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Iranian cinema’s roots in local aesthetics

Clip from the film, "The Cow"

In brief, I am going to review a relationship between Iranian film and philosophy.

I have two reasons for my interest in this.

1) I think it’s necessary for me to have a deeper analysis of Iranian aesthetic traditions in my core study of its political philosophy.

2) I am increasingly dissatisfied by my writings on international relations. I find that I’m able to more or less represent facts, yet I am having trouble articulating the truths of lived experience. At times, I find that there is even a tension between facts and truth. For this reason, I’m curious to examine various modes and traditions of communication in order to learn something from them and hopefully apply something new to my writing in order to improve it.

I argue in support of Hamid Dabashi’s thesis (presented in his book Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema) that the particular films collectively called Iranian neorealist cinema cannot simply be seen as derivations of movements with similar names coming out of Italy or France. Iran’s neorealist cinema is of course influenced by the works of contemporaries in Europe and elsewhere; however it has roots within indigenous modes of representation, of artistic expression, and of thought that express the specific nature of the country’s cinematic form.

More precisely, the very long tradition of Iranian poetry has left an indelible mark on the people’s psyche, and it has served to express notions of philosophy and theology as well as a manner of story-telling that is evident in the country’s neorealist cinema.

One of the first Iranian films to be recognized as neorealist had as director a woman who was first of all a poet: Forugh Farrokhzad. The influence of modern and pre-modern poets is readily recounted by the numerous filmmakers of this cinematic form.

Iran’s poetry has a certain relationship with forms of representation that is evident in the manner of neorealist filmmaking. There is within them an intersection of fact and fiction that has the potential to unfold a multi-dimensional representation that is porous and supple to the understanding of reality. Here, the real and the imaginary mingle, reality and truth can be at odds, and the firm ground of our conceived existence fades to general abstraction.

I will very briefly present and examine the character of this intersection of fact and fiction in Iran’s neorealist cinema: its roots, its expressions, and its possible consequences. This aesthetic tradition has a notable difference with a common form of representation within the West. Traditional Iranian poetry, and the films that borrow from it, are not purely dependent on a mimesis that holds representation as a semblance of reality (this is icastic mimesis). In traditional Iranian poetry, the icastic can cohabitate with a phantastic mimesis that is not limited to what actually exists. Fact and fantasy intrude upon each other and can become indiscernible. The use of both modes of mimesis can help us see what is other than the real within reality. By real, here is meant “the constellation of signs before they have been forced into signifiers that we now collectively call reality.”[1]

Being a majority Muslim country, the aesthetic genealogy of Iran has grounding in Islamic tradition. There is therefore a relationship between concepts of the real and reality within Islamic philosophies and its practice in art. It is very evident in the reading of the Qu’ran that the scripture tries to grapple with the absence of a visible God. This is a concern much discussed in literature: it also has an impact on art and processes of thought.

Here, pure simulation corresponds to representation of the face of God, and in Islamic tradition depictions of this face is prohibited. So, we see a very particular philosophy and visual art develop from this grounding in the Qu’ran. As Hamid Dabashi has put it in an essay on this subject, belief in the real is “predicated on the constitutional impossibility of seeing, or showing, the Face of the Unseen.”

“The Islamic hermeneutics is categorically predicated on a constitutional mistrust of the Face-value, of the sur-Face meaning, and the reversal of trust in the promises of the Hidden, in the Unseen, in that which is to be dis-covered, unveiled.” [2]

From this is derived the notion that there can be no exact or direct representation of the real because the very point of human departure within constituted reality is uncertain, we are uncertain of reality because the face of the real remains occluded.

