Mar 26, 2013

Defining Iranian Cinema

Raffi Pitts' The Hunter
Three years ago, I watched an Iranian film called The Hunter at TIFF. It is directed by Rafi Pitts, whose face you'll recognize if you've seen Ben Affleck's Argo. Predictably, a significant number of the patrons were Iranian and everyone was sounding off on the film in one way or another after the screening. I fell for the film and its unfamiliar brand of coolly stylized action thriller, so much so that I included it in my top ten list of 2010. After the film I ran into an obnoxiously loud, young, Iranian man and his equally opinionated father who had both hated everything about the film, chiefly because "it didn't show anything about what's wrong with the Iranian government these days" and "it wasn't representative of the Iranian society." With regards to The Hunter, specifically, I disagree with both of those criticisms, but that's beside the point I want to make here: Iranian filmmakers have long been burdened with the responsibility to make their films Iranian.

I'm bringing this up because Hamid Dabashi, the respected author of two essential books on Iranian cinema (Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema and Close-up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future) has written a confusing and borderline offensive article on the status quo of Iranian films that has me scratching my head, looking for explanations. Normally, I'd let a column like that slide, but I need to discuss Mr. Dabashi's text because a) it has genuinely angered me and b) I must write about Tina Hassannia's brilliant response to it.

The gist of Mr. Dabashi's piece is that there's a dearth of talent in Iranian cinema because of the brain drain phenomenon, but also that filmmakers who fight against government censorship by producing their films abroad or underground in Iran have lost touch with their brilliance and Iranian identity of old. Quite what that Iranian identity means is neither properly explained, nor justified — as Tina succinctly puts it, it seems to be "some holy, magical, Dabashi-imagined space in which they can make truly innovative Iranian works."

I disagree with several of the examples Mr. Dabashi uses in his article. The point of an exercise like Jafar Panahi's This is Not a Film, for instance, seems to have been missed entirely on his part. As you already know, I'm a big fan of Panahi's film, not because of its subversive politics — to be fair, Mr. Dabashi does have a point regarding the lack of subtlety in its social criticism — but for the way it painted a rich portrait of the creative process that ranks, for this writer, alongside 8½ and Day For Night. Panahi experiments with the possibilities of the medium in a way he never would have had his hands not been tied into it and, paradoxically, I think that is something to be celebrated. As Tina eloquently puts it:
"Dabashi’s logic is that an artist under Panahi’s degree of pressure is unsuited for artistic creation, but the film’s best strength is that Panahi’s house arrest and inability to make films—the artistic equivalent of a sensory deprivement cell—is exactly the condition necessary to produce astute reflections of the ontology of filmmaking, its process, and the existence of necessary criteria for filmmaking in its sheer absence."
Mr. Dabashi is equally mistaken in conveniently skirting around all of Dariush Mehrjuyi's work after his successful collaborations with exiled Iranian author Gholamhossein Saedi. Mehrjuyi's earlier works, particularly his seminal masterpiece The Cow, are so towering that critics tend to downplay the strengths of his more recent output, but a film like Mum's Guest is as significant a piece in the realm of Iranian ensemble comedies — a genre on which much of the financial success of mainstream Iranian cinema relies — as The Cow was among socially conscious arthouse films of pre-Islamic revolution Iran, or in fact Mehrjuyi's own Dabashi-approved The Tenants was as an ensemble comedy.

Monica Bellucci in Bahman Ghobadi's Rhino Season

These are the parts of Dabashi's article that can be defensible and debated upon, but he degenerates into the territory of unjustified spite for certain films - sorry, calling a film "simply unwatchable" isn't a well-judged criticism - and downright obnoxious condescension when he generalizes all Iranian-Californians as "the most useless and pestiferous Iranian community, to which the ugly faces of the Shahs of Sunset does perfect justice." Keeping it classy.

The offensive language aside, there are three issues pertinent to Dabashi's article that make it really problematic. The first is that critics bemoaning the end of Iranian cinema generally, and comfortably, ignore the significant fact that the Iranian film industry has always been plagued with monstrous censorship and has always come out on top. Dabashi acknowledges this by ending his article on the faintly positive note that there may be genuine artists-in-the-making in the underground film scene in Iran, but the reality is actually much brighter. Like any Iranian, I would love to see Iranian artists working with complete freedom and with the ability to express themselves in whatever way they wish and to the extent of their potential; but unfortunately, at this juncture in our history, that's not a realistic possibility and blaming the artists who are working tirelessly and dangerously to continue their careers is only going to discourage future generations.

Silencing the likes Sohrab Shahid Saless, Bahman Farmanara, Bahram Beizaei and Amir Naderi all proved to be setbacks for the industry as a whole, but it didn't stop Kiarostami, Mehrjuyi and Makhmalbaf from producing Iranian cinema's best works; and as much as I hate to see Jafar Panahi, Bahman Ghobadi, Mohammad Rasoulov and Samira Makhmalbaf suppressed, the reality is that artists will always find imaginative ways to defeat even the most overbearing of oppressive systems. Iranian cinema is far from dead. Critics pronounced it as such ten years ago but then Pitts made The Hunter, Mani Haghighi made Men at Work, and Asghar Farhadi made About Elly and A Separation. This cycle has continued for more than five decades now. Hamid Reza Sadr's fantastic book, Iranian Cinema: A Political History, discusses the issue of censorship in Iranian cinema from its earliest days with the release of the very first films made in Iran. But even burning down the theaters by the religious right long before the Islamic revolution didn't diminish the industry. It was certainly subdued, but only to bounce back stronger.

