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.
Centrality of Poetry in Iranian Culture
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foreign analysis as largely reacting to restrictions and practicalities rather than evolving a national cinema through historical reference and discourse.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"
Iranian theorists countered that, although certain aspects of the cinema were a result of economic realities and censorship restraints - for example, use of non-professional actors and on-site shooting - the characteristic style was the modern aspect of a culture historically defined by poetry. As the Iranian scholar Khatereh Sheibani explains:
"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"
The censorship-focused analysis confounded many Iranian filmmakers and critics who found it patronising and reductive to claim that the idiosyncratic style of Iranian cinema developed through a confluence of contraints and practical difficulties, rather than ideologically. The Iranian documentary director Maziar Bahari believes that this censorship focus does "a great disservice to Iranian artists" and that "without censorship [Iranians] would have many other great artists and filmmakers whose talents cannot gain fruit because of...restrictions".
Even filmmakers who suffered harshly under censorship countered this analysis. Babak Payami, whose first version of his 2003 film 'Silence Between Two Thoughts' was confiscated by Iranian authorities and never returned, dismissed this analysis and advanced the view that the inception for Iran's distinctive cinema's lies in its cultural and artistic heritage:
"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."
Historically, poetry has such an intrinsic role in Persian expression that even scholarly writings, such as the medical treatises of the 11h century polymath Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā, were frequently written in verse. Furthermore, during the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 7th century, and despite the frequent repudiation of poetry in the Qur'an - "[S]cant is your faith! It is no soothsayer's divination: how little you reflect!" - poetry was so intrinsic to Persian culture and language that it was Islam that adapted to Persian poetic sensibility in Iran, rather than the reverse. As the director and poet Abbas Kiarostami explains, poetry is not just an academic enterprise but is truly ingrained into the daily life of Iranians:
"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."
The strong influence of poetry of Iranian cinema was clear from its inception. The first produced sound film The Lur Girl (1933) clearly followed the format of narrative romance poems like Shahnamih and some of the earliest Iranian-produced drama features, such as Shirin & Farhad (1934) and Layli & Manjun (1937), were adaptations of twelfth century verse stories which were constituent parts of Iranian culture. Subsequent to the Islamic Revolution, and despite opposition from mosque and state, cinema would grow to supplant literature as the dominant form of cultural expression. Khatereh Sheibani argues that, in post-revolutionary Iran, home-grown cinema succeeded literature as dominant in the culture by translating the social realist poetic discourse of radical 20th century poets, like Ahmad Shamlou, into a visual language easily understood by the uneducated or illiterate Iranian. As Iranian cinema would inevitably express Iranian culture and Iranian culture was considerably influenced by its poetry, receptivity to lyrical expression was ingrained in the Iranian mind and it could be seen as preordained that Iranian cinema would embrace symbolic imagery and allegorical storytelling. However, it is difficult to observe a clear demarcation between those aspects of Iranian cinema that are the result of poetic heritage and those that are the result of pragmatic adaptation. Mohsen Makhmalbaf articulated this succinctly when he described Iranian cinema as "caught between poetry and censorship".
Formal legislation for censorship began only in the 1950's, when government ministers, police chiefs, broadcasting and publishing bureaucrats and SAVAK (the secret police) formed a committee that issued a 15 point decree forbidding such themes as republicanism, subversion of Islam and marital infidelity. Islamic authorities and the government of the Shah colluded in the control of all forms of artistic expression despite their mutually exclusive purposes. The modernisation of Iran might slowly destroy the power of the religious elites as it had done in the West and the mullahs sought to prevent this.
Khomeini, like Shahs Reza and Mohammad before him, used Cinema as an ideological tool, this time to dismantle the Pahlavi culture and establish a new Islamic nationalist identity. Khomeini himself explains that "cinema is one of the manifestations of culture and it must be put to the service of man and his education", and the education that Khomeini foresaw was in the fiqh rules of haram and halal – what was and was not to be permitted in the theocratic Iran.
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.
At this time there was some consensus among Iranian filmmakers that the force of state censorship would undo all the creative gains of the Cinema and endanger its recently acquired international appeal, as the exile of many actors, producers and directors took effect on the industry. However, within the two dominant spheres of influence – religious and political - the artists once again negotiated a position whereby expression was possible and the New Iranian Cinema could develop. Although, in the years following the revolution, populist cinema espoused post-revolutionary values with its plots and themes, portrayal of women, and aesthetic qualities keeping in line with Quranic principles whereas quality cinema tended to critique political and social values and express themes and stories that fell outside the 'Islamic norm' required by the state.
