Volume 4 : Cover Topic - Iranian Cinema (2)

Iranian Cinema as Central Asian Geopolitics

Dennis Redmond


Abstract: The great works of Iranian cinema must be read in the context of Asia's transformation from a second-tier battleground of the Cold War – a mere sideshow compared to the historic flashpoints of Southeast Asia, Central Europe and the Middle East – into a key geopolitical fault-line of the post-American era. Far from being the neo-national spinoff of the 1979 Revolution, Iranian cinema has become the Persian mirror in which Central Asia's declaration of autonomy from the US Empire can be read.

As the US Empire's monstrous colonial war on Iraq collapses into chaos and ruin, taking fifty years of accumulated symbolic, diplomatic and cultural capital with it, it's worth reflecting for a moment on the singular role of the Iranian cinema in the multinational media culture. While directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Samira Makhmalbaf have achieved fame and fortune on the international festival circuit, much of the critical literature tends to focus exclusively on the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution and the cultural politics of Iran's clerical state. The weakness of this approach is most apparent in Hamid Dabashi's otherwise excellent 'Close Up', which canonizes Kiarostami's 'Taste of Cherry' (1997) while crudely caricaturing 'The Wind Will Carry Us' (2001). My own position is that both films are magnificent, but in two very different ways: the first transcends the limitation of national cinema as a form, while the second moves into the realm of multinational visual aesthetics, a.k.a. the field of video.

By video culture, I refer to something much broader than the mushrooming production and consumption of images of all kinds. The field of video includes everything from cinemastyle sound-tracks, music, scripts and performances, to videogames, digital media and the information culture. Nor is video culture to be confused with Hollywood or the US culture-industry. All too many media theorists tend to recycle moralizing visions of national authenticity, against equally dubious visions of Hollywood as an all-encompassing and irresistible juggernaut. The reality is that the countries of East Asia and the European Union have thriving media cultures all their own, ranging from the world-class films and music to premier works of animation and videogames.

Nor is the emergence of video a license to celebrate the wondrous hybridity and diasporic flux of the multinational marketplace. The privilege of cultural professionals and comprador elites to surf the planet's cultural databanks is just that – a privilege, and as Heiner Mueller famously said, all privileges must be paid for. The rise of video culture signifies a mutation of identity-politics and class struggle, not its disappearance. This is most usefully analyzed from the stand point of the hegemonic category of late 20th century identitypolitics, namely Americanization. Put bluntly, the anti- Hollywood viewpoint considers the world too Americanized, while the hybridity viewpoint considers it not Americanized enough. None has stopped to ask, however, whether Americanization as a category is still relevant in a world where the US Empire is no longer in control of the world-system1.

Perhaps the greatest single restatement of the Americanization argument was Fredric Jameson's suggestion that all Third World literature in the post-Bandung era is essentially allegorical,i.e. is always already situated in the grinding guerilla war between US imperial consumerism and Third World anti-colonial revolution. While Aijaz Ahmad has provided a thorough critique of this argument, pointing out that concept of national allegory assumes precisely what needs to be explained in the first place – namely, the basic identity or equivalence of metropolitan and peripheral nationalism, when five hundred years of colonial and neocolonial history would suggest otherwise2 – there is a sense in which Jameson did identify a key contradiction worth pursuing further. This is the brute fact of geopolitics itself, the objective cognate of Jameson's project of subjective or cognitive mapping. Put differently, national allegory is the cultural equivalent of the national-revolutionary party or modernizing one-party state, the crucial bridge-mediation between culture and economics in the era of monopoly capital.

This may explain why Jameson's argument is most relevant to the anticolonial texts of the immediate post-Bandung era– specifically, the span from Indian director Satyajit Ray's magnificent ‘Apu trilogy' (‘Song of the Road'(1954), 'The Unvanquished'(1956) and ‘The World of Apu' (1959) and Naguib Mahfouz's 'Cairo trilogy' (1956-57), all the way to Gillo Pontecorvo's ‘The Battle of Algiers' (1965) and Tomas Gutiérrez Alea's ' Memories of Underdevelopment' (1968). The key subtext of each of these works, of course, was the one-party state in question (Nehruvian India for Ray, Nasserite Egypt for Mahfouz, the Algerian National Front for Pontecorvo, and Cuba's Communist Party for Alea).

By contrast, one of the most consistent features of the post-1968 period is the senescence or outright eclipse of the one-party state. This does not mean that the nation-state has vanished, but does point to its reconfiguration into a local agent of multinational accumulation, everywhere from the emergence of the European Union to the developmental states of East Asia, to the neoliberal regimes imposed on the Third World. Aesthetically, this is apparent everywhere from Nawal Sadawi's 'Woman at Point Zero' (1976), a scathing denunciation of Egyptian neocolonialism, to an Xue's satire of post-Maoist China, 'Yellow Mud Street' (1983), all the way to the great video productions of the 1980s (e.g. John Woo's Hong Kong action epics, or polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's 'Decalogue'). This cultural moment had its political expression in the 1979 Iranian revolution and the 1991 independence movements which swept across the southern republics of the Soviet Union.