The fact that the number of festival success stories is not as high as it used to be in the 1990s isn't a phenomenon that is only experienced by Iran either. Italian neo-realism didn't last forever. The Chinese Fifth Generation didn't last forever. The Romanian New Wave won't last forever. Iranian New Wave is one example among many. These influential cinematic movements are labelled 'movements' for a reason. At some point they will stop moving, but that doesn't necessarily spell the collective death of a nation's film industry. The cinema can morph and come back in stronger ways.

Golshifteh Farahani in Chicken with Plums

The second issue is the argument that Iranian filmmakers working abroad lose the Iranian identity of their work, to which Tina responds brilliantly by highlighting Kiarostami's newest film, the Japan-set Like Someone in Love:

"Like Someone in Love may be about sublimated love (in the filmmaker’s own paraphrased words, every character operates like someone in love), but the film is pointing out the many different types of love possible even within a single relationship, and their natural development and dissolution into one another. A relationship is privately never as defined, rigid or containable as the arbitrary language deployed by society and people outside of it.
These polymorphous relations between people are simply a normal part of life, yet in extremely patriarchal societies in which male/female relationships are under heavy scrutiny and surveillance—say, Iran—this organic relationship-building is treated as nonexistent, with discrepancies, or hints of them, treated as damning and requiring of punishment. In equal measure, the desperation that the Islamic regime has instilled in people has eroded the communal thoughtfulness fostered in Iranian culture. Abundant hospitality, taarof and kindness among strangers—centuries-old gestures of geniality—are still present in Iran, but they are easily overturned by paranoia and witch-hunt-like accusations. Films like A Separation explore this idea as well as the collision in fractured families torn by conflicting priorities (Nader’s Alzheimer’s afflicted father versus the freedom of Nader and Simin’s daughter). Many well-known Iranian films explore the issues of personal boundaries and expectations within the context of Iranian social norms, and that’s because Iranian society has been undergoing great turmoil in its traditional and modernist ideas about family relationships. Iran is a culture torn between collectivism and individualism, much like the Japanese culture portrayed in Like Someone in Love, and the film is very much about the futility and uselessness of society’s definitions of an intensely private, unstoppable emotion that blooms into many different kinds of love."
Tina's point is spot on; and there are many similar examples to discuss, most significantly Kiarostami's own Certified Copy and some of Shahid Saless's works in Germany and Naderi's in Japan. Tina also mentions Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis as an example of a European production with an inevitable Iranian identity, to which I can add Satrapi's next film, Chicken with Plums, and quite possibly Farhadi's next film about Iranian immigrants in France.

The third issue is the extreme emphasis on Iranian identity in and of itself, which is a bit worrying considering the problem with modern Iranian cinema stems entirely from another source. Dabashi is quick to point to all the directors who have been forced to work outside Iran, but seems to forget that many of them, given the chance, would love to be working back in their home country. But in the absence of that opportunity, why would they deprive themselves of their art? A film like Certified Copy - which, as mentioned above, can be argued for as an Iranian film - was not just a major artistic achievement and a significant step forward in the veteran director's career, but also a film that revived interest in the earlier works of Kiarostami in Iran. If Asghar Farhadi's upcoming film, The Past, can follow in A Separation's footsteps and become a hit in Europe, shouldn't we celebrate the rise of an Iranian TV director to international auteur status? A film like Rhino Season that deals openly with the plight of Kurdish minorities in Iran might sacrifice the naturalistic poetry of Ghobadi's earlier (and admittedly stronger) works but shouldn't he be applauded for working with an international superstar (Monica Bellucci) and breaking new technical ground?

Like any other national cinema, the Iranian film industry needs the presence of unique, vital voices like Kiarostami, Farhadi, Makhmalbaf and Ghobadi; but if we need them so desperately to contribute to the cinema, we need to provide them with a platform to express that unique, vital voice. That's the root of the problem and it will always remain so. Unlike Dabashi, I don't think festival prizes for someone like Panahi are a curse in disguise. They're inspiration for him to continue to fight the system that oppresses him. If at the end of that fight, a battered and bruised Panahi comes out with a film not as politically subversive as Offside, but as singularly experimental as This Is Not a Film, so be it. If Amir Naderi has to travel as far as Japan to make a film like Cut, so evidently about the Iranian culture of self-sacrifice and martyrdom, so be it. This decades-old practice of ruthless censorship needs to be revised and ideally eradicated, but in the meantime, I'd rather see an enthusiastic Ghobadi trying to one up himself than a disheartened Famanara watching the clock tick away his days.

Cinema, today, is as international as it has ever been. It's an environment in which Joshua Marston can work in South America and Eastern Europe in languages foreign to him; Hollywood's top prize goes to a film made by an American superstar, in Turkey, about Iran; and an Austrian auteur makes a film in Paris, in French, with French actors and wins an Oscar for Austria. The possibilities of international co-production are endless and ever-expanding. Criticizing filmmakers whose voice would otherwise be silenced for being smart enough to take advantage of these opportunities seems perversely narrow-minded.

*You can read Hamid Dabashi's original piece here and Tina Hassannia's response here.

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