Angels Die in the Soil, Directed by Babak Amini
The remarkable Angels Die in the Soil explores the dynamics of a society in the midst and in the aftermath of war. On the Iranian border with Iraq, people remember the Iran-Iraq War of the eighties and face an American war waging just across the border. Here, in Iraqi Kurdistan, a young woman (played by Donya Ghobadi) makes an austere living digging up the bones of fallen Iranian soldiers. Their remains — from the Iran-Iraq War — have completely disintegrated except for the bones and the soldiers’ tags to identify to whom they belong. Knees deep in the soil of unmarked graves in Kurdistan’s algid landscape, digging with a pickax and her bare hands, she works alone. From her rural, makeshift home which houses her younger sister and sickly father, she makes her living searching for bones in order to deliver them to the families of the deceased, letting them finally know the fate of their sons: casualties of a war that ended decades ago. They can finally bury them — and move on.
The film features stunning visuals of a near-deserted countryside in Kurdistan, where once there was war and now there is just the solitary work of a child cleaning up after the carnage, digging up bones so that families can bury them again. She works in inhuman conditions, as evidenced by her unceasing cough in the parched and freezing landscape. Her father speaks only with his eyes, lying immobile in their small home and attached to an oxygen tank which keeps him breathing despite the lasting effects of chemical warfare. (A soldier provided him a gas mask during an attack to save him from the worst of the gasses, only to be killed himself.) Her mother, also affected by the chemicals, became a casualty too when she died after giving birth to her second daughter. In her father’s recollections we see flashbacks of the war, urgent and traumatic even decades later.
One day, her work is interrupted by terrorists. They pull up in a car on the single-lane highway that cuts through the grave-ridden countryside, but she darts behind a lone tree just in time. The terrorists have guns and a camera. They also have an American soldier.
At home, George W. Bush shows up on the television. When she changes the channel, a journalist reports on a terrorist incident on the Kurdistan border — the same one which she saw with her own eyes just hours before. The terrorists filmed their threats to the American government and their murder of the American soldier. She watches the familiar incident, now televised around the world, but she remains silent. The next time she goes out there, she will discover something she never expected.
Her story is about cleaning up after the mess of war, healing wounds ancient and new. The help she offers is indiscriminate and thankless, done entirely in secret to mend what is broken. She heals wounds wherever she goes. War envelopes her story, affecting her and her family decades removed from the immediate violence. Chemical weapons have made her father, her mother, and the very land in which she lives all casualties of war: injured, killed, and polluted with poison. She heals for herself as much as for the people she helps directly, having experienced the effects of violence inflicted long before she was aware of it. After the fact, all she can do is fix the wrongs she sees before her. Healing the wounds of war becomes her profession.
Angels Die in the Soil is a statement on war and its vast and terrible effects which travel through generations and see no end. As if in response to a question posed by Liz Lerman in Parables of War about the aftermath of violent conflict — ‘What happens to the bodies?’ — Babak Amini answers: They’re still here, in the soil, waiting for rest and closure from violence which continues to wreak havoc on those that survive.
The weight of war is palpable, and so is the effort to unburden. ■
Runtime: 30 minutes
Genre: Dramatic Short
This film is the 2016 recipient of the Atlas Aeris Prize for the year’s best film of any genre and the Atlas Award for Best Short Film.
Find out more
Find out more about this film and the filmmaker on the pages for Angels Die in the Soil and Babak Amini in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Angels Die in the Soil premiered in North America at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in 2008, and is the recipient of several awards. Babak Amini is a Kurdish-Iranian independent filmmaker who studied philosophy in Tehran and worked for 10 years as an assistant to the acclaimed Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi on the award-winning films A Time for Drunken Horses, Turtles Can Fly, and Half Moon. Amini’s other films include Banquet Under the Water, I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere, and A Good Afternoon.
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: Donya Ghobadi in ‘Angels Die in the Soil’. Babak Amini.