Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 153

Conflict and Development in Iranian Film

IRANIAN IRANIAN
SERIES SERIES

The chapters in this volume explore the philosophical underpinnings and


cinematic techniques characteristic of Iranian film. Collectively, they show CONFLICT AND DEVELOPMENT
how the pervasive themes of Iranian cinema, such as martyrdom and war,
gender roles, and social policy issues have been addressed, and how
IN IRANIAN FILM
directors have approached them using a variety of techniques. Some
chapters outline the poetic and mystical dimensions of Abbas Kiarostami's
movies. Other chapters describe the effects of the Islamic Revolution on A.A. SEYED-GOHRAB & K. TALATTOF (EDS.)
codes of morality and their expression in film as well as on directors'
tactics in response to the new theocratic system.

Ali-Asghar Seyed-Gohrab is Associate Professor of Persian Literature and


Culture at Leiden University.
Kamran Talattof is Professor of Persian Language and Literature at the
University of Arizona.

'This book advances our critical understanding of Iranian cinema and is a


most welcome addition to the scholarly works available in the field.'
Nasrin Rahimieh, Professor of Comparative Literature, University of
California, Irvine.

A.A. Seyed-Gohrab & K. Talattof (eds.)

WWW.LUP.NL

9 789087 281694
LEIDEN UNIVERSITY PRESS
Conflict and Development in
Iranian Film
Iranian Studies Series

The Iranian Studies Series publishes high-quality scholarship on various


aspects of Iranian civilisation, covering both contemporary and classical
cultures of the Persian cultural area. The contemporary Persian-speaking
area includes Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Central Asia, while classi-
cal societies using Persian as a literary and cultural language were located
in Anatolia, Caucasus, Central Asia and the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent.
The objective of the series is to foster studies of the literary, historical, reli-
gious and linguistic products in Iranian languages. In addition to research
monographs and reference works, the series publishes English-Persian criti-
cal text-editions of important texts. The series intends to publish resources
and original research and make them accessible to a wide audience.

Chief Editor:
A.A. Seyed-Gohrab (Leiden University)

Advisory Board of ISS:


F. Abdullaeva (University of Oxford)
G.R. van den Berg (Leiden University)
D.P. Brookshaw (Stanford University)
J.T.P. de Bruijn (Leiden University)
N. Chalisova (Russian State University of Moscow)
D. Davis (Ohio State University)
F.D. Lewis (University of Chicago)
L. Lewisohn (University of Exeter, UK)
S. McGlinn (Unaffiliated)
Ch. Melville (University of Cambridge)
D. Meneghini (University of Venice)
N. Pourjavady (University of Tehran)
Ch. Van Ruymbeke (University of Cambridge)
S. Sharma (Boston University)
K. Talattof (University of Arizona)
Z. Vesel (CNRS, Paris)
R. Zipoli (University of Venice)
Conflict and Development in
Iranian Film

A.A. Seyed-Gohrab & K. Talattof (eds.)

Leiden University Press


Cover design: Tarek Atrissi Design
Lay out: The DocWorkers, Almere

ISBN 978 90 8728 169 4


e-ISBN 978 94 0060 103 1 (pdf)
e-ISBN 978 94 0060 104 8 (ePub)
NUR 630

© A.A. Seyed-Gohrab & K. Talattof / Leiden University Press, 2013

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved
above, no part of this book may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into
a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the written per-
mission of both the copyright owner and the author of the book
Content

Acknowledgements 7

Politics and Persistence: The Development of Iranian Film


Asghar Seyed-Gohrab & Kamran Talattof 9

The Sound of Frogs at Night: Kiarostami’s Philosophy of Cinema


Yasco Horsman 19

Sexuality and Cultural Change: The Presentation of Sex and Gender


in Pre- and Post-revolutionary Iranian Cinema
Kamran Talattof 31

Kiarostami’s Cinematic Poetry in Where is the Friend’s Home? and


The Wind will Carry Us
Farzana Marie Dyrud 49

Which Half is Hidden? The Public or the Private: An Analysis of


Milani’s The Hidden Half
Julie Ellison 63

Abbas Kiarostami and the Aesthetics of Ghazal


Khatereh Sheibani 77

Contemporary Liminal Encounters: Moving Beyond Traditional Plots


in Majidi’s Bârân
Omid Tofighian 103

Virtuous Heroines: A Mythical Reading of Female Protagonists in


Contemporary Iranian Television Serials
Niloofar Niknam 117

Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman


Asghar Seyed-Gohrab 135

Index 145
Acknowledgements

This collection of essays would not have come into being without the gen-
erous financial support of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and
Sciences (KNAW), the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research
(NWO) and Leiden University Centre for the Study of Islam and Society
(LUCIS) which enabled me to organize the international conference en-
titled From Pariah to the Pedestal: The Burgeoning of Iranian Cinema on
26 October 2009 at Leiden University. This conference was flanked by a
series of lectures and films screened from 7 September to mid-October
2009 in cooperation with Studium Generale of Leiden University, in the
person of Tilman Grünewald. The idea for this film festival emerged in a
conversation between Tilman Grünewald, Omid Tofighian and myself, and
Tilman Grünewald had an indispensable role in making it a reality. I would
like to express my gratitude to both Omid and Tilman for their enthusiasm
and scholarly urge to share scientific knowledge with a wide public.

Words of gratitude go to all the contributors to this volume, who have


shown extraordinary patience. Without the scholarly involvement of
Kamran Talattof, this book would not have its present form and contents.
His editorial experience and help smoothed the way. My gratitude goes to
my friend Sen McGlinn who read the book, editing much of the English,
and providing us with perceptive suggestions. I am also thankful for Helen
Richardson’s keenness to read the entire volume, double-checking the
English for any inconsistencies. I am also indebted to Dr. Johnny Cheung
who read my chapter and offered me several valuable suggestions. Last but
by no means least, I would like to thank Amin Ghodratzadeh who gener-
ated the index and read the first draft of this volume.

Leiden, 27 April 2012,


Asghar Seyed-Gohrab
Politics and Persistence: The Development of
Iranian Film

Asghar Seyed-Gohrab, Leiden University


Kamran Talattof, University of Arizona

Iranian film today is a vibrant aspect of Persian culture that has acquired a
place in the wider world. It is not surprising that Iranian film should have
received so much attention in the West in the last few decades, since this
powerful medium has been used to reflect almost every aspect of Persian
culture, including social, religious, and political issues, in an attractive
way. The development of Iranian film parallels the turbulent history of
modern Iran. In fact, without some understanding of Iranian history, one
cannot fully appreciate Iranian film.
The early history of the Iranian film industry is not well documented.
An 1896 documentary about Mozaffar al-Din Shah (fifth Qajar king of
Iran, reigned 1896-1907), made by Russikhân, an Anglo-Russian man liv-
ing in Iran, has been lost. Some scholars claim that the Shah’s official
photographer, Mirzâ Ebrâhim Khân, was in fact the first Persian to make
films, during the Shah’s journey to Europe in 1900.1
The first cinema was opened in Iran in 1905 by a man named Sahhâf
Bâshi. Sahhâf Bâshi was severely criticized by the clergy, in part because
the cinema brought women, and depictions of them, into public spaces.
This was a controversial issue at the time, debated by both secular and reli-
gious intellectuals. At first, the cinema was open only to men, but later
special provisions were made for women in cinemas and, after several
more years, there were cinemas built just for women.2
Gender segregation was so strict that female roles in Iranian films were
initially played by cross-dressing men, as was customary in a popular tradi-
tional form of Persian theatre, called ta’ziyya or passion plays.3 Indeed,
early Iranian cinema took many techniques from these passion plays. For
example, in silent movies, since many visitors were illiterate, a narrator
would walk around the cinema, telling the story.
The majority of films shown were comedies, imported from Russia and
elsewhere. Indigenous films were also made, but these have not been pre-
served. During Rezâ Shah’s reign in the first half of the 20th century, cin-
ema became an effective instrument for the regime, recording the Shah’s
coronation, his opening of a railway system, and several other moderniza-
tion projects. He had a considerable influence on Iranian cinema. Perhaps
10 ASGHAR SEYED-GOHRAB AND KAMRAN TALATTOF

the most visible legacy was the participation of women in both cinema and
theater, boosted by Rezâ Shah’s 1936 decree forbidding women to wear
the veil in public.
The first Iranian feature film, Âbi-o Râbi, was made in 1929-30 by the
Mayak cinema company. It was directed by Avans Ohanian, who had
learned filmmaking techniques in Russia. This film was an imitation of a
Danish comedy series called Patte and Patachon.4 Ohanian made another
film in 1932 called Hâjji Âqâ Film Star. The first Iranian talking film,
Dokhtar-e Lor (“The Luri Girl”), was produced in Bombay in 1931-32.
Abd al-Hoseyn Sepantâ (1907-69), who had been born in Tehran but was
living with Parsees in India, wrote the script and acted in this film, which
Ardashir Irâni directed and produced. From 1937 to 1947, not a single fea-
ture film was made in Iran.
Only in 1958 did the Iranian film industry enjoy a renaissance, and then
almost all of the films were made for amusement and commercial gain.
The first film to show the misery of life, changes in society, and the result-
ing questions of identity, was made by Farrokh Ghaffâri, who received his
formal education in France. He produced a film called Janub-e Shahr
(“The South End of the City”) that addressed the deplorable situation of
slum dwellers in southern Tehran. The film was censored and disappeared
from the scene, but in his next film, Shab-e Quzi (“The Night of the
Hunchback,” 1963), Ghaffâri avoided censure by drawing on one of the
stories from Tales of 1001 Nights. At least three other films of value were
made in the 1960s. Siyâvash in Persepolis (1963/64), by the poet Fereydun
Rahnamâ, had a poetic nature. It was positively received in the West but
not in Iran. Khisht va Âyeneh (“Mud Brick and Mirror,” 1965) was pro-
duced by Ibrâhim Golestân. And Parastuhâ be Lâneh Barmigardand
(“The Swallows Return to their Nests,” 1963) was produced by Majid
Mohseni.
Iranian film directors received international prizes for their short films
from the 1960s onwards. Ebrâhim Golestân, an acclaimed novelist and
short-story writer, produced several films. The first, A Fire, was awarded a
prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1961. Golestân’s Wave, Coral and
Rock was awarded a prize at the San Francisco Festival in 1961, and his
Mârlik won the prize at the Pessaro Festival in 1963. In the same year, the
young female poet Forugh Farrokhzâd (1935–67) directed the short film
Khâneh siyâh ast (“The House is Dark”), about a leper colony. Kâmrân
Shirdel directed The Mirror, which was awarded a prize in Japan in 1967.
The Iranian film industry burgeoned in the 1960s and 1970s during the
reign of Mohammad Rezâ Shah Pahlavi with films such as Mehrjui’s Gav.
During these decades a wide range of topics was addressed in Iranian
films. Some were made to show off the Shah’s modernizing and
Westernizing agenda, but several filmmakers addressed social problems,
class discrimination, Persian identity – with an emphasis on pre-Islamic
POLITICS AND PERSISTENCE: THE DEVELOPMENT OF IRANIAN FILM 11

history – and the position of women. After the Islamic Revolution (1978-
79), however, film production decreased dramatically, especially because
of anti-cinema sentiments in Iran. Clerics and the religious rulers censured
television and cinema because they believed that such media advocated
“corrupt” Western norms and values. Cinema was seen as a visible icon of
the West, associated with the Shah’s regime and immorality, and anti-
Islamic. Other aspects of cinema were ignored. Clerics considered visiting
a cinema as a sin. One abhorrent example as a consequence of this was the
burning of Cinema Rex, together with several hundred people, in the city
of Abadan. In the course of the Islamic Revolution, 180 of Iran’s 256 cin-
emas were destroyed.
From 1982 on, the film industry began to grow again, producing more
than 50 films per year. The success of films for domestic propaganda and
the dissemination of the message of the Islamic Revolution in other Islamic
countries taught the new Islamic government that cinema was an indis-
pensable medium for the state. The regime Islamicized cinema by purging
it of everything that did not conform to detailed rules established by the
Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Censorship was heavy.
Treatment of political and social subjects had to be absolutely in accordance
with the rules, and any physical contact and intimacy, however trivial, be-
tween male and female – even married couples, and between a parent and
grown-up child – was forbidden. The open contact between men and wom-
en allowed under the Shah’s regime was seen as immoral, a decadent and
colonial Western cultural invasion. Islamic censorship in this period pro-
duced sometimes absurd situations. Women had to follow the strict Islamic
dress code, covering themselves from top to toe, even when a scene took
place at home between a woman and her husband and children. The regime
justified this censorship with reference to the private context of the artists,
who should follow Islamic guidelines while at work in the studio, as well as
by arguments of public morality. A female actor playing the role of a
Western woman had to adhere to the Islamic dress code, although she could
wear a hat. Needless to say, she could not drink any alcohol. In several
films, such as Mehrjui’s The Tenants (1986) and Hâmun (1990), the middle
and the ending are not consistent with each other, due to changes made to
please the censor. If the filmmaker disagreed with the imposed corrections,
the film would never be screened or would only be shown abroad.
Nevertheless, since the early 1990s, Iranian films have received many
prizes in international film festivals, winning many of awards particularly
during the reform movement. Iranian cinema has been hailed as one of the
most dynamic national industries. This tremendous success has encouraged
Iranian filmmakers to consider international markets, partly because of cen-
sorship within the country but also because of the financial situation of the
film industry, despite state subsidies. Revenues from domestic audiences
do not cover costs. Furthermore, films produced to be screened abroad are
12 ASGHAR SEYED-GOHRAB AND KAMRAN TALATTOF

subject to less rigorous censorship from the Islamic government than those
produced to be shown in Iran, although in the long run this also affects
films for domestic distribution. Ultimately, the affirmative effect of win-
ning prestigious prizes has encouraged both artists and the state to embrace
international film festivals.
While each film produced by Iranian filmmakers is unique and can stand
on its own merits, there are, nevertheless, certain themes that dominate the
industry. Martyrdom, women’s role in society, societal problems, and
Iranian identity are perennial themes. Because of censorship, these themes
are often treated obliquely, through heroic myths, poetic expression, mysti-
cal journeys, or other cinematic effects. In a number of films, filmmakers
such as Makhmalbaf and Meshkini seek metaphors to convey their message.

