Film

Police, Persepolis, Perception

Over here, where Susan Boyle trills on Youtube and politicians tweet airy
nothings, it’s easy to forget the revolutionary potential of
technology. But the Iranian post-election protests, where millions took to
the streets, has power-surged wireless mobile devices, blogs, and cellphone
video with political energy. And Iranian cinema has been quietly blazing the
path to this seething unrest for years.

If a country’s cinema is any reflection of a country’s mood,
then the likelihood that conservative drum-beater Ahmadinejad genuinely won
the election—though his margin of victory was clearly distorted and
there were many other fraudulent aspects of the election—is mirrored by
the country’s box office. An “alleged former paramilitary
goon” is behind Iran’s most popular films these days,
“nationalist war flicks” that blot out art-film fare are
successful on the festival circuit abroad but little-seen at home: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2009/jun/19/iranian-cinema.

But Ahmadinejad’s win hasn’t really been the point—as
one person says in Canadian-born Babak Payami’s Secret Ballot, spurning
an election agent’s efforts, “Your ballots mean more to you than
people.” In one of the world’s youngest countries (70 percent of
its population is under 30) and most mismanaged economies (unemployment is
somewhere between 12 and 24 percent), most people don’t remember the
Islamic Revolution of 1979, if they were even born then. And lack of
historical memory + few jobs can = angry push for change.

Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi, Bahman Ghobadi, Samira
Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi and other directors have been laying the ground for
these protests, if only by surveying the streets, reflecting the many
hopeful, tired, insistent, distracted, inquiring, cheeky and pensive faces of
Iran. The critics’ trend-watch may have sailed on to the Romanian New
Wave, but Kiarostami and Co. have always been about revealing struggling
Iranians to themselves, anyway: female soccer fans getting around the
woman-bans at stadiums in Panahi’s Offside by wearing cut-out masks of
players, a self-absorbed, urbanite director travelling to a remote hillside
town to film a fading ritual in Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us,
trained teachers caught up with trudging Kurdish exiles and using the
blackboards strapped on their backs to get by in Samira Makhmalbaf’s
Blackboards.

Iranian directors have faced censorship and restrictions (such as no
kissing), but these strictures have made for allegorical, poetic and other
subtle explorations of their rich culture but faltering society. The
protestors, too, facing government shutdowns of websites and TV channels,
like the teachers in Makhmalbaf’s film, have used what they can:
handheld communication devices, word-of-mouth, even shouting from rooftops,
to gather for the next rally and broadcast their anger. (Some soccer players
on the national team simply wore green armbands in solidarity at a World Cup
qualifying match—they were forcibly retired on their return home.) The
masked, the private, and the coded build up a swell of diverse, passionate
protest.

From The Apple to Children of Heaven, many of these films have focused on
children, now teens or twentysomethings, whose future hangs in the balance of
these protests. Many others have focussed on the strong-minded women in
Iran’s patriarchal culture, from Abbas Kiarostami’s latest,
Shirin, a survey of women watching and reacting to an Iranian drama
(http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2009/jun/25/abbas-kiarostami-shirin-iran-women),
to the woman in Alireza Raisian’s Deserted Station who feels, as I
wrote in my review at the time, “a lingering sense that a moment of
internal crisis is waiting just around life’s next turn.” And
most have a startling, surreal single image at their heart (artificial legs
parachuting down in Kandahar, a child being swarmed by others in Buddha
Collapsed Out of Shame, a bone floating downriver in The Wind Will Carry
Us).

So it’s a horrible, all-too-real echo of those singular moments that
one image, of Neda, a young woman shot in the head by a basij (paramilitary),
crystallized the anger, tragedy, and government repression of the protests
for so many: http://mashable.com/2009/06/21/neda/.
Here was citizen documentary-journalism on YouTube that enraged, shocked, and
appalled (even more) people into action—a reminder of the raw power of
life, in its last moments, captured on video.

Little surprise, then, that directors and actors are still at the hearth
of this fire. Mohsen Makhmalbaf has been the international spokesperson for
Mir Hossein Mousavi. Amin Maher, the child actor from Kiarostami’s Ten,
has been arrested, while his mother, who played his mother in the movie,
blamed herself: “I had created a false illusion for him regarding the
country he had been born in” (http://blogs.indiewire.com/anthony/archives/2009/06/23/iranian_filmmakers_stand_up_against_post-election_injustices_ten_actor_abdu).
Iranian-Canadian director and Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari was also
arrested and has supposedly “confessed” to the police in
prison.

Now, after hundreds of deaths and arrests, is the uprising over, the will
of so many people for change cowed by police repression and tyrannical
government? Not if “Persepolis 2.0” is any indication. Marjane
Satrapi’s popular graphic-novel memoir of her childhood during and
after the ’79 revolution—turned into an acclaimed film—has
been transformed into a history of the new generation’s fight for
independence and self-expression: http://www.spreadpersepolis.com/

However much films are cut or banned by the government, the people of
Iran, with its deep poetic tradition, will still be creating images, both
inside and outside the country, that will live on beyond the grip of the
Ayatollah. And even if there’s been a brutal cut to the action right
now, those images will become imaginings once more, and then art will find
itself re-energized and remade in rebellious, street-teeming life again.

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