German/Iranian director Behrooz Karamizade makes a powerful debut with his story of a young Iranian diver

Empty Nets

Source: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

‘Empty Nets’

Dir/scr: Behrooz Karamizade. Germany/Iran. 2023. 101mins

Amir (Hamid Reza Abbasi) and Narges (Sadaf Asgari) are in love and, for a while at least, they dare to hope for a future together. Then Amir loses his job as a waiter and is forced to take long, gruelling shifts as a fisherman in the Caspian Sea. It’s thankless, badly paid toil, and Amir is increasingly tempted to earn money on the side, illegally. A piercing, powerful debut from Behrooz Karamizade, Empty Nets shines a light on the economic realities of Iran for young people who can barely afford to dream, let alone live.

A piercing, powerful debut

The film deals with familiar themes – there are parallels, for example, with Luzzo, the Maltese tale of black market fishing and crushing economic pressures. But while it may be a story that has been told before in various incarnations and locations, there is no question about the quality of film-making throughout. Persuasively acted by the two very charismatic leads, and atmospherically photographed by Ashkan Ashkani (who served as the DOP on Mohammed Rasoulof’s 2020 Berlin Golden Bear-winning film There Is No Evil) the picture introduces German-Iranian director Behrooz Karamizade as a talent of real promise. Further festival interest seems likely.

We first meet Amir and Narges during a stolen moment by the water’s edge. For Amir, a strong swimmer, the sea is a playground. He dives, holding his breath until Narges is pacing and fretting at the shoreline. Then he surfaces, laughing away her anxiety, with a pearl-white grin and no worries in the world. Amir’s relationship with the sea is a mirror of his state of mind and his grasp on his aspirations for the future. While he still nurtures the hope of marrying Narges, there’s nothing to fear from the water, no unpleasant secrets lurking beneath the waves.

But Narges is from a wealthy, well-connected family. To marry her, Amir must be able to provide a suitable dowry. The son of a widow, Amir is barely scraping a living even before he loses his restaurant job. As the film progresses and his dream seems increasingly distant, the sea takes on a threatening, adversarial character. The sound design hammers us with a crushing pressure as Amir dives to tend the nets. The waters are full of filth and plastic; occasionally they throw a body onto the shore. And the men Amir finds himself living and working beside are a rough bunch, all shingle and grit, with any softness long since worn off by the relentless, battering waves.

Amir’s skill as a swimmer earns him the respect of the grizzled old hands at the fishery. In a terrific scene, he triumphs in an underwater eel-catching competition. But Omid (Keyvan Mohamadi), Amir’s friend and roommate in the sullen concrete dormitory that houses the men, is less confident in the water – a failing that sets him up a little too inevitably for his ultimate fate. Narges, meanwhile, drifts away, barely recognising her lover. All the traits that drew her to him – his empathy, his kindness, his honesty, his warmth, his radiant sunbeam of a smile – begin to seem like luxury items that he can no longer afford.

Production company: Basis Berlin Filmproduktion

International sales: Pluto Film

Producers: Eva Kemme, Ansgar Frerich, Uschi Feldges

Cinematography: Ashkan Ashkani

Editing: Anne Jünemann

Production design: Shahram Karimi

Music: John Gürtler, Jan Miserre, Sabah Alizadeh

Main cast: Hamid Reza Abbasi, Sadaf Asgari, Keyvan Mohamadi, Pantea Panahiha, Ali Bagheri, Behzad Dorani, Mehrdad Bakhshi, Mojtaba Bahmani, Ali Mohseni