The Iran-Iraq War and Martyrdom

When the soldiers of Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in the 1980s, a new
chapter opened in Iranian history. The eight-year-long war against Iraq was
military and political, but it was also a religious battle. The Iranian govern-
ment’s chief instrument to combat the more technologically advanced Iraqi
army was an ideology of martyrdom, grafted onto the popular Shiite story
of the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet
Mohammed, together with his family at the hands of the Sunni Caliph
Yazid on the plain of Karbala in Iraq.5 Hussein, as an icon of Shiite piety
and altruism, symbolizes Iranian confrontation with the “other,” i.e., Sunni
Arabs, and the “Imperialist West.” Hussein’s tragic death is commemorated
annually during ten days of rituals and passion plays (ta’ziyya) held across
Shiite communities, reminding the Shiites of what the Sunni Arabs did
some 1,400 years ago.
Secular and Islamic intellectuals defined martyrdom in relation to the
Iran-Iraq war differently. Secular nationalist intellectuals relied on pre-
Islamic Iranian myth and history to idealize martyrdom and disconnect it
from its Islamic context. Islamic intellectuals offered various visions of
martyrdom, some based on mystical doctrines of the annihilation of the
self, others drawing more on a militant Islamist agenda. All these efforts
were made in order to mobilize youth to defend the country against
Western imperialism and Saddam Hussein. The cult of martyrdom became
one of the pillars of the Islamic Republic and was exported – in its
Islamist rather than nationalist forms – to other Islamic societies.6
Many documentaries and feature films addressed martyrdom in relation
to the war. Some simply extol Islamic values and seek to mobilize the
masses. Others use the traditional passion plays to give meaning to the
Iran-Iraq war. Still others criticize the government, portray the trauma of
war in society, and raise other issues. The agenda of most films on the
Iran-Iraq war was to mobilize the youth and justify the war.
POLITICS AND PERSISTENCE: THE DEVELOPMENT OF IRANIAN FILM 13

Women

The position of women in modern Iranian society has been a recurrent sub-
ject in Persian art, film, and literature. Many Persian novels, short stories,
poems, paintings, and films depict the struggles of Iranian women in a pa-
triarchal society, fighting for emancipation and equal rights.7 Bound by
codes and symbols of traditionalism, women have unremittingly sought
outlets for their personal aspirations in a changing society, itself in search
of a new identity in a globalizing world. Women play a visible role in the
Islamic Republic of Iran. More than 60% of university students are wom-
en. Despite strict censorship and legal and religious restrictions, the num-
ber of women in governmental organizations has been increasing.
Female roles in film, and Islamic censorship, have preoccupied both film-
makers and critics. Since strict Islamic regulations made the realistic por-
trayal of women almost impossible, filmmakers have been limited in giving
female characters the role of heroine. Women have modest roles; in several
films, there are no women at all. Initially, the regulations were so sexist and
absurd that women featured in a film had to be seated, avoiding eye contact
with men when conveying a request, avoiding walking, because this would
be provocative, and avoiding physical contact with male actors because it
would be deemed as a sin. Although these strict rules have been somewhat
moderated, censorship still limits the portrayal of women.

Children

One of the salient features of Iranian films after the Islamic Revolution is
the role of children in both documentary and feature films. Filmmakers
gave children the roles of heroes as a way to address social and political is-
sues while avoiding censorship; such issues could not be addressed in films
that featured adolescent characters. The films in which children feature are
realistic, or semi-realistic, with an emphasis on weighing the position of in-
dividuals in society.

Drug Addiction, Prostitution, and Poverty

One grave social problem which has been addressed many times in Iranian
films, both before and after the Islamic Revolution, is the increasing preva-
lence of drug addiction and prostitution. One of the solutions to immorality
offered by the Islamic Republic has been temporary marriages, which can
last from ten minutes to several years, and polygamy. These raise their
own issues, which have been portrayed in film. Poverty, underdevelopment
and youth unemployment, and rapid population growth have also been
addressed.
14 ASGHAR SEYED-GOHRAB AND KAMRAN TALATTOF

Redefining Identity

The issue of identity has always played a central role in Iranian history.
With the introduction of Western political philosophy, the discourse of
modernity in Iran and the formation of nation-building at the end of the
19th century, Iranian national identity became a recurrent subject in various
intellectual disciplines.8 Several filmmakers have addressed it in relation to
a nationalism that harks back to glorious pre-Islamic times, emphasizing
the Persian language as a central national icon. Identity was discussed in
the context of Westernization and modernization during the Pahlavi era,
but it also featured in the framework of Ayatollah Khomeini’s (1902-1989)
Islamic fundamentalism. In recent decades, identity has also been ad-
dressed as a rapprochement between Islam and Western modernity in the
reformists’ vision of the Islamic Republic. Iranian cinema has become a
medium to present the West in a new way, showing that the gap between
Islam and the West, Islamic morality and tenets, and (post-)modernity can
be bridged.
In addition to these variations of identity in a domestic setting, the mil-
lions of Iranians living in the diaspora have formed their own identities, re-
lating to the countries in which they live. In these variations of identity, the
role of censorship and state interference (to highlight just two issues) has
led to heated debates. It is particularly interesting to examine what the state
deems to be the ‘formal’ Iranian culture and identity, and what the interna-
tional audience and diaspora perceive ‘Iran’ to be.

Chapters in This Book

This volume consists of eight chapters, each examining one aspect of


Iranian film. Three chapters are devoted to the director Abbas Kiarostami
(b. 1940). In his “The Sound of Frogs at Night: Kiarostami’s Philosophy
of Cinema,” Yasco Horsman examines Kiarostami’s view of cinema, focus-
ing on the philosophic dimensions of Kiarostami’s shots, which is closer to
a question than an answer, as Jonathan Rosenbaum phrases it. Horsman
analyses Kiarostami’s techniques, investigating how his films developed a
philosophical content, stimulating the reviewer to think.
Farzana Marie Dyrud focuses on Kiarostami’s poetics in two of his fa-
mous films in her chapter entitled “Kiarostami’s Cinematic Poetry in
Where Is the Friend’s Home? and The Wind Will Carry Us.” She examines
how poems are used in these films and shows that, even if the poem is not
cited, the viewer can still hear the echoes of poetic phrases. One character-
istic of Kiarostami’s films is his use of pauses. Dyrud studies how
Kiarostami inserts these pauses, which are usually poetic, giving a philo-
sophic dimension to his films. The viewer is required to use his or her im-
agination to fill in the untold, and so is invited to participate in the film.
POLITICS AND PERSISTENCE: THE DEVELOPMENT OF IRANIAN FILM 15

Dyrud presents Kiarostami’s own voice by citing his poetry in her discus-
sion of specific scenes.
Khatereh Sheibani concentrates on Kiarostami’s poetics and how he uses
the rich tradition of classical Persian poetry in defining a character, depict-
ing scenery, and in the dialogues and meaningful silences in his films. In
her “Abbas Kiarostami and the Aesthetics of Ghazal,” Sheibani examines
how the philosophy of poets such as Hâfez pervades Kiarostami’s cinema-
tographic thoughts, usually choosing this-worldly sublimity, love, and pleas-
ure over the otherworldly. Sheibani shows how Kiarostami’s characters,
such as Badi’i in Taste of Cherry, resemble the antinomian mystics in
Hâfez’s poetry, abandoning the norms of society and following their own
choices.
In his “Sexuality and Cultural Change: The Presentation of Sex and
Gender in Pre- and Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema,” Kamran Talattof
discusses several aspects of sexuality in Iranian popular culture. He focuses
on FilmFarsi before the Islamic Revolution and its effects on the depiction
of women, and then on the female body and sexuality after the revolution,
which adhered to completely new codes of morality. This chapter examines
how presentation and sexuality of the female as processes of cultural
change were perceived before and after the Islamic Revolution.
The next chapter is by Omid Tofighian, entitled “Contemporary Liminal
Encounters: Moving Beyond Traditional Plots in Majidi’s Bârân.” In
Majid Majidi’s film Bârân, Latif, an Iranian youth working on a Tehran
construction site, embarks on a mission to save Bârân and her family from
destitution. They are Afghan refugees, and Bârân has no work permit.
Through multisignifying devices, Majidi uses one story to represent multi-
ple journeys, each with significant meanings. Interpreted as realist allegory,
the film may be understood as a chivalrous quest, a philosophical allegory,
a moral code, or a mystical ascent. Bârân also represents certain contem-
porary international and urban issues, such as refugees, ethnic identity and
ethnic relations, gender, rites of passage, the consequences of war, and li-
minality. However, interpreting the multidimensional characters, objects,
and themes as non-realist allegory opens up a wider horizon for examining
the plot and how it accommodates new subject matter. In addition,
Majidi’s palette of “chameleon” elements allows one to transcend the more
traditional and conventional interpretations of the plot and view Bârân as
an example of a radical rewriting of past structures.
Filmmakers have also produced popular and influential television serials.
In “Virtuous Heroines: A Mythical Reading of Female Protagonists in
Contemporary Iranian Television Serials,” Niloofar Niknam examines how
Iranians conceive of an ideal woman. State-run television in Iran seems to
favor a particular depiction of ideal womanhood, embodied in the heroines
of television serials using visual signs. Taking four contemporary television
serials as examples, this chapter uses Fiske’s subjective reading of
16 ASGHAR SEYED-GOHRAB AND KAMRAN TALATTOF

character and Barthe’s notion of myth to explore the cultural myths in-
voked and supported by the heroines’ characters and to discover the domi-
nant ideology these myths serve. The heroines are read as metaphors em-
bodying values and symbolic codes, rather than as individual characters.
All the heroines in these serials are found to promote an extremely pure
image of women, bound to a patriarchal framework and centered on pa-
tience, virtuousness, selflessness, and faith. A descriptive approach to the
serials and their heroines shows that all four support this ideal.
The position of women in society, private and public space, gender is-
sues, and so on are treated by Julie Ellison in the chapter “Which Half is
Hidden? The Public or the Private: An Analysis of Milani’s The Hidden
Half.” Ellison’s discussion of The Hidden Half reveals how, after the
Revolution, a new definition of public and private space was used to tight-
en gender boundaries in society.
Iranian cinema is extremely symbolic, relying both on Persian literary
and cultural codes. The metaphorical aspect of Persian cinema is examined
in the contribution of Asghar Seyed-Gohrab who, in “Marziyeh Meshkini’s
The Day I became a Woman,” analyzes a number of cultural metaphors in
their social context. Different metaphors are used in the three parts of the
film. While in the first two parts there is a tension between traditionalism
and modernity, in the third part this tension develops in a surrealistic direc-
tion. In the first part, the protagonist Havvâ reaches the age of adolescence
oblivious to the socio-religious consequences, and the viewers witness how
traditional cultural norms are sustained by generations of women. In the
second part, the focus is on the young girl Âhu, whose ambivalent name
means both “gazelle” and “misshaped.” She disobeys the traditional rules,
fleeing on a bicycle, escaping from her husband and other men on horse-
back who try to turn her back home. The third episode is a surrealistic
piece, in which the viewer sees how the aged Hurâ (a reference to virgin
beauties in Paradise) tries to do everything that she had been denied all her
life.
This volume explores the philosophical underpinnings and cinematic
techniques that are unique or essential to Iranian film. Running through its
chapters are the recurrent themes that have been so pervasive in Iranian
cinema – martyrdom, gender roles, and social policy issues. The chapters
show how these themes have been raised in Iranian films in various ways,
and they point out how directors have approached these themes through
differing techniques.

