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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Shirin Neshat’s Land of Dreams

The US Census Bureau wants Americans’ dreams in this unusual and underrated satire.

Shirin Neshat, <em>Land of Dreams</em>, 2019, film. © Shirin Neshat. Courtesy the artist, Gladstone Gallery, & Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, Cape Town and London.
Shirin Neshat, Land of Dreams, 2019, film. © Shirin Neshat. Courtesy the artist, Gladstone Gallery, & Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, Cape Town and London.

Shirin Neshat
Land of Dreams

“We’ve covered everything except for the final question,” says Simin (Sheila Vand), “which is an unusual one, I’m afraid.” In Shirin Neshat’s 2021 satirical film Land of Dreams, Simin’s job as a “dreamcatcher” for the US Census Bureau is to go door-to-door asking that unusual final question: What was your last dream? And thus begins this satirical tale twisting the concept of the American Dream every which way possible until it has been wrung as dry as the film’s sense of humor.

“It’s for your security,” Simin says with as much of a question mark as the “Why?” that prompted her explanation. Why Simin was selected for this job is as unclear as why the position exists at all. And the film refuses to give us any concrete answers; we can either accept the mysteries it presents us or question them ourselves. Throughout the film, Simin goes household to household, covering a multitude of American experiences: rich, poor, white, non-white, artistic, evangelical, even a compound of former Iranian revolutionaries. All the while, she mourns (as communicated via our glimpses of her own dreams, which she shares with no one) the death of her father, who had been executed in Iran, and of her mother, who had been a graphic designer in Iran but became a domestic worker when they immigrated to the US during Simin’s childhood.

Simin takes photographs of each person who shares a dream with her for her own private purposes. She later uses both the interviews and the photos to create a sort of performance art piece. She has a room, or walk-in closet of sorts, in her motel suite full of costumes where she dresses up like her interviewees and reenacts the story of their dreams in Farsi. She films these monologues, then uploads them to social media, where she seems to have an enthusiastic following. It’s a strange subplot, but while paying homage to the film’s corresponding gallery exhibition, it clearly announces that this film itself is a work of art and sets up Simin’s climactic homage at the end of the film.

Vand’s emotionally reserved and deadpan style combined with her wit and inner fire mirror the tone of this film: Land of Dreams luxuriates in the mundane and in its irony, until the mundane becomes totally absurd. Star-studded (Matt Dillon, Anna Gunn, Isabella Rossellini), the film becomes an I-Spy game for familiar actors appearing in multiple roles—which also mirrors Simin’s video art. One of the most delicious (and darkly humorous) sightings is perhaps Isabella Rossellini’s appearance as a dinner party guest Zooming into the repast from a psychiatric institution. Rossellini (whose idea it was to appear as a mental patient via video chat when she couldn’t safely make the trip to the shoot in New Mexico) solidifies the Lynchian elements of this offbeat and often surreal satirical masterpiece.

Land of Dreams was a pandemic feat, but the constraints of the lockdown led to maximum creative output despite limited resources, as well as a clear and enthusiastic commitment from Neshat’s collaborators. Screenwriters Shoja Azari (who also co-directed) and Jean-Claude Carrière (of Belle de Jour fame) added their own wit and whimsy. Notably, it was Carrière’s last screenplay before his death. Vand’s moving, witty, and mysterious performance is the heart of this wild ride of a film, holding all of its strangeness together while adding a dash of her own.

In the company of films like Triangle of Sadness (2022) and The Menu (2022), Land of Dreams contributes to a significant moment for satire—and presents serious but underrated competition. This film is her third, but Neshat has largely worked as a fine artist exploring women’s rights, marginalization, and her own experience of the Iranian diaspora. Land of Dreams is also the title of a 2021 gallery show. In an interview with In These Times about the gallery show, Neshat explains, “For me, ‘the land of dreams’ can turn into a land of nightmares for a lot of marginalized people.” Though she’s talking about the portraits in her show, the statement undergirds the film as well. Her artistic background shows in the film’s whimsical aesthetic, and even the plot of the narrative ultimately turns on the idea that the only answer we may get is art.

Shirin Neshat, <em>Land of Dreams</em>, 2019, film. © Shirin Neshat. Courtesy the artist, Gladstone Gallery, & Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, Cape Town and London.
Shirin Neshat, Land of Dreams, 2019, film. © Shirin Neshat. Courtesy the artist, Gladstone Gallery, & Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, Cape Town and London.

Simin is an artist who is usually about self expression, and yet we never see her express herself through her appearance: her outfit is the simple black uniform of all the other census dreamcatchers and when she’s not wearing it, she wears the costumes of all the dreamers she’s photographed. It’s simultaneously a self-erasure and a government-inflicted erasure, representing her own struggles with identity and displacement that make up her immigrant experience.

