Racing From Restrictions
With its soft shapes and fluid soundtrack, Sarah Saidan's Beach Flags (2014) is as indulgent to watch as it is powerful in subject matter. The film profiles an Iranian swimmer named Vida, whose athletic potential is undermined by the country's strict clothing regulations for women. In order to represent her team at an international competition, she must compete solely in events held on land. When Sareh, an inexperienced newcomer, steals the spotlight as the team’s fastest beach-racer, Vida spirals into jealousy — that is, until a closer examination of Sareh’s home life reveals uncanny parallels between the two women. Ultimately, both strive for freedom amidst a sea of sameness and restriction.
For Vida, this sense of confinement manifests in nightmares — all of which, detailed through monochromatic hues and eerie soundtracks, involve her own inability to chase, rescue, or find. There’s the opening scene, in which Vida is submerged in a bottomless pool by the very mannequin she practices rescuing; later, the athlete chases (in vain) a bus full of teammates, a scene that transitions smoothly into her frustrating loss at a beach race; soon after, she fails to rescue a goth-like, gown-clad Sareh from a constantly-receding ocean. While changing colors and auditory cues often signal the beginning of a nightmare, fluid transitions between scenes — whether in shapes or composition — complicates the viewer’s understanding of reality. What is real, and what is imagined?
Sure enough, the entire film has a dream-like aura. Wide-angle perspectives and birds-eye-views elicit a certain out-of-body experience among viewers, while off-screen dialogue — muffled and indistinct — grants a certain anonymity to the speakers. In fact, besides the trademark clothing of Vida and Sareh, the athletes’ appearances are largely uniform; in the first scene, even identical. As Vida nears drowning, failing to outperform her indistinguishable swimmer counterparts is, in her mind, just as unfortunate as her imagined near-death experience.
But this sense of confinement transcends Vida’s nightmares: in real life, the athletes’ training location — a walled-off section of an expansive beach — resembles a prison. While one could argue that the physical structure (and by extension, the all-female sport) offers a welcome respite from the male gaze, these barriers serve as ultimate reminders of the athletes’ limitations: namely, their exclusion from certain activities due to Iran’s clothing restrictions. In a subtly ironic shot, Vida strikes a pose identical to the woman profiled in the poster behind her: a scantly-clad, white-skinned lifeguard who advertises the upcoming championships in Australia. The two women are fundamental equals, yet separated athletically by differences in their attire.
While projecting confidence and nonchalance on the racecourse, Sareh — the inexperienced new member of the team — experiences a similar sense of restriction. For her, an arranged marriage with her old, domineering boss leaves her powerless and (quite literally) voiceless throughout the film. It is only until Vida observes her unfortunate circumstances that the protagonist’s jealousy is replaced by sympathy — a change that explains Vida’s ultimate decision to let Sareh take her place in the international competition. While initially an opportunity for both women to showcase their athleticism, beach-racing assumes different functions over the course of the film. For Vida, it’s a competitive reality from which she wants to escape; for Sareh, a refuge from everyday life.
Ultimately, both women achieve a sort of freedom by the end of the film — Sareh, in her ability to participate in (what used to be) a logistically impractical competition; Vida in her defiance of Sareh’s soon-to-be husband, combined with the ultimate realization that helping her friend — even at the cost of her own athletic participation — is victory enough.