Notes

1 For more information on Iranian cinema, see: Hamid Naficy, “The Cinema of
Displacement: Towards a Politically Motivated Poetics,” in Film Criticism 20, no. 1-2
(1995-96); “From the Imperial Family to the Transnational Imaginary: Media
POLITICS AND PERSISTENCE: THE DEVELOPMENT OF IRANIAN FILM 17

Spectatorship in the Age of Globalization,” in Global/Local: Cultural Production and the


Transnational Imaginary, edited by Rob Wilson, Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
1996; “Iranian Cinema,” in Companion Encyclopedia of Middle Eastern and North
African Film, edited by Oliver Leaman, 130-222, London: Routledge, 2001; “Iranian
Cinema under the Islamic Republic,” in Images of Enchantment: Visual and Performing
Arts of the Middle East, edited by Sherifa Zuhur, Cairo: American Univ. in Cairo Press,
1998; “Iranian Writers, the Iranian Cinema, and the Case of Dash Akol,” in Iranian
Studies 18, no. 2-4 (1985): 231-51; “Veiled Visions/Powerful Presences: Women in
Postrevolutionary Iranian Cinema,” in Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema, edited by
Rose Isa and Sheila Whitaker, 43-65, London: National Film Theatre, 1999. See also
Hamid Dabashi, Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and Future; and The New Iranian
Cinema, edited by Richard Tapper, New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2002, as well as the
works of Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Nasrin Rahimieh, and Agnès Devictor. For a short survey of
Iranian cinema in the 20th century, see Peter Chelkowski, “Popular Entertainment, Media
and Social Change in Twentieth-Century Iran” in The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 7,
edited by P. Avery, G. Hanbly and Ch. Melville, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1991, 792-806.
2 Ibid.
3 See Peter Chelkowski, Ta’ziyeh, Ritual and Drama in Iran, New York: New York
University Press, 1979 and Jamshid Malekpour, The Islamic Drama, London: Frank Cass,
2004.
4 See Peter Chelkowski, “Popular Entertainment, Media and Social Change in Twentieth-
Century Iran” in The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 7, P. Avery, G. Hanbly & Ch.
Melville (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 765-814.
5 For more information, see Kamran Scot Aghaie, The Women of Karbala: Ritual
Performance and Symbolic Discourses in Modern Shi’i Islam, Austin: University of
Texas Press, 2005.
6 A. Seyed-Gohrab, “No Reward – Martyrdom as Piety, Mysticism and National Icon in
Iran,” in Der Islam: Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Kultur des islamischen Orients, issue
1-2, 87, 2012, 248-73.
7 Kamran Talattof, The Politics of Writing in Iran: A History of Modern Persian Literature,
Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000, and “‘I Will Rebuild You, Oh My Country’:
Simin Behbahâni's Work and Sociopolitical Discourse” in The Journal of Iranian Studies,
Volume 41, Issue 1 2008, 19-36.
8 For more information see: Kamran Talattof, Modernity, Sexuality, and Ideology in Iran:
The Life and Legacy of a Popular Female Artist, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press,
2011.

Works cited

Chelkowski, P., “Popular Entertainment, Media and Social Change in Twentieth-Century Iran” in
The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 7, P. Avery, G. Hanbly & Ch. Melville (eds.),
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 765-814.
—., Ta’ziyeh, Ritual and Drama in Iran, New York: New York University Press, 1979.
Dabashi, H., Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and Future, London-New York: Verso, 2001.
Malekpour, J., The Islamic Drama, London: Frank Cass, 2004.
Naficy, H., “Iranian Cinema,” in Companion Encyclopedia of Middle Eastern and North African
Film, O. Leaman (ed.), London: Routledge, 2001.
—, “Veiled Visions/Powerful Presences: Women in Postrevolutionary Iranian Cinema,” in Life
and Art: The New Iranian Cinema, R. Isa and S. Whitaker (eds.), London: National Film
Theatre, 1999.
18 ASGHAR SEYED-GOHRAB AND KAMRAN TALATTOF

—, “Iranian Cinema under the Islamic Republic,” in Images of Enchantment: Visual and
Performing Arts of the Middle East, Sh. Zuhur (ed.), Cairo: American University in Cairo
Press, 1998.
—, “From the Imperial Family to the Transnational Imaginary: Media Spectatorship in the Age of
Globalization,” in Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary, R.
Wilson (ed.), Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
—, “The Cinema of Displacement: Towards a Politically Motivated Poetics,” Film Criticism 20,
no. 1-2, 1995-96.
—, “Iranian Writers, the Iranian Cinema, and the Case of Dash Akol,” Iranian Studies 18, no. 2-
4, 1985, 231-51.
Scot Aghaie, K., The Women of Karbala: Ritual Performance and Symbolic Discourses in
Modern Shi`i Islam, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.
Seyed-Gohrab, A., “No Reward – Martyrdom as Piety, Mysticism and National Icon in Iran,” in
Der Islam: Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Kultur des islamischen Orients, Issue 1-2, 87,
2012, 248-73.
Talattof, K., Modernity, Sexuality, and Ideology in Iran: The Life and Legacy of a Popular
Female Artist, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011.
—, “‘I Will Rebuild You, Oh My Country’: Simin Behbahani's Work and Sociopolitical
Discourse,” The Journal of Iranian Studies, Vol. 41, Issue 1, 2008, 19-36.
—, The Politics of Writing in Iran: A History of Modern Persian Literature, Syracuse: Syracuse
University Press, 2000.
Tapper, Richard, The New Iranian Cinema, London / New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002.
The Sound of Frogs at Night: Kiarostami’s
Philosophy of Cinema

Yasco Horsman, Leiden University

I believe that cinema should be granted the possibility of remaining


not understood if it is to be considered a major art form.
Abbas Kiarostami

There are two ways of accompanying the departure of the dead:


with the abstention from the everyday, or with its affirmation.
Jean-Luc Nancy

Over the last two decades, Abbas Kiarostami (b. 1940) has become the
darling of contemporary film criticism. The recipient of numerous prizes,
and a regular at the Cannes, Venice, and Locarno festivals, Kiarostami was
chosen by the critics of several leading film journals (Cahiers du Cinéma,
Screen, and Film Comment) as the most important filmmaker of our era.1
The reasons for his spectacular success are not easy to assess. His films are
innovative in their use of non-professional actors, the employment of docu-
mentary techniques, and meta-cinematic reflections. However, most of
these techniques had been anticipated by Italian Neo-Realism and the
French New Wave. Thematically he barely seems to break new ground; his
humanism may even seem a bit old-fashioned. Nevertheless, many critics
have suggested that his films stand out in contemporary cinema because
they have a certain depth. As Jonathan Rosenbaum (one of Kiarostami’s
more articulate advocates) puts it, “Kiarostami belongs to that tribe of film-
makers for whom a shot is often closer to being a question than to provid-
ing an answer.” The questions that his shots raise, Rosenbaum adds, are
profound and “philosophical.”2
The aim of the present essay is to probe the nature of this “depth” by
considering how his films can be deemed philosophical, and can be seen to
be engaged in thinking. However, in my attempt to highlight the nature of
his cinematic thoughts, I do not seek to explicate Kiarostami’s philosophi-
cal ideas and the way he expresses them in his films. Over the course of
his long career, Kiarostami has always been skeptical about the ideal of the
filmmaker as someone who communicates “ideas,” whether philosophical,
political, or moral ideas. For him, a film does not start with an idea that
springs from a filmmaker’s mind to be subsequently translated into cinema.
A film director should not be compared with an author in this regard; in
20 YASCO HORSMAN

fact, in many of his numerous interviews, Kiarostami notes that he is even


reluctant to call himself the director of his films since the notion of direct-
ing usually implies the exercise of control over the process of filming.
Instead, Kiarostami seems to be driven to capture on film that which is
uncontrollable: the random and seemingly insignificant occurrences of
everyday life, fleeting moments or casual encounters that are usually
overlooked.
In the development of his oeuvre, we can witness a gradual withdrawal
of the director from his films. Kiarostami seems to be seeking out situa-
tions in which it is virtually impossible for a director to be in total com-
mand of a shoot. This process started with his early use of non-profes-
sional actors delivering semi-improvised lines shot on location in the country-
side, and culminated in his more recent minimalist experiments with
digital video, such as Ten (2002), which consists of ten semi-improvised
dialogues in a car, recorded by a small digital camera attached to its front
window. In this latter case the director is literally absent from the shoot.
He assumes the position of a spectator, who looks at the rushes and then
cuts and re-assembles them into a movie.
I will also not attempt to apply a preexisting “philosophy of cinema” to
Kiarostami’s films, using his films as illustrations of ideas that can be ex-
pressed more clearly in conceptual terms. Instead, I would like to discuss
how Kiarostami’s films employ cinematic techniques to articulate thoughts
that cannot be formulated in any other way. This approach is inspired by
Gilles Deleuze’s groundbreaking books on cinema, Cinema 1: The
Movement Image (1983) and Cinema 2: The Time Image (1985).3 In these
books, Deleuze distances himself from structuralist attempts to construct a
meta-language in which one could speak philosophically about cinema.
Instead, Deleuze suggests that film critics should be attentive to the ways
in which the cinematic machine itself can be seen to be thinking about phi-
losophical issues such as, for example, temporality. Films “philosophize,”
Deleuze holds, through the use of cinematic devices, regardless of the in-
tention of their creators. To put it somewhat bluntly, films “think,” accord-
ing to him, but they do not always think what filmmakers think they’re
thinking.
Following Deleuze, who seems to be more interested in cinematic tech-
nique than in thematics, I will focus on a particular stylistic device charac-
teristic of Kiarostami’s films: his use of very long takes. Formally,
Kiarostami’s oeuvre can be understood as an ongoing exploration of the
possibilities of the long take, from his slow and meandering films of the
1980s to 2005’s meditative Five, which consists of five long, static shots
of a beach in northern Iran. Kiarostami’s use of long takes is significant, I
propose, because this stylistic device has become highly over-determined
in the history of cinema since the publication of film critic André Bazin’s
essays of the 1950s.4 As later film historians have pointed out, Bazin’s
THE SOUND OF FROGS AT NIGHT 21

championing of the realism of the long take should be understood in rela-


tion to his Catholicism. For him, the long take is capable of recording rea-
lity without human intervention, thereby revealing the transcendental
beauty and mysteries of God’s creation.5 In my reading of Kiarostami’s
films, I will, however, point to the particularly secular nature of his long
takes. As Deleuze suggests, the long take confronts the spectator with the
limits of visibility, and therefore makes him think about that which lies
beyond the frame.6 What lies beyond the frame of Kiarostami’s shots is
not something transcendental, I will suggest, but something profoundly
worldly.

Kiarostami’s Long Take

For Kiarostami, films are not necessarily vehicles for stories. He started his
career as an employee of Kânun, the state-sponsored center for the intellec-
tual development of children and young adults, for which he made short
films that raised questions about pedagogy and education. These films of-
ten contained a voice-over that explicitly articulates the larger questions at
stake in the film. His early Kânun films are frequently structured around
simple binary oppositions in which two contrasting modes of behavior are
opposed (as in Two Solutions for One Problem (1975) or Orderly or
Disorderly (1981)), leaving it to the audience to derive lessons of practical
wisdom from the films. As many critics have observed, Kiarostami gradu-
ally distanced himself from the didactic mode, while continuing to work
for Kânun. His international breakthrough feature, Where Is the Friend’s
Home? (Khâne-ye dust kojâst, 1987) seems to break partially with the di-
dactic paradigm. The film tells the story of an eight-year-old schoolboy
who seeks to return a notebook to a friend who lives in a neighboring vil-
lage. Still financed by Kanûn, Where Is the Friend’s Home? is ostensibly a
story about growing up. Thematically it deals with moral issues, such as
loyalty, friendship, and civic duty. However, as the film proceeds, the im-
portance of these issues is gradually overshadowed by the beauty of the
images of the Iranian landscape, which is revealed to us as we follow the
boy’s journey to the village of Koker.
Like many of Kiarostami’s films, Where Is the Friend’s Home? narrates
the story of a quest whose goal is gradually forgotten, both by the protago-
nist and by the film’s audience. Unlike many of his later films, we do see
the outcome of the boy’s journey, but as we watch the film, we slowly lose
our sense of the importance of the trip. This is partially the effect of the
slow, meditative pace of the film, but it is also derived from its depiction
of space. As the boy loses his way and repeatedly asks for directions (a re-
curring motif in Kiarostami’s films), his journey begins to feel like a zig-
zagging across the landscape, rather than a linear quest. This effect is in-
tensified by Kiarostami’s non-traditional use of cinematic techniques. The
22 YASCO HORSMAN

