Close Up: Iranian Cinema Past Present and Future, by Hamid Dabashi. Trade paper. New York: Verso Books. Cloth: $70.00. Trade paper: $20.00. 2001, 320pp. ISBN 1-85984-332-8
In 1995, introducing one of the opening night films at the 22nd Telluride Film Festival, Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon, Werner Herzog made the following statement: “What I say tonight will be a banality in the future. The greatest films of the world today are being made in Iran.” This utterance may have taken some aback. After all, in the popular mind of Americans the image of Iran was indelibly linked to hostage-takers and U.S. flag-burning zealots.
While his encounter with Iranian films in the early 1990s was something of a discovery for Herzog, decades prior, as early as the 1950s, another luminary of the world of cinema, the French filmmaker Chris Marker, had already come across Iranian cinema. He writes of stopovers in Tehran on his way to or from the Far East.
“Tehran with its sky that always looked ten times more vast than the skies of the Occident. The moment of dusk when daylight still hangs, bluish, and when brass lamps are being lit already … and the best vodka-limes West of Hong Kong. All those I came to know there Ghaffari, Faroughi … Golestan … were charming and extraordinary but Forough… was the most extraordinary of them all.”
His reference is to Forough Farrokhzad, the Iranian poet and filmmaker who in the span of her short life redefined the cultural landscape of her day. In the course of a career cut short by her death in a car accident at the age of 33, she produced a body of work that exploded onto a burgeoning cultural scene. She had the rare talent and sensibility that straddled the lyrical and the social. That she chose a leper colony as the subject for her only film, the 22-minute documentary The House Is Black (1962) is telling. In the film, while her gaze clings to her particular subject, she speaks to the disinherited the world over.
What distinguished Forough Farrokhzad’s film was an ability to marry poetry to naked realism. This combination was to be a characteristic of a number of works that emerged from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s in Iranian cinema. Farrokh Ghaffari’s film Jonoob-e-Shahr (South of the City, 1958), a critical look at the southern part of a Tehran whose northern foothills were inhabited by the affluent, marks the beginning of this period. However, it is the self-exiled filmmaker Sohrab Shahid Saless’ classic Tabiat-E-Bi-Jan (Still Life, 1975) that marks the high point of this era. Its extremely slow pace and painterly visuals garnered comparisons to the work of Iran’s master poet Nima Yushij. Other landmark films were Masoud Kimai’s Qaisar (1969) and a film by Mehrjui, Gav (The Cow), which won the Venice film festival Grand Prize in 1969. These films directly addressed issues of disenfranchisement and abject neglect. They encountered a rigid and virulent censorship machine and were at times promptly banned.
The broader landscape of the Iranian film industry during this period was marked by neglect. The government’s economic policies favored the importation of foreign films over domestic production. This, coupled with stringent censorship policies, resulted in the production of great numbers of vapid formulaic entertainment films. One consequence of this state of affairs was that the film industry was largely identified with the Shah’s efforts at rapid Westernization of the country and its catastrophic social consequences. In 1978, during a turbulent prerevolutionary period, the Rex movie theater in Abadan was set on fire, its doors locked from the outside. Four hundred people died in that fire. Numerous other cinema burnings followed.
One may have assumed that the ascendance of the Islamic régime and its own brand of censorial regulation would put the final nail in the coffin of Iranian cinema. What evolved was quite the opposite. As early as the mid-1980s, the Islamic government set up extremely strict guidelines clarifying what was and was not allowed on the screen. A Kafkaesque multistage system of approvals was designed, determining the grant of exhibition permits. The importation of foreign films was strongly curtailed. Greater economic incentives for the local film industry were provided. An impressive number of extraordinary films were produced in the ensuing years, many of which have since been seen by international audiences worldwide.
Even more surprisingly, Iranian women filmmakers, previously barely a presence, have made their mark both domestically and internationally in the last twenty years. While they are still greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts, their voices are distinct — chief amongst them are Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and Tahmineh Milani.
Of the filmmakers working in Iran today, Abbas Kiarostami is the most direct heir to the legacy of Shahid Saless’ cinema and to the poetic tradition of Forough Farrokhzad. Simple narratives, the use of nonprofessional actors and the blurring of the lines between fiction and documentary are characteristic of Kiarostami’s films, which are essentially feature-length poetic meditations. Although he has been making films since 1970, it was his 1987 Where Is the Friend’s House that first stunned audiences in the West. Since then Kiarostami’s star has only continued its rise. He received the 1997 Palme d’Or at Cannes for his film Taste of Cherry. In 1999 he was unequivocally voted the most important film director of the 1990s by two international critics polls. He is today acknowledged as a new master of the world cinema on a par with such directors as Bresson and Kurosawa. In March 2000, Philip Lopate wrote: “We don’t know it yet, but we are living in the age of Kiarostami.”
Kiarostami’s cinema and its bare-boned aesthetics form one pole of Iranian cinema. The other is exemplified by the masterful works of Bahram Beizai. An accomplished playwright, filmmaker, and writer, Beizai’s works explore a visual realm redolent with mythology. His collaborations with the actress Sussan Taslimi produced a number of intensely poignant films including Bashu, the Little Stranger (1991). Beizai has not had the same ease as some others in navigating the rules and regulations of the Islamic Republic, and for the last two years many have awaited the release of his most recent film.