The winds of monopoly-era geopolitics blew with particular intensity on Iran's media culture, due to its vast energy reserves and strategic location between the southern rim of the Soviet Union, post-Partition Pakistan, and Baathist Iraq. Following in the footsteps of the Allied occupation of Iran in 1942, a CIA-sponsored coup overthrew Iran's Mossadegh govenment in 1954, installing the 25-year pro-US dictatorship of Shah Pahlavi. As brutal as the rule of the Shah was, Iran's booming oil economy generated a wealth of modernisms, ranging from lyric poet Forough Farrokhzad's 'Another Birth' (1964) to Simin Daneshvar's classic novel Savushun (1969), all the way to Daryush Mahrju'i's breakthrough film 'The Cow' (1969). Predictably, the 1979 Iranian Revolution was founded on a platform of rhetorical anti-Americanism and Cromwellian clerical nationalism. The Reagan administration's response was to ostracize Iran as a pariah state and overtly support Saddam Hussein's ghastly war on Iran, while covertly selling arms to the Iranian authorities in the notorious Iran-Contra scandal3.

But the geopolitical event which fatefully transformed Iran from just another Central Asian oil-producer into a media powerhouse was the colossal trauma of the 1980-88 Iran- Iraq War. The war devastated Iran's western provinces, disrupted its oil exports, and cost at least 500,000 Iranian lives. No other country in Central Asia experienced such a savage struggle for national survival against in neighboring Third World nationalism, with the partial exception of the Ottoman Empire's genocidal war against Armenia in 1915. Yet the war did more than just give the clerical regime an opportunity to consolidate its rule. The Shah's wastrel and corrupt energy-rent economy was transformed into the theocratic developmental state, which substituted the accumulation of state-ecclesiastical capital for its monarchic predecessor.

From an economic perspective, Iranian fundamentalism was thus a ruse of national-autarkic reason. Yet this ruse contained the seeds of its own negation, for the simple reason that the fundamentalist regime was compelled, against its own official ideology, to complete the modernization process begun by the Sha. Far from opposing the Americanization of Iran, Shiite fundamentalism was this Americanization, i.e. the triumph of monopoly-capital relations of production over their monarchic-liberal predecessor. During the war with Iraq, the clerical state nationalized vast areas of the economy, especially the energy sector, while carefully avoiding going into foreign debt. Following the end of the war in 1988, the state funneled its energy-rents into its own auto, textiles, food processing and culture-industries, spawning the single largest independent industrial base of any Middle Eastern country.3

This economic transformation spurred a profound superstructural shift: Iran moved away from a virtual ban on birth control during the war years to a highly successful program of family planning. According to UNESCO, Iran's fertility rate decline from 7 in 1960 to 5 in 1990, and plummeted to 2.4 in 2002, far below its comparable Middle East neighbors, though still higher than the post-Soviet states. Population growth has also slowed sharply, dropping from 3% in the 1978-1988 period to only 1.4% during 1992- 2002. This signifies a genuine revolution in Iranian gender politics, something with significant consequences for its media culture.4

We will suggest that Iran bears the features of two contradictory social formation at once – the progressive stateled or autarkic modernization of the Soviet states (industrialization without capital), and the reactionary clericalism of the oil kingdom (capital without industrialization). It is precisely the clash between these two formations which forms the narrative raw material of the great Iranian films of the 1990s. Kiarostami's 'The Taste of Cherry', for example, cannily reappropriates the long pans, automotive shots, dusty roads and quirky characters of that erstwhile staple of First World cinema, the road movie, for decidedly subversive ends. What US or European viewers would regard as the unneccessary scaffolding of the roadside interviews, mediumrange shots, and seemingly random and pointless exchanges with laborers and field-workers provides the crucial subtext of the film, which is not so much about an existentialist search for meaning as an archeological dig into the political unconscious of the Islamic Republic. The protagonist's suicide attempt is something like a false clue or Hitchcock's MacGuffin: the point of the film is not the moral redemption of a single character, but an attempt to fix the horizon-line of Iran's late modernism, which must end for an Iranian postmodernism to begin.

