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
"...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."
In the case of the British New Wave, developing its own distinctive brand of social realism in the same period as the Iranians, theorists point to a dominant influence of the realist novel. Iranian cinema, however, was presented in some foreign analysis as largely reacting to restrictions and practicalities rather than evolving a national cinema through historical reference and discourse. Reza J. Poudeh, articulates this disputed analysis in an essay that focuses on the relationship between Iranian filmmakers and the government:
"Censorship conditions the filmmakers to learn how to structure their films to avoid scrutiny by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, a major factor in perceiving Iranian films as symbolic and allegorical representation of the filmmakers’ intentions"
"Post-revolutionary poetics evolved from a literary and written- based poetry into a visually orientated form of moving images...In the 1960's and 1970's, a new art cinema started taking shape in Iran, partly through employing themes from Persian literature"
"Everybody seems to attribute the style of Iranian cinema only to the post-revolutionary era, but it has been nurtured over the course of centuries. The cultural keys are there in the poetry. The creative use of the Farsi language and grammar can be very colourful and multi-layered. So this is nothing new."
"In Iran, in conversation, the use of poetry is not limited to intellectuals, or poets, or even poetry lovers...Illiterate people, during the day, recite a couple of verses in order to relate to one another and express their viewpoints. Poetry in Iran pours down on us, like falling rain, and everyone takes part in it. Your grandmother...complained in poetry...or [expressed] her love for your grandfather...with poetry."
State Control and Censorship
In order to illuminate the aspects of Iranian cinema that are a continuance of the Iranian poetic heritage in a modern form, clarity is needed on how, and by how much, state control affected the production of Iranian films. State control and censorship have been dominant aspects of Iranian cinema since the first commercial movie theatre was established in Tehran, by Ebrahim Sahhafbashi in 1904. The mullahs of Iran denounced movie theatres as a symbol of the godless West and secretly feared a competitor to the mosque, a direct threat to their power, and they pressured the theatres into rejecting films with western tropes and overt sexuality. After taking power in 1926, Shah Reza Khan took an interest in cinema, but only in how it could convey an image of his proposed modernisation, promote Western influenced reforms and help codify his intended Iranian national identity. Films such as The Lor Girl, directed by Ardeshir Irani in 1933, presented the ‘rapid progress of the country under the reign of the Just and Capable Shahanshah, His Majesty Pahlavi’, as its advertising poster claimed.
During the Islamic revolution of the late 1970's, Iranian cinemas again became targets for the revolutionaries, whose combined revolutionary fervour and hatred of cinema's 'Westoxification' of Iranian culture and irreligious imagery, led to fire-bombings and vandalism. The New York Times reported that, in Tehran, only 7 out of 118 cinemas were left intact following a wave of arson attacks in 1978. However, despite the Islamic regime's opposition to certain aspects of cinema, rather than ban it outright (as the Taliban would do in Afghanistan in 1996), the Ayatollah allowed its continuation, displaying in his first speech upon returning from exile in 1979 his keen awareness of its propagandistic potential.
Despite the revolution of 1979 releasing film-makers from the control of the Shah, with some previously banned films now available, the subsequent installation of Ayatollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader of Iran led to a significant drop in film production, so that only one-hundred original Iranian features were released between 1979 and 1985. The state control of the theocratic regime was more heavy- handed than the monarchists, with nudity in certain films being censored with black ink applied directly to the film frames. Furthermore, 'Film Farsi', a popular form of simplistic entertainment, largely comprised of action films and comedies, was quickly banned, which had a catastrophic effect on the film economy. 'Islamising' cinema in a new nationalistic style was demanded by the Ayatollah, without any clear guidelines on how this was to be performed, which led to unpredictable censorship from the state and the undirected self-censorship of film makers, stifling the industry. However, the haphazard government reaction to cinema became untenable in conjunction with the Ayatollah's desire for nationalistic and Islamic propaganda films. Eventually, in 1982, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG) was charged with overseeing the production of films, first producing firm guidelines and then funding and producing films themselves in order to save the faltering industry, consolidating and unifying film regulation and censorship to bring cinema into line with post-revolutionary values.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf is no stranger to the stifling effects of censorship. His past three films have been banned by the Islamic theocracy in Iran and, in recent years, he has started to operate out of Afghanistan for the relative freedom it offers. In addition to government interference pushing Makhmalbaf outside Iran, his political maturation, from militant supporter of the revolution to a thorn in the side of the regime, and the ensuing blackout he later experienced, has altered his work both practically and thematically. Nevertheless, Makhmalbaf showed contempt for "those in the West" who said that restrictions on filmmaking in Iran had positively contributed to its quality. He argues that the best Iranian films came from a period of limited censorship from 1985-1990 and takes a somewhat extreme position when he states in an interview featured in Sight & Sound that this analysis is "nonsense" and that "you can't create in such a restrictive controlled environment".
Makhmalbaf is a director who displays the influence of poetry on his work more proudly than most, often quoting and mentioning poets in interviews and writings. For example, in an interview with Tehran Review, Makhmalbaf explains the influence of poetry on his work, and Iranian cinema in general, and gives his account of how the poetic appreciation in Iran developed:
"Because of Islamic restrictions, we didn’t have a painting tradition like in the West. We have no understanding of painting in Iran. In Europe, cinema comes from painting. In our cinema we use poetic imagery. Sometimes I translate poetry into images directly."
