JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

Iranian film opposing regimes of voyeurism

review by Jyotika Virdi

Negar Mottahedeh. Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2008, 199 pages.

Three decades after the 1979 Iranian revolution and two decades since the start of global fascination with Iranian cinema, which is often compared to Italian neo-realism and Italy’s mid-twentieth century reinvigoration of world cinema, Negar Mottahedeh’s exegesis of post-revolutionary Iranian film underscores the dynamic alternative it presents to dominant Hollywood cinema, which is famously centered on a voyeuristic gaze. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Last Will and Testament, published in 1989, blames westernization imported by the media (“Westoxification,” according to Shiite modernists), particularly film technologies that contaminate the “national body by foreign pollutants,” and in which women’s bodies mark the site of “site of contamination.” Iran’s post-Revolutionary official dictum calling for cleansing cinema technology and imbuing it with Islamic values is most definitively inscribed in the figuration of the veiled woman.

Articulating the new nation became cinema’s project as it departed from Hollywood’s dominant code that relies on voyeurism and the fetishized woman’s body. Mottahedeh argues the Iranian film industry produced cinema that is the “apotheosis of 1970s feminist gaze theory” (1-2). Rejecting Hollywood’s voyeurism, the veiled woman’s body in both the public and private space of Iranian cinema’s fictional narratives is the site for articulating national difference. Clerical prohibitions on the “desiring look” and censorship policies

“accentuate the fact that the narrative is displaced allegory of the determining conditions of the industry itself” (14).

Iranian cinema under the new modesty laws devised a creative alternative to Hollywood codes and a cinematic aesthetic that relied on indigenous theatrical and narrative strategies altering post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema.

In the introduction Mottahedeh systematically sets up the repertoire of indigenous cultural forms, traditions, myths and ideals that post-revolutionary Iranian cinema accesses. The drive to purify the nation from foreign contamination is impelled by the desire to articulate the national through an “imaginal”(a word that combines image and original), a timeless nowhere land (Na-koja-Abad), present in the past and future, as represented in ta’ziyeh performance. These theatrical conventions include a circular stage, in which performers appearing on/off stage signal shifts in time/space through scripted announcements (such as “here comes A”), and a focus on historical events that rely on audience foreknowledge. Such theatrical structures all contribute to the repertoire of auteurs’ cinematic techniques. This inherited “imaginal” is explicated in the author’s reading in chapter 1 of Bahram Bayza’i’s Bashu: The Little Stranger. Diverging from Hollywood, Iranian cinema, once purified, manifests national culture through its technological access to this sacral imaginal world. Iranian cinema evokes a “forked” enunciation, referring to the disjunctions in sound/image and conscious narrative/unconscious elements of political history and conditions of production (14).

Bahram Bayza’i’s Bashu: The Little Stranger (1987) is a film about human kindness, in which the protagonist Na’i shelters Bashu, a stranger from the southern region, who in turn helps with caring for her children while her husband is at the war raging on the frontlines. A close analysis of several scenes cumulatively suggests the national consolidation of regional diversity implied through cinematic maneuvers in the narrative. In a scene emphasizing the national authority of textbook language, Bashu reads a schoolbook and Na’i’ a letter. Mottahedeh parallels the standardized “chaste” Persian textbook’s national language to the imperial dominance of standardized Hollywood codes. Bayza’i’s non synchronous sound/image codes work against this especially in another filmic moment, the scene of the father’s letter, where the camera enunciates the address in lieu of the characters. Here the voice of the literate neighbor, the letter reader, is heard along with visuals of mundane still shots of household objects like the oven. Post-revolutionary Iranian cinema, the author argues, encompasses Islamic values of the new nation state while also succeeding to critique its communication, national citizenship, literacy, and grammar encoded in national language, akin to Hollywood’s imperial hegemony of filmic grammar in cinema (31-42).

Mottahedeh challenges critics like Hamid Debashi who view Kiarostami’s work as European, neo-realist, modernist, and implicated in Orientalist representations. In chapter 2 Mottahedeh argues that Kiarostami’s films are in fact nationalist, anti-imperial, revealing the conditions of production and censorship, without ever endorsing the Islamic regime. In Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (1994), for instance, we do not see the female figure return “the desiring look” her persistent suitor claims he saw. The last scene, an extreme long shot of the suitor relentlessly demanding that she admit this, is captured in a long take until the two appear like dots in the landscape. This has been read as a sex scene. Thus, opting to depict exterior landscapes with laboring women to avoid interior spaces, using extreme long shots to substitute for heterosexual looking, and excluding the reverse in the shot-reverse-shot of female characters are all allegorical displacements of the regime’s “command of looking” (104), reflecting the regulatory conditions under which the films emerge and the industry’s stance against voyeurism and restriction on the gaze.

In the final chapter the author acknowledges the international acclaim that Iranian cinema has received since the 1990s, while critics in the Iranian diaspora , within Iran, and feminists like Shahla Lahiji have critiqued the films for their lack of realism, particularly in women’s images, one that women filmmakers have putatively countered and claimed as the very grounds for Iranian cinema’s success. In cross-cultural communication, Mottahedeh cautions feminists against using realism that relies on Hollywood’s grammar of classical narration that shapes (and dominates) all fictional narration and is therefore an ill-conceived criterion for evaluating films. As in Japanese and Chinese cinema’s rejection of Hollywood’s dominant realism, Iranian auteurs recognize this ideological basis of “realism” and include the enunciation of national difference and inscription of the production circumstance within the narrative (141-43). Cautioning also against essentialist representations that mark national cinema, potentially imbued with Orientalist stereotypes and fetishes, Motthadeh argues, “national film cultures” present worlds that are neither “real identities nor uncoded realities” (144). Rather, they “create worlds” linked to dominant practices, through enunciation that is either in opposition to or in tandem with national culture. Enunciation is the formal system linking film text and industry:

“Bayza’i’s and Kiarostami’s work highlights the role played by production practices in underwriting the national address in the narrative. It is here, on the level of enunciation, that the nation meets empire”(144-45).