In spite of Simin’s appearance and performance art and unlike many satires that rely heavily on type and trope, one of the film’s greatest joys is the nuanced ways it reveals complex characters and relationship dynamics in a few strokes. Land of Dreams opens on a sneak peak at the first household Simin will visit just before her arrival (the sequence of events are surprising for a close first-person narrative, but it solidifies Simin as an outsider). In the gaudy McMansion, husband and wife are together and yet isolated—the husband plays VR golf. The tacky and overdone hair, makeup, and costumes are distastefully funny.

Neshat and Azari make jabs at the wealthy, white couple who seem shallow and petty and like they are hiding their discontent, their phobias, their biases behind their American Dream lifestyle. But small details make even these characters more dimensional. Simin asks about the members of their household, and they keep referencing an adult son who doesn’t live with them. It’s irrelevant information to the government but not to the father who grumbles about how the son could call more often. Later when the husband is surprised to hear his wife’s dream, she remarks pointedly, “Since when have you cared about my dreams anyways?” The wife cheerfully relates her strange dream about her body being “cherry red” and feeling paralyzed from the waist down. When Simin asks her to repeat it, she begins to cry and says her body was “blood red.”

Land of Dreams is not grounded in the now, but in a vaguely futuristic Americana scenery of cars and long lonely roads and deserts—timeless emblems of freedom and ethereal dreamscapes. Like a visual poem, it is, most importantly, not a typical or mainstream movie at all. Few films can strike on class, race, Islamophobia, gender, social media and technology, government and surveillance, art, and more without becoming overwhelmed. Yet Neshat and Azari’s work is not overwhelming. Its surreal, vast, and isolated landscapes are eerily postapocalyptic—like ghosts of visions resembling iconic American artists like Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, or Ed Ruscha—overfilling with a multitude of stories that encapsulate the multifaceted problems with contemporary America, especially for a first-generation woman of color artist. While Neshat certainly elevates the visual motifs of her film to fine art, they are also emblematic of popular Americana kitsch: gas stations, motels, the “Mine Shaft Tavern,” long desert roads and looming mountains that never seem to get closer, the sight of a blonde sexily crooning “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” We may be used to seeing some of these images as things to revel or take comfort in, but here they emphasize a sense of isolation and displacement or, like the last item, a sense of discomfort and unease.

Even the two white male characters who flank Simin like a demon and an angel representing the macho cowboy (her Census-designated “bodyguard” Alan Villin, played by Matt Dillon) and the romantic poet (Mark, played by William Moseley) emphasize the shattered and irreconcilable aspects of an American identity mainstream cinema would often have us believe is united to some degree.

Americana morphs into more sinister patriotic themes: a lack of personal responsibility, identity erasure, safety, the us versus them mentality. The film has a refrain: “I’m just doing my job.” Or “It’s for your security.” That Simin’s explanations are close to Alan Villin’s own (“I don’t make up the rules. I’m just here to protect you.”) is too close for comfort. Phrases reminiscent of the excuses people have repeatedly made throughout history for inadvertently supporting oppressive systems—something that becomes particularly clear at the “Colony.”

The Colony is a sort of desert compound for Iranian revolutionary refugees, and the Census is desperate to get their dreams. Like the Americana imagery, the film utilizes distorted classic (or cliche) narrative devices. At the Colony, Simin receives a secret message. While the mysterious message does propel other events in the plot, it doesn’t receive the climax we expect. It seems to tell us that this story will not offer us the opiate of easy order-making and clear meaningfulness that a more traditional narrative might indulge.

Another such example is when Simin asks Mark what the real reason was for not revealing his dreams to her. “Because I love you,” he replies, as if it were the natural and obvious explanation. His role in Simin’s story plays on the romantic (and unrealistic) tropes in love stories. But here, they come across as jarring and almost creepy. As the tale goes on, we don’t see a typical love story unfold, but we do come to accept Mark on the terms he presents to us. When Alan asks why Mark is in love with her and why Simin doesn’t question Mark’s motives, she replies, with a circular logic, “Because he does… Love at first sight? I can believe that. Can’t you?” We eagerly accept the problematic and conflict-ridden vision of the world this film offers, but love is too much for suspension of belief.

Both men aside, the story belongs to Simin, no matter how much the other characters may try to assert their own narratives. In short, Land of Dreams is, in the best possible way, an unusual film.


Laura Valenza

Laura Valenza is co-film editor at the Brooklyn Rail. You can also read her criticism in the Los Angeles Review of Books and on Literary Hub.


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