Amardeep Singh

Abstract for a Paper I Never Wrote

(Circa 1997)

"Life, and Nothing More...": Realism in Iranian Cinema

Cinema in the post-WWII world is often thought of as having radiated outward from Hollywood, but there has all along been a second source, in an alternate 'cognitive mapping,' which has been alluded to by writers such as Gilles Deleuze (Cinema II) and Fredric Jameson (The Geopolitical Aesthetic). This is the mode which originated in Italy, the 'neorealist' school. Over a number of years, a type of filmmaking that could be called either 'neorealist,' or simply 'realist,' has emerged in numerous national spaces in the decolonizing world, including India (with Satayajit Ray as a leader), Francophone West Africa (led by Ousmane Sembène), and most recently, in Iran (led by Abbas Kiarostami). Realism in the globalizing of cinema (which was under way long before the end of the Cold War) has three central, functional characteristics. First, realist cinema enables the representation of otherwise unrepresented groups. These can be working-class people, people belonging to ethnic and religious minorities, as well as dislocated and otherwise marginalized (subaltern) peoples. This enabling function may also hold true in many 20th century realisms in literature (and perhaps in the theater as well), in the work of writers as various as John Dos Passos, Ousmane Sembène, and Mahasweta Devi. Second, realist cinema appears at moments of historical transition and political struggle. In Italy, neorealism emerged to document the struggle for liberation from Nazi occupation, as well as the political instability of the post-war period. In other parts of the world, realist cinema has appeared shortly after decolonization. This connection with decolonization leads to the third claim for realism, which is that it plays a vital part, possibly even a necessary part, in the imagining of new national spaces, such as those recently freed from foreign occupation, or those nations created by fiat, composed of different ethnic groups, whose conflicts realism is often called upon to represent.

Though I will draw upon filmic realisms from many different parts of the world, in this paper my primary object is the realist cinema of post-revolutionary Iran. Iran is a particularly interesting case because Iranian art cinema under the Shah was highly prolific and sophisticated enough that it merited the appellation "Iranian New Wave." However, it was 'sophisticated' mainly in the idioms of French and American cinema (this is implicit in the idea of "Iranian New Wave"), and thus could be said to be colonized cinema, in much the same way that Iran under the Shah could be said to have been a colonized nation. I will draw upon the works of recent "postcolonial" critics such as Homi Bhabha and Edward Said to attempt to unpack some of these elements involving the politics of Islamization as tied to 'decolonization.' Further, I will draw upon the work of critics of censorship, such as J.M. Coetzee, in addressing the following question, crucial to any engagement with post-revolutionary Iranian cinema: is 'realism,' as defined above, _possible_ under censorship? (My preliminary hunch is, yes.)

On the surface, it might seem highly perverse to characterize the filmic production under what is often polemically referred to as a manifestation of "clerical fascism," as "decolonized" cinema; it is unusual in the west to think of Iran as in any way "free." However, several sophisticated filmmakers have emerged in the wake of the Islamist revolution, making apolitical and largely secular films, which have had a measure of success within Iran and have met critical approval abroad (largely in Europe, not in the U.S., of course). These films are often about children, but they nevertheless make challenging statements about modern transformations in Iranian society, and life in Tehran in particular. The films I am interested in may then qualify as 'realism,' in the tradition of the earlier Indian and African realisms of the 1950's and 60's, which attempted to imagine newly emergent national spaces. This constellation of different national cinemas is not as arbitrary as it might look, as the leaders in many of these national 'schools' have acknowledged their debts to one another (Kiarostami has expressed a debt to Ray, who in turn acknowledged his debts to Italian neorealism). How does a 'children's cinema' fit into these earlier realist traditions? What is it about child-protagonists that makes them particularly well-suited to 'fresh' perspectives on phenomena such as the shock of modernization and urbanization, geographical dislocation, and even ethnic and religious conflict?

'Realism' is not transparent or culturally neutral, nor does it necessarily exclude high visual intensity or aesthetic self-consciousness. In particular, the films of Abbas Kiarostami, in addition to their simple, compelling plots and level-headed photography, have also tended to articulate reflexive, even 'deconstructive' ideas about the nature of film and the ways in which film can construct and/or determine 'reality.' Not all of Kiarostami's films are available in the west, so this paper will deal with only his more recent, full-length films, with particular emphasis on his famous "trilogy" (Where is my Friend's House?[1989], Life, and Nothing More... [1991], and Through the Olive Trees [1993]); on the great films for which Kiarostami has written screenplays (The Key [1986], The White Balloon [1995]), and on his recent masterpiece, The Taste of Cherry [1997]. Kiarostami's films will be read in light of the work of other post-revolutionary 'realist' filmmakers, such as Alireza Davudnezhad, as well as in comparison to the works of Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh [1997], among others), whose films function in more of a 'magic realist' mode. I may also refer to realist film-production from nearby Middle-Eastern/West-Asian locales such as Turkey and occupied Palestine.