Mottahedeh’s emphasis on enunciation and realism, which after all are representation modes, prompt one to question if these only serve imperial dominance. Can they be deployed to resist it? Non-western cinematic representations that travel internationally raise questions, Mottaheded argues, about whose realism is reflected. Indigenous audiences of the cultures represented often dismiss such films embraced by westernized cosmopolitan audiences as not real. Historically, anthropology and early cinema’s fascination with the spectacle of the other coincide.

Contemporary foreign films bring unfamiliar images, no different from ethnography or tourism, and the cosmopolitan audience’s expectation that these festival circuit films provide the “truth” of the other’s experience is misplaced. Apart from the global meaning added to local meaning, the production history of internationally circulated films is really a history of distribution practices within which selection is often based on marks of difference, conflict with the dominant codes, and their “vernacular modernism” (148). Mottahedeh invokes Ellen Strain’s reminder of the ascendance of anthropology, tourism, the mechanically produced image, and academic knowledge of the other, including multicultural feminist curricula’s implication in the “voyeuristic gaze.” This imperial “civilizational gaze” of anthropology, tourism, and film harks back to feminist critiques of the voyeuristic male gaze in film that may have to be given up, along with acknowledging the

“relativist valuation of realism or authenticity in both dominant and national cinemas” (149).

Mottehdah invokes Rey Chow and Claire Johnston to argue that feminist theorization that demands rewriting women’s representation propagated by Hollywood’s classical realism must also remain skeptical of the fetishism and spectacle of the other woman/nation in national cinemas. Such awareness of imperial, dominant cinema codes is implicit in Khomeini’s call for purification of national cinema, revealing her awareness of its techniques in the “management of the total body through the senses” (152), while aspiring to an Islamic imaginal body.

While the cinema machine makes no distinction between dominant and oppositional strategies, the Islamic cinematic code calls for a dialogue with the sacred, undertaken by the state, in order to regenerate a new collective rooted in a politicized modesty rather than voyeurism. Feminist theory focused on voyeurism has neglected this, the averted gaze, a convention that Iranian cinema has successfully standardized and one that the “feminist avant garde tradition may have unwittingly skirted” (157). In concluding the third and final chapter Mottahedeh demonstrates this alternative filmic grammar in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh (1996) in which the use of color, spatial and temporal non-continuity, and multiple subjectivities challenge dominant cinema’s realism codes. Notwithstanding contradictions, Iranian cinema points to possibilities of still unlearning and replacing internationalized dominant cinema conventions of realism by positing a different relation between cinema and the real.

Readers of this book get no sense of state-sponsored Iranian cinema’s success among audiences and whether  or not supporters of the regime prefer these films with their sweeping landscapes, rich-colored and textured portraits of peasant life over the plethora of media available through satellite delivery. Does these films’ enthusiastic reception overseas match their reception among cosmopolitan elites in Iran? Arguably, Mottahedeh focuses attention on and productively assesses the formal challenge Iranian cinema poses to realist Hollywood conventions in narrative structures that enunciate the post-Revolutionary situation.

However, Hollywood’s conceptualization is both ahistorical and monolithic. For instance, there is no mention of the 1920s and 30s Purity and Production Code history and Hollywood’s own creative innovation (“enunciation”) around prohibitions to do with sexuality manifest in dark representations called film noir. In this examination of Iranian cinema’s challenge to Hollywood’s imperial narration strategies, developed on the cornerstone of voyeurism, the emergent alternative formal techniques certainly expand cinema language and remind us of learning new possibilities in ways of seeing and showing.

However, are these encouraging formal changes in representation modes matched by optimism about women’s changing material conditions in post-Revolutionary Iran? Do the films, allegorically or otherwise, even approximate the reality of women’s lives, women who backed the Revolution and entrusted the Islamic Republic to inscribe gender equality and justice? Dismissing “realism” as a Hollywood construct (implicated in voyeurism) forecloses the answer to this question.

I cite another filmic mode, the Iranian documentary, permeated by many of the cinematic techniques of mainstream Iranian cinema Mottahedeh brilliantly elucidates, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s We are Half of Iran's Population (2009) and Angels of the House of Sun (2009), which provide a less sanguine view. The former documents a shelter rescuing women stricken by poverty, drug addiction, and violence. The latter, not certified to be shown in Iran at this time, demonstrates the Iranian women’s movement’s resolve, uniting in an unprecedented coalition across the conservative to liberal spectrum, to interrogate the electoral contenders in what eventually became the fraught 2009 election. Speaking out against the Islamic revolution’s betrayal of principles of gender equity, one interlocutor declares that women have lost more than a hundred years of gains in post-revolutionary Iran. Undoubtedly the films are testament to the Iranian women’s movement’s steadfastness in the ongoing struggle for gender justice. Furthermore, they are reminders of the backlash, manifest in women’s testimonials of systemic discrimination in private/public institutions, the family, business enterprise, education, law, and media.


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