After the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, crossing the border between the two countries became possible again

Jean-Luc Lioult

Jean-Luc Lioult is both a professor of documentary film, and a picture maker.

ziarat_01After the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, crossing the border between the two countries became possible again. Thousands of pilgrims then started to rush from Iran to the holy city of Karbala, Iraq, the site of the shrine of the martyr Imam Hussein (Muhammad’s grandson)-before returning home.

Bahman Kiarostami (son of Iran’s most celebrated filmmaker) first shows us how such a trip is prepared. Women wearing heavy chadors are herded into trucks that are covered with tarps, and loaded with Coleman coolers filled with ice. Then we are plunged into the chaos of a border post in the city of Mehran. Hundreds and hundreds of people claim their right to cross (in both directions), a lot of them using forged papers and/or doubtful arguments. The most determined ones simply climb over the fence. Such a flood of people can hardly be restrained. Sorting out who they are exactly is not easy, either: Iranians from Iraq going one way? Iraqi refugees in Iran, going the other, back home? Relatives of modern martyrs (from the war) headed for martyrs’ graves? Or real pilgrims? Or smugglers? They call themselves ‘lovers of Imam Hussein’ or ‘crazy for God’.

“The most logical solution,” as said in a TV programme, “is to close the border.” This does not sound very realistic. In fact, what is implemented is ‘a minimum form of punishment’: pilgrims crossing back to Iran after entering Iraq illegally are charged a fine of 5000 tomans (USD 6), not enough to dishearten anyone. A boy tells his aunt about the leave: “Give them money…cry a little, too,” and we are indeed given an example of seemingly false tears. But the journey can have a much more tragic ending, especially for those who hire unofficial ‘guides’. Over a year, 224 were killed by mines, (US) gunshots, car accidents or dehydration. If one dies this way, is it martyrdom? Ayatollahs discuss the point. Violating earthly laws is Ahram (a sin) in any case, since the government’s laws come from God…

Certainly not a ‘nobody’s point of view’ film, Bahman Kiarostami’s film is strikingly simple. It is also intriguing-and cautious. No judgement is uttered. But, as close-up shots of hysterical crowds alternate with face-to-face interviews or long shots of checkpoints, we gradually understand this most entangled situation. Yet one remains puzzled when shown, near the end, the ‘spiritual exhibition’ devoted to Imam Hussein, in Tehran-all blood and thunder from a Western point of view.

A major documentary nonetheless.

 


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