This is nicely symbolized by the figure of the elderly professional, who intones the line ''taste of cherry'' – an explicitly somatic signifier, whose true meaning is revealed only at the end, when the visual registers of pink, red and yellow rock and dust suddenly accede to the scalding greens, shot through a handheld videocamera. What in a different context might have been an informatic pun on the '' green screen'' of the 1980s computers is, in the late 1990s, a utopian signifier of the dawn of the video age in Central Asia. Intriguingly, Kiarostami draws our attention at this moment to a group of soldiers patiently waiting in the field for the crew to finish the next shot. This subtly rewrites the life-and-death national mobilizations of the 1980s into the consumer mobilizations of the 1990s – a re-nationalizing gesture, whose political content is the 1997 election of Khatami, the reformist candidate who ushered in Iran's own brand of indigenous media politics.

Yet perhaps the true genius of the Iranian media culture is best grasped in the context of quite a different Third World state undergoing multinational restructuring, namely Senegal. As a former French colony turned member of the CFA franc zone and structural periphery of the European Union, Senegal provided the basis for a range of progressive multinationalisms, ranging from Djibril Diop Mambety's scathing denunciation of neocolonialism in 'Hyenas' (1992) to Ousmane Sembiine's 'Faat Kine' (1999). But whereas Mambety and Sembene created a mediatic template for sub-Saharan Africa, by pastiching motifs from the EU media culture, African American culture (especially hip hop), African theatrical motifs and the symbols of Francophone neocolonialism (e.g. Kine's Total gas station), the great Iranian directors created a Central Asian geopolitical aesthetic out of the EU mass media, Eastern European cinema (especially Kryzsztof Kieslowski, whose early documentaries eerily echo Kiarostami's own efforts in this field), and Iran's own indigenous modernisms (Farrokhzad and others).

This aesthetic is already on prominent display in 'The White Balloon', where a seven-year-old girl's quest to buy a ritual goldfish for a festival turns into a magical parade of urban street performers, chance encounters and shop vendors, and finally into a quest to recover a coin, which is ultimately exchanged for a white balloon. Panahi's camera follows the heroine on her quest through trials and tribulations like some live-action version of a Zelda videogame, carefully linking close shots of the main characters with an allegorical procession of urban types. Here MacGuffin is the brief appearance of the newly-drafted soldier, a symbol of national mobilization who quickly disappears from the narrative, replaced by the figure of the Afghani refugee at the end (the Taliban had not yet come to power in 1995, but there was great sympathy in Iran for the plight of the Afghan people). In the Central Asian context, the ultimate recovery of the coin signified a double restoration – the revitalization of Iran's national economy, accompanied by the mediatic emancipation hinted at by the gift of the white balloon, that unmistakable reference to McGoohan's 'The Prisoner' (the gift, in short, of a video culture capable of being rebroadcast to other Central Asian nations).

Kiarostami's 'The Wind Will Carry Us' extends this insight still further, by reflexively foregrounding a picturesque Iranian rural village as a new kind of neocolonial subject. The long drives through the countryside are now punctuated by cellphone conversations and business-related incidents, including an uproarious parody of an archeological dig. The suicidal protagonist of 'Taste of Cherry' has been replaced by a quirky documentary filmmaker, cast very much in the mold of Kiarostami himself. The documentarist turns out to be more of a postmodern tourist than a Benjaminic flaneur or collector; he is trying to record funeral rites of the local village for posterity, and watches over a sickly old woman, on the assumption that she is the most likely to expire. After some time in the village, he begins to devolop a guilty conscience over his complicity with the culture-industry. This leads him to scrap his original plan and to call on a doctor to try to save the old woman (the rewriting of the figure of the professor or literary mentor in 'Taste of Cherry'). In one extraordinary scene, the doctor recites a famous line from Farrokhzad, Iran's great modernist poet, testifying to the unearthly power of the promise of earthly justice.6 At the very end, Kiarostami has a double surprise in store for us: the old woman does indeed pass away, but the documentarist has no intention of filming the proceedings. From the safety of a car window, he hauls out his camera and records a few fleeting moments, in what reads like a marvelous parable of the boon companion of the cellphone, the digital camera. The unflinching gaze of the women in the funeral procession turns the scene on its head: the viewed subjects become the watchers of the watchers, negating to privatized register of the voyeurism hinted at in an earlier scene (the milking of the cow) by means of a defiant collective gaze.

1. See my essay on geopolitics at: http://www.efn.org/ ~dredmond/ Geopolitics.html

2. See Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory. London:Oxford University Press,1992.

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Iran-Contra–Affair

4. Iran's auto Sector is almost completely state-owned, and the state has effectively used joint ventures with a wide range of EU, Japanese and Korean automakers (in particular, Peugeot and Renault-Nissan) to transfer skills and technology. What made the auto boom possible was the fact that Iran is a reasonably literate and urbanized country – its literacy rate rose from 63% in 1990 to 76% in 2002, while its rate of urbanization reached 65% in the latter year. Currently, the greater metropolitan region of its capital city, Teheran, contains 12 million people (slightly more than a sixth of Iran's total population). By contrast, Egypt has 74.7 million people and a per capita GDP of Î1,278 but produces only about fifty thousand autos each year. Turkey produced 534,000 vehicles, a roughly comparable figure, but the Turkish economy remains hobbled by IMF structural adjustment regimes and glaring social inequities. OIC data for world auto production is available here: http://www.oica.net/htdocs/Main.htm. The left chart depicts Iran's demographic and economic heft vis-a-vis its regional neighbors, with countries ranked in order of per capita GDP in euros. Note particularly how close Iran's per capita GDP is to Russia, which is undergoing a resurgence of its own, and the startling differences in fertility rates between the Middle Easter oil-kingdoms and Iran.

