Canary in a cage
Iranian cinema has become poetry with a message of liberty
June 8, 2001
From its very beginnings as an art form, from when Sergei
Eisenstien introduced the use of montage in masterpieces such as "Battleship
Potemkin," cinema has flourished under totalitarian censorship.
While I agree with Parviz
Sayyad criticism of the censorship practices and policies of the Islamic
Republic, and have been a long time admirer of his work (as a child I loved
Samad and never missed a showing of Sarkar Ostovar), I think he, in his
justified anger towards the government of Iran, is missing the point.
There is something about the very indirect nature of how cinema conveys
reality that renders it very effective under heavy censorship. With film,
the director or screen writer can literally say things without the use of
words and in the comfort of ambiguous or multi-layered set of images. Cinema,
by delving into the particulars, avoids the generalizations that seem to
catch attention, and especially annoy oppressive regimes.
It is not fair to insinuate, as Mr. Sayyad clearly does, that the directors
and artists working in the Iranian cinema are somehow colluding with the
regime just because they have to work around censorship and use state funds.
These artists are not all agents of the government of Iran. They are not
all Leni Riefenstals
Speers, in direct employ of the "Fuehrer" promoting the Nazi
party ideals. These are Iranians who are trying to create meaningful art
under difficult political conditions. The truth is that like Eisenstien,
Iranian filmmakers under censorship have learned the most important characteristic
of good film making: subtlety.
As to how they will be remembered, I believe someone like Abbas Kiarostami,whose
art despite constraints imposed by place (Iran) and time (today) and government
(Islamic Republic), transcends the realm of labels and is too good and prolific
to be merely defined by the regime under which he works! Any amateur of
film history knows that the name of Sergei Eisenstien does not conjure up
the image of Bolshevik Soviets but rather scenes from his films.
Good cinema transcends the limits of time and place and type of government.
Of course the content of a film may reflect or address certain issues specific
to a historic moment in a nations life. "Dar Emtedaad-e Shab",
for example, is indeed in many ways a mirror of the mores and cultural identity
crises of the Pahlavi era. I am sure that film too was made under censorship,
all be it of a different kind. But I doubt that Mr. Sayyad would like to
be referred to "Pahlavi Regime director/actor!"
What are we really achieving by this insistence on separating the artists
and intellectuals in Iran form those in exile? It is obvious to anyone who
sees Sayyad's "Mission" that it is an anti-regime film set in
New York. In fact it fits well into the theme of recent Iranian cinema.
Kiarostami and his colleagues may be enjoying their fame but I am sure that
what they want for our country is not far from what any of us secular-minded
Iranians, here in exile, want.
All art craves freedom. So instead of separating and drawing more lines
of division between us, I believe that we should support our artists both
here and in Iran. Unity is a difficult thing to ask from artists. Creating
is a lonely process and not easily prone to community life. But if ever
a nation needed it, it is now.
Let those of us inside and outside who are "malcontents" stop
calling each other "collaborators" like the French after Vichy!
Most people who live and create art in Iran are not collaborating but are
coping. The least we can do is support them like we did our football team!
To the American organizers of festivals we have more in common than we
think. I think we should try to see what they see. That we are all Iranians
of this era, some in exile some in Iran, all of us all too familiar with
censorship and I believe all of us in opposition to it -- all of us considered
"other" to Hezbollah.
The "us and them" here is not the division between exiled artists
and those in Iran but between a secular and a theocratic vision for Iran.
The new Iranian cinema has its roots in the old. We have matured as a filmmaking
nation. Our directors from Iran, in manipulating censorship, have turned
cinema into poetry -- and who would expect less from the land of Ferdosi,
Hafez and Sa'di. Let us praise them in their achievements.
When this form of government is abolished, when historians write their
history, Iranian cinema of today will be seen as what it really is: A cinema
that flourished despite censorship. A cinema that by becoming poetry, became
its own message of the need for liberty -- like a splendid canary in a cage
that conjures up, in the mind's eye, thoughts of flight!