Within Iranian neorealist cinema, we are thus in some way witness to this conviction when the mundane shots of a faucet, street, or silent human interaction are turned into an implied (partial) vision of the hidden Sign of the real. In such scenes we become aware of “the presence of an absence.”[3]

Mulla Sadra, a well known Iranian philosopher (1561-1636), also discusses this: that communication does not transfer essence but meaning. That reality is constituted in the human mind, and that each person’s reality is unique though related to each through the unseen presence of God, which stands as an invisible unifying gravity. There is no visible universal source of reference for us to grasp, so there can be no single unchallenged vision of reality. We can only intuit the real and not truly conceive it. This produces “a unity of abstractions,” based on the subject’s understanding of reality within the context of time and space. The doctrine of unity within multiplicity is borrowed from some forms of Sufism. In this philosophy, we reside in contingent realities where even the essence of existence as we understand it resides in the mind.[4]

Abbas Kiarostami, one of Iran’s most prominent filmmakers has discussed exactly this. When interviewed about his film, “And Life Goes on,” he states that:

“The perception of reality is such a complex and nuanced phenomenon that we cannot really give a definitive answer to this question. The best of all positions undoubtedly consists of being ceaselessly in motion between dream and reality: This is a place of ideal life, my space of preference. My attitude is to refuse all convictions of reality, it is to sit between the two chairs of the real and the dream, to stay in motion and alive. My perception of reality is always the source, the mobilizing force that pushes me to make movies. The real always has a power of fiction and of poetry that excites me and stimulates my creativity. This is the way I stay always faithful to reality… It is a constant rule that animates all my films.”[5]

The prominent place of phantastic mimesis in Kiarostami and other directors’ films is not reliant on equivalence, on a semblance of constituted reality. Neither phantastic nor icastic mimesis is given primacy. The hybridity of the two modes of mimesis within Iranian poetics has been effectively examined by one of the classic thinkers of Persian philosophy, Nasir al-Din Tusi, in his Foundation of Logical Learning, written in 1244. The use of as well as the theorizing of these mimetic representations is not new to the culture, it is simply new to Iranian cinema, having been first introduced in the early 1960s thanks to such pioneers as the previously mentioned poet, Forugh Farrokhazad’s only film, The House is Black.

Because the elements of these films are not necessarily related to a fixed reality, they reside in relation to each other rather than in a direct equivalence with a fixed point of reality. What is interesting here is that these filmic representations are not exactly reproductions they are performative, emotive, sentimental, psychological, atmospheric, form over content. This cinema does not pose as a technical representation of reality, but rather a poetic representation, and, so, technique does not easily dominate the message of the product, it does not dominate its “use-value.”[6] The films are not operational configurations or programmatic. They cannot easily be assembled as a centralized vision of society. They are dotted by uncertainties, unasked questions, incomplete visions, and unquantifiable sentiments.

These films do no do what the philosopher Jean Baudrillard warns might become the role of a simulation as a “generator where myriads of intersections produce all the questions and possible solutions, so that choices can be made.”[7] There is no “determination,” and not “all is resolved in the inscription and decodage” of the works of such directors as Farrokhzad, Kiarostami, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

There can be no instantaneous unambiguous response to what the audience witnesses in these films; to seek such would lead to frustration. The films are not coded in binary, with the dichotomy of question/answer; there is no self-fulfilling prophesy, no answer inscribed within a prescriptive question. There is no attempt to unite the universe of the discussed under the “aegis of a single principle;”[8] no homogeneous substance.  Each plane or dimension can itself be multi-phased and indistinct. The images are not fragments of a principle whole but include the unfolding of multiple perspectives and possibilities.

The audience must deal with the erosion of determinacy, the implosion of true and false. Fact and fantasy bleed into each other, and it becomes clear that such things as historical facts do not necessarily represent or expose the truth. Meanwhile, the truth of lived experience is manifested by the film in which self/other, and past/present/future also collapse into each other.

In this sense, the films invite the participation or engagement of the audience. Not in the manner digitized modes of participation in some new media: the director does not have the same degree of control or determination over audience response. Because reality “is not broken down […] into scenarios of regulated oppositions.”[9]

So the films are not bound to equivalence, they are not bound to direct reproduction. They can be grounds for the production of new imaginations and new understandings of reality, as well as for grappling with what is other than real within reality.

There is no terrain of distinctive oppositions, so the films do not produce a space where politics or views of society can be easily reduced to a binary logic of good/bad, true/false, right/wrong, Left/Right. There are no monolithic oppositions, no clear ideological or moral judgments. It is a terrain of nuance where differences interrelate and coexist, where the same and the other, I and Them, the inside and the outside are not separated by hard lines.

Contemplation becomes near unavoidable in this environment.

