When everything is lost

28 October 2005

Wake up Arezoo (Bidar Sho Arezoo)

Sunday 23 October, 21:00, ICA

Before the film starts, director Kianoosh Ayyari gets up to say a few words. A woman stands next to him translating from Persian, but I get the feeling she is leaving a lot unsaid. The film does not contain any "real" footage of December 2003's Bam earthquake, says Ayyari. Nevertheless, hardly any of the charaters are played by professional actors, and the film was shot just a few days after the earthquake, using Bam, then 70% destroyed, as a backdrop.

Ayyari excuses himself from sitting with us to watch the screening - it is too painful. As we get further into the film, I'm glad he's not in the room. A few giggles are rising from more than one part of the audience. How this can be when we're all watching the same opening half an hour of unadulterated panic footage is an interesting question. Perhaps the material is too shocking to comprehend - we share the shock of the people on screen - how can this happen (to me)?

Or maybe it's intentional. A freed prison convict runs back to his home to find it reduced to rubble. But his mother is alive - represented by a frail yet clear voice being issued from a tiny gap between two rocks. "Don't save me, save your wife and daughter" she cries to her son. "But where are they?" demands the convict, "Have you tried the kitchen?"

So the convict runs to the rubble that once was the kitchen "She's not there" he cries, running back. "Try the bathroom" commands the gap in the rock. So the convict runs to the bathroom "She's not there either" etc until I find myself thinking of an Iranian Basil and Sybil Fawlty.

After the intial panic has been documented, the film moves into a world of dust and blankets, of over-burdened clinics, and of the fight to protect possessions and children from looters and opportunists. Our convict forges a deep friendship with a female school teacher from a neighbouring village and together with a Red Crescent official, they help the relief effort, building a family of orphan children around them to replace the families they lost to the earthquake.

Slipping out of the ICA and into a crisp Sunday evening in London, I walk as far as Trafalgar Square before I go to catch the train. Am I imagining the most famous landmark in Britain as a backdrop to an army of fires warming lost people whose only possession is a standard issue fleece blanket, as they peer out into the night to make out the ruins of their city? Not quite. But I certainly feel I understand what strength people can still find when they lose everything.


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