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Categories: Movie Reviews

Tom Allen and Leon McCarron’s travel documentary “Karun” attempts to show Iran in a light different from the one generally shone on it. Cameron Johnson thinks it’s mostly successful. 


Iran, often seen by westerners as oppressive and conservative, might just be one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. This is the hypothesis that Karun, an hour-long travel documentary presented by British adventurers Tom Allen and Leon McCarron, attempts to prove. Light, welcoming and unchallenging, the doc just about achieves its goal.

Karun sees Allen and McCarron, two adventurers and filmmakers (Allen’s film Janapar: Love on a Bike met international acclaim), journey to Iran in an attempt to follow the Karun river from the Zagros mountain range to the Persian Gulf. Beyond mere adventure, they attempt to show Iran in a light not often shone from the western perspective: as a nation of compassionate, generous and welcoming people that, despite the political conflicts of the area, are happy and open to the western tourists. 

In line with this, Karun tries as much to focus on Allen and McCarron’s interactions with locals – especially their friend Saeed – as it does to focus on the political issues of the country and its diverse geography. We see them hitch rides from random strangers with no problems whatsoever, hang out with people to eat and joke and smoke, and even get into a snowball fight. The Iranian people (though we only ever really see the men) are shown as open, playful and spontaneous, planning nothing ahead and letting life flow by them one day at a time. 

The attempt to explore the lifestyles of Iran aren’t always successful, however, partly because the two travelers seem reluctant to record much in-depth footage of their conversations with the locals, mainly for the exact political reasons they’re trying to subvert. A lot of events are explained after-the-fact (including all interactions with the police – understandably so) rather than shown to us in real-time, meaning that the attempts to connect us with the people often feel contrived and ingenuous. 


That said, the parts that Karun does show in real time do have their surprises. I was especially stunned to see how geographically and architecturally diverse the country is, and how clean and beautiful all the scenery looks. In the space of 50 minutes, we see Allen and McCarron trek across snowy valleys, raft down rocky passages, explore bustling cities and jog down desert highways. The sheer beauty of the images, captured mainly through the travelers’ handheld cameras, is enough to make one yearn to visit Iran – the main selling point of any good travel doc. 

And when, inevitably, the political conflicts do come up, through interactions with the police, visits to war memorials, and the discovery of a burst gas pipe in the middle of the desert, they are handled with care and moderate tension, pointing out that, even though Allen and McCarron have been able to rely on the hospitality of locals to see them through their trip, there are undeniable undercurrents that always keep their journey on edge. 

Karun, directed in post by Rhys Thwaites-Jones, is a generally light documentary, giving us a quick overview of an interesting trip to Iran without going deep into any singular aspect. The editing and music are reminiscent of a conservative TV documentary, which make it incredibly accessible but also keep it from challenging the audience on any significant level. Nonetheless, as a light introduction into Iranian geography and culture, Karun gets the job done. 

Karun is out now on demand. Check out karunfilm.com for more info. 

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

Posted on Nov 16, 2015

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