film is sparse in establishing shots that would help orient the audience, and
it occasionally breaks the 180-degree rule. What it offers us is a series of
long takes, often shot from a distance. Although focalization lies consist-
ently with the young boy, there are very few point-of-view shots that direct
the spectator’s gaze. The effect is that we, as spectators, seem to wander
without guidance through the space of the film. Like the boy, we are in
need of directions.
This effect of “directionlessness” is even stronger in the film that is in
some sense a sequel to Where Is the Friend’s Home?: Life and Nothing
More (aka Life Goes On, Zendegi va Digar Hich, 1992). Filmed shortly
after the 1990 Manjil-Rudbâr earthquake, in which it is estimated that more
than 30,000 people died, Life and Nothing More is a complex hybrid of
documentary and fiction. It tells the story of a fictional film director and
his young son who travel to northern Iran to search for the young boy and
his friend who starred in Where Is the Friend’s Home? The director is
played by the actor Farhâd Kheradmand and his lines are scripted. But as
he tries to find his way to the boys’ village and is repeatedly thwarted in
his journey, the film shows very real images that testify to the impact of
the earthquake: broken roads, ruins of houses, debris, and survivors mourn-
ing the victims.
As many critics have observed, Life and Nothing More introduces sev-
eral of Kiarostami’s key stylistic features. First, it is a highly self-reflexive
film, since it is a film about filmmaking. Second, it introduces what will
become the director’s stylistic trademark, the shot from the window of a
moving car, which will be further explored in films such as The Wind Will
Carry Us (Bâd mâ râ khâhad bord, 1999), Ten (2002), and Taste of
Cherry (Ta’m-e gilâs, 1997). In each of these films, the use of car window
shots is motivated by the stories (which are about characters who are driv-
ing), yet they also have a destabilizing effect on the spectator’s spatial ori-
entation. Because the camera is in constant motion, we do not watch the
world from a fixed point of view; there is no stable viewing position that
the spectator can assume. Second, the car window doubles the frame of the
film. By creating a frame within a frame, the car window shots emphasize
the obvious fact that movies frame their images. As we know from film
theory of the 1980s, the frame functions differently in cinema than in still
photography.7 Unlike photography, cinema is a medium in which editing is
possible. Cinematic conventions have taught us to expect that a shot will
be followed by a counter-shot that reveals what had remained offscreen in
the previous shot. Kiarostami’s car window shots, with their double fram-
ings and their almost total absence of counter-shots, frustrate audiences’
expectations in this regard. Therefore they provoke a strong desire to see
that which remains offscreen.
This sense of frustration is heightened by the peculiar use of offscreen
sound in Life and Nothing More. Kiarostami’s soundtracks, which have
THE SOUND OF FROGS AT NIGHT 23

become increasingly complex works of sound editing, tend to have some


autonomy with regard to the images. They often foreground sounds whose
sources are not visualized in subsequent shots. He has explored this tech-
nique in later films, such as The Wind Will Carry Us, in which characters
who play a key role remain offscreen for the entire two hours of the movie,
while we nonetheless hear their voices. In traditional films, on the other
hand, offscreen sounds are usually employed as sound cues, announcing
what will soon be made visible and smoothing the cut between shots.
Hence, whereas the traditional style of editing manipulates and satisfies
our desire to see what is offscreen, Kiarostami’s films summon and then
frustrate the desire to see what lies beyond the frame. Through its formal
features, then, Life and Nothing More continually points to that which falls
outside the film’s frames. Contrary to what one might expect of a film
about a natural disaster, what lies beyond the film’s framework is not so
much suffering, death, or the otherwise traumatic impact of an earthquake,
but rather the particular resilience of “life and nothing more.” What be-
comes visible through the car windows of the fictional director is the mun-
dane existence that continues even in the wake of a disaster: people mak-
ing tea, getting married, watching a game of soccer – life, in short, which
persists precisely when it has lost all sense, surrounded by the ruins of
everything that used to give it coherence.

A Non-Apparent Cinema

In an excellent essay on Life and Nothing More, philosopher Jean-Luc


Nancy suggests that Kiarostami’s attempt to capture life on film as “noth-
ing but life” (life as that which continues [and whose very essence it is to
continue]) should be seen as an attempt to reflect on something that lies
beyond the grasp of traditional philosophy, namely life itself.8 Life in its
meaningless (but also joyful) modality is impossible to understand in phi-
losophical terms, Nancy holds, since philosophizing consists, precisely, of
saying something about life (its goals, its meaning, its quality); whereas
“life,” as Kiarostami’s film depicts it, is what continues after the loss of all
significance and coherence. Life, for Kiarostami, is a “constant and inevi-
table flow..., which continues its course in spite of everything, in spite of
mourning and catastrophe.”9 As Nancy writes elsewhere, understanding
this dimension of life is not only a challenge for philosophy, but it is also
impossible to perceive in our daily lives, since for us to perceive some-
thing, it must first appear to us as something distinct, set off against a
background.10 Everyday life, however, is precisely the background of
meaninglessness against which “events” distinguish themselves. Everyday
existence is therefore by necessity overlooked; it is by nature “non-appar-
ent,” as Nancy puts it. As Maurice Blanchot writes (and Nancy cites
approvingly):
24 YASCO HORSMAN

Whatever its other aspects, the everyday has this essential trait: it al-
lows no hold. It escapes. It belongs to insignificance, and the insig-
nificant is without truth, without reality, without secret.... It is un-
perceived, first in the sense that one has always looked past it....
The everyday is always unrealized in its very actualization....
Nothing happens, that is the everyday.11

Philosophizing about the “non-appearance” of the everyday therefore leads


one into an aporia. Thinking about the everyday implies perceiving it as
something distinct. As a result its everydayness will be lost. Therefore, the
everyday poses a problem for both philosophy and the arts. “How can we
think insignificance, if that is what constitutes the proper mark of the
everyday?” (39), asks Nancy:12

[a]s soon as we make [the everyday] appear – in a thought, a paint-


ing ... we lose it, we make it come forth as an event, or we make an
event spring up in contrast to it, eclipsing it.13

The force of Kiarostami’s cinema, Nancy proposes, is that it is organized


in such a way that it allows an oblique look at everyday existence in its
“non-apparent” nature without assigning it a meaning. Precisely because
his films refuse to offer reflections about life (its meanings, goals, etc.) and
do not offer narrative closure, they are capable of exposing life in its very
meaninglessness, as well as in its beauty. His films offer, therefore, what
Nancy calls an “opening to the world.” They make the world present to
the audience without representing. The very openness of Kiarostami’s films
gives them, according to Nancy, a certain meditative and even philosophi-
cal quality. Cinema becomes for Kiarostami a “place of meditation,” not
because his films are meditations on philosophical themes, but because
they allow for a “penetration” of life, which has the force to touch its
audience.14

Stories of Mourning

I agree with the gist of Nancy’s analysis – Kiarostami’s films are indeed
characterized by a certain vitalism that is often explicitly thematized by the
dialogues (as in, for example, a scene towards the end of Taste of Cherry,
when a taxidermist delivers a soliloquy on the beauty of life; or in the lines
of a doctor in The Wind Will Carry Us who speaks about the obligation of
men to perceive the glory of life). I would like to emphasize, however, that
Kiarostami’s vitalism needs to be understood in relation to the fact that the
stories that his films narrate are often explicitly about mourning and the
obligation to remain loyal to the dead. In Life and Nothing More, the jour-
ney of the filmmaker to the remote village of Koker is driven by a loyalty
THE SOUND OF FROGS AT NIGHT 25

towards the two young actors who may (or may not) have died during the
earthquake. The people he meets on his journey maintain a comparable
bond to the deceased; or, to be more precise, they find themselves torn be-
tween their obligation to mourn the dead and their desire to continue with
their lives. In a crucial scene in Life and Nothing More, the filmmaker en-
counters a couple who were married on the day after the earthquake. On
the question as to whether mourning customs had not obliged them to post-
pone their wedding, the young man answers that he lost 65 relatives: cus-
tom would have dictated an interminable postponement, so the couple
decided to proceed with the wedding. The ancestors would not have ap-
proved, he admits, but neither could they have anticipated the magnitude
of the devastation caused by the earthquake. “We thought we should hurry
to set up a home,” he says. “We should go on living and proceed to raise a
family. Perhaps we will die in the next earthquake.” A similar response is
given by a person who attempts to install a roadside antenna for watching
the World Cup soccer tournament on television. ”The truth is that I too am
of the mourners. I have lost my little sister and up to three nieces and
nephews. But, what can we do? The World Cup is once every four years
and the earthquake ... every forty?... Life goes on.”
The conflict between the obligation to mourn and the impulse to con-
tinue living is further explored in the films Kiarostami has directed since
Life and Nothing More. The Wind Will Carry Us, arguably Kiarostami’s
most aesthetically pleasing film, shows lush images of the northern Iranian
landscape as part of a story about a group of filmmakers who travel to a
village to shoot a documentary about a traditional mourning ceremony.
The exact nature of this ritual remains elusive in the film (because the el-
derly lady for whom the ritual will be organized refuses to die), but it is
suggested that it involve a scarification of the faces of the family members
of the deceased. The living will thus continue their lives bearing the
unerasable traces of the dead on their faces. These symbolic markers will
partly provide the survivors with an identity: they assign them positions in
the family, suggesting that the relation to the dead provides the symbolic
framework to structure the community of the living. This is, at least, what
can be derived from the words of Farzâd, the young boy who serves as a
guide to the filmmaker, disclosing the village’s complex network of path-
ways. When the filmmaker (whose eyes open to the beauty of the village
as he awaits the death of the old woman) asks why the village bears the
gloomy name of “Black Valley,” despite its obvious beauty – calling it
“White Valley” would do it more justice, the filmmaker suggests – the boy
replies: “The ancestors called it that. We have to call it by its name.” The
dead, then, have the power of naming. They provide the signifiers, and
thereby the framework that orders and bestows form upon the village. This
has, however, as the dark name of the village implies, a certain mortifying
impact upon the living. As if to highlight this dark dimension, the boy
26 YASCO HORSMAN

continues by reciting a few lines of poetry: “When you’re fated to be black


/ Even holy water cannot whiten you.”
The fictional filmmaker (whom the villagers call Mohandes, “the engi-
neer” very much the way "doctor" is used) is also torn between his desire
to continue with his film – or rather a desire to begin filming, as the
elderly lady proves to be more tenacious than he had anticipated – and an
obligation to the dead. Lingering in the village, he continually receives
urgent messages on his cell phone asking him to return home to attend the
funeral of a family member. The filmmaker, then (it is hard not to see him
as a stand-in for Kiarostami), finds himself between two funerals: one
within his own family (which he misses), and one in the village that is end-
lessly postponed, and, in the end, is missed as well, since the film con-
cludes with the “engineer” returning home without having shot it. This situa-
tion mirrors, of course, the experience of the film’s viewer, whose desire
for an ending that would retroactively give meaning to the film is similarly
frustrated. While we await a narrative denouement – and our impatience is
skillfully manipulated – we get slightly bored. Like the “engineer,” we feel
stuck in the village, but in our boredom we become witnesses to the vil-
lage’s beauty, its daily life, and the landscape that surrounds it as captured
by Kiarostami’s camera.
Hence, Kiarostami’s stories revolve around the importance of remaining
faithful to the dead (and the need to commemorate them and to remain true
to the patterns our ancestors have laid down for us), while the anticipation
of funeral rites provides the minimal narrative structure that gives coher-
ence to his films. The cinematic images, on the other hand, emphasize the
vitality of life, which becomes visible only as we await closure and signifi-
cation. Cinema, then, has the capacity to expose the vitality of life pre-
cisely when it frustrates our desire for stories and for signification. While
Kiarostami’s films tell stories about our relation to the dead, the cinematic
machine itself cannot help but refer to life, which is captured precisely as
closure is deferred. The impact of Kiarostami’s films relies on the tension
between story and image.
A similar opposition between narrative and images is given structure in
Taste of Cherry, which narrates the story of Mr. Badi’i (played by
Homâyun Ershâdi), who, intent on committing suicide, drives around the
outskirts of Tehran hoping to find someone who will agree to bury him if
he succeeds (he has already dug the grave but needs someone to throw
earth on his body). His request has a mortifying effect on the people he
calls upon: it scares them, making them feel that they are obligated in a
way that they can neither refuse nor entirely live up to. As in Kiarostami’s
earlier films, the dialogues between Mr. Badi’i and the people he addresses
are partly scripted and partly improvised, and they take place in a car. In
Taste of Cherry, however, Mr. Badi’i’s car does not provide an opening to
the world; it seems rather to enclose the protagonist. The car entombs him,
THE SOUND OF FROGS AT NIGHT 27

isolating him from the world. The sense of claustrophobia evoked by the
car is thrown into focus by the panoramic long shots, in which we see it
moving through the landscape.
Compared to earlier Kiarostami films, Taste of Cherry stands out be-
cause it is more plot driven. The film continually summons the spectator’s
curiosity about its denouement. As Mr. Badi’i puts his request to a string
of people, we become increasingly impatient to discover the outcome of
his quest and, indeed, to witness his unusual burial. In this regard, our im-
patience resembles that of the “engineer” of The Wind, who desires to see
a funeral ceremony that also promises to be peculiar. In Taste of Cherry, as
in The Wind, this desire will remain unfulfilled: we do not even find out
whether Mr. Badi’i commits suicide. Instead, the film ends with a pro-
longed, dark sequence in which Mr. Badi’i lies down to watch the darkness
of the sky hovering over his makeshift grave. This is followed by what
may be the most enigmatic ending of all of Kiarostami’s films: a sequence,
shot on digital video, that depicts the filmmaker and his crew in full day-
light, resting on the set of the film and watching a troop of exercising sol-
diers, as the actor who plays Mr. Badi’i lights a cigarette. “Tell the men to
have a rest,” we hear the director say, “we are here for a sound recording.”
This ending is, of course, another metacinematic moment, but it does
not serve to lay bare the filmic devices used to expose the illusory nature
of the preceding images, as some critics have suggested. It should instead
be seen as an unraveling of the texture of the film itself, an opening up of
the film, which allows an escape from the claustrophobia of its narration.
Rather than providing closure, Taste of Cherry ends in what Nancy calls
an “opening to the world,” in a space “without heaven or a wrapping, with-
out fixed moorings.”15
In this regard, the final shots in Taste of Cherry resemble those of The
Wind and Life and Nothing More, which conclude with long, panoramic
shots in which the camera leaves the main characters of the film and wan-
ders over the landscape, leaving the impression that, indeed, life goes on
beyond the ending of the film. In each of these cases there is music. In
Taste of Cherry, we hear a Louis Armstrong recording of “St. James
Infirmary,” a jazz standard with its roots in the tradition of New Orleans
“jazz funerals,” in which a parade of mourners, headed by a brass band,
accompanies the dead to the cemetery. The jazz funeral typically consists
of two parts: one in which a mournful dirge is played as the procession
marches to the graveyard, and the cheerful, “hot” celebration of life that
erupts from the band as it departs from the cemetery. Armstrong’s record-
ing is clearly in the mournful mode, but since it accompanies the images
of a happy film crew sitting on the slope of a hill, and a shot of the wind
that blows through the grass and the leaves of the trees, it seems to blur
the line that separates mourning the dead and the affirmation of life. This
is, indeed, the case in Kiarostami’s film.
28 YASCO HORSMAN

