book review Seyed-Gohrab & Talattof (2013)


A.A. Seyed-Gohrab & K. Talattof (eds) Conflict and Development in Iranian Film (Leiden University Press) 2013
150 p., € 44,95, ISBN 978 908 72 8169 4
(Full text online: http://dare.uva.nl/document/469933)

Iranian cinema in context
 
The International Film Festival Rotterdam organized a themed programme in 2013 entitled Inside Iran, in which the influence of social affairs on Iranian national film production was a central theme. Shortly afterwards, Leiden University Press published the book Conflict and Development in Iranian Film. This could be called an example of happy coincidence, because the manuscripts date back to a conference that was organized much earlier in Leiden, in 2009 (see: http://www.persianstudies.nl/?tlink=2.2.4).
 
            Leiden University is the only university in the Netherlands with a Department of Persian Language and Culture. This department has an active staff, publishing its research in international collaborations and journals. Leiden University Press’s ‘Iranian Series’ consists of a series of publications mainly focusing on Iranian literature and language. In 2012, however, a first excursion was made into the visual culture with a book dedicated to the analysis of nineteenth-century portrait photographers in Iran in relation to their cultural backgrounds. And in 2013 this volume appeared, in which an international group of literary scholars sheds light on contemporary Iranian cinema.
 
            The main question posed by the collection of articles is how the history of Iranian cinema is linked to the political and cultural history of the country. Clearly it is difficult to give an unambiguous answer to that question. Culturally Iran has an ancient civilization, but at a political level the most major turning point was recent, namely in the revolutionary year 1979, when the Shah was overthrown and the Islamic Republic was established. From the late sixties Iranian cinema went through a major renovation which is commonly referred to as the ‘Iranian New Wave’. This was not a movement, but rather a generation of young and ambitious directors. They offered an alternative to the commercial films of that period and faced the censorship of the Shah’s totalitarian regime. Approximately ten years later a forced hiatus of more than three years took effect due to the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, in which almost no film could be produced. Due to this a reassessment was necessary because filmmakers had to define their position in a changing society that was characterized by state censorship, this time of a religious nature. The social and societal context in Iran has indeed had inevitable effects on the opportunities of the pre-revolutionary generation to continue and pursue its personal style. This context also determines the bandwidth of development for younger, post-revolutionary generation filmmakers. But, what exactly is this influence and how does it work?
 
            The standards of previous research on Iranian cinema are high, as many scholars have published articles in English creating a firm basis for further studies on the causal links between Iranian cinema and its political and cultural context. On this subject the international celebrity is without a doubt the American-Iranian media scholar Hamid Naficy. Recently, he has published an impressive, four volume standard reference work, Cinema and National Identity: A Social History of Iranian Cinema (Duke up, Durham). Recently, a rich anthology appeared edited by Parviz Jahed entitled Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect Books, London). Another milestone in this field is the survey by the Iranian film critic Hamid-Reza Sadr entitled Iranian Cinema: A Political History (Tauris, London), first published in 2002 and reprinted in 2006. And looking even further back in time, a major Iranian festival was organized in London in 1999 together with a conference, which resulted in a collection of articles edited by the British anthropologist Richard Tapper: The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity (Tauris, London). In the Netherlands, too,  attention has been paid to the situation of Iranian films in their context. In 1997, the Iranian-Dutch sociologist/journalist Sharog Heshmat Manesh published a review of Iranian cinema from the early years until the nineties: Zoon van de zon [Son of the Sun] (Ed. Ravine, Amsterdam). He derived his theoretical framework from sociologist Norbert Elias and anthropologist Levi-Strauss.
 
            Abbas Kiarostami could be called the most famous Iranian film director with the most constant film style and most universal theme. As far as I am concerned the best contribution to this volume is dedicated to his work. Farzana Marie Dyrud (University of Arizona, PhD-candidate) discusses very clearly the relationship between two films by Abbas Kiarostami and the works of two twentieth-century Iranian poets: Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980) and Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967). First, this relationship is expressed in direct quotations hidden in the dialogues and more prominently reflected in the film titles. Additionally, there are similarities in structural features, such as the application of recurrent ‘choruses’, the open cultivation of meaning, and an indeterminate time and space.
 
            Khatereh Sheibani (York University, Canada) hooks on to this theme in her article, with a detailed inventory of the references in Kiarostami’s films to the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafez. Moreover, this contribution is also a chapter from her recently published study, The Poetics of Iranian Cinema: Aesthetics, Modernity and Film After the Revolution (Tauris, 2011). It is unfortunate that this publication was not mentioned. Unhappily, there is also no reference to the symposium that the ‘Iran Heritage Foundation’ held in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2005, because at least three speakers discussed the relationship between the films of Kiarostami and Iranian poetry (see: http://www.iranheritage.org/kiarostamiconference/).
 
            Another theme in this book is the position of women in Iran. There is a universal need to ‘keep up appearances’ in many different variations and gradations, but in totalitarian regimes this need shows stark characteristics. In contemporary Iran, almost everyone is forced to adopt two personalities: one for indoors and one for the outside world. Women in particular constantly face this need, which is most clearly visible through the inflexibly policed obligation to wear a headscarf in public life. For some women it is worse because they even have to play a role indoors, which means that they have persistently to hide their true personalities. Asghar Seyed-Gohrab (Leiden University) gives a clear close reading of the film THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN (Marziyeh Meshkini, 2000), in which the position of women in Iran is assessed critically.
 
            Tahmineh Milani, the director of THE HIDDEN HALF (2001), has opened up this issue. The article by Julie Ellison (University of Arizona, PhD-candidate) provides an outline of how this film visualizes the social reality in which the focus is on the harsh distinction between private and public life. The story is about a woman who apparently leads a perfectly happy life with her %u200B%u200Bhusband and children, but under the surface lies old and unresolved distress. Gradually, more and more remnants of a traumatic past unfold. Interestingly, this film includes a critical review of the revolutionary years (as does an earlier film by Milani, TWO WOMEN, 1999). The main character in THE HIDDEN HALF appears to be oppressed by the Marxist activist group in which he participated as a student, as much as by the current Islamic regime. It is an indirect, but also brave form of criticism. Milani was arrested at the film’s première and disappeared for two weeks behind bars. She refused to be intimidated and made %u200B%u200Bother combative feminist films, such as FIFTH REACTION (2001) and THE UNWANTED WOMAN (2005).
 
            The only contribution about television comes from Niloofar Niknam (University of Stockholm). It analyses the images of women in and the storylines of four recent Iranian popular television drama series. There are a few universal stereotypes in the register of melodrama, such as the ideal virtuous girl, or the strong woman who is willing to bear social shame and physical suffering, and sacrifice her happiness for the preservation of male honour (her brother, husband or son). These story formulas are used in television serials and translated into an Iranian setting. The result is a total cliché, yet recognizable and addictive; therefore the perfect way to strengthen the societal ideology.
 
            Space is too limited to discuss all the contributions and to do justice to the contributors and the discussed films and themes. The book provides numerous leads for media historians. The disadvantage is that it offers only a first step or lead, making it inevitably difficult to answer all the questions about the parallels between the political and cultural history of Iran and developments in Iranian cinema. The items remain a collection of case studies that are only loosely held together by the overarching question about ‘influence.’ Therefore, the exact nature of the impact of the political and cultural context of the Iranian film remains vague. A positive conclusion can be drawn from this as well: there are still plenty of questions to answer and there is still a large amount of unexplored territory to be explored. It is hoped that Leiden will keep on investigating Iranian film.
 
Peter Bosma