The price of light: Insights from The Willow Tree

The Willow Tree

“There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.”

These words, by George Bernard Shaw (in “Man and Superman”, 1903), came to my mind as we watched Iranian director Majid Majidi’s 2005 film The Willow Tree (96 mins, in Farsi with English subtitles) as TVE Asia Pacific’s monthly feature film screening this week.

The Willow Tree chronicles the revelations and shocks experienced by Youssef (Parvis Parastui), a blind professor of literature whose eyesight is miraculously restored 38 years after he lost it in a childhood firecracker accident. For nearly four decades, he lived in the care of his comfort zone, first in biological and then married family. But when he regained the ability to see, it opens up a whole new world — one which he is not fully prepared to face.

Some critics see The Willow Tree as closely linked to Majidi’s 1999 film, The Color of Paradise, the story of the lonely but strangely happy Mohammad, a blind 8-year-old boy whose widowed father reluctantly abandons him to the care of a rural carpenter. (Not having seen the latter film yet, I can’t comment.)

As Stephen Holden wrote in a New York Times review: “If the two films are viewed as a matched pair, as I think they should be, Youssef could be Mohammad’s urban grown-up counterpart. Both films are explicitly religious, intensely poetic meditations, filled with recurrent symbols and suffused with a spirit of divine apprehension. Both are sad beyond measure, and both risk seeming mawkishly sentimental.”

The Willow Tree is a soulful, emotionally moving film where Majidi once again proves his dexterity with multi-layered symbolicism and clever use of soundtrack, especially music, to convey much that is unsaid in dialogue.

At one level, the film reinforces the cautionary tale to be careful of what you wish for. At another, it makes us question the whole notion of what it means to be able to see the world with our eyes — something many of us take for granted, but is the defining attribute in Professor Youssef’s life.

It’s easy for us who work in moving images to forget that there is a wholly different world for those who cannot see, or whose vision is impaired as in, say, astigmatism or colour blindness. We sometimes tend to picture perfect our creations – with extra touches of visual effects, some of which are so subtle that they could easily be lost in the fleeting playback. We argue over the shades of gray, the seamlessness of a fade-in and fade-out, or the precise colour corrections, as if those choices were matters of life and death. We who play with light like to get things exactly right.

Well, it’s fine to strive for excellence, but it’s sobering to note that there are some who will never see and appreciate our hard-laboured visual subtleties. A few among them may listen to the soundtrack of our audio-visual creations. But on the whole, cinema, television and video are media catering to those who can both see and hear. Watching films like The Willow Tree, therefore, gives a sense of perspective to us that is not typically part of our daily work milieu.

In the end, we are what our sensory perceptions make us. Yes, it’s a blessing to have all or most of our five senses (and some among us seem to have an as yet undefined sixth sense). But before we rejoice, it’s good to reflect that there may be other beings in the vast universe (or in other dimensions) with far greater powers of sensory perception in realms we have no way of knowing.

This is what American poet Harry Kemp (1883—1960) hinted at in his most famous poem, ‘Blind’:

THE SPRING blew trumpets of color;
Her Green sang in my brain—
I heard a blind man groping
“Tap—tap” with his cane;

I pitied him in his blindness;
But can I boast, “I see”?
Perhaps there walks a spirit
Close by, who pities me,—

A spirit who hears me tapping
The five-sensed cane of mind
Amid such unguessed glories—
That I am worse than blind.

The Willow Tree