"We [the Iranians] all think that we are the only holders of the truth, and believe that everyone should bend to our own views...everyone sees himself as being the holder of the truth, and cannot conceive of truth as a many-sided thing spread out amongst the people."
"[Rumi] said that the truth was a mirror in the hands of God. The mirror fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the entire truth."
"It's impossible for someone to say that what I'm saying is the absolute truth...Consequently when we speak of realism, at the same time, we're still talking about surrealism. There is no truth that everyone agrees upon as realism. Instead of talking about reality we should be talking about believing in realness. In fact, when I'm speaking of realism it is actually a path exactly halfway between external reality and my mental state."
To recount the plot of A Moment of Innocence is also to recount the history of its conception. In 1974, as a teenage member of the militant Marxist group Peykar, Makhmalbaf was involved in a plot to attack a policeman, steal his gun and rob a bank in order to fund an armed struggle against the Shah. The plan was a failure as, after stabbing the policeman, Makhmalbaf was shot, arrested and imprisoned until the Islamic Revolution took power in 1979. The film begins at a point, twenty years later, when the policeman (unnamed in the film but hereafter referred to by the name Nasrullah, as revealed in a secondary script of the same story, Goodbye Cinema) is now aware that Makhmalbaf is the same man who stabbed him. He shows up at Makhmalbaf's home asking to be an actor in one of his films. Initially, Makhmalbaf refuses but, upon considering the policeman’s request, he initiates the idea of recreating these events in a dramatised form as a means of confession, self-examination and discourse on cinema.
"When your chest is free of your limiting ego, Then you will see the ageless Beloved.
You can not see yourself without a mirror; Look at the Beloved, He is the brightest mirror."
Following the policeman's visit to Makhmalbaf's home, the film jumps to an audition for actors hoping to play the young leads in the diegetic film now in production. Makhmalbaf is to direct the actor playing the younger version of himself and the policemen to direct his own alter ego, with both directors imparting dissenting versions of events and expressing different reasons for reliving these events through reconstruction. The character of Makhmalbaf states "I want to recapture my youth with a camera" and chooses a young man who espouses the same grand idealism that he did in his youth: "I want to save the world", the actor claims in the audition. In his selection process, the character of Makhmalbaf is asserting his version of reality; he has chosen to recreate events from the basis of his own emotion and ideology.
Eventually, Makhmalbaf abandons all semblance of a measured approach and becomes a domineering force, shouting out directions from behind the camera. In a rehearsal for the climactic scene, the young actor breaks down in tears and refuses to accept the violent conclusion to Makhmalbaf's story - he is the young man Makhmalbaf wishes he had been - reducing the character of Makhmalbaf to impatient shouts from behind the camera: ‘Put your hand down!’ Here, Makhmalbaf is presenting his own inner turmoil as a literal argument, what Iranian Studies professor Hamid Dabashi calls a 'schizophrenic disjunction', seeking redemption by castigating his egotistical character for imposing his own notions, regrets and anger onto his sympathetic young alter ego. Makhmalbaf exposes his own selfish need for an authentic narrative; his one-take demand with a cry of "it won’t be repeated", during the stabbing scene, an ironic comment on this need.
The policeman, as with Makhmalbaf, has a need to "recapture his youth", as he is full of regret over the consequences of Makhmalbaf's attack on him but cannot escape his own perspective. He reveals to the young actor that he was in love with a girl, who would come by his post each day to ask him the time, and wanted to marry her, believing her questions to be an artifice hiding her own affections. The policeman planned to give her a gift of a flower and make clear his feelings but the attack occurred before he had a chance and, subsequently, he never saw her again. The policeman tells the actor, "[Makhmalbaf] took away my life away once, he took away my love, he ruined me. Now, for the sake of marrying a woman, I am trying so hard, I have gone pleading to Makhmalbaf to find this girl." However, the perspective of the policeman is soon revealed, initially to the audience and then to the policeman himself, as false; the girl was Makhmalbaf's co-conspirator and her role was to distract the policeman with her questions so that Makhmalbaf could disarm him.
The two of them attempt to rehearse the new scene, with Nasrullah's dialogue conveying the collapse of his rigid, egocentric sense of self:
What an idiot you are, boy. I say, I am not me. I am that girl. So, shoot...Give me the gun. Now you go away and come up to me. You are that girl, and I am that policeman. Come and ask me.
Rather than state influence determining the character of the nation's cinema, the poetic sensibility, bred into Iranians over 3000 years, primed the culture to adapt to state censorship. Iranian cinema both before and after the Islamic Revolution is a continuation of the poetic awareness in Iranian culture that exists because of poetry's position as the most significant cultural accomplishment in the minds of the Iranians. Films such as A Moment of Innocence tap into this poetic awareness by looking back into the culture of the past, drawing from a multi-millennial trove of literature, religious beliefs, rituals and customs, in order to delineate a cultural nationalism and communicate a portrayal of modern Iran beyond limited perspectives. As Makhmalbaf concludes, the Iranian New Wave was trying to reflect "the real Iranian culture" by producing a cinema that could be "a mirror that we hold in front of the soul of people, so that they can look at themselves."