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Cinema | Iran Onscreen: Truth through the Prism

by DAN GEIST in Berlin

25 Dec 2011 02:34Comments
CII-Logo-Small-jpg.jpg[ essay ] Can a movie tell a story set in contemporary Iran without being seen as a "portrait of Iranian society"?

In re A Separation's Oscar dreams, should the Academy Awards be considered an arm of the U.S. State Department?

If cinema is dead, why do Iranian censors continue to pay it so much damned attention?

A few of the questions that linger from the conference "Cinema in Iran: Circulation, Censorship, and Cultural Production," held this past week in Berlin under the aegis of the Annenberg School for Communication's Iran Media Program. The two-day event drew scholars -- many of Iranian birth or heritage, many young and in midpursuit of doctorates -- based around the United States and Europe, as well as Israel, India, Australia, and Brazil.

By the very nature of its national focus, such a conference promotes readings of an ethnographic bent, but several presentations made clear the risks in taking individual films primarily as social portraiture, as Iranian movies often appear to be received in the West -- and, among films aimed at the foreign festival and arthouse market, often seem intended for such reception. Norma Claire Moruzzi of the University of Illinois at Chicago warned of what she called the "romanticization of Iran as a dystopia," routine in such internationally intended pictures. An apt caveat, though time pressures thwarted an exploration of the particular strokes employed in that sort of portraiture -- an important consideration, as regular festival attendance could similarly convince a credulous film lover that London is the lake of fire and Paris, perdition.

What of films that focus on a very specific aspect of the society in which they are set? Baharak Darougari of the University of Strasbourg looked at the different narrative strategies employed by three films -- Leila, directed by Dariush Mehrjui; Shokaran, directed by Behruz Afkhami; and Chaharshanbe-soori, directed by Asghar Farhadi -- to problematize the conventional treatment of polygamy. But whether arthouse or mainstream, like the films to which this trio stand less or more in opposition, can films consciously concerned with a sharply defined social problem do much to honestly inform the viewer about a culture when their topical program tends to flatten the social context?

The presentation by Orly Rahimiyan of Ben-Gurion University and Ben Zvi University, who examined the image of Jews in Iranian cinema, raised a parallel set of questions. Does the inclusion of Jewish characters, a rarity, make a film more representative of Iranian society? Or less, given that Jewish people are themselves such a rarity in Iran? How are the answers affected when we consider, as Rahimiyan noted, that such roles are performed, virtually without exception, by non-Jewish actors? The presentation of Jews without reliance on stereotype sounds like the approach that would yield the most accurate portrait; but if, let us say, Jews were universally stereotyped in every other form of public culture, would not conformity with that practice convey the more instructive truth?

Throughout history, portraits have been created whose primary objective is to glorify their subjects, a tradition whose contemporary form would surely be recognized by the war veterans interviewed by Narges Bajoghli of New York University. She described how the men with whom she spoke all consciously distinguished between the official version of the Iran-Iraq War -- whose authorized onscreen depictions are just part of a vast exercise in cultural (re)construction -- and the "real" version of the conflict they lived firsthand. She reported a growing belief among filmmakers who focus on the domestically popular topics of the war and its combatants that they must "move away from creating superhero characters and depict soldiers as ordinary men." Western audiences, even the self-selected elite that seek out cinema from the globe's more outré corners, have scant access to such films; still, the trend does raise another interesting question for portrait hunters: What more clearly distinguishes any particular society -- its notion of the superhero or its notion of the "ordinary man"? How very different, in other words, is John Q. Public from 'Dash Ali?

Not much at all, perhaps, as indicated by John Limbert, who teaches Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. He also demonstrated that, undertaken with clear purpose, the explicit or implicit presentation of a film as a social portrait can have a salutary effect. In his class on Iran (where, as a member of the American diplomatic corps, he was held hostage for 14 months during the embassy takeover of 1979-81), Limbert challenges the prejudices of his students at the beginning of each semester by screening The Candidate, directed by Mohammad Shirvani. The short film depicts the efforts of a mother to find a bride for her son, to which end she sweetly accosts female strangers on the street. Limbert observed that the women depicted are "very smart and very practical," belying notions of Iranian femininity held by many in the West. He said the screening almost invariably achieves its purpose: "Some student generally says, 'They're just like us.' Then the course can begin...."

Still, comprehension suffers when every film, as the University of São Paulo's Ferdinando Martins put it, is "seen as a portrait of Iran" and its fictional aspects disregarded. Speaking on a panel devoted to the topic of cinema's relationship to public policy and public diplomacy, he echoed -- or rather, by the real-world chronology of the conference, presaged -- Moruzzi's observation about dystopic aesthetics, finding that those Iranian films which gain distribution outside the Middle East tend "to paint the devil worse than he is." In the view of Javad Asgharirad of the Free University of Berlin, those movies as a corpus create an impression that Iranians suffer from a low standard of living, little freedom, and great social stratification (though, by way of partial counterbalance, they enjoy strong family ties onscreen, as well).

Asgharirad did not take up the question of whether that impression is really worse than the reality or not, but rather focused on the tension between those films and the objectives of state entities such as the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization and Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, which look to use cinema to promote cultural ties with other nations and present an appealing image of Iran abroad -- mostly through religious-themed films circulated regionally, particularly to Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, as well as via the Internet.

Their work is most of what remains of a broader national film policy launched soon after the 1979 Revolution. Agnes DeVictor of the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne described how Iran was one of just four countries to successfully "resist Hollywood destruction of national cinema industries in the 1980s and '90s via public policy," making the Islamic Republic part of one of the more unlikely quartets in international cultural history, accompanied as it was by France, South Korea, and Burkina Faso.