Conclusion

Whereas Jean-Luc Nancy argues that narrative plays a minimal role in


Kiarostami’s films, I would emphasize that it is precisely the tension be-
tween story and image that is crucial in understanding his films. This for-
mal tension, I repeat, is mirrored by Kiarostami’s thematic preoccupation
with the conflict between a pressing obligation to remain faithful to the
dead and the insuppressible vitality of life. I would argue, in conclusion,
that Kiarostami’s cinematic affirmation of life, which in his films is played
off against “customs,” “rites,” and “obligations,” gives a particular political
edge to his films, since they are produced in a political culture that cel-
ebrates martyrdom and generally seems to value the afterlife over worldly
existence. In this context, his vitalism is perhaps slightly subversive, and
particularly secular.
Kiarostami’s secularism is most clear in what may be his most abstract
film to date, Five (2005), which consists of five static long takes of
Caspian beaches, dedicated to the Japanese filmmaker Yasuhiro Ozu. Ozu
is known for the “still-life sequences” he inserted between scenes of his
films: shots of perfectly ordinary objects or empty spaces that seem neither
to have a relation to the narrative nor to be of any symbolic significance.
Whereas not much happens in Ozu’s shots (they resemble painted or
photographic still lifes in this regard), Kiarostami’s long takes in Five are
only still at first sight. As we look at them longer, we can see that, in fact,
they are bristling with life, as we witness groups of dogs, birds, and human
beings, and the waves of the sea. Kiarostami’s still-life sequences are thus
not really “nature mortes” (to use the French name of the genre), remind-
ing us of our mortality (which is the traditional theme of still-life paint-
ings); instead, they confront us with nature’s vital forces.
Five ends with a 25-minute-long sequence of the moon reflected in the
water, accompanied by a dense soundscape of humming off-screen noises
(of frogs, dogs, the wind, and the rain) that forms a tapestry of sound en-
gulfing its audience. At times the moon is barely visible on the screen,
turning the image into nothing but an index finger that points to that which
lies beyond the frame. This “beyond,” however, is not something transcen-
dental. It is life itself, in its nonsensical, pulsating, humming persistence.
As we sit in the theater, in almost complete darkness, we can hear the
croaking sound of frogs, whose nightly singing is meaningless to us – or
rather, it speaks to us without communicating anything. Yet, precisely in
their very noncommunicating senselessness, these sounds make us think of
life itself.
THE SOUND OF FROGS AT NIGHT 29

Notes

1 Kiarostami won the Palme d’Or (1997), the Prix Henri-Langlois (2006), and the Glory to
the Filmmaker Award (Venice, 2008). For the critical reception of Kiarostami, see
Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Abbas Kiarostami, Champaign, IL:
University of Illinois Press, 2003.
2 Kiarostami’s films have a “particular predilection for what might be termed philosophical
long shots and all the questions these imply.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Abbas Kiarostami:
Before He Was Famous,” The Guardian, 21 September 2002, Review Section, 17.
3 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara
Habberjam, London: Continuum, 2005; Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh
Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, London: Continuum, 2005.
4 André Bazin, What Is Cinema? trans. Hugh Gray, Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1967-71.
5 As James Roy Macbean argues, “Bazin’s entire aesthetic system is rooted in a mystical-
religious (Catholic) framework of transcendence. The faithful ‘reflection of reality’ is
really just a prerequisite – and ultimately merely a pretext – for finding a ‘transcendental
truth’ which supposedly exists in reality and is ‘miraculously’ revealed by the camera.”
“Vent d’Est, or Godard and Rocha at the Crossroads,” Movies and Methods vol. 1, ed.
Bill Nichols, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, 95.
6 Cinema 1, 17.
7 For a seminal essay on offscreen space, see Stephen Heath, “Narrative Space,” Questions
of Cinema, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1981, 19-75.
8 Jean-Luc Nancy, “On Evidence: Life and Nothing More by Abbas Kiarostami”, Discourse
21.1, 1999: 77-88; see also Jean-Luc Nancy, The Evidence of Film: Abbas Kiarostami,
trans. Christine Irizarray and Verena Conley, Brussels: Yves Gevaert, 2001.
9 “On Evidence,” 77.
10 Jean-Luc Nancy, Philosophical Chronicles, trans. Franson Manjali, New York: Fordham
University Press, 2008.
11 Maurice Blanchot, “Everyday Speech,” Yale French Studies 76, 1987: 14-15.
12 Philosophical Chronicles, 39.
13 Ibid., 41.
14 Evidence of Film, 44.
15 Ibid., 44.

Works cited

Bazin, A., What is Cinema?, trans. H. Gray, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967-71.
Blanchot, M., “Everyday Speech,” Yale French Studies, vol. 76, 1987, 14-15.
Deleuze, G., Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam, London:
Continuum, 2005 (a).
—, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam, London: Continuum,
2005 (b).
Heath, S., Questions of Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.
Macbean, J. R., “Vent d’Est, or Godard and Rocha at the Crossroads,” in Movies and Methods
vol. 1, B. Nichols (ed.), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
Nancy, J., Philosophical Chronicles, trans. F. Manjali, New York: Fordham University Press,
2008.
—, The Evidence of Film: Abbas Kiarostami, trans. Ch. Irizarray and V. Conley, Brussels: Yves
Gevaert, 2001.
—, “On Evidence: Life and Nothing More by Abbas Kiarostami,” Discourse 21.1, 1999, 77-88.
30 YASCO HORSMAN

Rosenbaum, J., “Abbas Kiarostami: Before He was Famous,” in The Guardian, 21 September
2002, Review Section, 17.
Saeed-Vafa, M. and J. Rosenbaum, Abbas Kiarostami, Champaign: University of Illinois Press,
2003.
Sexuality and Cultural Change: The Presentation
of Sex and Gender in Pre- and Post-revolutionary
Iranian Cinema*

Kamran Talattof, University of Arizona

Some aspects of sexuality have been allowed to be expressed in Iranian


popular culture, albeit in limited forms. As limited and suppressed as they
may be, however, representations, or even hints, of any issues related to
sexuality, whether scientific or derogatory, play a role in the way cultural
change unfolds. As recently as the last few months, there have been many
controversies about the censoring of Nezâmi Ganjavi’s poems in instances
where the 12th-century poet refers to the female body, physical contact
with men, and dance.1 Yet, despite the limited room for and the permis-
sibility of sexual references, even the legal authorities and ruling elite do
not shy away from using sexual obscenity to counter their opponents.
Hadadian, a Muslim preacher recently compared a member of the Islamic
Republic of Iran cabinet to a penis.2 Another, this time a devoted Muslim
film director by the name of Salahsure, referred to cinema as a whore-
house.3 These incidents indicate that despite the legal, political, and cultur-
al restrictions on the expression of sexuality, people may continue to think
of sexual realities or fantasies as their mode of expression, however archaic
and distorted they might be. Such exchanges become part of the discursive
field where tensions between modern sexuality and the fundamentalist dis-
course on sexuality play out.
The controversy was even louder when the Iran Journal published one
of its special supplementary issues entitled Khâtun on the question of the
hejâb and veiling, insinuating that efforts to enforce the hejâb have back-
fired. Most of the objections against it claimed that pro-Ahmadinjad
authors of the articles were attempting to score against the other ruling fun-
damentalist factions. However, most of the uproar was actually directed
against the somewhat lax format of the articles, the photos, and the car-
toons in which one could see women’s exposed hair.4 Everyone, from the
grand ayatollahs to members of the government and from the armed forces
to the members of the parliament, felt obliged to participate in this much
ado about nothing. Indeed, the whole nation was obsessed for a time with
the topic.
Historically too, the expression of sexuality has always been determina-
tive and yet highly problematic and destructive. Such contradictory
32 KAMRAN TALATTOF

qualities are nowhere more apparent than in Iranian film, particularly in the
pre-revolutionary commercial movies. I argue that Iranian cinema, like
other cultural productions, has not only been affected by socio-political
changes wrought by historical events such as the introduction of the project
of modernization and the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but has also played a
role in bringing about these changes both before and after the revolution,
and in all these transformations, gender and sexuality have been among the
central points of contention between the different social players. In the pre-
revolutionary period, the presentation of the female, the female body, and
sexuality was linked to a greater Westernization project, affected by a
mode of modernity that did not completely work, and resulted in a back-
lash in more traditional segments of society. In the post-revolutionary peri-
od, in particular, the presentation of the female and the expression of sex-
uality were confronted with the new Islamic codes of morality, which all
filmmakers were forced to respect. Thus, Iranian films in both the pre- and
post-revolutionary periods reflected and affected the process of cultural
change through the representation of the female and sexuality.
In 1934, Dokhtar-e Lor [The Lori Girl] – the first talkie of several fea-
ture films to make its debut that year – amazed the viewers to such an ex-
tent that cinema soon became as popular as poetry which is saying a lot
given the Iranians’ passion for poetry. But perhaps equally important was
the fact that a woman was featured in this groundbreaking movie and even
in its title. A breathtaking scene in the movie portrays the male protagonist
fighting and wrestling with another man while holding the end of a rope
that stretches over a cliff. At the other end of the rope, hangs a woman, the
Lori girl, who with every move the men make goes up and down in immi-
nent danger of falling.
Perhaps Claire Johnston’s explanation of ‘Woman’ in classical cinema as
“no-thing” or “not-man” (1991: 25) is applicable here. However, contrary
to the classical feminist theory of film regarding the unrealistic portrayal of
women in the movies, this image of the Lori girl was not improbable. It in-
deed foreshadowed what was to come for the Iranian woman and her body
not only on the wide screen as the subject of voyeurism but also in society
as a battleground between different social forces.
To quote Laura Mulvey, the notion of scopophilia, the desire to see,
which according to Freud is a fundamental and sexual drive, kept the spec-
tator glued to the screen and fascinated by the film’s structures of voyeur-
ism and narcissism present in both the story and the images.5
The Iranian films produced in the 1960s and 1970s known as FilmFarsi
were particularly even more problematic in terms of the presentation of
gender and sexuality.6 Here I am using the term FilmFarsi with caution
and it is meant only to refer to a specific number of movies that were pro-
duced in those years depicting dance and cabaret life. That is, I use this
term to refer to commercial movies of the 1960s and 1970s that suffered
SEXUALITY AND CULTURAL CHANGE 33

from weak plots, simplistic messages, and slipshod forms and were yet
able to entertain a segment of society. Most of them mixed the epitome of
an irrelevant moral point with music, dance, and frivolous nudity within an
inane plot.
In such movies, women’s roles included the poor girl who had to face
the rich family of her beloved, the rich woman who wanted to elope with
her poor boyfriend, regretful prostitutes, mean or kind dancers, evil
mothers-in-law; women caught between good and evil, and/or the women
in relationships with foreigners.7
Moreover, and relatively speaking, such films offered plenty of nudity
and were noted even then for the contemptuous way they did it. These
films were often described as âbgushti sexual, where âbgushti literally
means “soup,” thus implying a cheap product.
FilmFarsi lacked the seriousness of the New Wave movement that fol-
lowed it, which was intellectual and political in nature and strove to find a
place in the market at the same time.8 FilmFarsi did not seek to comment
on the political situation directly, but rather commented on class differ-
ences in the context of society’s grappling with Westernization and moder-
nity. American and Indian cinema influenced FilmFarsi, but not to the ex-
tent that some scholars have stated. FilmFarsi had a distinct Iranian flavor,
especially in the portrayal of violence, dance, and sex. Directors depicted
violence without guns, because weapons were illegal in Iran. Sex and nu-
dity had to be handled slyly (for example, a woman would remove her cha-
dor for a moment to show legs mostly uncovered by her short skirt).
Directors would find an excuse, even a flimsy excuse to include otherwise
incongruous sexual scenes. The predominant method of including nudity
was through dance scenes, whether Western, belly dance, or Persian erotic
dance. If the plot of the movie provided no reason to show a dance scene,
the hero would be cajoled into entering a cabaret to drink or meet a friend,
where he would then see a dance.
In her study of tango, Jane Desmond states “Dance remains a greatly
undervalued and undertheorized arena of bodily discourse.”9 This is partic-
ularly true in the case of Persian or Iranian dance.10 Throughout the medi-
eval period and into the contemporary era, dance remained in the private
domain in Iranian culture.
However, in the 20th century and especially during the 1970s, a sort of
folk and theatrical dance became part of public entertainment and propelled
numerous dancers into cabarets and nightclubs and into the movies. The
latter in particular helped the genre move into the public domain and gain
a new level of popularity. The movies featured not only folk but also a
variety of Western dances. In retrospect, it is easy to discern that dance is
an inseparable component of FilmFarsi, the plots of which frequently por-
trayed the life story of a cabaret dancer who, after a period of singing (lip-
synching in reality) and dancing in nightclubs is saved by the protagonist,
34 KAMRAN TALATTOF

