Reviewed at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
In the Q&A after our screening of “Gesher,” a man demanded to know what the director’s intentions were with the film — “I was not entertained,” he announced. Another audience member fought back at the inappropriateness of making that observation in such a forum, and thing dissolved into an excellently combative discussion. It was entirely appropriate for the movie, which is a comedy in the primarily theoretical way that, for instance, David Gordon Green’s “Undertow” is an action flick. Director Vahid Vakilifar was inspired to make “Gesher,” his first feature, after he saw migrant workers living in unused pipes by the side of a refinery in southern Iran, where the Pars Special Energy/Economic Zone — the PSEEZ — encompasses an array of natural gas and petrochemical refineries and almost nothing else.
Jahan (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh), Qobad (Ghobad Rahmanissab) and Nezam (Abdolrassoul Daryapeyma) have come to the area for work, though the jobs they find are crushing. While Qobad is employed at a refinery, climbing through the pipes like a chimney sweep, Jahan serves as a driver for businessmen and engineers who barely register his presence and who complain about his car. Nezam is the worst off, reporting to a man who sends out workers to unclog and clean blocked bathrooms. The action stays with each in long, wordless stretches, as, for instance, Nezam pulls on his gloves and boots and primes the tool he uses to clear the pipes, only to have it not work and to be forced to reach into the filthiest toilet in Asalouyeh with his bare hands to find the stoppage. Afterward, he floats in the ocean, trying to get clean and to regain some sense of human dignity.
“Gesher” spends as much of it runtime, if not more, on the off hours of the three friends, who share a pipe facing the ocean (they have neighbors a few pipes down, and sometimes stop by to borrow bread). They run electricity off the battery of Jahan’s car at night, listen to music, call home, figure out ways to send cash to their wives by sewing it into stuffed animals, take dressing room pictures of themselves in clothes they can’t afford and compete in a race across the desert for money. And sometimes they just sit and look out at the ocean, and discuss, idly, what might be going on on the giant ships that have been parked out there for weeks.
“Gesher”‘s still camera, extreme deadpan and minimalist rhythms (the editing was supervised by Jafar Panahi) are manifestly art house, but its setting of small dramas against dwarfing backdrops recalls specifically, to me, the films of Jia Zhang-ke, which can similarly contrast the deeply human struggles of its characters against looming new world landscapes in which they seem destined to get lost. “Gesher” frequently poses its three protagonists against vast, monochromatic deserts or the glimmer of the lit refinery at night, flames belching out of burnoff vents like the Los Angeles cityscape of “Blade Runner.” There’s little narrative forward motion in the film — there’s little forward motion in these characters’ lives — and a dramatic incident involving the trio picking up a prostitute is shot in such an obscured way that it’s difficult to understand what’s transpiring. But as a spare portrait of an expanding world in which laborers are treated as interchangeably as machine parts, it packs a punch.
“Gesher” does not yet have U.S. distribution.