Spaces of Exception vs. Spaces of Redemption: The Films of Ana Lily Amirpour

By

In arguably the most famous scene of the 2014 film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the film’s female protagonist, Girl, takes her male love interest, Arash, home after a party. As Girl puts on a record, Arash spins the disco ball hanging from her bedroom ceiling and walks up slowly behind her.

It could be any cinematic first kiss—except for all the differences. Girl and Arash are in the Central Valley of California, but they’re speaking Farsi. The black and white ambiance, from the fly buzzing in the background of the title credits to Arash’s prized Thunderbird, evokes Westerns, but Girl happens to be a vampire who skateboards around the city streets at night.

“Who is this emergent, new subject of the cinema? From where does he/she speak?” asks cultural theorist Stuart Hall in “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” writing in 1990 about cinema of the Caribbean diaspora. It is an equally applicable question to pose of Girl Walks Home and its director, Ana Lily Amirpour.

Amirpour was born in London in 1980, the year after the Iranian Revolution, to Iranian parents. The family immigrated to the United States when she was a child, and ended up in Bakersfield, California, in whose environs Girl Walks Home was filmed.

Amirpour’s second film, The Bad Batch, which came out on June 23 this year, is another genre predator. Sometimes the bright, wide shots of the west Texas landscape make the film feel electrified like a music video; other times it is desolate, filled with cannibals and castaways.

The films feel surreal, dreamlike. Both are sparing in their dialogue, and meditative in their cinematography. But the real world protrudes persistently, gradually revealing the complementary spatial metaphors that underpin the films—one the insularity of diaspora, the other the lawless divisiveness of borders. In a clandestine, devious way, the films speak to one of the most timely and wicked knots of American governance: immigration policy.

According to Amirpour, Girl Walks Home takes place in an Iranian oil boomtown turned ghost town—not “Iran, Iran,” but a “comic-book kind of Iran.” The town is called is shari bad, or “Bad City,” and all of the film’s dialogue, signage, and text, down to the license plates, are in Farsi. Yet the film’s landscape is also unmistakably that of the “shitty little oil towns” outside of Bakersfield, whose sightline includes refineries, trash-strewn culverts, highway guardrails, and dilapidated buildings.

“Place substitution,” the technique of shooting in a different location than a film’s setting, is common in cinema—used for reasons of economy, convenience, or historical legitimacy. During the heyday of Westerns, European filmmakers used Italy and Yugoslavia for a more convenient New Mexico and California; more recently, New Mexico and California have stood in for American filmmakers’ Afghanistans.

The impossibility of filming an American movie in Iran makes Girl Walks Home an obvious candidate for place substitution. But Amirpour’s place substitution goes beyond Hollywood’s mere switching out of one place for another. Likewise, her Central Valley is more than the “‘empty land’” or “juncture-point” that Hall describes the New World presence in Caribbean cinema to be. The Central Valley is unconcealed, unassimilated; it doesn’t try to pass. And Amirpour cites California films endlessly: Touch of Evil, American Graffiti, Wild at Heart.

The film’s setting, then, is neither one nor the other, neither Iran nor Bakersfield. It is a layering, a hybrid. One way to understand its peculiar world is to see its elements of diasporic community—it is unassimilated, geographically unified; it maintains its own culture while selectively adopting elements of its host, like Girl’s skateboard. “Hybridity is never simply a question of the admixture of pre-given identities,” writes post-colonialist Homi Bhabha.

California is home to more than ten million immigrants, more than any other state. A quarter of the state’s population is foreign-born, twice the national figure. The state also accepts more refugees than any other—112,000 in the last fifteen years, including resettling as many Syrians last year as the entire rest of the country.

These sheer numbers mean that the state holds countless diasporic enclaves. Southern California, of which Bakersfield tenuously claims the northern edge, has the highest number of Iranians outside of Iran in the world. During the decade of the Iran-Iraq war following the Iranian Revolution, many of the country’s best-educated families emigrated, and the number of Iranian-born people in the US increased by 74%. “They settled in Los Angeles because it reminds them of Iran—the landscape, the car culture, the mountains,” says Iranian scholar and television personality Reza Aslan.

