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.