Tuesday 21 May 2024

The Sealed Soil [Khak-e Sar bé Mohr] (Marva Nabili, 1977)

The Sealed Soil

The digital restoration of The Sealed Soil [Khak-e Sar bé Mohr], directed by Marva Nabili, will be premiered at UCLA Film & Television Archive on June 15 and a week later at Bologna's Il Cinema Ritrovato.

Khak-e Sar bé Mohr chronicles the repetitive and repressed life of Roo-Bekheir, a young woman in a poor village in southwest Iran, and her resistance to forced marriage. It’s a formally rigorous, if emotionally distanced, critique of patriarchy and the spurious reform of Iranian agricultural life that was a factor in the 1979 revolution.

Nabili conceived Khak-e Sar bé Mohr as her graduation film when studying in New York. With the help of Iranian producer and cinematographer Barbod Taheri, she returned to Iran and got a deal to direct part of the Ancient Persian Fables series for Iranian public television in exchange for raw 16mm film stock and a crew for her film project. She wrote the script as she was directing the series, making frequent trips to the village she had scouted for the film, and it was eventually shot by Taheri in 1976 with his wife, Flora Shabaviz, playing the main role. After completion, Nabili edited the film in the US though the post-production work (especially the professional dubbing) indicates that support from Iran must have continued after her return to New York.

Using long shots, static camera, and long takes, Nabili cites the Persian miniature, in which the story is always depicted from a distance, allowing the viewer free interpretation of characters and situations, as her main influence. She also refers to Bertolt Brecht and Robert Bresson, the latter’s influence most evident in the lyrical and quiet sequence in which the film finds momentary poetic release as Roo-Bekheir undresses in the rain. This measured and restrained rebellion against patriarchy – Nabili’s only feature, other than a TV film made for PBS in 1983 – might explain the renewed interest in her work in post-Woman/Life/Freedom Iran, even if Khak-e Sar bé Mohr was never screened in its country of production and a generation saw it only on ghastly VHS tapes. Last year also saw a lost volume of her poetry, dating back to the late 1960s, published in Tehran for the first time.

Ehsan Khoshbakht


  1. Hi Ehsan I know it will be in the catalogue but anyway who is distributing the film? Geoff Gardner