If Beizai and Kiarostami form the twin pillars of Iranian cinema, Mohsen Makhmalbaf represents its strongest component since the advent of the Islamic revolution. Makhmalbaf, who emerged from an underprivileged background and was at first strongly identified with the Islamic regime, is a self-taught filmmaker. His prolific body of work includes 21 features. His films are graceful and bold stylistically as well as in their choice of subject. His latest film, Kandahar (2001), will be released in the U.S. this January and was made before the current crisis in Afghanistan. “I wanted to portray in personal terms the desperate situation that exists in that country.” His iconoclasm is further reflected in his home-schooling of his daughter Samira. She emerged as the youngest of a new generation of filmmakers when at 18 she presented her first film, The Apple, scripted and edited by her father, at the Cannes film festival. In 2000, at the age of 20, her second feature, Blackboards, was awarded the Jury Prize at the same festival.
Several other filmmakers of note began their careers as assistants to veteran filmmakers, including the split-recipients of the Camera d’Or at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, Bahman Ghobadi, for A Time for Drunken Horses and Hassan Yektapanah for Djomeh. Both had both worked as assistants to Kiarostami. Another ex-assistant of Kiarostami’s is Jafar Panahi, whose film The Circle was awarded the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2000. In the last two years, more than a dozen Iranian films have been in distribution in the United States to both critical and popular acclaim. Werner Herzog’s words have proven to be prophetic.
The audiences who have been discovering and enjoying these films are avid to learn more about Iranian cinema. A book presenting a comprehensive general history of Iranian cinema would be greeted with curiosity, enthusiasm, and interest by this public. It is frustrating that Close Up: Iranian Cinema Past Present and Future is not that book. It would seem that the author’s vast reservoir of knowledge about the subject, his commitment to exploring the history of Iranian film, and a sincere passion for film evidenced by his charming prologue detailing his childhood memories of the movies in Iran might well have made him the ideal candidate for writing such a book. Sadly, this is not the case.
At every juncture Dabashi’s attachment to an analysis of Iranian cinema through the prism of Marxist critical theory derails his book. The result is a stodgy academic text devoid of interest to the general reader. More dramatically, the narrowness of his perspective ultimately detracts from his ability to objectively evaluate the merits of the works he considers.
In his first chapter, the thesis is reflected in the following statement: “The story of Iranian cinema is concomitant with the project of modernity as an extended arm of colonialism, itself necessitated by the rise of competing national bourgeoisie…”
This remark is followed by: “After almost 200 years of Iranian exposure to the project of modernity, the historical experiment ultimately failed for a number of crucial reasons, among them the colonial prevention of the formation of a self-conscious national bourgeoisie and the catastrophic consequences of the economic placement of Iran in a disadvantageous position in the productive logic of global capitalism”
The above sentence is typical of Dabashi’s prose style as he proceeds on a mediated analysis of the films with references to the theories of stalwart icons of modern critical theory and philosophy such as Hegel and Adorno, Kristeva and Foucault.
The book primarily examines the works of five major directors: Kiarostami, Beizai, Farmanara, Makhmalbaf, and in the chapter on women filmmakers, Bani-Etemad. Two additional chapters form an introduction and a final analysis. The book’s structure includes straight interviews with some filmmakers and straight analysis of the works of others. This leaves the lingering impression of a series of random essays tacked onto one another and forced into the confines of Dabashi’s thesis where possible. The interviews, which may have benefited from some editorial intervention, provide interesting biographical details but rarely any illuminations of the body of the filmmakers’ work.
In a meandering last chapter, Dabashi brings together a Freudian analysis of Iranian politics with the previously stated thesis and concludes that the “older generation of public intellectuals” in Iran, amongst whom he includes Kiarostami, “were bound to have an expansive ego because they were the end, albeit negational, result of absolutist tyrannies.” Here he justifies dismissing Kiarostami’s masterful 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us Away as essentially irrelevant, deferring instead to the three young filmmakers who received the awards at Cannes 2000 as heralding a new and relevant cinema.
While the framework of historical criticism can be a useful tool to penetrate a text, it does not justify judging a work based on its social or historical context. The distinction is subtle. This is the pitfall that Dabashi stumbles into when he supplants the transcendent nature of the artistic gaze with the apparatus of criticism. Every great film ultimately extricates itself from the confines of temporal conditions and accesses the universal. It withstands the test of many generations of critics and of many forms of government. To judge a work of art in relation to its political environment is to subject it to a tyranny that is alien to the very act of creation. Happily, Dabashi’s domain does not extend beyond the realm of this book.
Hopefully, of the several writers of note who have addressed different aspects of Iranian cinema in their writing over the course of the last several years — chief amongst them Jonathan Rosenbaum, Jamsheed Akrami, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Hamid Naficy, and Godfrey Cheshire, the venerable Variety and New York Times critic — one will soon present a definitive history of Iranian cinema. In the meantime, those of us living in Los Angeles have the privilege of easy access to scores of incredible Iranian films on video available through the various video rental outlets on Westwood, otherwise known to the Iranian community as Tehrangeles!