The Debt, Directed by Mahmoud Shoolizadeh
Iranian filmmaker Mahmoud Shoolizadeh’s latest film, The Debt, narrates the tumultuous post-war life of an American combat veteran in the shadow of emotional trauma, detailing the struggle for ‘normality’ of one woman whose mental anguish after the trauma of war proves almost too much to handle.
The scene is a lush landscape of quintessential suburban life in the pastoral American south: American flag waving at the front porch of a modest yellow house, bicycle bells chiming, native birds singing, and children blowing bubbles in the wind in a backyard family barbecue. The greenery is stunning, almost mythological in its bright colours and gentle calm, the soft rocking of tree branches, the steady silence of pastoral vastness.
It is shocking, then, when amidst the dancing bubbles and chirping birds, the camera leads us to the morose Lisa (Courtney Gardner). She sits in a garden chair smoking a cigarette, and while she appears superficially part of the scene, it is clear from the look in her eyes that in her mind she is somewhere else altogether. She is absent: her gaze focuses to the distance and her body is unnaturally immobile, frozen in time except for her hair, which rocks in the wind like the limbs of the live oak tree in her garden. A bubble breezes past her, awakening her to her surroundings.
‘Mommy, can you please blow me a big bubble?’ Instead of responding, she takes another anxious drag from her cigarette, unable to respond. But when her husband Ben (Chris Morrissey) offers to do it, she speaks, anxious but firm: ‘No! I’ll – I’ll do it’. There is tenderness in the interaction between mother and child, but there is also an undeniable contrition and sorrow.
Shoolizadeh depicts the pastoral American south with stunning cinematic beauty that reflects a deep understanding of the American imagination and the enduring mythology of American rural space. The classic visual symbol of the pastoral south – the enormous live oak tree, romantically draping and rocking – shades the Florida family’s home. Sun reflects each detail of the beautiful environment, which clashes in powerful cinematic metaphor with the disturbing presence of the shell-shocked Lisa.
Even the children’s bubbles reflect metaphorically the beauty and trauma around them through the simple refraction of light, which Shoolizadeh’s camera reveals to distort reality while also absorbing it: the innocent consciousness of Lisa’s daughter, her family’s relationships, even the very American pastoralism that envelopes everything – all are shaken by the trauma of distant combat, or at least its violent memory. This is true even in the city of Jacksonville, where a frazzled outing shared by Lisa and Ben contrasts with the romantic simplicity of teenagers enjoying the same experience – without the weight of past trauma. And again inside the family’s home, where Shoolizadeh plays with the metaphorical separation of architecture and space, the mental anguish of one and its effects on everyone. Even in her darkest hour, Lisa is shaded with beautiful trees in a pastoral space filled with the comforting sound of chirping crickets. Reality constantly counterposes the psychological reality of Lisa’s traumatic experience to emphasize the jarring disparity. The film’s greatest strength is this ever-present contrast between pastoral innocence and the weight of Lisa’s memory.
The depiction of post-combat mental illness is a compassionate one that does not shy from showing Lisa’s seemingly incomprehensible actions nor from Ben’s uncompassionate responses to her suffering. The weight of the past is ever-present, not just for Lisa, but for everyone that she touches. Banalities like ‘Ring Around the Rosie’, bubbles moving through the air, Fourth of July fireworks, and the honking of a passing car unpredictably trigger Lisa’s trauma in incomprehensible eruptions of anxiety. Gardner’s interpretation is tragically convincing. Her artistic rendering of psychological trauma requires great sensitivity and vulnerability to evoke Lisa’s palpable terror, and despite some moments of unconvincing dialogue, Gardner delivers a strong performance. The film’s sound emphasizes this terror for the viewer, especially in the more dramatic moments of Lisa’s trauma, which are accompanied by nonexistent bells that replace audible dialogue, mimicking the incomprehensibility of insanity with the auditory cultural symbology of the cuckoo bell.
Lisa’s flashbacks are well-done and serve to clarify significant aspects of the plot and the depth of Lisa’s trauma. They lack realism, however, plot-wise and action-wise. The scenes of combat leave one with a sense of unrealism, which reaches the point of absurdity when the ‘terrorists’ clamour and tumble amongst rock piles, AK-47s in hand. Their clothing is also decidedly Orientalist in its simplicity. On the other hand, the use of actual combat footage to integrate the reality of war with its fictional representation – a difficult editorial feat – is as well-done as it could be.
The America in The Debt is perfect to a fault: the idyllic south, the nuclear family, the barbecue – it’s too perfect to be real. Shoolizadeh paints pictures with the camera, showing an American south in cinematic perfection and framing family portraits on-screen, but sometimes these are overdone in their idealism. If one is searching for reality in this film, it is not to be found through its images alone, but through their representational significance as perfected by the American imagination. The Debt is a film about illness and war, but the film also addresses an American self-consciousness that is fantastical in its perfection. This extends to the imagery of war against the faceless, anonymous, and homogeneous ‘terrorist’. The mythology of America is rendered beautifully, but only as an example of its unreality – not as reality in itself.
The accomplishment of this film is put into perspective with its incredible budget of $0. The volunteer cast and crew, along with skilled cinematography and editing, have made a film worth experiencing for its unique perspective on an all too contemporary issue in a nation perpetually at war. ■
Runtime: 30 minutes
Genres: Psychological Drama, Short
Find out more
Find out more about this film and independent Iranian director, writer, producer, editor, and filmmaker Mahmoud Shoolizadeh on the public pages of The Debt and Mahmoud Shoolizadeh in the Internet Movie Database, as well as in the encyclopaedia entries for The Debt and Mahmoud Shoolizadeh in Wikipedia.
The Debt has participated in several international film festivals and in September 2014 won the Best Film and Best Lead Actress awards (the latter for Courtney Gardner’s performance as Lisa), both at the Moondance International Film Festival.
Mahmoud Shoolizadeh has written and directed numerous films, many of which have screened at international film festivals. His 2013 film, The Prisoner, was awarded an Honorable Mention Jury Award at the Indie Fest USA International Film Festival, as well as the Best Short Fiction Film and Best Supporting Actor Awards, both at the Hollywood Cinerockom International Film Festival. Shoolizadeh won the Best Director Award for Documentary Film at the Festival of TV Production of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) for his documentary film about British peace activist Brian Haw, titled A Man Called Brian (2005). His 2002 feature film, Noora (The Kiss of Life), was awarded Best Film at the International Film Festival of Taormina, Italy, as well as Best Film at the Azra Film Festival and various other international awards, including Best Director, Best Music, Best Set Design, Best Child Actress, and Best Script.
The trailer for The Debt is available below:
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: A scene from ‘The Debt’. The Debt.