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Canary in a cage
Iranian cinema has become poetry with a message of liberty

June 8, 2001
The Iranian

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 and Albert 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!

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Setareh Sabety

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