Letter to a young filmmaker

Introduction to Hamid Dabashi's Masters & Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema (Mage Publishers, 2007). The rise of Iranian cinema to world prominence over the last few decades is one of the most fascinating cultural stories of our time. There is scarcely an international film festival anywhere that does not honor the aesthetic and political explorations of Iranian artists. Masters & Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema celebrates this remarkable emergence. It focuses on twelve of the most important Iranian filmmakers of the past half-century — among them, such pioneers as Forugh Farrokhzad, Dariush Mehrjui, Abbas Kiarostami, and Jafar Panahi.

You must be the most persistent little rebel roaming the streets of Tehran, planting seeds of fear in the hearts of all the reigning and potential tyrants of our homeland! I must tell you, I find myself in something of a quandary. We see each other once in a blue moon somewhere on this planet, and as soon as our conversations begin to build momentum, we must depart and travel in two opposite directions; usually you fly east and I west — except of course the time I flew to Tehran after an absence of twenty years.

You were born a year after the Iranian revolution of 1979. You are the walking embodiment of all its hopes and aspirations, the fragile target of all its terrors and tribulations. You are not just a young Iranian. To me, you are the embodiment of an era, the symbol of a nation in defiance and despair. Since your birth, Iran has not been relieved of a moment of anguish — not that it was a garden of flowering hope before you were born and the revolution betrayed.

It’s the beginning of a glorious summer here in New York. The outside world is, of course, in more of a mess than ever — but it no longer bothers me. I am happy in my apartment and during my early morning walks by the Hudson. I still have some nuisances at the office to take care of — the last few months of chairing my department. But other than that I am in a pretty good mood and feel quite talkative. The only problem is that you are not here. Do you remember that beautiful story by Rumi about the man who had a donkey but no saddle and when he finally found a saddle thieves had stolen his donkey?

Well, that’s our story.

A good mood, I said, except I have been away from my writing desk for too long, and editors and publishers are breathing down my neck. I have promised to write a book on the masters and masterpieces of Iranian cinema — how do you like that! But my head is anywhere but in writing that book. My mind is instead full of things that I wanted to tell you in peace. We have never had enough time together for me to tell you my version of how we have come to where we are now. What is the moral and imaginative parentage of this art, and what precisely is the texture and disposition of this precious heritage with which your generation is gifted? I have no intention of making this conversation a lesson in history — art, in fact, has no history. The more Iranian cinema forgets its own history the more creative it becomes. It has never been in the spirit of history but with a sense of wonder that I have thought of having a conversation with you about Iranian cinema and its place in Iranian culture. And I wish I could use the occasion of talking about Iranian cinema to talk about something more.

There is a sense of wonder about what the world now celebrates as Iranian cinema, and I have always hoped that I would have an occasion to share with you in some detail what it is that I cherish about this national cinematic project. There is so much I wish I could tell you, but I wonder if I will ever get a chance to do so. Life is short, art is long, the occasion instant, and the experiment perilous. A Greek once said that, I think. I still remember our first serious conversation. It was in May 1998, immediately after Mohammad Khatami’s election, and there was so much hope and expectation in all of us. You were wondering what I thought the differences between our generations were. So I was trying to explain to you the differences, as I saw them, between your generation — those who were born in Iran soon after the Islamic revolution of 1979 — and mine, those who were born and bred during or after the 1953 coup that restored the Pahlavi monarchy to power.

We had heroes, I remember I was trying to tell you, while your generation is heroic. That’s our difference. We were scared and hopeless, so we kept inventing heroes among our public intellectuals. You are courageous and full of hopes — you have no need for such figments of the imagination. You were not convinced, I remember, and thought that your generation was actually quite nihilistic, lacking in any conviction. On the surface, I remember I was telling you, it appears that way, that your generation is wanting in idealism. But I said that I thought in reality the reverse is true — that courage and heroism are now spread evenly and democratically in the soul of your generation. Your generation is the dream my generation did not even know it had.

