Iron Island is set on a derelict oil tanker abandoned several hundred meters off the coast of Iran. Although the exact place is not given, both the setting and subject matter suggest it takes place somewhere in the oil-rich region of the Persian Gulf. The ship has become a thriving village; home to several hundred members of Iran’s marginalized Sunni-Arab community. These ‘villagers’ work under the tutelage of the seemingly benevolent Captain Nemat (whose name means ‘blessing’) who claims to have the people’s best interests at heart. However as the narrative proceeds, we are provided with greater insight into Nemat’s essentially self-serving nature, and realize the extent to which the people are hopelessly dependent upon him for all of life’s basic necessities: food, shelter, employment, education, and communication. When it is discovered the ship is gradually sinking, the ship’s inhabitants − who quite literally have no home/land − are at Nemat’s mercy once again, finding themselves displaced from a sinking ship to an equally uninhabitable desert wasteland.
Iron Island is a good, if somewhat thinly veiled example of the tendency towards allegory in many post-revolutionary Iranian films. It is also one of the many recent Iranian films that have attempted to address the plight of Iran’s marginalized ethnic minorities (others include Baran [Majid Majidi, 2001], Takht-e-Siah/Blackboards [Samira Makhmalbaf, 2000] and the films of Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi). Writer/director Rasoulof takes a mildly humorous approach to the marginalization of Iran’s Arab ethnic minority through the depiction of a series of absurd scenarios, comically stereotyped characters, and clever metaphorical imagery to convey his serious message. First of all is the image of the ship itself. The clear blue water and the bright sunshine form a stark contrast both with the dark, cavernous spaces within the ship, as well as with the rusting decrepitude of the discarded ship, its sheer bulk making a severe and somewhat surreal blight on the landscape. Like the ship, its inhabitants are a motley and disheveled crew who include a group of unruly adolescent boys, women, young and old, little children, a teacher, and numerous men who labour endlessly to provide for their families. While the ship serves as a makeshift home for its people, it is clear that they are at once dislocated from the broader Iranian society, and have limited freedoms. Although the villagers work constantly and industriously in less than ideal conditions, ironically this industriousness is turned towards dismantling the ship for scrap metal and siphoning the oil from the dark depths of the container’s hull. They are literally being forced to tear down what little semblance of a home/land they have.
Beyond these narrative details, however, the film engages with and problematizes some of the key discourses that lie at the heart of Iranian nationhood and identity formation. According to Farideh Farhi, throughout history, Iranian (and previously Persian) national identity has been fought out variously in terms of territory, the myth of ethnic purity and linguistic cohesiveness. On one level, the ship functions broadly as an allegory of Iran, a territorially ‘secure’ but not impervious Island, rich in natural resources. In fact this is reinforced by the easy linguistic slippage from ‘Iron’ to ‘Iran’ suggested by the film’s English title. This ‘land’, however is depicted as somewhat chaotic, dysfunctional, and ruled by a seemingly benevolent, but ultimately autocratic ruler, Captain Nemat. Not only does he limit the ‘villager’s’ mobility by heavily restricting access to the land, he also censors all communication on board the ship: television is banned, access to the ship’s only mobile phone is heavily restricted, and even supplies only newspapers that date back to the Iran/Iraq war. Furthermore, Persian is enforced as the ship’s official language, even though Arabic would be the language of their ethnic heritage. The people are effectively kept in a state of temporal and informational suspense, an allegory perhaps of media censorship in Iran. On another level, however, the ship is certainly not Iran, but rather serves as a clear marker of a territorial partition on the margins of Iran effectively isolating and excluding the Arab-Iranian inhabitants from the broader citizenry. Like the tanker, they are quite literally ‘marooned’ on a sinking ship, certainly a signifier of the unstable ‘ground’ beneath their feet.