Those state entities are the primary, but far from only, venues for what Northwestern University's Hamid Naficy, the conference's plenary speaker, characterized as the Islamic Republic's "instrumentalization" of culture and media. He presented a broad survey of the new public diplomacy scene that, involving a wide variety of channels more accessible than ever before to ordinary citizens, he said was at the same time both "potentially more democratic and empowering" and "more insidious, more susceptible to manipulation." Considering Iranian-American relations in what he insisted on calling the "mediatic" realm, he identified four sets of "public diplomacy players," distinguishable by both interests and means:

* The U.S. government

* The IRI government

* Iranian exiles and diaspora population

* Iranian internal public and dissidents

This structure is helpful insofar as it addresses the problem articulated by Asgharirad: that "most of the misunderstandings come when Iran is considered a monolithic entity -- not just internationally, but internally, as well." But yet it frames the United States as just such a monolithic entity, under guidance by its political institutions. Is that quite right?

Along with government-backed satellite TV and radio stations and the direct or indirect funding of exile media, government media, and NGOs, Naficy called out the "global distribution of U.S. pop culture" as channel 1 of his first item. However much we may be appalled by the leveling of aesthetics around the world that results from each step of that insipid mammoth, is the beast really being invited into Iranian hearts, minds, and smartphones because the U.S. government would have it so or because ordinary people just can't get enough? And as for how those virgin souls fell victim to false consciousness, let's dare call it conspiracy, but let's not comfort ourselves by imagining the perpetrators are a few Beltway egotists and their apparatchik cocoon. The minders of the Matrix lie beyond the stars.

Turn now from the cosmic dread evoked by the paramount percent to considerations more mundane: A Separation, already the most celebrated Iranian film of the West's infant millennium and with more accolades likely to come. Is the New York Film Festival, where Farhadi's film had its American debut, an agent of the U.S. government? How about the Village Voice, whose 98 critical polltakers just ranked it the second best film of all 2011? The Golden Globes, which made it the first Iranian movie ever to receive a nomination? And with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences preparing to weigh in with its nominations a month from now, A Separation is on all the Oscar prognosticators' shortlists. These are all choices, with their attendant promotional effects, that fall within the rubric of public diplomacy, broadly construed. And who is determining that this particular example of Iran's cultural output shall be brought to the attention of Americans (however few, however influential)? Not Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton, one can presume. The monolith looms, to be sure, but it hasn't incorporated everything just yet.

As Naficy observed, and critic and filmmaker Parviz Jahed described in greater detail in his look at Iran's underground cinema, while the Internet and digital video facilitate new, more democratic media outlets -- such as Zanan TV, a new online channel devoted to the Iranian women's movement, introduced by contributor and activist Maryam Ommy -- creeping authoritarianism, which theocratic or military or corporate or monstrously hybrid in form, effectively restricts more mature and widely distributed modes. Cultural analysts are familiar with how financial motivations impose censorship burdens, uncodified but unavoidable, in the hypercapitalistic West; DeVictor noted how, with the cutting of much of the state funds that used to subsidize filmmaking in Iran, the domestic market is now dominated by generic "romances that are effectively TV on film."

But just because the private sector is so proficient at denuding cinema of its potential power, doesn't mean that official censors in a state such as the Islamic Republic don't still take an interest. In Iran, those in the artistic professions must navigate both a strict, if ever-shifting, moral code and a host of political flashpoints. And if artists are like everyone else in the country in this regard, only moreso, moreso still are Iran's filmmakers.

Liliane Anjo of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in the course of describing the recent trend of Iranian film stars -- including A Separation's Peyman Moadi -- taking to the stage, explained how there is substantially less censorship of theater than of motion pictures in the Islamic Republic. Cinematic censorship operates so intensely on so many levels that it has prompted the evolution of onscreen codes so intricate and comprehensive and yet clearly definable that in sum they can be construed as a novel, near-formal language; that was the conclusion this conference attendee drew from the fascinating presentation by Asal Bagheri Griffaton of Paris Descartes University at the Sorbonne.

In the West, the observation that cinema is dead has already matriculated from cliché provocation to melancholy truism. So what exactly is going on "over there"? Is cinema still somehow alive in Iran, or are they merely afraid of ghosts?

Well: Is cinema really dead? Pick your horizon. Yes, the sun set on cinema in the West on May 26, 1983, when a day after its ineluctable smashing of all opening-day records, word of mouth did not prevent a charmless, aggressively redundant, and cringingly schmaltzy children's movie called Return of the Jedi from having the biggest second day at the box office in movie history. But just like the Force, the West is all in our head. We can occupy ourselves with other things -- indeed, we often don't have a choice.

Iradj Ghouchani of Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich declared in his presentation on "The Effect of State Power on Cinematic Language," that in Iranian cinema, "everything has been sublimated." And as that great Westerner Sigmund Freud observed, sublimation is the very spice of psychic life. Since the day cinema fell on its light saber, countless great movies have been made, not least -- very far from least -- within the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Cinema is alive then, there and everywhere in the minds of those with the will to find their way into what Moruzzi referred to as "internal diaspora." She used the term specifically to refer to those artists who strive for independent expression within a realm under repressive, authoritarian rule. But it's a notion worth taking deeper, into the private mind of the artist. The University of São Paulo's Daniel De Sousa quoted director Jafar Panahi:

Sometimes self-censorship or social censorship is worse than actual censorship, so when I make a film I don't think about what is allowed and not allowed.

That's precisely the sort of internal diaspora within reach of every artist worthy of the name, from the Hollywood Hills to the shadows of the Alborz.

Dan Geist is a critic and senior editor at Tehran Bureau. Photo: Director Asghar Farhadi.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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