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Debating everything
On the reception of Iranian films

November 5, 2002
The Iranian

I took heart in the fact that Megan Bogart took the time and effort to respond about my piece, "Not THAT good", to [Not THAT bad]. To me, more than anything else, it meand that when she said "I ask you why everything has to be a debate?" She wasn't actually advocating the arrest of critical thinking.

Does everything have to be a debate? I figure if in one's relationship everything is a debate, than one should definitely re-evaluate the relationship but in the public sphere and regarding cultural creations such as art (and cinema is definitely an art form) one truly hopes all can be debated, respectfully of course.

Is it political correctness? I doubt it. Enlightenment thinkers thought the public sphere and the press were precisely for these kinds of debates and you can rest assured, they were definitely NOT politically correct.

But that's not Ms. Bogart's main point. Despite her anger, Ms. Bogart raises an excellent point which is the idea of cinema's reception and its audience. Why do people like a film and not another?

I wrote "Not THAT good" two years ago and I have much more to say about this question now but I'll limit this to a more pointed discussion. First, a clarification: The West, a very problematic term, is not only America, as much as that may seem sometimes considering Tony Blair's foreign policies.

Technically, the West includes Europe too and in this day and age, it definitely is not only not America, it sometimes stands as far away from America as possible. France would be a good example. Recently a Le Monde cartoon depicted George W. Bush as saying: You are either with us or with the French, in reference to France's stance in America's "war against terror".

In my article I use America twice and it is written specifically in reference to Iranian-Americans' relationship to US public opinion. Second, the issue here is not whether America -- or Botswana for that matter -- has an "ulterior motive". Ms. Bogart states in her letter: "I am certain that the people that Sohrabi are talking about did not sit down and decide collectively that they would patronize the cinematic works of any country let alone select one and target Iranian cinema."

While it's hard to be certain of anything, I tend to agree with Ms. Bogart but that's absolutely not the issue here. The article is not about intention but about what it means when a cultural artifact (Iranian cinema in this case) moves across international borders and is received one way or another in a different place.

The question, for example, is why are these films -- lauded as successful Iranian films -- are not so well received inside Iran and the films that are box office or critical hits inside Iran, not often shown in the US (as one example of a country that buys and screens Iranian films)? Is there an international conspiracy of mean American film critics out there?

I doubt it (though some critics are rather mean come to think of it). Then what is the reason for this discrepancy? Ms. Bogart believes such questions should not be debated. I tend to disagree and actually can't see why the discussion of how and why the cinema industry of a country succeeds or fails in the international market should not take place.

Ms. Bogart also seems to believe that we should let things rest with the answer that: well, people enjoy things, that's that. Well in the 1940s when the US was at war with Japan, many people, including children very much enjoyed the various Popeye cartoons and films made by distinguished American filmmakers that were not only amazingly racist (in one, Popeye hunts down a Japanese claiming that tonight he wants to dine on "Jap with ginger sauce") but truly violent.

Should they have enjoyed these? If people did, they did, but as someone who is interested in culture and who believes in the importance of critical thinking, I ask myself why did they enjoy such things? What role did these cartoons and movie play in American culture? John Dower, the distinguished professor of Japanese History at MIT also asks these questions and his answers can be read in his wonderful book "War without Mercy".

But my article was not even that grand or ambitious. It's target was critical reception of Iranian films and the kinds of comments often made by critics in Europe and America about Iranian films and these people (who by the way actually do like debating these issues) actually do think that cinema is not just for sitting down and watching but it is precisely a cultural product that stands for and can promote a lot more than flashes of shadow and light on the screen.

So, to precisely answer Ms. Bogart's questions: Everything doesn't have to be a debate but having lived in a country where you can lose your freedom for participating in the "wrong" debate, I'm all for debating everything. We as human beings should not fight over everything that can be misconstrued but we should use our critical faculties to wonder why somethings take flight in our culture and others don't and more importantly what that says about us.

If someone likes a foreign cinema, yes, it can be just about that. No one tried to stop people from that. There are scores of film students throughout the US that love Godard and I don't see anyone prventing them in the name of boredom. And it is not impossible to simply enjoy these works and respect those who create it. Exoticization is not disrespectful. It's actually not about those who create the work as much as about those who are exoticizing it. It is sometimes a necessary part of cultural exchange. But none of that means we should stop questioning it.

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Fly to Iran
By Naghmeh Sohrabi



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