5. See this account from Social Research, Summer 2000, by Nikki R. Keddie, ''Women in Iran since 1979'' (http://www. findarticles.com/p/articles/mi–m2267/ is–2–67/ ai–6378337/pg–7): After several years of denouncing birth control as an imperialist plot, during which population doubled, the government reversed itself in 1988 and soon launched what appears to be one of the world's most effective birth control programs. The government subsidizes free contraceptives and sponsors widespread birth control education, involving volunteer female community health workers and sessions for newlyweds. If official figures are to be trusted, birth rates have gone down by over half between 1986 and 1996, although they are still well above replacement rates (Hoodfar 1998). With the continued rapid growth of female education and urbanization, two factors that correlate dramatically with falling birthrates worldwide, birthrate can be expected to fall further, which will ease many burdens on women and bring more women into the labor force. For now, however, the large number of children and youths, along with dramatic economic decline since the revolution, creates a number of problems for women. Some government-initiated programs have also inadvertently encouraged women's activism, as in the case of volunteer health workers studied by Homa Hoodfar. Approximately 30,000 working-class volunteers have been trained to bring basic health and birth control information to women of their communities, a task in which they have succeeded, overall. Some have gone on to organize their communities to bargain for public services and improvements, and the women involved, as well as many of their husbands, have become more aware of their potential for public action (Hoodfar, 1998). The story of women in sports is a dramatic area of advance, now involving far more women and girls than in the prerevolutionary period. There is not space to detail it here, but it should be stressed that this is a major area of successful women's and political struggles. The sport scene has been transformed from one where the government discouraged women's sports to one where a large number of team and individual sports are pursued by ever-growing numbers of girls and women. Sports are Islamically legitimized by permitting sports that involve showing the body to be played where only other women are present. Women are also increasingly participating in sports where they are seen by men, including skiing, water-skiing, and bicycling, however encumbering the clothing they still must wear, Bodily conditioning is one aspect of women's growing empowerment (Sciolino, 1997).

6. Here is a translation of the full poem (the line ''the wind will take us'' is the translator's equivalent of the ''the wind will carry us''). Note particularly the personification of the color green, which Kiarostami reappropriated in 'Taste of Cherry':

In my small night, ah
the wind has a date with the leaves of the trees
in my small night there is agony of destruction
do you hear the darkness blowing?
I look upon this bliss as a stranger
I am addicted to my despair.
listen do you hear the darkness blowing?
something is passing in the night
the moon is restless and red
and over this rooftop
where crumbling is a constant fear
clouds, like a procession of mourners
seem to be waiting for the moment of rain.
a moment
and then nothing
night shudders beyond this window
and the earth winds to a halt
beyond this window
something unknown is watching you and me.
O green from head to foot
place your hands like a burning memory
in my loving hands
give your lips to the caresses
of my loving lips
like the warm perception of being
the wind will take us
the wind will take us.
By Forugh Farrokhzad
Translated by Ahmad Karimi Hakkak
The Persian Book Review VOLUME III. NO 12 Page 1337

LANG.Far from being an atavism, the Shiite theocracy buffered the competing identity-claims of Iran's various ethnic and linguistic groups. Currently, 51% of Iran's population identify themselves as Persian. 24% as Azeri, 8% as Gilaki and Mazandarani, 7% as Kurd, 3% as Arab,2% as Lur, 2% as Baloch, and 2% as Turkmen. Iran's major languages are similarly diverse: 58% of the population speaks Farsi, 26% speaks Turkic, 9% speak Kurdish, 2% speak Luri,1% speak Balochi, 1% speak Arab and 1% speak Turkish. Jafar Panahi's 'The White Balloon' (1995) transforms Tehran into a video-mobile urban space, and even concludes with a signature trope of the video age, Rover's white balloon in Patrick McGoohan's classic TV series, 'The Prisoner'(1967). Somewhat further afield, Kiarostami's 'Taste of Cherry' (1997) transforms the automobile trip into an allegorical journey of the rootless urban intellectual into the winds of Central Asia. Later, this theme is given an entirely new spin in Kiarostami's magisterial 'The Wind Will Carry Us' (2001), the reflexive masterpiece of Central Asian video.



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