A Speck of Mankind In the Boundless Sands - "Water, Wind, Sand" Review

By Caryn James The New York Times

An almost-silent film shot in the violent sandstorms of the Iranian desert, "Water, Wind and Sand" fulfills one purpose of the New Directors/New Films series: it is stylistically fresh and daring. The story begins when an adolescent boy returns from working in a distant city and learns that his family has left its drought-stricken village. Passing by corpses of sheep and cattle, he sets out to find his family and discovers the brutal need to fight hunger, thirst and isolation.

This meandering tale scarcely acknowledges contemporary society or politics, relying instead on a classic quest motif more common in Eastern and African films than those from the West. And though it was written and directed by Amir Naderi, an Iranian who has lived in the United States for 15 years, the film could never be confused with American commercial movies or even urbane European imports.

That unfamiliarity is an asset and a problem. While the work offers a chance to discover an adept film maker, 70 minutes of sand sweeping across the desert may try the patience of all but the most devoted students of cinema. "Water, Wind and Sand," which will be shown at the Museum of Modern Art tonight at 6 and tomorrow at 8:30 P.M., is not likely to be one of the series' breakaway hits.

Though the time and place are intentionally vague, the boy and his situation are graphically fixed. As he traipses across the desert, grayish dust coats his face. Sand often seems to cover the movie screen like a veil. The wind's endless howl is more prominent than the occasional bits of dialogue in which the boy asks passers-by if they have seen his family. Though Mr. Naderi relies on vivid long shots placing his hero in the desert's vastness, there is no epic triumph in his story. The boy is a small part of an endless conflict pitting lonely humans against merciless natural forces.

The film's universal quality comes partly from the way Mr. Naderi turns his back on politics. Once, the boy hears shelling in the distance, sees fires, and runs the other way. But the work's timelessness owes more to a calm, uninflected tone that never changes, even when the story becomes more dramatic and finally surreal. The boy finds a landlocked boat that holds an abandoned baby; he helps rescue a man buried in the sand and dying of thirst. Then, while dogs tear apart the carcass of a cow, he digs a well and strikes the ocean, waves crashing around him. Still, the film remains quietly eloquent.

"Water, Wind and Sand" will be preceded by a 14-minute film that is its perfect complement. "A Few Stories About a Man," by a Polish director, Bogdan Dziworski, also moves from a documentarian's straightforward beginning to an ending of magical realism. And in a different way, it too is about an individual battling nature.

Originally Published March 17, 1990

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