kiarostami’s work from the path in Khane-ye doust kodjast?/Where is the Friend’s House? (1987) to the kicked spray can in Nema-ye Nazdik/Close-up (1990) – amounts to a directorial signature.)
The TV antennaes that dot the village help us realize that these people are no more beyond the reach of media than the media people are beyond the reach of the village. The key point is that they speak different body languages, occupy different time frames, and utilize power quite differently. For instance, the villagers often deferentially refer to Behzad as ‘the engineer’, and in some ways Kiarostami seems as amused by their automatic respect for him as he is by Behzad’s equally automatic indifference to most of their concerns.
I began by describing contemporary Iranian cinema as the most ethical in the world. The particular ethics of The Wind Will Carry Us consist largely of Kiarostami reflecting on his own practice as a ‘media person’ exploiting poor people: Behzad may be the closest thing in Kiarostami’s work to a critical self-portrait, at least since the hero in his highly uncharacteristic 1977 feature Report. The most obvious marker of this auto-critique is Behzad’s cruelty when, during a moment of angry frustration, he kicks a turtle onto its back and leaves it stranded, though the turtle manages to right itself as Behzad drives back down the hill. A far more telling, if subtle, moment occurs just before the title sequence, when Behzad asks Farzad to fetch him a bowl to carry the milk he is about to get from Zeynab, though the boy keeps insisting he is too busy and wants to get back to his work in the fields. The full ethical resonance of this scene is likely to pass unnoticed by viewers unfamiliar with Kiarostami’s shooting methods – he often works without scripted dialogue, directly interviews his nonprofessional actors himself, and then incorporates their responses into dialogue between his fictional characters. (The line between documentary and fiction in his work is almost always ambiguous.)
By concentrating on the death of a century-old woman in the year 1999, Kiarostami also seems to be making some sort of millennial statement – something that possibly means less inside Iran, which has a different calendar. By comically divvying up his world into media ‘experts’ and peasants – moguls with cellular phones and ordinary working people – he is raising the issue of who owns this world and who deserves to.