a man who seeks a housewife. In FilmFarsi movies that do not include this
plot, some male character inevitably ends up visiting a cabaret during some
late-night escapade. Some of the dance performances were quite bold or radi-
cal for a society that would soon (in 1979) go through a religious revolu-
tion, for they include erotic, semi-nude, and at times wild Western styles of
dancing. New songs were also produced to match these scenes and were
often performed by prominent singers such as Delkash, Elâhe, Purân,
Sussan, and perhaps more than anyone else, Ahdiyeh. The latter sang
nearly a thousand songs for FilmFarsi productions.11
While one may read the public emergence of such dance performances
as a sign of the Westernization of society under the Pahlavis (1925–79)
and as an indication that women were integrating into artistic production,
most prominent social critics along with the leaders of the religious estab-
lishment at the time saw them as symptoms of a growing decadence. The
word “prostitution” was often used in association with the artists, very
much in the same way that it was used by Salahshur, although no perva-
sive debate ever took place about the way various players talked about the
content of Khâtun in 2011. In the pre-revolutionary period, they referred to
the proliferation of genres such as FilmFarsi as a sign of the cultural cor-
ruption of the regime,12 though in 2011, it is not clear how the West could
have been blamed for such "corruption" in a country ruled by the rules of
Islam for more than three decades.
The allegation against FilmFarsi might have been true on the surface,
however. After all, dance is an art as well as an integral feature of a mod-
ern society far beyond its primitive functions. And the appearance of cer-
tain forms of dance can easily become a symbol of any type of perceived
cultural corruption. However, in the context of their plots, those cinematic
dance scenes in Iranian movies reveal something else about Iranian society.
On a deep level, FilmFarsi filmmakers used bold dance scenes as a cin-
ematic element to communicate simplistic moral conclusions and complex
political ideologies.
The FilmFarsi woman, often in a revealingly short skirt and halter-neck
top, dances on the stage to prolonged rhythms created by a synchronized
ensemble of traditional and modern instruments. She snakes her arms in
the air, rotates and repositions her hips, gestures boastfully toward her
breasts, and cuts the air with her body curves. The dancer was invariably
made to perform a symbolic, sensual, seductive walk across the stage,
make slow or quick passionate whirling movements, roll her neck sugges-
tively, and move her eyebrows teasingly. At the same time, she could
thrust her hips, roll her pelvis, and extend her arms as though welcoming
an embrace. The camera rotated around the dancer, focusing at close angles
on the breasts, hips, shoulders, and legs of the actress. Each voluptuous
move invited the audience, and each feigned look of innocence in her eyes
riveted them to their seats.
SEXUALITY AND CULTURAL CHANGE 35

This action primarily served to satisfy the hungry gaze of the male popu-
lation. Iran’s devout zealots maintained that these dancers allowed Iranian
men to daydream pleasurably as they watched the bodies. At the same time
the devout perceived a woman’s career in cinema as reprehensible, shame-
less, and the sign of a decaying society no matter how enjoyable the film
may have been.13 The opinion of the leftist intellectuals of such activities
was very much the same. In fact, even the state officials and academic
authorities equated dancing in bars with prostitution.14 According to many
feminists, female characters who represent a subversive sexuality (the ex-
pression of sexual sensation, sexual intimacy, sexual identity) are danger-
ous to men and are ultimately punished by men in one way or another and
even with death on a religious, social, cultural, or political pretext. In Iran,
women who performed this function were indeed punished, both on the
screen and in real life.15
The easy way to solve the Iranian male spectator’s dual and contradic-
tory response was to provide an acceptable moral ending, i.e., to redeem
the leading female characters. In such a way, male sexuality and patriarchal
social codes could be reassured. A man could enjoy the woman’s body
even in the dancing scenes; then the minute she became his exclusive
woman, his own property, she needed to leave that or any other public
space in which other men’s eyes could fall on her. To be completely re-
deemed, the female protagonist needed to be confined behind both a veil
and walls. Female cinematic figures thus provided a context in which mas-
culinity, male desire, and male sexuality could be expressed, confirmed,
and reaffirmed through either female exploitation or redemption to a much
more conservative lifestyle. Female characters rarely made decisions in the
process; their desire and sexuality were expressed only in response to the
male’s call to appreciate or to appropriate her body.
The problems with such a representation of sexuality arose from the fact
that the Iranian debate on modernity lacked any serious discussion of sexu-
ality and society did not completely release itself from the shackles of a re-
ligious notion of gender and sex. In the West, The psychoanalyst Wilhelm
Reich (1897–1957), Freud’s colleague, suggested that to conserve one’s
mental health one needed to liberate one’s sexual energy.16 Hugh Hefner
and Larry Flynt developed "products" that encouraged this liberation. And
before all of them, Eadweard Muybridge had introduced the picture of
naked men and women in what was cinema in 1884. Then, in the 1970s,
Foucault amply showed that the fixation of the West with sexuality, its ubiqui-
tous representation, and its perception as something quite natural were part
of a discourse that led to a conception of “sexuality” that exuded construc-
tive power.
In the context of resisting modernity in the guise of criticizing what was
perceived as the Shah’s cultural corruption, expressions and productions
like these films, which included sex, violence, and the display of power,
36 KAMRAN TALATTOF

did not need to be negotiated with women or to include their viewpoints.


Indeed, such movies often eroticized rape and violence against women to
convey the most masculine message: life was a battle of the sexes and men
were supposed to win.
In retrospect, the tragic failure of FilmFarsi to deal with sexuality on a
higher plane is a factor that hindered the greater social and political devel-
opment in Iran in the late 1970s. Despite the scenes of dance and nudity,
the male protagonists constantly promise women respect only if they fol-
low the traditional rules of chastity. The films, like other cultural manifes-
tations discussed earlier, were merely a declaration that women who want
a place in society must be chaste, obedient, and modest. In some cases, an
education would be desirable. These messages were in contradiction to the
medium that delivered them. FilmFarsi employed half-nude women and
sought to entertain cheaply.
These movies, like the repetitive and mediocre short stories, anecdotal
tales, and letters to editors found in pop magazines, constantly strove to ne-
gotiate female space (and identity) but did not know where and how to be-
gin the debate. The female readers’ letters to the editor regarding news,
stories, or movies demonstrate disillusionment with modern heterosocial
promises. These promises were made in the early stages of the alleged
modernization by the Pahlavi kings and by the men in public affairs (who,
by the way, made similar promises based on a national identity). Poorly
produced movies, journals, and other media in the 1960s and 1970s only
increased the young generation’s sense of dissatisfaction and lack of fulfil-
ment. These representations, despite their non-traditional form, did not pro-
mote, due to their absurdity, the development of romantic love or a famil-
iarization with women’s sexuality, nor did they satisfy the need for ro-
mance. Some of the early and mid-20th century novels collectively known
as prostitution literature were equally awkward.17 Moshfeq Kâzemi,
Mohammad Mas’ud, Hedâyat Hakimolâhi, Mohammad Hejâzi, Jahângir
Jalili, Rabi’ Ansâri, and Javâd Fâzel, who wrote in this genre, were neither
well known among the populace nor were they properly able to construct a
modern notion about sexuality.

***

In addition to countless melodramas, the 1970s witnessed the production


of a series of comedies that dealt with the notion of men’s sexuality in a
more explicit way, though still wrapped in a metaphorical language and
within a moral/ethical framework. The works of Nosratollâh Vahdat (b.
1927) best represent this genre. In some ways, his movies teasingly ap-
proached serious aspects of sexuality only to provide a silly, comic situa-
tion and to set the stage for a final moral conclusion.18
SEXUALITY AND CULTURAL CHANGE 37

In a sense, Vahdat’s Arus Farangi (The Western Bride, 1964), which he


directed and played in was the film that combined all of the elements of
what was referred to as FilmIrani (a term which did not gain the primacy
of FilmFarsi).19 In An Isfahani in New York, American women are por-
trayed as sex hungry, Iranians who live in the U.S. as corrupt, traditional
religion as superficial, and sincere Iranian men (portrayed by Ahmad, the
character played by Vahdat) as honest, pious, and extremely supportive of
Iranian culture.
Nosratollâh Karimi and his movies are also pertinent to these develop-
ments in the 1970s. Takhtkhâbe Seh Nafareh (A Bed for Three, 1972) fea-
tures a man whose wife is sterile and unresponsive to medical treatments.
Despite his love for his wife and in the hope of having a child, he takes a
second wife, a widow named Sakineh (played by Shahrzâd) who already
has a child. Having two wives in his house turns his life into a living hell.
He orders a bed for three but that does not solve his problems. Sakineh
puts one of her father’s snakes in her rival’s room to kill her, but the snake
bites Sakineh herself, and she dies. Mahmud thus ends up living with his
first wife and his second wife’s child. A public bath scene provides the oc-
casion for Shahrzâd’s revealing dance and her singing of the folk song
“Hamumi ay Hammui,” which is a hallmark of the popular culture of
dance and music.20
In a somewhat more serious movie, Raqâseh-ye Shahr (The Town’s
Dancer, 1970), the middle-aged owner of a lumberyard Dâsh Gholâm
(played by Nâser Malek Moti’ie) falls in love with a dancer named Pari
(played by Foruzân) because he is ignored by his wife. Life changes for
these lovers and many people around them.
Issues related to sex problematize the man’s identity and, by extension,
Iranian men’s identity. When Dâsh Gholâm takes Pari on a pilgrimage, he
uses religion’s power to reestablish control over the woman’s body but also
answers Iranian men’s vexing question about identity: we are believers and
we forgive a woman’s straying body by giving her a chance to redeem her-
self. When Pari “fails to come clean,” Dash Gholâm goes back to his wife,
who now is apparently ready to perform better in bed.
Here are a few other examples. The movie Ki Dasteh Gol be Âb Dâde?
(Who Has Been Naughty? 1973), in which a husband is accused of having
a baby outside of his marriage, provides many excuses for both traditional
and Western dancing. The movie Naqs Fanni (Mechanical Defect, 1976)
portrays a man who is experiencing temporary impotence. Shy and embar-
rassed about his problem, he tries to seek help from his friends and then
doctors in Tehran and Paris. These conversations and occasions provide
opportunities for talking about sex, albeit in a symbolic language, or show-
ing sex, albeit with a sense of how we should not really do it.
Towqi (Towqi means a ring-necked dove) was directed by Ali Hâtami.
There is an old saying in Persian, “If you catch a Towqi, keeping it will
38 KAMRAN TALATTOF

bring bad omens to the members of the family.” And that is what happens
to a very close-knit family. A well-respected uncle, Mostafâ, plans to marry
a young woman who lives in a distant town. He asks his young nephew,
Mortezâ, to bring the fiancée to him. On the way back, Mortezâ and the
girl fall in love, get married, and return home. When the uncle finds out,
he embarks on bloody revenge. Shahrzâd, whose role, body of work in the
cinema, journalism, and literature, as well as her life story, make her a promi-
nent example of the popular artist of the period, is first seen sitting around
in a big room singing and dancing in front of other women who are
“preparing” the bride for her marriage. Toward the end she is once again
seen, being abused by a man who believes she knows of the whereabouts
of the runaway bride.
Pol (Bridge) is about love gained and love lost due to lies and misinfor-
mation. Mojtabâ and his companion Abdollâh are train conductors who
happen to pull into a certain town on their various trips. Upon entering the
town, Mojtabâ sees a woman, Talâ, who sells eggs to passengers and
whom everyone thinks has lost her mind. After a few brief encounters,
Mojtabâ and Talâ fall in love. Shahrzâd’s role in this movie is that of a
waitress and entertainer in the train station’s teahouse. But soon, she runs
off with a truck driver and is never heard from again.
Baluch is about a village husband becoming a vigilante after learning
that his wife had been raped by two men from Tehran. He learns that the
two men who had entered his village are now successful businessmen and
cabaret owners. As he is planning to kill them, he meets a wealthy widow
who dates him and agrees that if he serves as her bodyguard and lover she
will help him find the two men. The film misses an opportunity to correct
traditional understandings of divergent standards for men and women as re-
gards chastity and monogamy.
Tradition, which was reinforced even by the oppositional ideologies,
was and is still clear about what is acceptable sexuality: man’s satisfaction
with a woman at the expense of her own pleasure, done in complete pri-
vacy and certainly not on the big screen. The repetition of these plots in
the movies, then, might have something to do with the invocation of tradi-
tion during the revolutionary uprisings of 1976-79 through which the
dominant culture and the Shah’s Westernization project were portrayed as
corrupt. Films therefore often only skirted around serious sexual or cultural
topics, oversimplifying them or failing to make bold final statements about
new or non-traditional views of sexuality and gender roles. The end result
was a poor or even distorted representation of reality comprised of the joy-
seeking man and a sexually active or sexually liberated woman inevitably
portrayed as a prostitute, a nightclub dancer, or a troublemaker.
Again, though these movies included numerous sexual references, they
did not lead to an open discourse of sexuality in society outside the
theaters.
SEXUALITY AND CULTURAL CHANGE 39