Theorist James Clifford writes that “[t]he nation-state [is] subverted by diasporic attachments.” In contrast to immigrants, who presumed to be individual and desiring assimilation, “national ideologies such as those of the United States… cannot assimilate groups that maintain important allegiances and practical connections… elsewhere.” Diasporic communities live inside a host nation, but they also live with difference. Girl Walks Home’s layered setting, then, shows a California landscape re-formed by new inhabitants for their own needs. It is a vision of space that feels intuitively known but invisible to outsiders; an intimacy found by those left out of the nation’s imagined, impossible “unity.”

The film’s feminine perspective is also crucial to its sense of enclave. Where Hall describes “narratives of displacement” as central to the experience of diaspora, Clifford points out that “when diasporic experience is viewed in terms of displacement rather than emplacement, traveling rather than dwelling… the experiences of men will tend to predominate.” Girl Walks Home’s vision of a community in place and in process is future-oriented rather than longing, and the contours of its hybrid identities are constantly in production. “However Iranian this film is is exactly how Iranian I am,” Amirpour told VICE in 2014.

The most crucial icon of this layering may be the chador, the full-length cloak that has been customary for women’s dress outside the home in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Yet in donning it, Girl doesn’t transform from her youthful, hip, music-loving self into an oppressed woman dangerous to be seen by men, as the prejudices of American viewers might lead us to believe. The chador is the ultimate symbol of her power, readying her to use violence to avenge misogyny. In layering the chador and the vampire’s cloak atop one another, Amirpour forces viewers to confront the Islamophobic contradiction: Muslim women as simultaneously fear-inspiring and powerless, oppressed subjects. We might restate Hall’s formulation that “because it is black, it is always transgressive” as “because it is Muslim, it is always transgressive.”

*

The Bad Batch follows Arlen, a white, twenty-something female protagonist, as she enters the eponymous “bad batch,” a community of exiles from the rest of the United States.

While the film’s wide-angle shots of neon foregrounding barren mountains feel antithetical to the highly personal cinematography of Girl Walks Home, that austere landscape is also crucial to The Bad Batch. In place of Girl Walks Home’s syncretic layering, the spatial metaphor that orders The Bad Batch is division. And beyond its dystopian dreamscape, it mirrors the true geography of the Texas borderlands.

Released through a chain-link fence into a desert, Arlen unfolds a piece of paper that reads, “Seek Comfort.” “Comfort”—which is indeed the name of a central Texas town—seems to be some kind of destination; Arlen sets off to find it. But to get there, she has to pass through a no-man’s land where she is attacked by desperate cannibals—other denizens of the “bad batch.” She is in a borderland—as defined by political scientist Chris Rumford, a “zone of transition without territorial fixity.” Rumford writes that “no longer simply lines on a map,… borders have their own space.”

Likewise, the Texas-Mexico border is more than the width of the Rio Grande, more than the width of the border wall. There are two borders: la línea is followed up by a militarized “hundred-mile zone” that is bounded at its northern edge by checkpoints on every north-south road. More migrants die in Brooks County, Texas, home to one such checkpoint, than any other county in the country—yet Brooks County’s southern edge is fifty-five miles north of the border. The fatalities come from migrants attempting to circumvent the checkpoint, walking up to fifty miles through chaparral in a region with one of the highest heat indexes in the country. As Arlen is let through the fence and sets off into the desert at the beginning of The Bad Batch, carrying nothing more than a gallon of water, she looks eerily similar to migrants crossing the south Texas brush, unprepared for the harshness of the next challenge.

While immigration has declined sharply since the 1990s, deaths have not. This has to do with Border Patrol policy, which rerouted the flow of migrant traffic from cities into the desert, in order to make migrants easier to find and apprehend. The fact that deaths would be an outcome of the “Prevention Through Deterrence” policy was known to—and referred to instrumentally—by those who implemented it. A 1997 report by the Government Accountability Office identified one of the “Indicators for Measuring the Effectiveness of the Strategy to Deter Illegal Entry Along the Southwestern Border” as “the deaths of aliens attempting entry.” In 2012, 179 bodies were recovered in Brooks County alone; the region’s forbidding terrain means that the county sheriff estimates that for every body recovered, four sets of remains have not been found. The border zone is indeed cannibalistic.

