Frontier Blues

“This is my mother,” says Hassan in the film’s opening moments, pointing upwards, not turning around. A photo of a woman is affixed to the wall behind him. “She lives in Paris. She went there when my father disappeared after I was born.” Babak Jalali’s Frontier Blues thus establishes itself as an account of the affect of location and loss, something suggested by its title: formed of two distinctly American imports, both the western frontier and southern blues describe, seperately, individual histories of displacement and dislocation, the long affect of violence.

Frontier Blues follows four men living at Iran’s northern border with Turkmenistan: Hassan, continually eating dried apricots, accompanied everywhere by his beautiful donkey; his uncle, Kazem, who owns an unsuccessful clothes shop; Amal, learning English in-between shifts at a chicken farm so that he can move to Baku, Azerbaijan, with the Persian woman he is in love with; and the Turkmen Minstrel, trailed by four small boys, driven around and posed in isolated landscapes by a photographer from Tehran. Each negotiates and cohabits with their various longings: for an absent mother, for clothes that fit their intended clientele, for a language and a life elsewhere, in the Minstrel’s case, for a long-lost woman, stolen by a man driving a green Mercedes Benz.

Jalali was himself displaced from Iran to London in 1986, when he was six, and returned to northern Iran in 2009 to shoot the film. He was working from a remembered past: “when you remain in one place, you build up experiences. But I had no new experiences, only memories.” The accumulation of experience is a displacement of sorts, as old memories make way for the new; yet the effect of leaving is for those memories to remain still and unmoving, the equivalent of the photographs made by the Tehrani photographer throughout the film. Gorgan is similarly static, a place in some Purgatorial state of stasis, oft-asserted by the Minstrel: there are no funerals, there are no weddings. Things happen in the film, but there is no sense of plot as an accumulative mechanism or presence: Hassan’s uncle drives off the donkey, Amal proposes to and is rejected by his love’s family, and the Minstrel grows impatient with the photographer and his boys and drives them all off. But the sense of suppressed violence, hysteria and longing survives, fixed as it were in place.

When the photographer takes his pictures, intended for a book of photos of the Turkmen people, he ducks behind the film camera, turning the development of the image into choreography. In one scene the photographer has two brothers wrestle as they would as entertainment at a wedding, in clothes of rare reds, ordering them to hold their poses at intervals: the libidinal energy is abortive and constrained, displaced into the fiction of the photograph. Yet the filmmaker’s project is no less artificial — in a similar quest for the authentic, he used nonprofessional actors, striving to recreate a sense of the authentically absurd he remembered from childhood. In a scene soon after the wrestlers, Amal and his father eat together, a scene of apparently stark contrast — intimate, domestic, natural — yet their familial wrestling is equally as posed, for the benefit of the camera.

The film is awash with blues: peeling shutters and doorways, the smooth steel of a heap of old tyres, the dull whaleish gleam of a car, the warm coarseness of indigo-dyed cotton. Blue jackets, skies, wheelbarrows, blankets, Alam’s motorbike, the blanket on Hassan’s donkey, the leaves of the eucalyptus that he farms in his fantasies. It is shot in 35mm, a medium that tends to depict its blacks as blueish, which means that figures in nighttime scenes are wrapped in coagulant washes of blue, instead of being marooned in the darkness. “Blue”, writes Rebecca Solnit, “is the colour of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.” “Blue noise” is a kind of static that lacks concentrated spikes of energy, but which is characterised by a low-frequency energy, aliasing noise concentrated in higher, less conspicuous frequencies: the background noise in the chicken sheds, hundreds of pullets issuing alarm signals. It is used in audio production as “dithering”, a process that removes harmonies and distortions and replaces them with a fixed noise level. Dithering, in more vernacular contexts, means hanging around, hesitating, not going anywhere.

Freud used the word “displacement” to describe the defensive manoeuvre in which feelings directed toward the object of importance are shifted to an object of lesser importance, which happens equally in jokes and neuroses. This film’s humour is wrangled from its tragedies, culminating in one scene where Kemen strikes his nephew as they dispassionately watch a television program of a chicken induced to line-dance on a yellow and blue plastic stage. The humour derives from moments of surprising tenderness, earnestness, quirks of failure, disappointment, and habit. This sensibility Jalali attributes to Beckett, which is to say it is alive to the peculiarities of character and location, the arbitrary and consequential ways in which people need one other.

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