It is clear that, throughout the 20th century in Iran, certain narrative tricks and production methods were utilised in response to the Iranian state control. The prevalent use of children as leads in New Iranian Cinema, as seen in Kiarostami's Where Is My Friend's House? (1987), allowed directors to circumvent rules on the behaviour and interactions of men and women. The guidelines of the MCIG were specific in prohibiting the public display of women outside of strict Islamic modesty requirements, which required veiled women even in domestic settings, and so, in order to maintain suspension of belief, directors would often shoot in external locations where the veil would be more customarily worn. These results of censorship are clearly defined, but what cannot be attributed to censorship is how certain symbolic gestures redolent of the spiritualised humanism evident throughout Persian poetry (expressed as the concept adab in Persian) continued, with only minor interruptions, from the mechanics of one state philosophy to the next.
A Moment of Innocence: Sufism and the Annihilation of the Ego
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."
Of particular and explicit relevance to the work of Makhmalbaf is the Sufi poet Rumi, who Makhmalbaf describes as "one of the greatest Persian poets", and whose themes and imagery impact many of Makhmalbaf's films. Makhmalbaf's 1996 film A Moment of Innocence, in particular, demonstrates the key impact of Rumi's poetry, as the film's central themes link directly with Sufist concepts relating to truth, subjectivity and sense of self.
Rumi wrote extensively on the subject of tawhid; a unity or one-ness with God (often referred to as the 'Beloved') that is achieved through spiritual realisation. In order to achieve this unity, one must dissolve the ego self through fanaa (annihilation) to become one's true self; as Rumi exhorts in his extended poem Masnavi, "kill the cow of your ego as quickly as you can, so that your inner spirit can come to life and attain True awareness". This true self acknowledges that reality is not clearly perceived through human eyes and ears, and that no single philosophical or religious belief has a monopoly on truth; "the lamps are different but the Light is the same; it comes from beyond". Makhmalbaf expresses similar sentiments to Rumi in an interview with the Iranian academic Hamid Dabashi, when he says:
"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."
In A Moment of Innocence, (or A Piece of Bread and a Flowerpot, as originally translated), Makhmalbaf contemplates Rumi's 'broken mirror' of truth, a concept from a line of poetry that Makhmalbaf is fond of referring to:
"[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."
The film is concerned with how identity and memory are shaped when confronted with a breakdown in absolute truth and a rigid concept of self. Through a hybrid of autobiographical fiction and documentary, A Moment of Innocence dramatises a real event in Makhmalbaf's life but does so in a reflexive reassessment of memory and trauma using documentary tropes. By manipulating the viewer's notions of truth through a gradual parting from the documentary format into surrealism, Makhmalbaf communicates that the camera lies and Makhmalbaf, as both director and subject, is to confront those lies in an attempt to reach his true self.
Mahkmalbaf also posits the idea that the 'many-sided' fictional narrative perhaps offers a more complete truth and that a reliance upon verisimilitude risks ignoring other aspects of the truth, as he himself argues:
"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."
The simple autobiographical story that is the linchpin of the narrative is merely the starting point for Makhmalbaf to question his own biographical narrative and the legitimacy of ‘realistic’ narrative in cinema. The film's reflexive nature functions as a re-evaluation of what might be at first considered 'real' in order to highlight the unsteady foundation of memory, self and personal narrative. The film constructs a dual narrative for the audience, one of the true event and the other of Makhmalbaf's reinterpretation, but it is never made explicitly clear which one is occupying the screen at any one time. The audience's experience of the narrative is disordered through frequent self-aware techniques, such as introducing scenes with a clapper board and repetitions of synchronous moments from multiple, and sometimes competing, perspectives. Time and perspective is fractured in a non-linear, incoherent account of the past in order to reveal that truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, are not hermetic concepts in a narrative, in life or cinema, and that constructing a 'true' past as a singular narrative is hollow compared to expressing the manifold truths of shared experience. Rumi expresses a similar philosophy in his poetry, articulating his view that self-examination and self-doubt are the path to truth:
"When your chest is free of your limiting ego, Then you will see the ageless Beloved.
