Not THAT good
Patronizing adoration for Iranian cinema
By Naghmeh Sohrabi
August 24, 2000
My uncle often likes to say with pride that in the old days, during
the Shah's time, when Iranians would travel to Paris or London, everywhere
they went, people kept asking them "how many oil wells do you own?"
In educated, cosmopolitan American circles these days, no one would ask
such a question. Instead, what I am often asked as an Iranian-American
is "have you seen [enter here name of Iran's newest cinematic export]?
What do you think about Iranian cinema? It's so great. It's so unlike Hollywood."
These two inquiries are in many ways two sides of the same coin.
"New Iranian" cinema which is said to have started with, among
other films, Kiarostami's 1987 Where is the Friend's Home continues
to dazzle Western opinion-makers with its "quiet humanism" (reaching
such peaks as winning the Palm d'Or at Cannes Film Festival in 1997 for
Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry and receiving an Oscar nomination
in 1998 for Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven). Additionally, it
has become one of the most uncontested ways for the Iranian expatriate
community to connect with post-revolutionary Iran and to bask in its reflected
I find the uncritical attention given to Iranian cinema by the Western
press patronizing and the adoration showered upon it by Iranians living
outside of Iran uncritically patriotic.
My criticism can be divided into two categories.
Category 1: "Iranian cinema" should and does constitute the
industry as a whole and not just that small faction of films that have
been handpicked for the international film festival circuit. What are the
criteria for designating these films as representatives of Iranian cinema?
Are they the most popular films in Iran? Are they the ones most concerned
with social, cultural, and political issues in Iran? Do they add to the
art of cinema on a universal level? Or are they merely a magical mirror
reflecting what American and European critics think is lacking in their
own industries? Iranian cinema seems to be only films by a handful of filmmakers
that portray that "passionate humanism" we all now identify with
and demand of the cinema of Iran. The rest is knowingly left out.
Category 2: If we only talk about the films that are screened at film
festivals, the films are good, some even very good. Very few qualify as
unquestionable masterpieces. The uncritical praise heaped upon "Iranian
cinema" can only operate when based on two assumptions. For Iranian
audiences, this cinema is great in the same way that Iranian pistachio
is great: Makes Americans view "us" as something other than veiled
Kalashnikov-toting terrorists (that is of course, until we get to the airport.
Immigration officers don't seem to be that interested in our pistachio
or cinema). For Americans (let's keep in mind also that we're talking about
a rather small percentage), Iranian cinema is great only if viewed within
a patronizing framework (not necessarily on purpose) or one that in its
desire to be un-Hollywood, is willing to check its critical tools at the
door and call everything and anything that comes out of Iran great.
What is Iranian Cinema? A quick survey of descriptions of Iranian cinema
in American press reveals several key themes in this "Iranian New
Wave." Iranian cinema is full of humanism and deals with "real-life
people and problems." After a recent stint as Abbas Kiarostami's translator
at Harvard University, I had a frustrating conversation with the renowned
director's American hosts. I was told, over and over again and despite
my somewhat meek protests that these films revealed a certain humanity,
a vision of life stripped to its simplest elements. So forth and so on.
The White Balloon, Children of Heaven, Kiarostami's trilogy,
The Apple. All different from Hollywood films (although alarmingly
similar to each other), all dealing with figures that have traditionally
been romanticized by intellectuals: children and villagers. These films,
while definitely stripping life to its simplest elements, are perhaps for
that very reason, far from depicting "real-life problems" of
Iran. In a country where everyday a new student is being arrested for demanding
that the government at the very least follow its own constitution, a new
newspaper is closed, and 13 Jews are on trial for espionage, depicting
a little girl complaining about her goldfish (as in The White Balloon)
is a little far from what most would call "humanism."
What makes Iranian cinema so great once you strip away expatriate pride
and Western media's fascination these "unexpected" images of
those simple Iranian folks out there? Description after description attempts
to make a virtue out of every aspect of these made-for-foreign-festivals
films. How is it possible for an entire industry to produce film after
film by directors as diverse as 18-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf and seasoned
Darius Mehrjui and for there not be even one little thing worth critiquing?
Is this lack of a critical stance towards films coming from Iran a result
of Iranians' innate genius or a sign that the West is exoticizing, romanticizing,
and thus patronizing what it deems to be different from itself? Are the
critical tools so well honed in daily reviews in our nation's esteemed
journals not applicable to Iranian directors? Or is there a fear that once
they are applied, the fantasy of the never never land of Iran (a fantasy
made all the more powerful by the fact that Iran is also an "Islamic
Republic") will fall apart?
Other than create international prestige, a country's cinema can and
should also entertain and address broader questions present in that society.
To the international opinion makers, it may not be very "eye opening"
to watch a film address a society's mundane problems in a visual environment
that is less than beautiful and where the protagonists are neither cute
pouting children nor resilient villagers or tribes dressed in glorious
colors. The irony is that there are films being made in Iran with, of all
things, adult urban protagonists (who are sometimes not women, another
point of fascination), dealing with current issues relevant to people's
lives, films that create debate in Iran, such as Ibrahim Hatamikia's Glass
Glass Agency, a film that was released amid much controversy
and anticipation in the summer of 1998, portrays the gap that exists between
the volunteer war veterans of the Iran-Iraq war and most other sections
of society. It is a convoluted film where the sympathies of its director
are pulled this way and that. It is a film with many technical flaws, no
gorgeous scenery, long winding speeches, and issues that are not very familiar
to non-Iranian audiences yet Iranians confront frequently in their lives.
One leaves the film not pondering the simplicity of life but the complexity
of a country still figuring out how to deal with its own past and present.
It is no cause for glory nor fascination. It is merely Iranian cinema.