Sexual Tragedies and Cinema as Political Commentary

In the late 1960s, some filmmakers began to produce somewhat more se-
rious, and often tragic, movies, though they too suffered from repetitive
themes. The hosts of actors, their acting, the music, the dubbed voices, and
the cabaret dances were all almost identical. In these films, the problem of
sexuality, prostitution, and the theme of honor-based violence often
haunted the plots, as filmmakers struggled with the presentation and even
conceptualization of gender relations, virginity, family honor, virility, and
manliness. Suspicion about a sexual contact outside of marriage or compe-
tition over the control over the body of a prostitute could lead a man to kill
his sister, fiancée, or someone else. Qaysar best exemplifies this type of
movies.
The movie that popularized this genre was Qaysar (1969) directed by
Mas’ud Kimiyâ’i. It was a pioneering production and remains the best of
this kind.21 It is one of the all-time bestselling movies in Iran. In Qaysar,
the contradiction in men’s views of women is most apparent. Fâti is a
young girl who commits suicide after being raped and becoming pregnant
by a man called Mansur Âbmangol. Her older brother, Farman, tries to
seek revenge for her death by killing Mansur, but is killed by Mansur’s
two brothers, Rahim and Karim. Qaysar is the youngest brother in the
family working in another town. On returning to his hometown to see his
fiancée, he discovers the tragedy that has befallen his family. He sets out
to avenge the deaths. He manages to kill Karim at the public baths and
Rahim in a slaughterhouse. While he is searching for Mansur, Qaysar’s
mother dies from a broken heart. He finally manages to kill Mansur, but he
himself is shot by the police. Female characters appear in this movie as
cabaret singers/dancers. One of them, played by Shahrzâd, appears near
the end of the movie, and only then as someone who shows off her body
through her risqué song and dance performance and brazenly brings
Qaysar to her apartment for the night. The character is seen as taking her
clothes off in front of him and somehow teasing him with her actions.
Many people die because two brothers avenge their sister’s rape and
death. One brother shouts that it is better for the sister to be dead than
bring the family shame. This way, and even though the sister committed
suicide, the very modern cinematic genre is used to reinforce the very hall-
mark of a traditional society about honor killings. At the same time, out-
side the family, the protagonist, Qaysar, enjoys the company of a cabaret
dancer (played by Shahrzâd), whom he knows is often forced to have sex,
but he does nothing on her behalf. Many of the underlying ideological as-
sumptions are religious. Indeed, the oppressed are portrayed as religious
and poor and yet vindictive and vengeful. The movie also glorifies the
southern Tehrâni culture of violence and the use of the knife in dealing
with opponents – a characteristic of the Âbmangol neighborhood of the
40 KAMRAN TALATTOF

capital city. Five of the seven people who die in the movie are killed by
knives. All these aspects help create a very strong argument and notion
against the process of modernization, Westernization, and secularization.
As in many other parts of the movie, the dance scenes by female actors,
particularly by Shahrzâd, became a memorable representation. Using
Desmond’s words, the social identity of all these people are “codified in
performance styles.”22 Off-stage, in a tired voice, the character of
Shahrzâd, Sohaylâ Ferdows, uses the same accent as many other charac-
ters, the accent of southern Tehran’s tough and roughneck men.

The Reception of Movies

In Tehran and Shiraz, the two cities often showcasing signs of moderniza-
tion, the best theaters located in the most appealing areas, amid tall build-
ings and fancy restaurants, cozy bars, and expensive stores, were reserved
for foreign films and did not show FilmFarsi products.23 Yet many of the
Western comic or drama movies also contained nudity. Together, cinema
affected the new generation. The uptown streets of Abbâsâbâd, Vozerâ,
and Pahlavi in Tehran, the tree-lined Chahârbâgh in Isfahan, Zand
Boulevard and Dâryush in Shirzâd, where some of these movie theaters
were located, were also a locus for voyeurism: at that time (and even lar-
gely now) the only means for many to make eye contact with the opposite
sex.

Female Artists and Representation of Sexuality


Most Iranian actresses in the early period of cinema launched their careers
through theater, and many of them from theater halls of the then-stylish
Lâlehzâr Street.24 Shahrzâd experienced theater early on in her career.
Shahlâ Riyâhi (b. 1926) entered the theater and cinema through her hus-
band, who was already active in both arts. Later she became the first fe-
male film director (Marjân, 1956). Zhaleh Alev (b. 1927) began her work
in radio. Responding to an ad in the paper with the encouragement of her
literature teacher, she launched a successful career in cinema with the
movie Tufân-e Zendegi (The Storm of Life, 1968). Others, such as
Mahvash, Âfat, and Shahrzâd, began by singing or dancing in cabarets. To
the social critics of that time, it made a huge difference how these women
began their careers. For example, in 1946, the journal Tehrân Mosavvar
featured short pieces on Iran Qâderi, Irân Daftari, Niktâj Sâberi, and a few
other first-generation actresses who played in the theater. The journal re-
ferred to them respectfully as bânu (ladies).25 Singers, especially those in
pop and popular music such as Mahvash and Âfat, in contrast (and just
like Shahrzâd), received derogatory titles such as zanân-e kâfe’i (bar wom-
en) or fâhesheh, and kharâb (prostitute, and rotten) and were often the
SEXUALITY AND CULTURAL CHANGE 41

subject of disparaging gossip. Whether actresses or singers, however, all of


these women struggled against a traditional and male-dominated culture.
Suddenly, women artists had to stay quiet and out of public sight; they
understood exactly why the Rex Cinema in Abadan went up in flames with
hundreds of the audience trapped inside in August 1978 and why many
more theaters were damaged violently during those heated revolutionary
days.26 To be sure, consequences of the continued policies of the funda-
mentalists now in power are nowhere more apparent than in the fate of the
women who were once featured in those theaters. Their stories demonstrate
the havoc wrought in their lives during these critical years and how deep-
seated ideas about gender differences and gender hierarchy prevented any
serious discourse on sexuality.
Foruzân (Parvin Khayrbakhsh, b. 1936) exemplifies these artists.27 A
pioneer of acting and dancing in sexy roles in FilmFarsi, she began her act-
ing career in 1962 with the movie Sâhel-e Entezâr (A Shore for Waiting).
She played in many movies until 1978. She too remained in Iran after the
Revolution and was as frustrated as all the other women artists whose ca-
reers are summarized here. On the surface, she seems to be the master of
sexual suggestiveness through the use of her eyes; however, in real life,
she was suffering at the hands of the producers. Due to her bold sexy roles,
Foruzân was the subject of gossip and the center of controversies in the
1970s, but her disenchantment with the art of cinema actually began prior
to the revolution. Though she continued her acting to the end of the 1970s,
she was contemplating retirement at the height of her career in 1972. In an
interview in that year she said in a tired voice: “I am bored and annoyed
by cinema. It has been eleven years since I began acting in front of the
camera and the ugly light of projectors. You think I just go there and shake
it but you do not know that every one of those shakes ruins my life. I am
sick, sore, and exhausted. I am tired of standing in front of the camera lis-
tening to the director telling me "be a little sexier, a little more lustful,
bring your skirt higher, be a little more inciting and provocative.” I also
want to tell you that every time I go to Europe to take a rest, people create
a thousand rumors.28
Apparently, she remained in Iran after the revolution and never had the
chance to travel again. And since then, she has never appeared in public or
given an interview.

Cinema in Iran after the 1979 Revolution


The 1979 Revolution abruptly replaced the challenges facing cinema. With
the veiling code and other restrictions on social interactions, the new re-
gime tried to control every aspect of social behavior, especially that of
women. Not only did they ban the showing of the female body and hair
42 KAMRAN TALATTOF

and female singing but also, because of socio-political changes, they sup-
pressed Iranian cinema entirely for a few years.
When filming resumed, any film that did not conform to the new cinema
codes of conduct was banned and its producer punished, fined, prohibited
from making movies, or even imprisoned. Nor could foreign films be
shown. This new code of conduct was derived from an Islamic notion of
culture production and from the regime’s anti-imperialist attitude. The only
benefit of those well-delineated codes to secular directors was that they no
longer had to guess what the limitations were.
Most of the new filming guidelines applied to female participation in
film activities. Islamic dress codes require women to cover their hair in
public places (and the screen is considered public space) and while in the
presence of a man who is not related by marriage or blood. Women are re-
quired to wear loose-fitting outer garments to cover their curves. The word
veil signifies more than the veil as a head-covering (hejâb). It not only sug-
gests that women’s bodies and voice are the subjects of ideological control
but also that women’s social conduct and even eye contact must be regu-
lated in their relations with men. And, such regulations even apply to the
fictional world of films. This often results in the production of very artifi-
cial scenes where, for instance, a woman must wear a veil even in bed.
Film directors must remember that the actors who play couples are not al-
lowed to touch each other, get too close, or exchange words of intimacy.
In Leilâ (1997), by Dâriush Mehrjui, a young couple going through
some tough times decides not to go to a family party in order to be home
alone with each other. In a Hollywood movie, the director would waste no
time before he portrays the bedroom scene, but that is not possible in
Tehran. So the fellow says to his wife, “let us stay home, grill chicken, use
that incredible marinating sauce you make, eat the chicken, and ....” He
pauses and then continues, “and watch a movie together.” In that two-sec-
ond pause, the director allows the viewers to imagine what might more
logically follow a romantic dinner. In the same movie, the director uses an-
other trick to make a bedroom scene more realistic. The man returns home
late and finds Leila in bed. They begin talking to each other in the dark.
Leila asks why he does not turn on the light. The man says that he does
not want to disturb her sleeping. This way, the film does not have to show
the woman in complete hejâb in bed.
In some cases, the characters use mild body language that is suggestive
and completes the task of conveying a sense of sexual relationship without
words. The directors use symbolic language to portray physical intimacy.
Sometimes the characters’ shadows, dress, or words overlap to indicate
physical intimacy. In Hemlock (Shokarân, 2000), a movie about a high-
level manager’s affair with a nurse, the man, after some comical prior
attempts, is finally alone with his mistress. How could the director possibly
portray their physical intimacy? They are in an apartment alone, creating
SEXUALITY AND CULTURAL CHANGE 43

nervous tension among the viewers. Finally they simply enter the bedroom,
and close the door. The camera remains focused on the bedroom door for a
several long seconds, during which time viewers get to have a wild time in
their own imaginations. Of course, even in doing all these things, the direc-
tor has to comply with the overall cinematic codes, which do not allow for
the promotion of immorality and promiscuity. In Hemlock, to make even
the allusion to love-making a bit more acceptable; the male protagonist at
a somewhat romantic dinner meeting tells his mistress that if they are to
have sex, they should enter into a temporary marriage, which religiously
sanctions such affairs.
The endings of such films must also provide some sort of moral lesson.
This explains the tragic ending of Hemlock in which the mistress dies in a
car accident. However, the movie’s success in the box office was, in my
opinion, due to all the preceding scenes.
In other cases, the protagonist’s emotions are expressed through highly
metaphorical or symbolic discourse. For example, actors use a suggestive
language to talk about something relating to their beloved, to their faith, or
to their situation. Boutique [2003], which portrays the difficult relationship
between a bored boutique worker and a defiant and beautiful teenage stu-
dent, provides an example of such technique. The young female character,
played by Golshifteh Farâhâni, shows a lot of excitement about her male
friend’s car and sunglasses, which under any ordinary situation away from
the camera or watching eyes would have been expressed about the male
character himself.29 Other actions, particularly during the car ride, are sug-
gestive in the same manner, and this is very similar to Farâhâni’s later
movie, Santuri: The Music Man (2007), in which the female and male
characters touch each other frequently using objects such as a scarf. In one
of the scenes, the woman ask a mullah who is marrying them to kiss the
groom for her, a statement that may make sense in the context of the film
but becomes also a social statement outside the cinematic text.
The Islamic Revolution thus led to significant changes in the way sexu-
ality was presented in Iranian film. Gradually, directors found creative
ways to present sexuality without making things look too suggestive.
Sometimes their methods border on the ridiculous and actually impede the
rise of a discourse on modernity. Or, the filmmakers may portray what they
consider to be the symbols of modernity (such as a boutique, a brand new
car, loud music produced by a sound system, or colorful subway trains), in
a grim manner, in order to reject the idea of social change. Today, Iranian
films may not show flesh and dancing, but the topic of sexuality some-
times too nervously and gender roles and women’s place in a modern so-
ciety sometimes too bleakly are on the mind of many filmmakers, very
much in the same way that these tensions run through the social fabric of
the society. Part of this new cinematic interest in gender issues is rooted in
the rise the feminist discourse in literary production of the late 1980s.30
44 KAMRAN TALATTOF

The cultural engineers of the ruling regime in Iran are a minority and
thus cannot completely control the way sexuality is perceived and repre-
sented; they cannot completely control the issues of representation and
spectatorship in the streets, in literature, or on the screen. However, as al-
ways, the more they try the more subtle the art producers become.
Viewers, very much like readers, become involved in the process of the
shaping as well as decoding the messages. Jodaâ’i-ye Nâder and Simin
(Nâder and Simin: A Separation, 2011) became a hit and best seller right
at the time a government-sponsored movie about the events of the Green
Movement failed miserably. People campaigned on the Internet and
Facebook to promote the first and boycott the latter. Nâder and Simin: A
Separation draws on love, divorce, migration, convoluted family situation,
and the grave problems urban Iranian couples are facing today. It won nu-
merous international prizes. In an interesting twist of circumstances, a new
generation of female film directors has emerged in unprecedented numbers
in the post-revolutionary period. They include Rakhshân Bani-Etemâd,
Tamineh Milâni, Samirâ Makhmalbaf, Hanâ Makhmalbaf, Niki Karimi,
Marziyeh Meshkini, and Pegâh Âhangarâni, to name but a few. Some of
these directors, like their male counterparts, have been arrested and interro-
gated for their artistic production. They show more interest in the presenta-
tion of the female than do male directors, who themselves are now much
more interested in women’s themes.31 They must of course abide by the
same code of conduct in the production of their films, but they have found
their own unique ways to address serious sexual, social, and cultural issues
in any regard. Thus, cinematic production and the challenge of new themes
regarding gender issues, children, nature, and cultural problems will con-
tinue to feature in the movies as they did in other areas of culture produc-
tion, but in new and perhaps exciting ways.

