A riveting yet respectful drama about the earthquake that destroyed the 2,000-year-old Iranian city of Bam, Wake Up, Arezoo!” ranks as one of the most realistic catastrophe movies ever made. Veteran Kianoush Ayari and his crew began shooting just 11 days after the quake razed the town, using real rescue workers and earthquake victims as actors. This set-up could have been very exploitative, but instead is made both anguishing and moving by the relentless if dramatically unstructured story. The fascinating subject matter and Ayari’s documentary treatment should win pic festival berths and some limited release offshore.
Some 43,000 people were killed when the earthquake struck Dec. 26, 2003 (curiously, precisely one year to the day before the tsumani disaster.) The film begins with the first early-morning tremors that barely rouse people from their beds. When the main earthquake hits at 5:28 a.m., we first see its lethal effects on a village surrounded by palm trees outside the city.
A woman covered in gray powder, Reyhaneh (the fine Behnaz Jafari from “Blackboards”), emerges shrieking from the rubble, but no one answers her cries. She leaves for Bam, just missing a tiny girl who scrambles out of her collapsed home minutes later. Though the film keeps circling around to this girl and to her sister who is still alive under the house, it remains an unconvincing subplot compared with the shocking realism of bloody field hospitals and cars loaded with corpses.
Though lacking the high crane shots and flyover photography of a mega-budget movie, and above all missing images of the mud-brick city and its famed citadel Arg-e-Bam prior to the earthquake, Ayari conveys the extent of the disaster with the simple means at his disposal. Reyhaneh’s dismay at the vast piles of rubble stretching out before her and the screaming survivors pawing at fallen bricks with their bare hands tells the tale. Unable to find anyone willing to come back to the village and help her, she joins the rescue effort in Bam.
The earthquake has opened a breach in a nearby prison, and dozens of men pour down the road, desperate to reach their families and homes. One of them (Mehran Rajabi, the teacher in “The Deserted Station”) becomes the film’s second protag. His mother, still alive when he arrives, is buried alongside his dead wife. She dies under the remains of his home while he frantically searches for his young daughter. With his weathered face and underlying decency, this nameless man personifies the tragedy.
Many scenes appear to be improvised, such as some men’s hysterical fight to take possession of a lone bulldozer to search for their loved ones, or the protag’s attempt to throw himself into a mass grave and be buried with his family.
The solid Jafari and Rajabi, the only pros in the cast, are typically kept in long-shot so that they blend into the landscape of emergency and despair. The film’s only apparent structure is the natural cycle of day to night, and the exact time span covered is a little fuzzy. But the low-key, starting-over ending feels just right to close the story on a note of hope.
To his credit, Ayari — who shot a 1978 documentary about the Tabas earthquake, “I See Sleepers on the Earth’s Carpet” — makes no effort to make anybody into a hero, or to raise the emotional pitch of the images. Newsreel footage dissolves into Mansour Azargol’s more sophisticated camerawork in a natural montage. Omid Raeesdana’s subdued musical comment remains discreetly in the background of scenes of immense tragedy.