Each frame of PAPELI is skilfully and beautifully composed, as the audience witness a rare insight into rural life in Iran. Zeinab is the last daughter of eleven siblings who have all flown the nest. She is left to look after her aging mother and crippled father, either doing housework or by herself in the woods. Loosely structured into seasons, this striking, if slow, documentary follows the family in their daily lives.
There is a deliberate and mesmerising slow pace to PAPELI, which at first seems achingly tedious
There is a deliberate and mesmerising slow pace to PAPELI, which at first seems achingly tedious and overly detailed. But soon you feel a part of every aspect of the family’s life, routine and even its monotony: in a small way, you are going through the same torturous existence that Zeinab describes to us. The ordeals of the family are heart-breaking. Over contrastingly beautiful photography, the family relate the description of the father falling from a tree, leaving him paralysed from the waist down; the trials of living so far from civilisation; the loneliness of a young girl, with only her horse for company; the marriage proposals that threaten to take Zeinab from her parents. The family’s existence, as you might imagine, revolve around food, farming and nature.
The scenes in the house are static and watchful, often tense; stuck in one observant position at a time – much like the father himself. But it is outside of the house that the film comes to life. Nature becomes a character in the film – filmed lovingly, almost intimately, as Zeinab carefully touches dew on a flower’s petals. When Zeinab is on her adventures into the woods the camera jarringly moves finally, as if only in nature does life become vibrant and energetic – the stark, still house a distant memory.
What also comes across is the powerful role of women in the film…
The documentary successfully catches some wonderful moments with the family, who seem strangely natural in front of the camera and one wonders how the filmmaker – whose presence is not felt at any point in the film – was able to bring them into this comfortable space, baring much of themselves and their issues for the audience. There are even some awkwardly intimate moments. What also comes across is the powerful role of women in the film, how they have taken control of the farm production, the housework and the general duties. Despite this, the father remains very much the head of the family, heading meetings with other local men, calling for his wife and daughter to bring tea and food. Although physically paralysed, and no longer the so-called bread-winner of the family, in the cultural context, he is still the king. That is not to say he abuses that power, but acknowledges the role of his family – thus the title of the film, calling Zeinab his butterfly, a symbol of good news, a blessing. When it comes to the marriage proposals, he seems reluctant to let her go.
While little seems to take place, just the way the family’s existence is portrayed is interesting and engaging in PAPELI; revealing dignity and fortitude in the face of difficult rural conditions, existing so far from the world.