Hot Docs

A Band of Dreamers and a Judge Review: Dreams and Buried Treasures

Hot Docs 2024

6 mins read

A Band of Dreamers and a Judge
(Iran, France, 2023)
Dir. Hesam Eslami
Programme: Festival Favourites (Canadian premiere)


In an uncanny stroke of serendipity, two very different films about treasure hunters in the modern era have arrived in Toronto’s cinemas at practically the same time. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that audiences are likely thirsty for ancient myths and anti-heroes in these times of economic hardship. The topic is ripe for cinematic interpretation and it’s certainly not unusual for fantasies of quick fix solutions to dominate people’s consciousness.

Hesam Eslami’s A Band of Dreamers and a Judge, premieres at Hot Docs at the same time that Alice Rohrwacher’s fictional La Chimera is still in theatres. While the foundation of Eslami’s doc revolves around depictions of the everyday realities of life in Iran and Rohrwacher’s fictional arthouse interpretation of tomb raiding in Italy experiments with magical realism, the two share a common impetus to play with narrative form. It’s a clever way to manipulate audience perceptions.

In A Band of Dreamers and a Judge, the director sets his sights one step higher. Well aware that dreams are essential to cinema, he aims to capture a fantasy with his camera. But there are many factors operating in his world that complicate this already difficult task.

According to local folklore, ancient relics are buried somewhere in the mountains of northern Iran. The tales of how they got there are legendary: in pre-Islamic times, as invading Afghans approached, the ancestors of the current residents hid their valuables in the ground to protect them. The film follows a close-knit group of men who go through elaborate measures to find them. They are a loyal, good-natured, and determined bunch.

Eslami’s camera meticulously captures every aspect of their efforts to find the treasure. The excavations are quite challenging and elaborate. There is a great deal of modern technology involved, and all manner of computerized technical gear. He even records the efforts of other teams and inserts clips from anonymous Instagram posts in which individuals share their tips and secrets across the social media platform.

But structurally, the film is a complicated heady mix right from the outset. This tale is actually something of a nail-biter. It begins as Eslami faces a judge. He claims to be merely making a film, but she stubbornly refuses to believe him. In this context, who can blame her? Turns out, that the main problem these diggers face is not merely the vast unforgiving landscape but the criminal nature of their activities. It is illegal to disturb ancient treasures, embedded as they are in the sacred earth of the motherland.

Facing the judge himself, Eslami records his own defence, repeating his claims of being an innocent artist. With the director front and centre, the doc sometimes adopts a self-conscious point of view.

This sets up a host of fascinating narrative possibilities but the fact that Eslami doesn’t fully maintain this view and mainly returns to it in the end poses something of a problem for the viewer. The perspective, the whole point of the film, is established in a very particular way at the starting point, with all the narrative power going to Eslami. But the potential of this structural device only comes to fruition when the film is concluding.

This is when the viewer must also decide what exactly has been happening in the film. Is this a series of manipulations? This sudden turn at the end is dramatic but also shockingly sudden, delivering something of an unexplored let down as opposed to an interesting open-ended conclusion.

The film’s strength is the manner in which Eslami so thoroughly explores the lives of average Iranians struggling in the country’s current economic crisis. By following the four men, he concentrates the viewer’s focus. This allows for a sense of empathy and understanding for the individuals who are struggling daily. One of the men is an expectant father, and when the baby is finally born, his shared joy with his friends, with the viewer as well, is palpable and acts as a bond for the group.

As faithfully as the filmmaker shoots details and grounds his film in reality, he is searching for something indefinable, for a way to capture dreamers dreaming. It’s an unattainable goal, but in A Band of Dreamers and a Judge, he guides the viewer through a stimulating process. Eslami’s structural manipulations, as uneven as they are, create an interesting tension for the viewer: perhaps he’s untrustworthy. Perhaps they all are. That’s not really the point. The only thing for certain is that he does capture something intangible, a spirit if you will, a driving force that continues to fight despite the hurdles.

A Band of Dreamers and a Judge screened at Hot Docs 2024.


Barbara is co-host/co-producer of Frameline who joined during its CKLN days. As a freelance writer and film critic for the past 30 years, she has contributed to numerous dailies and magazines including The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Film Encyclopedia, Box Office Magazine as well as to several books. A veteran of the Canadian film industry, Barbara has worked in many key areas including distribution and programming, and has also served on various festival juries

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