It is also, as it is for Arlen, a place of lawlessness, corruption, and violence. There are police officers, sheriffs, and Border Patrol agents serving time for embezzling drug money. The Border Patrol is empowered beyond due process. Anthropologist Jason de León refers to the borderlands as a “space of exception”; the ACLU calls them a “Constitution-free zone.”

“Comfort,” which Arlen eventually does reach, turns out to be a tumbledown but decadent garrison town, a place of ecstasy and abundant American flags—as though Coachella lasted too long, and everyone moved in. It’s surrounded by a high wall built of shipping containers, and guarded by armed Latino men—another similarity to the US borderlands, where the majority of Border Patrol agents are of Hispanic descent.

Arlen has privilege of crossing in and out of Comfort freely throughout the film. Outside, in the no-man’s-land, however, she meets Miami Man, who lives with his family in an abandoned airplane. True to Rumford’s observation that “contemporary borders are increasingly differentiated,” Miami Man and his family are not allowed into Comfort.

This privileged mobility begins to confront the question: what to make of The Bad Batch’s whiteness? Between the two films, Amirpour shifts from zero Anglo characters to centering on a protagonist who is not only a guerita (as she is heckled by the guards), but also clueless. When Miami Man tells Arlen that he was exiled to the Bad Batch because he was “ilegal. No papers,” she asks, in her parody of a Texan drawl, “You a Mexican?” Yet he has the outline of Cuba tattooed on his neck. In contrast to the inclusive privacy of Girl Walks Home, the film’s novel whiteness emphasizes the divisiveness of a landscape cut through by borders and walls.

*

Both the border zone of The Bad Batch and the enclave of Girl Walks Home are spaces that intrude on whatever confident, essentialist image the United States dares to put forth. The films’ shared affirmation of difference is a political act.

Girl and Arlen’s womanhood is central to such acts. “Women are both of and not of the nation. [The space] between woman and nation is, perhaps, the zone where we can deconstruct these monoliths,” write Norma Alarcón, Caren Kaplan, and Minoo Moallem. That deconstruction happens in ways that are more quotidian that one might expect, or even know how to look for, but no less radical.

Arlen ultimately joins Miami Man and his daughter outside the garrison walls. She chooses precariousness over Comfort. Yet one feels, watching it, that their lives are going to turn out okay. Girl Walks Home ends with Girl and Arash driving down a dark, empty road in Arash’s T-Bird, leaving Bad City forever. They look like Thelma and Louise, who also drive around the Taft hills in a Thunderbird after committing a murder. But Thelma and Louise, knowing they will never be forgiven, drive off a cliff. Girl and Arash, instead, stop the car and silently forgive one another. Then they start the engine again, turn on the headlights, and continue on.

The redemptions feel revelatory. One wonders why we would have ever expected Arlen to remain at Comfort; why Thelma and Louise couldn’t also have lived. The relief of seeing things end up all right for women is a persistent gift from Amirpour, who one can only imagine to be as willful and extraordinary as her characters.

In a year of hate and protest, violence against immigrants and Muslims, and mercilessness to women, denaturalizing and re-naturalizing familiar landscapes enables us to question our assumptions, our routines, and our habits. The estranged landscapes enable us to reimagine our relationships to female violence, agency, and the capacity to be forgiven.

Amirpour’s worlds aren’t spaces we would desire to live in. But they maybe ones we already inhabit. They are opportunities to remind ourselves—especially those of us who identify neither as diasporic nor fronteriza—in a deep, laborious, and pleasurable way, that, as Hall writes, “difference… persists—in and alongside continuity.”

***

Image credits: Feature photograph of Ana Lily Amirpour © Jason Bedient, image 1,  image 2.


Caroline Tracey is a writer and PhD student in Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. She previously worked for a land use nonprofit in the Central Valley of California as well as for the South Texas Human Rights Center in Brooks County, Texas. Her writing has appeared in the Nation, the Guardian, New South, Open Space, and elsewhere. Find her at cetracey.wordpress.com and @seaisrisn. More from this author →