Film review: Iranian-German movie "Bandar Band"

Hope amid adversity

Iranian director Manijeh Hekmat expected the production of her latest movie to go ahead as planned – but then she found herself having to improvise. The resulting film is more than just an homage to Iran's landscapes. By Heike Mund

There's water as far as the eye can see. Muddy waves lazily roll towards the camera. A lone electricity pole remains standing amidst this waterscape. Then a boat approaches. When its three passengers get out, it becomes clear that they are in fact standing on a completely flooded highway.

A minibus is seen carefully ploughing through the floods, eventually coming to a complete stop. The three passengers get in as a news reader on the radio gives a flood warning for the Iranian province of Khuzestan. The roads have already been closed there, and villages evacuated.

The camera then pans through the windshield to reveal what is going on outside: people in packed cars, bumper to bumper trucks, shepherds trying to drive a panicked herd of sheep through the crowded convoy of vehicles.

This is both a graphic insight into the state of emergency in south-western Iran last year and an early scene in Iranian director Manijeh Hekmat's latest work, Bandar Band.

When reality bites

Hekmat, whose films are regularly screened at the Berlinale Film Festival, had planned to produce a road movie of sorts focusing on three young musicians from the countryside setting off for a competition in the capital. It was intended to be a road movie full of hope and big dreams of an international career, a 400-kilometre (250 miles) story of the drive to Tehran that is adventurous and fun. That was the plan, at least.

People fleeing floods during the filming of "Bandar Band" (photo: Bamdar Film (Tehran)/kapFilme Berlin)
When fact and fiction collide: during production, the film crew encountered many people fleeing the floods. Between mid March and the end of April 2019, 26 of Iran's 31 provinces were hit by flash-flooding. Tens of thousands were displaced, villages and towns evacuated and at least 70 killed

But severe storms in Iran thwarted the director's filming schedule. About two thirds of the original plot were still salvageable, the film's co-producer Yasmin Khalifa told DW. The remaining parts then had to be improvised again and again along the way.

At one point in the film, the cast are told that they have to take aid supplies along or they wouldn't be allowed to continue their journey.

"That actually happened," Khalifa explained, adding that it was one of the many things that were unplanned, resulting in a script that was heavily inspired by reality.

Watery landscapes

In the film, one of the protagonists, Amir, suggests: "Let's just go straight to Tehran." It turns out to be a bit of wishful thinking: the band's pregnant singer, Mahla, calls the organisers of the festival to confirm what time the performance starts, and to inform them that the band is on its way. But the road is totally flooded: all they see for miles is water – which, however, doesn't dampen their spirits.

Mahla and guitarist Navid meanwhile use their time to watch online music videos of competing bands, where they see only women singing at the microphone. In Iran, this is anything but a matter of course, says co-producer Yasmin Khalifa. 

"Mahla is a singer and the two musicians are there to accompany her. The reason behind this is that women in Iran are not allowed to sing solo in public. But this is a secret competition, so to speak, where the three are heading. Where the female voices can present themselves on stage."

Cast and crew members during the filming of "Bandar Band" (photo: Bamdar Film (Tehran))
Flexibility required: Iranian director Manijeh Hekmat had planned to make a kind of road movie focusing on three young musicians setting off for a competition in Tehran, but heavy rains forced her to change plans, improvising and adapting along the way: according to the film's co-producer Yasmin Khalifa, about two thirds of the original plot were still salvageable

Outside the windows of the minibus, the landscapes seem to float past the passengers like paintings in watercolour. Endless expanses and narrow rows of trees are reflected in the watery plains like a surreal green belt, with the horizon a pale blue blur. 

Mahla's gaze follows these passing landscapes, as she caresses her arched pregnant belly tenderly and introspectively.

A taste of music from Iran

Then a police cordon in the middle of the road stops the vehicle. Everyone gets agitated. Amir, the driver of the minibus and father-to-be, shouts that they "urgently have to go to Tehran, and we have a pregnant woman in the car." 

But the police officers look unimpressed. There seems to be no thoroughfare; all roads are closed. "I know the way," says Amir, which eventually seems to help.

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