By Arash Azizi.
Hendi and Hormoz, which screened at the first-ever Iranian Film Festival of New York on January 11, has many alarming elements: A child marriage, an early-teen pregnancy, poverty-stricken locals who don’t benefit from their island’s mineral wealth and a cast of non-actors mostly speaking in a local language of southern Iran. It is therefore to the film’s credit that it largely avoids falling into familiar traps. It ends up giving us an engaging drama with real characters and a real love story.
The film begins on the wedding night of its title characters, the 13-year-old Hendi and the 16-year-old Hormoz. She is a high school student who takes her classes seriously and wants to avoid school dismissal at any cost. He is an orphan who has gotten married to satisfy an employer who says he wont hire bachelors. She is an Afro-Iranian who speaks Hormozi, the native language of the Persian Gulf island of Hormuz. He is an outsider who has lived on the island for long but speaks Persian of the center.
Shot on an island known for its crimson soil and jaw-dropping rock-and-sand coastal scenery, the film does use the mesmerizing setting to seduce us — but not more than it needs to. The allegorical use of the color red was clearly too tempting to pass on. When the young couple consummate their marriage on the island’s fabled Red Beach, the film cuts to the morning-after as red-tinged waves wash on the shore. When Hormoz gets beaten up by his would-be employer, he has to wash off the blood mixed with red dust off him. These uses are not exactly subtle, but not domineering either.
Details of life on the island are never depicted in an excessively anthropological fashion. Hendi and Hormoz dry fish in their courtyard and play with the dead fish on the beach. Hormoz makes ends meet by giving motorcycle tours to tourists and working for unscrupulous smugglers who end up cornering him into a tough bargain that will take him away from his young bride and the baby-to-come. But these details are never on the nose in Amini’s telling. They are revealed to us in the first half of the film as we slowly see the developing romance between the two teenage leads. The characters remain human and relatable, despite their daunting circumstances. In his debut, Valderrama (2016), Amini had shown a penchant for portraying the yearning of young people for happiness, and the same is done here.
The film largely rests on the shoulders of Hendi, played by the alluring Zohre Eslami whose command of bookish Persian at school is mixed with her proud speaking of the native Hormozi with other locals and with when taunting her husband for not having learnt the local tongue, despite years of living on the island. Her dodged quest for happiness is there when she is giggling with her fellow ninth-graders or when she flirts with her young husband, but also when she has to face the hardships that life puts to her.
After years of Kiarostami films focusing on rural lives of children (in his case, mostly people of the Iranian north, close to the Caspian coast), Iranian films have had an aversion to repeating him and many have gone on to depict the lives of middle-class urbanites, especially those in the capital Tehran. But Hendi and Hormoz shows that the so-called periphery of the country still has much to offer. Center-periphery relations have complex dynamics in Iran, a country in which the majority has a mother tongue other than Persian, the sole official language of the country which is native to the center of Iranian plateau. While many films mix the dominant Tehrani with a generalized ruralesque dialect, the advent of filmmakers from diverse backgrounds (like Amini who is from the southwestern city of Abadan) has helped bring more granular depictions of the country’s linguistic diversity to screen. The New York festival also features Asghar Yousefinejad’s The Home which is almost entirely in Azerbaijani, a Turkic-language that is native to millions of Iranians but is not taught at schools.
Criticizing the plot of a film is a perhaps dubious exercise — but a plot question might linger with many viewers of the film. Does the dramatic and deadly finish of the film add much to it? Be that as it may, there are many more lingerings of a different type: Chiefly that of Hormoz and Hendi’s relatable stubborn humanity. The Persian Gulf that is their home is constantly in the world news over its oil fields and US navy ships (which make a brief appearance in this film too), but films like this help tell the humane stories of the people of its shores.
Arash Azizi is a translator, scholar, and doctoral students at New York University.