“I don't solve problems, I just televise,” says the protagonist in Richard Thomas’s Jerry Springer The Opera. In a review of the West End hit two years ago, the Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote that it “touched on a genuine issue: whether TV is a mirror or a moral agent.”
The same question can be put to any medium but none has the immediate reach and effect of television. Witness the US-based charlatan Ahura Yazdi. Last year his movement to remove Iran’s Islamic regime from power — Hakha — led thousands of couch potatoes in that country to believe he would arrive on 1 October and, er, displace tyranny. He failed to turn up, of course, dashing the hopes of the gullible but reminding us of TV’s power to dupe.
Satirists like Ebrahim Nabavi had a field day gunning for him, as he no doubt deserved. Some even said Iran’s very rulers had propped up this false prophet.
The Iranian satellite TV phenomenon, however, had caught the attention of press in the West long before Hakha took off. London’s Channel 4 News sent documentary-maker Taghi Amirani to Los Angeles to chart the cowboy operators at work in their living room studios, armed with a surfeit of flowers, layers of make-up and, of course, the ultimate in mainstream respectability: a suit.
Bridging the gaps left by their limited vocabulary and ideas (not to mention purpose) by talking in pleasantries, stiff men and women with sculpted hair are still striving to do what even BBC News 24 barely manages: to fill 24 hours of airtime with content that is not complete bollocks. The unfortunate outcome of this is that viewers lose out. TV-sets function like fish tanks in many of our homes but while fish spare us their thoughts, twits who can boast little more than an appetite for fame, money and influence swim freely through cables and airwaves.
Just as Jerry Springer The Opera forced its audiences to step out of the goggle-box to reconsider what’s inside it, so Houshang Touzie’s From Satellite With Love (az mahvareh ba esgh) offers respite from the excesses of opportunist broadcasters.
The production, currently ending its first tour, marks a revival of what Columbia University’s Hamid Dabashi has termed the “theater of diaspora” and an opportunity for screen actor Behrouz Vossoughi to revisit success.
After its recent London outing, Vossoughi was mobbed by fans vying for photographs and autographs. Much as Tarantino did for Travolta, Touzie has done for Vossoughi — plucked him out of wilderness and resuscitated his star persona, with a script that times his entry impeccably and sends the audience into rapture.
The story centres around Shahin, Touzie’s alcoholic TV entrepreneur who runs a 24-hour television station cho iran mabashad taneh man mabad (If no Iran be then perish me), brilliantly abbreviated to CHO.I.M.T.M.M.
Shahin is visited by his cousin from Germany (Vossoughi) who has promised cash to fund his enterprise. He is, however, penniless, and has to borrow from Touzie — a fact he tries to hide from his sophisticate wife, played with divine understatement by Sheila Vossough (who effortlessly fills Shohreh Aghdashloo’s shoes as the writer-director’s key collaborator).
An answering machine offers callers options for Iranian flag products to the tune of “with lion-and-sun, press one, without press two and empty so you can place what the hell you want there, press three”. The station tries to make money by telling viewers that freedom in Iran depends on its success, and appeals for donations to its Bank of America account (barayeh komak be vataneh khod be ma komak koneed — Your country needs you and so do we). Capsules of Iranian soil are on offer at $300 a go.
A ditzy bimbo of a phone-in presenter (in a highly inventive knockout performance by Necar Zadegan) fields a call from an angry woman in Iran, who berates her for having no idea of how people in her homeland suffer — proving that viewers are not the passive mugs broadcasters often take them to be. A pseudo-intellectual co-presenter, played by up-and-coming talent Kamyar Jafari, waxes lyrical about Sadegh Hedayat, and caps a suitably chaotic and colourful ensemble. Touzie’s knack for storytelling and the visual keeps the audience on its toes while a barrage of punchlines, packed with social import, challenges them to keep up.
Touzie’s casting of Jafari, Vossough and Zadegan — young Iranian-Americans — belies his desire to reach beyond his core, native, Persian-speaking audience. This is reflected in his script — and audience make-up. Dialogue is kept simple — a restraint that only adds to its effect. Worried about the prospect of running out of soil to sell, Shahin says: “Agar een khak tamam she, che khaki tu saremun bokoneem?” (If we run out of earth, what on earth shall we do?)
There is something poignant about Touzie’s reference to khak. He is after all, an exile, operating without the luxuries which being in, or backed by, your own country affords. His audience is dispersed across continents — taking in LA, Paris and Dubai — but he remains tirelessly dedicated. Touzie’s 1990s hit The Sweet Scent of Love (booyeh khosheh esgh) became the first Persian theatre show to hit the antipodes.
In a culture that rates a shoddy film like The Lizard (Marmoulak) cutting-edge satire, one cannot help wonder why audiences in Iran should be deprived of Touzie’s talent to entertain, move and empower. The man himself, however, is not one to dwell on such trivialities. He already has a sequel in the pipeline which inches further towards a bilingual audience, and will release a DVD of From Satellite after is second tour, due to start in September, ends. (In Europe such was demand for tickets that hundreds had to be turned away.)
And while LA’s Persian-language broadcasters continue to “just televise”, there is comfort to be taken in the fact that Touzie’s theatre — both a mirror and a moral agent — is fighting back.
Az mahvareh ba esgh will be performed in Vancouver on Sunday June 5, 2005. Visit AzMahvareh.com