In a revealing, central scene in Jamshed Mahmoudi’s A Few Cubic Meters of Love, a settlement of Afghani refugees on the Iranian side of the shared national border goes about its daily rituals: iron hits iron, wood is polished, a sparse meal is improvised, afternoon prayers are read – when suddenly, in the distance: sirens. A boy-Friday rushes down the mole-hill, screaming at his Iranian boss: ‘Police! The police is here!’ And then, shit goes down. The boss issues desperate instructions to all the Afghani labourers to clear out – it is illegal to hire hands from across the border, licenses could be revoked, reputations sullied. The Afghanis sense the apocalypse, abandon their ware and synchronise a mad rush. Over the horizon, we see a convoy of Iranian cop-cars, green bands on the side, and closer to home, a fear of persecution. Mahmoudi then affects two continuous images that are symptomatic of the affliction that plagues his larger film: in the first, a lonely child, seated in the verandah of his house, cries for his mother before stranger-limbs crane him up, and second, the group of ordinary, escaping refugees are suddenly filmed inside a watery-tunnel, their being reduced to backlit silhouettes, as their footsteps spray necklaces of slow-mo water across the frame. These images are odd-fits with the rest of the scene – action movie tropes – that do not belong to the ground-level, dusty physical universe of the settlements that Mahmoudi has rendered so far, but they also demonstrate the film’s larger tendency to overstate, exaggerate its own case.
Consider the treatment of the cross-border romance that the film pivots around. Every afternoon, the girl Julie Andrews her way to their meeting spot: a metal-container by the wayside. Their meetings exhibit the unstimulated hysteria of a 90s toaster-ad: they engineer cutesy life-fantasies with matchsticks, perform cross-paternal mimicry, run in slow-motion – models from a series of overlit, super-saturated, corny pictures printed on the back of playing cards in a seedy motel.
Mahmoudi (also wrote the film) erects as a backdrop to the love story an ongoing territorial tussle between the Iranian locals (long-time workers, law-enforcement agencies, the boss) and the Afghani settlers (frontman: girl’s father, perpetual sourpuss, worksman Abdolsalam) – an admirable attempt to forge contrast between the naïve optimism of the lovers and the political realities that circle them. In its initial stages, the film does articulate a real interest in the complex situation (as a successful, recurring motif, the figure of Abdolsalam is filmed against the backdrop of Tehran – the distance between the planes of the image used to illustrate his status as an outsider who will never belong). Gradually, however, the ethnic contest is reduced to a mere pretext, a device to induce trouble in the parallel, romantic endeavor. Still, a salvageable scene or two from the debris of an earnest, early intent: after a physical scuffle breaks at the camp between an Afghani labourer and his Iranian colleague, the latter goes to the boss, says: ‘I know you hire them so that you can pay us half, please don’t say it is for humanity’ – a simple, elegant takedown of the false, humanist tendency that permeates through other similar films and instead, the presentation of pure, obvious economic logic.
And near the end, where Abdolsalam goes batshit-crazy upon discovering the love affair – a scandal – and rushes to separate the two participants. He slaps the girl around, pushes the boy to a side, locks her in and emerges to have a proper conversation with the boss (who has appeared on the scene to reason and is the boy’s uncle). Mahmoudi allows him to emerge as a sympathetic, complete individual. Initial outpouring over, he calms down and declares, simply, ‘This will disgrace me in front of my family’. No grandstanding gesture, no scene-ending proclamation; a selfish, naked insecurity. He then launches onto a finely written monologue – an expression of his fears for the future of his daughter – that is distilled through a tone that perhaps the rest of the film could too have run with.
This then is the conflict of A Few Cubic Meters of Love – a film with a dual personality – a separation between what it is and what it wants to be. There are traces of genuine generosity, a lightness of touch, an austerity of form that is associated with the films of the more renowned Iranian masters (Reza Mirkarimi is a particular touchpoint) but also, a simultaneous desire to exceed its own stature, to be more relevant, somehow. As a result, it telegraphs the misery – the film puts on display a series of poverty-icons: a plastic jar, a steel mug, asbestos roofs – that it seems to want to understand. And reduces the same couple it rallies for to a silly, two-bit political metaphor in a truly bizarre ending: two landlocked countries, forging a bilateral treaty of love and eternal togetherness.