I have enjoyed talking with you. Your face is the topography of a homeland I have lost forever. You were born and raised in Iran right after I left it for good. You represent an Iran that is very dear and yet foreign to me. A comparative assessment of my own youth with yours has always been instructive for me, and the only way I have had of assessing what is happening in Iranian cinema today — by far the most glorious achievement, and thus the most accurate measure, of our culture in living memory. I doubted during our conversation that year that there is anyone that your generation greatly admires. In fact I even suggested that your generation is sick and tired of admiring any figure or idealizing any achievement outside its reach. Instead, I said, I have a sense that you think you can achieve anything, go anywhere. I didn’t mean to say that there is no desperation in your generation, but that there is a restlessness in your anxiety — reflected paradoxically in a coolness in your drive and demeanor — that is inexhaustibly energetic, agitating, iconoclastic, and irreverent in a playful and emancipatory way. Even in your nihilism there is something good and positive for the general disposition of Iranian culture.

For instance, the young filmmaker Parviz Shahbazi’s Deep Breath (2003) is very good at portraying that sense of desperation, anomie, and nihilism. But I think that there is a positive side to this nihilism — it adds a healthy dose of despair to an otherwise pathologically anemic attitude. The nihilism that Shahbazi captures in your generation is a far cry from the ideological determinism of mine, which was the principal point of my initial interest in Iranian cinema. “Where does this precocious wisdom come from?” I remember asking myself. “How could an Islamic Republic produce so many visionary filmmakers?” everybody else in the world seemed to wonder. And what exactly was so great about this cinematic movement, anyway? These were not easy questions. But there have been so many good reasons that people were eager to ask, and I was anxious to find out. Our previous conversation about generational differences had made me think through these issues more carefully — and the direction of my thinking invariably turned around and came back to the phenomenon of Iranian cinema. What precisely were the defining 14 moments of this cinema, where were its origins, whence its disposition, how it had come about, who were its best representatives, and why? I was convinced when I began paying closer attention to Iranian cinema, as I am convinced now, that the answer to all these questions rests in the moral mutation of my generation into yours, with a magnifi- cent revolution that went awry (but don’t all revolutions go awry?) and a dreadful war in between, and that we were all at the threshold of a whole new era in our creative character. Your generation of young Iranians is the summation of all the heroes that the preceding generations were falsely celebrating in public intellectuals. After the success and failure of the Islamic revolution, the circumstances were radically different. The Islamic “mullarchy” that succeeded the Pahlavi monarchy could no longer arrest and incarcerate a few prominent figures, put them in jail, deny them access to the world, and then rest assured that all its troubles were over. They did all of that. But heroic resistance to their tyranny continued by nameless heroes. My generation had raised a few poets, novelists, filmmakers, and essayists to the status of demigods, a handful of people, most of them men, who could easily be identified, arrested, incarcerated, executed, or sent into exile. You and your generation are the agency we lacked in our character but dreamed of in our poetry. I remember in May 1998 when the largest student organization in Iran had written an open and defiant letter to the Supreme Leader — just think of the obscenity of that title in this day and age, “Supreme Leader” — demanding that he should choose between the future of democracy in Iran or the end of the Islamic Republic! Imagine that! But before I even finish this paragraph let me assure you that that corrupt and outdated regime and the ideology that brought it to power will implode, by the forces of its own contradiction, by the determined will and the creative defiance of Iranians themselves, and certainly not by an attack by a predatory imperial hubris, sustained by an equally corrupt and diabolic ideology called “neoconservatism” — which in fact will do nothing but strengthen the tyranny of this Islamic Republic.

My point is that both the nihilism best captured in Shahbazi’s Deep Breath and the forgiving embrace of Samira Makhmalbaf’s Apple complement each other and speak of an emancipatory facet of Iranian culture that we need to heed and harness. Iranian cinema has opened up the perils and promises of its secrets in full view of the whole world to see. Don’t you breathe this to anyone, though. Let no one know that in Iranian cinema we are in fact washing our dirty laundry right in full view of the entire world. And that, my dear, is exactly how dirty laundry ought to be washed: no secret and no lies. And there are some nasty stains on our beautiful garments!  

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