A glorious example of empathetic and loving documentary film-making, Yaser Talebi’s Beloved is an emotionally affecting and resoundingly powerful film that revels in getting to know the person at its centre.
Firouzeh is an 82-year-old cow herder living in the Alborz mountains in Northern Iran. Her determination and commitment to her lifestyle confound those around her, who are insistent that she should retire to a nearby village and leave her life of strenuous work behind. Despite these persistent pleas, Firouzeh intends to live life as she wants to, and Talebi documents a year in her life, following her progress as she navigates the seasons and attempts to maintain her way of life in the face of the pressures of modernity.
While the film is beautifully shot and often breathtaking in how it captures the countryside of Northern Iran, the show’s real star is Firouzeh herself. She exudes personality, and within mere seconds the film establishes a keen sense of connection between her and the viewer. She discusses the past and how she came to live this unusual lifestyle as she is hard at work in the fields. Her voiceovers become a key part of the film, highlighting Firouzeh’s indefatigability while providing an insight into how she views the world and her place within it.
As the seasons pass, so she must adapt, and this process involves navigating not only the countryside and ensuring her beloved cows are well cared for but navigating the aspects of the modern world that manage to seep their way into her life. She balks at government officials over permits and resists their suggestions of retirement while lamenting that her children don’t come to see her as much as she would like them to because they’ve all got their own lives in big cities, all with an air of strength that is admirable and brings with it a melancholic sense of acceptance. One of the most fascinating things about the film is how the viewer slowly comes to understand her viewpoint on life and her fatalistic approach to it. According to her, God gave her a job, and she intends to do it to the best of her ability for as long as she can.
There is very little artifice in the way Talebi films his subject. A large part of this is down to how cooperative Firouzeh is in allowing him to depict the quiet moments of her life, whether it is her sitting down to enjoy some tea, out in the fields with her cows, or down in the village sitting with friends, it all feels natural, real, and carries with it a subtle power—a sense that Firouzeh can be felt through the screen. This kind of tactile sensibility is very hard to achieve in documentary film-making. However, there is a true sense of collaboration within Beloved between Talebi and his subject that plays a large role in making that happen.
And yet, Firouzeh never truly feels like the subject of a documentary. Where perhaps you might expect a certain level of falsehood in a profile of this nature, perhaps a sense that she is putting up a front for the camera, she never feels that way. There is sincerity to her words and a knowledge that she is always speaking her truth, letting her perspective on what has happened to her and the world around her be known. Some of the most touching moments are in her interactions with her animals and how she loves and cares for her cows. They mean a lot to her, not only in terms of how she makes her living through dairy produce, but also in the sense that she feels most deeply connected to them, and that sense really comes through in the scenes she has with them and how affectionate she is towards what she has. There is always a sense with Firouzeh that the work is what keeps her going; as a matter of fact, she says so herself more than once, and the cows certainly play a large role in that.
But she has affection to give to everyone. Whether it is local villagers, those she has just argued with, or her children, Firouzeh is filled with love for those around her. She may be stubborn and assured about the way she wants to live her life, but it’s her big heart that really sells this film and makes it such an emotional and profound experience. The gorgeous Iranian backdrop cannot be forgotten, but it is the woman at the film’s centre who steals the show and makes Beloved a moving and valuable experience.
Beloved had its UK premiere at Hebden Bridge Film Festival (March 19-21)