An analysis of Iranian cinema and it's relationship to poetry, looking particularly at the connections between Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence and Rumi's poetry on the nature of reality and human perception
When film critics outside of Iran reacted to the new wave of Iranian cinema produced after the 1979 Islamic revolution, they often attributed the distinctive poetic realism of Iranian cinema, expressed through codified imagery and allegorical stories, to the requirement to circumvent the varying censorship regulations of the post-1979 Islamic theocracy. Gilles Jacob, director of the Cannes Film Festival:
"...artistic revolution often takes place in those countries weighed down by restrictions, where artists are not free. Art is often born from constraint. On the other hand, when liberty is rediscovered, there is sometimes a diminution in quality because choice becomes immense, posing new problems."
From the Iranian perspective, however, the foreign critics had arrived late and their lack of long-term historical perspective resulted in an exaggerated concentration on the effects of the state censorship. Although the effect of censorship and state control on shaping Iranian cinema is not to be ignored, the forces of poetic and cultural heritage largely formed the Iranian cinematic identity and contextualising Iranian cinema as 'art born from constraint' is to paint an art-form that organically evolved from a poetic inheritance as myopic.
The best promotion of the continuing power of punk is how much Ayatollahs hate it. Shaytan has all the best tunes.
***UPDATE 12/11/13*** Two members of Yellow Dogs, drummer Arash Farazmand and guitarist Soroush Farazmand, were tragically killed in a shooting on the morning of the 11th. If you like the band then perhaps, in honour of those two, you would like to learn more about or support one of the groups that help Iranian refugees, political prisoners and/or fight for human rights reform in Iran, such as the ICHRI, Amnesty and the CDHR.
Bahman Ghobadi's drama No One Knows About Persian Cats is set in the underground rock scene of Tehran. The underground scene in Iran is no joke, prison and the lash can be expected for your troubles. Music as a whole isn't considered very favourably within the official strictures of the Islamic Republic, western music less so, and punk is essentially an enemy of the state. "Although music is halal, promoting and teaching it is not compatible with the highest values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic," said the Supreme Killjoy, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in 2010. This was in response to a question about classical Persian music lessons from a devout follower, the Ayatollah's answer to those looking to express themselves through rock music is decidedly less gracious. On August 16th, police raided the concert of Iranian metal band Dawn of Rage and arrested 200 fans, stripping some to look for "satanic symbols", despite permits being sought and received through the Ministry of Culture. Many bands that make music outside of the approved system, such as The Yellow Dogs featured in the film, are forced to flee or accept the full force of the government oppression when their popularity makes continuing underground impossible. However, the sheer mass of internet savvy youth and illegal satellite dishes in Iran mean they still have an impact.
Before Khamenei, at the birth of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared music to be "a drug" and proceeded to ban all types of music, instruments and music schools. "We must completely eliminate [music]," Khomeini told the Kayhan newspaper after the revolution. Despite the Ayatollah's outrage, the Qurān does not categorically condemn music. Khomeini's position was a traditionalist, reactionary interpretation based largely on the hadith. Often the conservative rulebook would dip into the bizarre, such as the decree that made chess haram until 1988; the pollution of idols, see?
In the 1980's, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG) was charged with overseeing the production of music, first producing firm guidelines and then consolidating and unifying regulation and censorship in 1987 in line with post-revolutionary values. Musical instruments were only deemed acceptable for sale in 1989, when Khomeini relented on some of his absurd decrees shortly before his death. Despite gradual loosening of the rules for Persian traditional, western classical and pop music since then, only 20 percent of the music produced in Iran today is met by approval from the MCIG. Women in particular struggle under ridiculous rules; female singers can largely only accompany a male, not be the the lead or sing solo.
Cinema motefävet was a revolutionary development in 1960's Iranian cinema that borrowed poetic tropes from Iran's New Poetry and set the course for a cinematic renaissance. Led by Nima Yushij, Shi'r-i naw, or New Poetry, was a response to a perceived remoteness in the traditionalist poetry of the 19th century, the so-called Return Movement. The New Poets argued that the Return Movement fetishized medieval poetry and produced imitative works that said nothing of the present-day issues in Iran, using language which was difficult for ordinary Iranians to understand. Still influenced by historical works, but seeking to bring poetry closer to the common man, these New Poets began to explore more contemporary social themes with a sense of social consciousness and deep sympathy for the down-trodden, rather than a preoccupation with the continuation of poetic precepts. With a revised thematic focus, the New Poets articulated the realities of poverty and repression with novel poetic language that brought together literary and common modes of speech.
The Cow, produced in 1969, was a pioneer in this artistic insurgency, in which Iranian filmmakers, influenced by Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave, presented social realist themes in a codified film language adapted from Persian poetry. Directed and co-written by Dariush Mehrjui, the film concerned a poor rural villager’s mental breakdown following the death of his beloved cow and marked an artistic turning point in Iranian cinema, highlighting the complicated relationship between the state and the artistic film community in Iran that continues to this day.
A poetic-realist, working-class fable, adapted by Mehrjui and the popular writer Gholam-Hossein Sa'edi from Sa'edi's short story, The Cow expresses a bleak outlook on the socio-economic situation in Iran, rebelling against the self-congratulatory modernism of the Shah. The narrative of the film exemplifies Sa'edi's interest in the rural poor, and the complex psychology of characters, translating the themes from Persian literature and folklore into a modern mode, much like the New Poets.
Mehrjui and Sa'edi's film presented the poverty of the Iranian rural underclass in realistic terms, contrary to the desires of the Shah, who pushed for cinema to convey a propagandistic image of a modernised Iran, and the more conservative Islamic authorities, who considered aniconism in art haram (forbidden) – especially representations outside of the idealized image of the eternal Quranic man. Ironically, the film was funded by the Ministry of Culture and Arts as an effort to produce a home-grown cinema that could display the modernisation of Iran to the outside world. The film was subject to a ban following its completion and was only released by the censors after being smuggled to Europe and winning international acclaim, such as the critics' award at the 1967 Venice film festival, with the Shah being inclined to capitalise on any Western approval of an artistically mature Iran. However, the censors did hedge their bets by adding a note, preceding the film, which reconfigured the story as occurring before the modernisation project of the Shah.
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