So, remembering Kiarostami’s statement about his approach to representations of reality in his films, he seems wary that what might collectively be understood as existence, what we might grasp as reality, “can be confused with its own image.”[10] Just as in the philosophies of Mulla Sadra, subjectivity, therefore, is taken to have a prominent role in the composition of a multidimensional reality.

To borrow a section from Arundhati Roy’s, The God of Small Things, the best of Iranian neorealist cinema seems to play the part of the medium “that connects reflections to images, glints to light, weaves to fabrics, needles to threads, walls to rooms, love to heart to anger to remorse.”[11]

There is a relation between art and truth: the “showing forth” or the “unconcealment” of what’s hidden and covered up[12]. As Slavoj Zizek puts it in a short article, Ideology I: No Man is an Island, within constituted reality, “actuality is more than potentiality, present more than future…” while “in subjectivity, potentiality strands ‘higher’ than reality: subject is a paradox entity which exists only as ex-sisting, standing outside itself in an ontological openness.”[13]

With the mingling of icastic and phantastic mimesis, subjectivity has a prominent role as constituted reality loses its place as the primary point of reference.

The ambiguity generated by this approach to representation is especially interesting in the context of Iran’s political history, and of its experience with a particular form of aterritorial colonialism. Iran’s territory was never fully occupied by foreign powers such as in the case of India by the British. The country was cut into zones of influence first by Britain and Russia as well as the Soviet Union. Later, the United States took up the mantle of foreign domination of the country’s domestic affairs after it orchestrated a coup in 1953 that deposed a nationalist democratic government and returned the last shah to absolute power after a short hiatus.

In this period of colonialism, the country’s leaders were often under the sway of foreign powers, its key institutions administered by hand-picked foreign experts, its military at times carefully balanced by outside influence, and after the 1953 coup, a foreign trained and very brutal secret police terrorized the people.

Technically, the country had sovereignty over its territory, but in actuality it was regularly powerless to define its own domestic policies in the face of outside intervention. This colonial experience has helped generate continuous states of transition, a no-place, a constant sense of waiting, as if on a border between full domination and freedom. This is enhanced by the experience of domestic politics, of an active multi-generational resistance against the tyranny of successive national governments that now spans over a century in time.

This is a society in flux, with domestic and foreign elements constituting major forces in a tension that influences its mutating outcome. There is a continuous state of uncertainty. This to some extent is more easily expressed by a communication that resists a binary approach, that is comfortable with ambiguity, ambivalence and chaos.

Films that have characteristics of fragmentation, multi-locality, are non-chronological, and have multiple frames of subjectivity are very useful in that they can ease discussions of these historic and political experiences. As Hamid Dabashi has put it, Iranian cinema tells the story of the politics of uprootedness.

I think it is important to realize that these films are not simply the continuation of traditional forms of art. They are not rooted in a dead history. They are used to express lived experience. They can and do articulate the creative expression of emancipatory struggles, the traumas of long war, and the active voice of many generations who have lived and continue to live within a threshold between oppression and liberation.

Note: There are a number more sources that fed into this writing, frankly, I’ve lost my original fully cited piece so this is a rough version hastily that’s re-edited.

[1] Dabashi, Hamid. “Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema.” Mage Publishers, 2007, p. 117.

[2] Dabashi, Hamid. “In the Absence of the Face.” 2000, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2267/is_1_67/ai_62402554/?tag=content;col1

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rahman, Fazlur. “The God-World Relationship in Mulla Sadra.” In Essays in Islamic Philosophy and Science, State University of New York Press, 1975, New York, USA, pp. 238-252. Ideas of unity in multiplicity abstractions on p. 251.

[5] Dabashi, Hamid. “Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema.” p. 306.

[6] Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulations.” In Continental Aesthetics, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, pp. 412-427.

[7] Ibid., p. 416.

[8] Ibid., p. 417.

[9] Ibid., p. 420.

[10] Ibid., p. 427.

[11] Roy, Arundhati. “The God of Small Things.” IndiaInk Publishing, 1997, pp.225-226.

[12] Heidegger, Martin. “The Origin of the Work of Art.” .” In Continental Aesthetics, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, pp. 182-211.

[13] Zizek, Slavoj. “Ideology I: No Man is an Island.” Lacanian Ink, http://www.lacan.com/zizwhiteriot.html.

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