The Sealed Soil, (Khak-e Sar Bemohr in Farsi), by Iranian director Marva Nabili has received much praise from the San Remo and Berlin film festivals. It recently featured at the London Feminist Film Festival at the BFI Southbank. Nabili was there in person for a Q&A session too.
The Sealed Soil has been compared to other films, such as Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman and Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud. The Sealed Soil tells the thought provoking story of a woman living in a small village who has been caught in the pressures of societal transformation. The woman is trapped in between the traditional values of the small village and her own desire for independence and individuality.
The film is set in pre-revolution Iran in 1977. The principal character is female, 18, unmarried and is censured by her mother and neighbours for not accepting marriage proposals and dowries from strangers who come to visit her. She is further criticised for not going into the new town that is being constructed nearby.
As the story continues with her persistent refusal of marriage proposals, the protagonist turns inward and has a hysterical fit and a short-lived nervous breakdown. She is later ‘cured’ by the village exorcist’s rituals. ‘I pray to God he finds you a man, so you leave me alone’ says her sister.
The cinematography of the film is quite special. There are no close-ups, tracking shots or zooms. The heroine is always seen at a distance and is silent in her movements. Marva Nabili fixes the camera on purpose, much like Bertolt Brecht’s concept of ‘distanciation’. This is the idea of giving visual and emotional distance, so that the audience are unable to identify with the character, as Nabili explained in the Q&A session.
The colours used in the film are appealing too, particularly the scenes that are shot in the coloured courtyard, where a chicken steps in a wall’s nook. This frequently underlines the woman’s entrapment. A recurring shot in The Sealed Soil is of the woman passing through the walled gate on her circular journey. This becomes a metaphor for the ancient male dominion.
The making of the film is somewhat extraordinary. The Sealed Soil was made clandestinely, Nabili explained. The shah would not allow people to film villages and only ‘progress’ could be shown. Nabili made the script in a very fast six days. She used a permit from when she had previously been shooting children’s fairy tales. She smuggled the negative out of Iran and edited it in the United States. The film has never been shown in Iran. When asked about women in Iran today, she is very pleased to state that more Iranian women than men go to university now. She makes it clear that, of course, there are struggles for women all over the world, not just Iran.
The Sealed Soil is by no means a documentary, but it sends a clear message of the struggle of some women and of family and social pressure, and can in some cases still be applied today. The Sealed Soil is left with an open ending and allows you to think of the woman’s route of independence for yourself. It is a quiet study of just one Iranian woman, yes, however, it feels like a very touching story for many others too.