Winds from the east

Film - Jonathan Romney enjoys the elusive atmosphere of a tale from Tehran

The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami once proposed his personal vision of what film should be: "a half-created cinema, an unfinished cinema that attains completion through the creative spirit of the audience". This system of blanks and elisions would be designed not to distance or mystify the viewers. It would be more a question of respect, of being generous enough to give us room to move, to find our own way around the imaginative space that a film offers.

That is why, even if I thought I could explain Kiarostami's new film, I would be reluctant to. On the surface, The Wind Will Carry Us may not seem particularly mysterious - events happen, people appear, we know where we are and, more or less, what is going on. Yet the film's meaning is so open to interpretation, if not actually secondary to the experience of watching, that analysis feels somehow beside the point. The film treats its viewers as intelligent beings capable of completing its meaning for themselves - and there is no doubt that this is a job to be taken very seriously. But it is also a very enjoyable job; The Wind Will Carry Us is, I suspect, a film that many people will take very much to heart.

The story is about a group of visitors from Tehran, who arrive in the small Kurdish village of Siah Dareh; their purpose, apparently, is to observe, and presumably to film, the rituals that must follow the death of an old woman. But she refuses to die, and the film crew must settle in and wait for something to happen. Their leader (Behzad Dourani), addressed by the villagers as "Engineer", enlists a young boy as a guide, but rather tries his patience by calling endlessly on his services, even fetching him out of a school exam. Meanwhile, Behzad's colleagues stay indoors and eat strawberries; throughout the film, we hear only their voices.

It is not just the crew who are invisible. Behzad communicates with other off-screen voices. He engages in improbably flirtatious dialogue with a pregnant neighbour. In an extraordinary running joke, he drives repeatedly to a nearby hilltop to take calls on his mobile phone. Up there, he meets an unseen man digging a hole; the digger sends him to visit his fiancee, who milks a cow in a darkened cellar (in this scene, we hear the poem by Forough Farrokhzad that gives the film its title).

Something dramatic does eventually happen, causing Behzad to make himself useful at last. But the film is less about events than about anticipation, and about time and place and the way we experience them. After only a short while, we feel we know every corner of the village, with its precarious balconies and Escher-like multilevel construction, and every stretch of the surrounding countryside. Whenever his mobile summons him, Behzad rushes up and down stairs, drives up hills and round corners to take the call: each time, Kiarostami and the director of photography, Mahmoud Kalari, give us every twist in the road, until we feel we could drive it blindfold ourselves.

Time, too, becomes curiously elastic, both static and mobile. One minute the neighbour is pregnant, the next Behzad is admiring her baby. Meanwhile, the old woman behind the blue-framed window that is one of the village's (and the film's) landmarks still refuses to die.

Beyond the matter of time and place, it is hard to pin down the film to a clear meaning, despite Behzad's apparent acquiring of wisdom in the end. The film is rich in symbols, certainly, potent but not readily understood. What to make, for example, of the bone that is thrown up out of the hole as a friendly offering, which bobs gently down a stream at the end of the film? And how is it significant that only towards the end of the film do we at last, and then with the force of revelation, see the village by night?

The central theme seems to be visibility and invisibility. While so much in the village is hidden, Behzad is practically always on view, almost too much - a blundering urbanite without the discretion to merge with his surroundings. In this sense, the film seems to comment on the role of the film-maker, who should know when to be seen and when to hide.

At moments, the message appears to be simple. "Prefer the present," a doctor advises Behzad as they zoom across a sunlit, corn-filled landscape, at a moment when the film's spatial constrictions seem at last to be lifted. Kiarostami does indeed make us prefer the present - every digression, every eavesdropped conversation in the village bar compellingly distracts us from Behzad's mission. But the film doesn't restrict itself to simple conclusions; to get its meaning, we have to experience its slow, deliberate two hours. As they say, you have to be there.

Kiarostami's fictions, with their semi-documentary approach, are always rooted in the real world, and always invoke real ethical repercussions. His 1990 feature Close-Up recreated an actual legal dispute in fictionalised form, casting the real participants and concluding with their reconciliation. In a similar way, the cast of The Wind Will Carry Us mainly comprises the actual villagers of Siah Dareh. The viewers are the village's guests and, for the film's duration, we live according to the village's sense of time. There is a sense of ethical exchange here - the film requires that, like Behzad, we learn to be good guests. And just as the village invites us to make ourselves at home, the film itself calls on our "creative spirit" to help complete its elusive meaning. Kiarostami's is, you might say, a cinema of hospitality.

The Wind Will Carry Us (U) is currently at the ICA Cinema (020 7930 3647) and the Lux Centre (020 7684 0201) in London

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.