The 2019 Iran floods are the backdrop of director Manijeh Hekmat’s often lighthearted film, Bandar Band.
In March 2019, 26 of Iran’s 31 provinces were flooded from excessive downpour. In April, The New York Times reported, “‘Iran is under water,’ said Sayed Hashem, regional director of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. ‘The scale of this crisis means that more help is needed.’” This tragic event, which left thousands of people without their homes and entire cities under water, is the backdrop of director Manijeh Hekmat’s often lighthearted film, Bandar Band.
In the film, three musicians are trying to get to Tehran from southwestern Iran’s Khuzestan Province by the end of the day for a music competition that could help launch their careers to the big time. Two of them, husband and very pregnant wife, have lost their home and are living out of a newly acquired tour bus. Their friend has yet to face similar tragedy, but from the way everywhere you look, there’s flooding, we suspect it’s only a matter of time. Hekmat uses their attempted journey cross-country to observe the landscape, displaced communities, and changes happening around them, almost always viewed through the bus windows in 4:3. You can’t fake a country-wide flood; instead, Bandar Band follows a trio of fictional characters through the streets where real devastation has happened.
Everywhere, there’s devastation, but the overwhelming sentiment is one of helping others out. As the trio weaves through flooded streets, encountering detour after detour, they calmly sing and play music together, trying to keep their spirits up and prepare for the competition. On the road, they see families who have packed up their lives into a vehicle, much like their own, as they search for new homes. A flock of sheep are herded through the road. The band gets water from a neighbouring vehicle, helps others move, and at one point, a group of people end up dancing in a flooded road, because what else can you do? Hekmat observes almost all of this through the bus windows, the backdrop to our main characters, but informing so much about what they must be going through.
Along the way, they make a few important stops to prepare for the show, which also allows Hekmat to show us just exactly what these floods have meant for people’s homes. They stop at a friend’s house to get a dress, only to discover the entire town is underwater, the house destroyed. As they chat, laughing about the destruction because crying would hurt too much, Hekmat frames the scene through the door of the destroyed house, the women standing in the mud outside. From here, the band helps transport children and parents from their flooded homes to the refugee camps, and distribute emergency supplies.. Most painful of all is when they go to the guitarist’s home, previously safe from the floods, to pick up his guitar, only to find it floating in water, destroyed. It’s the first time any of them approach giving up hope, or even giving up. The guitarist almost tries to kill himself.
Because of both personal and chosen detours, and unexpected road blocks, Hekmat refuses to let us track the trio’s trajectory. Have they progressed at all? Are they nearing Tehran? Does the pervasive flooding mean they haven’t moved or that the whole country is now underwater? Early in the film, they encounter a bridge that’s broken, and have to turn around, leaving a red thermos behind; later, they end up on the other side of that same bridge, and we see the thermos. It feels like they’re going in circles, physically, but to them, metaphorically, too.
In the press notes for Bandar Band, Hekmat discusses this as a metaphor for life in Iran, where you’re constantly stopped by political roadblocks. But it’s also a sage literal image of the world we’re living in: on spaceship earth, there’s no escape, so we can only hope that most people are as selfless and kind as the ones our characters encounter.
It’s horrifying to think that this particular tragedy is something we can only expect to see more of given the effects of climate change. Even as I write this, California is burning. Hurricane floods have devastated parts of the southern US. And we’re only just getting started. Yet Bandar Band remains mostly optimistic, about people trying to carry on even when keeping calm and doing so seems impossible. They find joy in their music, in their moments together, although the final images of the film make you question whether it was all just an illusion.