A few weeks ago, Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi wrote a provocative treatise for Al Jazeera on the state of the Iranian cinema, lambasting the Islamic Republic’s continuing campaign of censorship and repression for having created a “brain drain” that’s effectively obliterated the country’s ability to foster a healthy filmmaking practice. Of the many contentious claims made by Dabashi—including his baffling dismissal of the latest films by Jafar Panahi as “self-indulgent vagaries”—perhaps the most challenging is his assertion that Iranian filmmakers living in exile, whether of their volition or by state mandate, are by the nature of their exclusion no longer producing genuine Iranian films. He cites a number of the country’s most acclaimed filmmakers, including Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Bahram Beizai, Sohrab Shahid-Saless, and Bahman Ghobadi, and summarily ejects them from the national cinema to which they once definitively belonged, shrugging off their emigrated efforts as failures to remain culturally relevant.
Abbas Kiarostami, arguably the most important Iranian filmmaker of his generation, has spent the last decade shooting films both at home and abroad, starting with the Spanish-set nonfiction piece “Ten Dedicated to Ozu” in 2003 and culminating in his two latest international efforts, the Tuscan puzzle romance “Certified Copy” and the Japanese drama “Like Someone In Love.” “Scarce his compatriots have seen this films,” observes Dabashi (whose frequent misuse of the word “scarce” is the subject of another post entirely), “let alone have any affinity with them”. Though these last two films, in particular, represent major efforts in Kiarostami’s long and fruitful career—they’re not only among his most widely acclaimed works, but also far and away the most successful internationally—neither “can hardly be called an Iranian film”. Dabashi’s argument relies not only on a conception of a coherent, knowable Iranian cinema, within which he is free to include whichever films he sees fit, but also on a clear understanding of what exactly constitutes a national cinema to begin with.
Your filmmakers are no longer your own.
The films don’t need to be filmed in Iran, in Persian, or about the plight of Iran or Iranians. It’s helmed by an Iranian auteur. That is enough. Besides, the films of all of those directors mentioned, and especially Kiarostami, have always been centered around the universal human condition. Their local and people are just plot devices.
Majnun Eavesdrops on Layla’s Camp - Persian, 16th centuryLayla and Majnun, also known as The Madman and Layla is a classical Arab story, popularized by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi’s masterpiece, Layli o Majnun. It is based on the real story of a young man called Majnun In (todays Iraq) during the Umayyad era in the 7th century when Arabs defeated the Byzantines and Persians, and Syria and Iraq were conquered. In one version, he spent his youth together with Layla, tending their flocks. In another version, upon seeing Layla he fell passionately in love with her. In both versions, however, he went mad when her father prevented him from marrying her; for that reason he came to be called Majnun (Arabic: مجنون) meaning “madman.
At this time, many young Iranians all over this world are watching us, and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award, or a film or a filmmaker, but because at the time, in talk of war, intimidation and aggressions exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture — a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country. A people who respect all cultures and civilizations, and despise hostility and resentment.
The great, late Anthony Shadid on the Photographs of Abbas Kiarostami
In April 2000, Abbas Kiarostami received the Akira Kurosawa Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Francisco Film Festival. While in the United States, Kiarostami visited New York City, where the Andrea Rosen Gallery mounted the first US exhibition of Kiarostami’s photographs. The photographs, which were shown in a stark white loft space, appeared without titles, dates or labels. Anthony Shadid and Shiva Balaghi spoke with Kiarostami about his art photography. […]
“The nature that is in the location of my films can be seen in my photography, and I want my films to become closer to my photography and more distant from storytelling,” he said. “It is true that these are completely separate milieus, but in my opinion, the ideal situation for me is for these two areas — photography and cinema — to become closer to one another.” […]
Like his films, his photographs are presented without expected guideposts that explain their significance. There are no labels, no titles, no dates. It is left to the viewer to lend them a particular meaning. Though it may appear that his lens reveals an unchanging and placid nature, Kiarostami’s photographs, in fact, seem to reveal a deeply political use of the landscape. “Photographs of nature are universal,” he said. “A tree has no ethnicity, no birth certificate, no passport, no nationality, therefore what difference does it make where in the world this tree is? What is important is the similarity between all trees, the similarity between all skies, the similarity between all landscapes. Nature has no specific culture. I am emphasizing this lack of ethnicity of nature. Therefore I do not want to mark the specific time and place of my photographs.” […]
By chronicling what he sees, Kiarostami said he views himself as a journalist, in a sense. His intervention, he said, is crucial to capture a moment in time. “A photojournalist covers the news from the scene of war, and I, with nature, cover the news of the scene of peace. I don’t think there is a fundamental difference; it is a difference in the selection of a subject. For a photo-journalist, a moment is important — the moment for taking a photograph. For a photographer of nature, this particular moment is also important. Without those moments, no image is worth recording. There is only one moment in which a photograph can be taken.”
Since the 1980s, when his films were first shown outside of Iran, Kiarostami has achieved a growing reputation as a filmmaker in the West. When asked if he sees a difference in his role as an artist within Iran as opposed to an artist producing for a Western audience, Kiarostami offers an emphatic response that signals the clearly political quality of the universality in his nature photographs. “No, in a sense, this is a question that has its answer in it. You ask me this question but know my answer. In my mind a human being has a universal quality. If there has been a division of humanity into smaller groups, it is because of economic and political condi- tions. And the framework of cultural conditions that exist are influenced by economics and politics. But mankind must be a universal being. It is my ambition that each person see themselves as a human being first and not as an ethnicity. These classifications occurred later, in my opinion. A person is not born with a birth certificate, with a passport. When you speak about a human being, and not about his culture or his nationality or his politics, naturally, you can communicate with all of the people of the world. And for this reason, each person who speaks at a profound level of humanity can be understood by anyone. Without nationality, language, tribalism and culture, all people are the same.”
Shirin Neshat, Ramin, 2012.
This week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast features New York-based artist Shirin Neshat, who joins me to discuss the art she’s made in response to Iran’s Green Revolution and to the Arab Spring. “The Book of Kings,” an exhibition of Neshat’s work is on view at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York through February 11. A detail from Neshat’s My House is Burning Down (2012) is featured in this week’s banner.
Neshat has been the subject of major survey exhibitions at museums in Spain, Germany, England, Italy, Mexico, Canada and the United States. Among many other honors, she won the Silver Lion at the 2009 Venice International Film Festival for “Women Without Men” and the First International Award at the 1999 Venice Biennale. Next year the Detroit Institute of Arts will present a major retrospective of her work.
To download or subscribe to The Modern Art Notes Podcast via iTunes, click here. To download the program directly, click here. To subscribe to The MAN Podcast’s RSS feed, click here. You can stream the program through the player below.
In our conversation Neshat and I discuss:
- The passion she feels for her homeland of Iran even after having lived abroad for 37 years;
- The challenges inherent in making art for audiences in Iran and the Middle East when Neshat lives and shows in the West;
- The ways in which her art is seen in Iran today;
- How the uprisings in the Persian and Arab worlds motivated her newest work; and
- Why metaphor is such an important strategy for her. […]
“As spring ends, we grieve what has been lost and cherish what has been gained. We measure the rise and fall of our hopes in the Middle East and remember the catastrophic earthquake in Japan — a natural disaster erupting into a human one. As we enter a new, uncertain season, our destination is unknown, yet we travel against the flames of fear toward the promise of a better future ahead.”