Of Iran’s many problems, Western viewers may be most familiar with issues surrounding violence against women — most recently with the Woman, Life, Freedom movement and slogan following the death of Mahsa Amini — and freedom of speech, with the films of Jafar Pahani and the travel bans and imprisonment of thinkers and artists like him. Empty Nets [+], the debut feature by German-Iranian filmmaker Behrooz Karamizade, premiering in the Crystal Globe Competition of this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, shows that life in Iran can be difficult even when looking at more ordinary situations, away from the more extreme examples of oppression viewers might be better used to.
Lovebirds Amir (Hamid Reza Abbasi) and Narges (Sadaf Asgari) are affected most of all by the country’s dour economic situation and persistent traditions. Amir comes from a poor family, while Narges’ father still holds on to the convention that his daughter’s husband should pay a hefty dowry for her hand. At the beginning of the film, the two lovers simply brush off those concerns: Amir has a job working as a waiter, the modern couple are in no rush to get married, and there is a slim hope that Narges’ father may not be quite as tough as he seems. In the meantime, they are happy to simply be together, hanging out for hours on end in their free time, spending their twenties the way all young lovers should. Their very simple relationship unfolds in the present tense, with Karamizade’s delicate and precise filmmaking and Ashkan Ashkani’s careful, atmospheric cinematography focusing on moments of everyday tenderness that, put together, form a picture that is very romantic without at all feeling contrived.
The progressive deterioration of their situation — more specifically, of Amir’s situation — likewise takes place in small, believable increments, with the characters simply trying to roll with the punches. Amir loses his job when he stands up to his mercenary boss, which wouldn’t be such a problem if jobs weren’t so hard to find in today’s Iran. We realise just how dire the situation is at the same time as he does, going from store to store asking for work, any work. Empty Nets shows the reality of daily life in the country, but it is also in large part about loss of innocence and the forced growing up imposed on people who are still, essentially, children. Amir’s journey into adulthood is one marked by a progressive slide into crime that feels inevitable for anyone who, like him, tries to hold on to his dignity: for Amir, this specifically means the right to marry the woman he loves. In order to do that, he needs to earn a living. And for this, he will do practically anything.
The only job he finds is in a local fishery, where he quickly realises that workers do all the work while the bosses pocket the money. The job requires living on the premises, far from Narges, and he can soon feel her slipping away: she does not understand his long working hours, and her father presents her to a suitor from a rich family. In this way, little by little, desperation sets in, though the diligent Amir wouldn’t say so. He remains remarkably calm while he progressively makes his way into the secret, more lucrative side of the fishery business he works for: poaching, and selling illegally obtained caviar to rich people all over town.
Empty Nets could be described as a tragedy, with Amir abandoning more and more of his moral principles in the pursuit of money for Narges’ dowry, while she grows increasingly concerned over his changed behaviour and habits. But the word “tragedy” implies a degree of exaggeration, while this story feels all too plausible. From everyday life as a young man in love, to a dangerous criminal existence by the treacherous sea, there are fewer steps than one might imagine.
Empty Nets was produced by Germany’s Basis Berlin Filmproduktion, in co-production with Germany’s Living Pictures Production GbR, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF), ARTE Deutschland, and Ireland’s Rainy Pictures. International sales are handled by Germany’s Pluto Film. The film will be released in Germany by Port-Au-Prince Pictures GmbH.