Rumi wrote that truth is held by God, the ‘Beloved’, and it is only through unity with God by the process of ego annihilation that one can approach truth and reform the 'broken mirror'. A Moment of Innocence is the 40-year-old Makhmalbaf's piece of the 'broken mirror', but it is also that of his young self, the two versions of the policeman, and that of the cultural memory of Iran. From the audience's perspective, there are two visible narrating subjects in the film – the characters of the director and the policeman - and two invisible narrating subjects – the persons of Makhmalbaf and Nasrullah. As we hear the characters recreate their variant narratives in dialogue within the film, we are also privy to the self-reflexive interpretation of the real Makhmalbaf and Nasrullah, behind the scenes through the film's rendering of the events. It is this mixed perspective experienced by the viewer - a superposition outside of time, but with access to the present and past of those involved – that constitutes 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.
Like Makhmalbaf, the policeman Nasrullah, who believes he has a crystal clear memory of the events, controls his actor with the same impatient dogmatism. Preoccupied with the lack of physical similarity between a photo of his younger self and the young actor, and wishing to play the character of the young policeman himself, Nasrullah is shown to be unable to take himself out of the past. Nasrullah's says his "honour" is at stake if the film doesn’t represent the attack as he believes it occurred and the realisation of this "truth" will be a cathartic moment, making up for twenty years of being ‘forgotten’ by Makhmalbaf. Overruled in his request, Nasrullah accedes to directing his actor but does so with the intent of recreating physical exactitudes, such as how the young actor is to salute, with a stubborn literal-mindedness.
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 audience follows the policeman from 'the real...into the true'; from his inflexible demands for an authentic recreation of his fantasy to the truth beyond his perspective, much as the film rewrites the 'real' biographical history in order to approach the 'brightest mirror'. It is the failure of the policeman to recreate a solipsistic reality, and the ensuing destruction of his sense of self – when he learns that he has pinned his hopes on a false reality of his own making - which produces the truth of multiple perspectives. Following the revelation of the betrayal by his supposed beloved, the policeman attempts to disrupt the narrative of the film-within-a-film by ordering his younger self to shoot the girl when she approaches.
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.
With the breakdown in the internalised narrative of the past Nasrullah has formed from a singular perspective, he begins to construct his own narrative and, in doing so, inhabits the externalised roles of 'that' policeman and 'that' girl. Rather than merely recreating a narrative from the details of his, now questionable, memory, Nasrullah chooses to transform it through acting multiple roles - including an objective view of himself. This sequence accomplishes what Dabashi describes as 'a quiet erosion of the dead certainties that separate the real from the make-believe' with Nasrullah's transformation a mirror image of what Makhmalbaf is trying to achieve through the film. Nasrullah's self-examination and acceptance of the multiple realities of the past is the 'annihilation' of an egocentric self, created from a singular narrative, which is required to become 'one's true self'. Likewise, Makhmalbaf, by writing, directing and acting in this film, is playing the roles of the policeman and multiple versions of himself in order to understand the position of 'the other' and re-evaluate his own internal narrative free from egotistical absolutism. The film itself is a continuation of the Iranian tendency, seen in the poems of the Sufists, to question our understanding of reality, memory and perception.
The images of burning effigies and brutal state oppression that are projected all too often from Iran since 1979, and then circulated in the echo chamber of the Western media, stand at great odds to the calm, humanitarian properties of Iranian cinema. Since the wider Western world was only significantly introduced to Iranian cinema following these images, the immediate political dimension of the work was unavoidably magnified. There are aspects of the Iranian New Wave cinema that were borrowed from other cultures or were pragmatic reactions to the immediate problem of censorship, but an outside perspective, ignorant of Persian cultural history, can overstate the effect that censorship and state control had on Iranian cinema's aesthetic and thematic development. The subversive and politically reactive aspects of Iranian cinema shouldn't be ignored, but the unintended effect of emphasising state control in its development is not just to represent Iranian filmmakers as inadvertent pioneers of their own distinct style and romanticise censorship, but also to miss important symbolism and cultural references that remain hidden in such an ahistorical analysis.
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."
Watch a 3-part documentary about Iranian cinema by VICE here
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