Notes
*
Author’s note: most of this chapter is excerpted from an earlier version of chapter 4,
“Seduction, Sin, and Salvation: Spurious Sexuality in Dance and Film” and other parts of
Kamran Talattof, Modernity, Sexuality, and Ideology in Iran: The Life and Legacy of
Popular Iranian Female Artists, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011.
1 Some stated immediately that the allegation was not entirely true but the controversy
continued for months. See “Manzumeh Khosrow va Shirin Sansur Shod” at
http://radiokoocheh.com/article/121037.
2 See “Hadadian Mashai ra be Alat-e Ahmadinejad Tashbih Kard” at
http://balatarin.com/permlink/2011/4/15/2459199.
3 See “Ezharat-e Ajibe Salahshur” at http://www.tabnak.ir/fa/news/197080.
4 See, for example, http://sharghnewspaper.ir/News/90/05/24/8416.html and
http://ali70.com/11042.
5 Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism:
Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, New York: Oxford
University Press, 1999: 833-44.
SEXUALITY AND CULTURAL CHANGE 45

6 For more information on FilmFarsi, see Hamid Naficy, “Iranian Cinema,” in Companion
Encyclopedia of Middle Eastern and North African Film, edited by Oliver Leaman,
London: Routledge, 2001, 130-222; and Hamid Naficy, “Veiled Visions/Powerful
Presences: Women in Postrevolutionary Iranian Cinema,” edited by Rose Isa and Sheila
Whitaker, Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema, London: National Film Theatre, 1999,
43-65.
7 In many of them, Foruzan (Parvin Khayrbakhsh, b. 1936) and Jamileh (Iran Sadeqi, b.
1946), two important dancers/actresses, had the lead female role in films, while Shahrzad,
somewhat lesser known, had most often a peripheral role. The book mentioned in author's
note above focuses on the life and works of Shahrzad.
8 For more information on Iranian cinema, see Naficy, “Iranian Cinema,” 130-222; Naficy,
“Veiled Visions/Powerful Presences,” 43-65; Dabashi, Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and
Future; and The New Iranian Cinema, edited by Richard Tapper. See also the works of
Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Nasrin Rahimieh, and Agnès Devictor.
9 She goes on to say that dance's “practice and its scholarship are, with rare exception, mar-
ginalized.” See Jane Desmond, “Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies,” in Celeste Fraser
Delgado and José Esteban Munoz, Everynight Life: Culture and Dance in Latin/o
America, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997, 33.
10 Here we are referring only to a particular popular Persian dance. A thorough study should
include historiographies and analyses of Iranian dances throughout history. It should in-
clude discussions of the effects of foreign invasions and foreign influences on dance and
its prohibition under the Islamic rules. It should study all varieties of Iranian national, eth-
nic, and mystic versions.
11 Ahdiyeh Badi'i, “An interview with Nima Tamadon,” Majalleh Qadimiha, Vol. 2. No. 72,
June 2008 and in Ahdiyeh Badi'i, “Honar Khandan-e man madyun-e taraneh-ha-ye film
ast,” An interview with Radio Farda, 14 Farvardin 1387 / April 2, 2008). Male singers in
these movies included Iraj, Aref, Manucher, Daryush, and others.
12 See Shahpur Monsef, “From Dancing the Hips to Moving the Brain: Half Nude Shahrzad
of Bars and Cabarets to Today's Intellectual Actress,” in Film o Hunar, N. 429, 30
Farvardin 1352 (April 19, 1973), pages 20, 21, 24. Such perception is one of the incen-
tives beyond Shariati’s book on Arts [Ali Shariati, Hunar (Art), Tehran: Andishmand,
1982]. He presents similarities to the ideas presented in Ale Ahmad [Jalal Ale Ahmad,
Gharbzadigi (Plagued by the West), Tehran: Ravaq, 1978]. Many of these notions were
collected and reprinted in many other books right after the Revolution. See Ja'fari,
Muhammad Taqi. Nigahi Bih Falsafah-'i Hunar Az Didgah-i Islami (A Look at Art
Philosophy From the Islamic Viewpoint), Tehran: Intisharat-i Nur, 1982. There will be a
discussion of these other similar views in this chapter.
13 We have recently witnessed the promotion of some more of these schizophrenic charac-
ters into high offices.
14 Setâreh Farmânfarmâiyan, Ruspigari Dar Shahr-e Tehran, Tehran: Amuzeshgâh-e
Khadamât-e Ejtemâ’i, 1970, 39.
15 See Feminist Film Theory. A Reader, edited by Sue Thornham, Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press, 1999; and Diane Carson, Janice R. Welsch, and Linda Dittmar, Multiple
Voices in Feminist Film Criticism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
16 In the 1930s, science did not include an open discussion of “orgasm.” Reich's work
launched the discussion of the function of orgasm and its social role. For more informa-
tion, see James DeMeo, On Wilhelm Reich and Orgonomy, Ashland, OR: Orgone
Biophysical Research Laboratory, 1993.
35. See, for example, Roy Porter, “Is Foucault Useful for Understanding Eighteenth and
Nineteenth Century Sexuality?” in Debating Gender, Debating Sexuality, edited by Nikki
Keddie, New York: New York Univ. Press, 1996, 247–68.
46 KAMRAN TALATTOF

17 In addition to Tehran-e Makhuf (1923) by Moshfeq Kâzemi, Tafrihât-e Shab (1932) by


Mohammad Masud, and Bâ Man Be Shahr-e No Biyâ (1932) by Hedâyat Hakimollâhi,
the list includes Zibâ (1930) by Mohammad Hejâzi, Man Ham Garyeh Kardam (1932) by
Jahângir Jalili, Adam Forushân-e Qarn-e Bistom (1941) by Rabi' Ansâri, and Fâhesheh
(1953) by Javâd Fâzel.
18 Productions such as Ki Daste Gol be Âb Dâdeh? (Who Has Been Naughty?, 1973),
Shohar-e Kerâye’i (Rental Husband, 1974), Yek Del va Do Delbar (One Heart and Two
Lovers, 1969), Shohar-e Pâstorizeh (Pastorized Husband, 1971), Tavallodat Mobârak
(Happy Birthday, 1972), Ajale Mo’allaq (Hanging Death, 1970), and Yek Isfahâni dar
New York (An Isfahani in New York, 1972) are good representatives of the genre and all
deal with similar issues.
19 Puri Banâni played the role of a German woman in this movie.
20 Even today, the clip has a viewing record on YouTube at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oi82pS8fRfk&mode=related&search=.
21 For more information on the works of Kimiyâ’i, see Masud Kimiai: Az Khat-e Qermez tâ
Faryâd, Tehran: Didâr, 1999.
22 See Desmond, “Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies,” 33.
23 Even today, the location of a theater is a good indication of the artistic and class value as-
sociated with a film. The negotiation over the location seems to have become a political
element in the broader movie industry and its negotiation with the cultural processes.
24 Bruno Nettle, “Attitude towards Persian Music in Tehran,” Musical Quarterly 56, no. 2
(1970). BBC Persian featured the story of the early and last days of Lalehzar. See Masud
Behnud, “Ta'til-e Teatre Pars: Payan-e Lalehzar,” BBC Persian (14 December 2004).
25 Respectively, in Tehran Mosavar 148 (23 Farvardin 1346 / April 12, 1967): 5; Tehran
Mosavar 151 (12 Farvardin 1347 / April 1, 1968): 8.
26 Of course at the time, these groups accused the Shah's regime of the massacre and many
at the time believed the accusation.
27 For a discussion of the work and achievements of the FilmFarsi actresses, see chapter 6
in Kamran Talattof, Modernity, Sexuality, and Ideology in Iran: The Life and Legacy of
Popular Iranian Female Artists, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011.
28 “Yek Mosâhebeh bâ Foruzân” (“An Interview with Foruzan”), Itilaat-e Haftegi 1617
(1972).
29 For a discussion of this topic and for more examples of the treatment of hejâb in the mo-
vies, see Norma Claire Moruzzi, “Women’s Space/Cinema Space: Representations of
Public and Private in Iranian Films,” Middle East Report, No. 212 (Autumn, 1999), 52–
55.
30 As has been the case with literary movements, cinematic communities have also always
been able to shape the way their consumers interpret their filmic products. The dominant
mode of film reception in Iranian also has changed every time a new movement or a new
mode of expression appears. Each movement encourages its own way of reception. The
elements that constitute this discursive relationship between the filmmakers and their
audience include cinematic techniques, sarcastic language, symbolism, and metaphor all
being worked in the context of the relationship between the regime's dominant ideological
discourse, censorship, and the country's desire for change, progress, and simply function-
ality. By encouraging an understanding of the nuances of the plots, filmmakers also pro-
mote a subjective reception. Through all this, they shape the viewers’ tastes and teach
them to place the importance of political or sexual meaning over any symbolic, cinematic,
entertaining scene. The response to a successful movie like these is sometimes long lines
at the box office, praise and positive reviews in cinematic weblogs, or banning and pun-
ishment of the filmmakers.
SEXUALITY AND CULTURAL CHANGE 47

31 For example, Dâriush Mehrjui, who made the political and psychological The Cow before
the revolution, has since made many movies that deal with gender issues. Indeed, several
of his films have female names as titles.

Works cited

Al-e Ahmad, J., Gharbzadigi, Tehran: Ravaq, 1978.


Badi’i, A., “An interview with Nima Tamadon,” Majalleh Qadimiha, Vol. 2. No. 72, June 2008,
Carson, D., J.R. Welsch and L. Dittmar, Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism, Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
Dabashi, H., Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and Future, London / New York: Verso, 2001.
DeMeo, J., On Wilhelm Reich and Orgonomy, Ashland, OR: Orgone Biophysical Research
Laboratory, 1993.
Desmond, J., “Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies,” in Every Night Life: Culture and Dance in
Latin/o America, C.F. Delgado and J.E. Munoz (eds.), Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
1997.
Farmânfarmâyân, S., Ruspigari Dar Shahr-e Tehrân, Tehran: Amuzeshgâh-e Khadamât-e
Ejtemâ’i, 1970.
Ja’fari, M.T., Nigâhi Bih Falsafah-ye Hunar Az Didgâh-e Islami, Tehran: Intishârât-e Nur, 1982.
Monsef, Sh., “From Dancing the Hips to Moving the Brain: Half Nude Shahrzad of Bars and
Cabarets to Today’s Intellectual Actress,” Film-o Honar, N. 429, 30 Farvardin 1352, April
19, 1973.
Moruzzi, N.C., “Women’s Space/Cinema Space: Representations of Public and Private in Iranian
Films,” Middle East Report, No. 212, Autumn 1999, 52-55.
Mulvey, L., “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory
Readings, L. Braudy and M. Cohen (eds.), New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Naficy, H., “Iranian Cinema,” in Companion Encyclopedia of Middle Eastern and North African
Film, edited by Oliver Leaman, London: Routledge, 2001.
—, “Veiled Visions/Powerful Presences: Women in Postrevolutionary Iranian Cinema,” in Life
and Art: The New Iranian Cinema, edited by Rose Isa and Sheila Whitaker, London:
National Film Theatre, 1999.
Nettle, B., “Attitude towards Persian Music in Tehran,” Musical Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 2, 1970.
Porter, R., “Is Foucault Useful for Understanding Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Sexuality?”
in Debating Gender, Debating Sexuality, N.R. Keddie (ed.), New York: New York University
Press, 1996.
Qukasian, Z., Majmu’e-ye Maqâlât dar Naqd va Moarefi-ye Asar-e Masud Kimiai: Az Khat-e
Qermez tâ Faryâd, Tehran: Didâr, 1999.
Shariati, A., Honar, Tehran: Andishmand, 1982.
Talattof, K., Modernity, Sexuality, and Ideology in Iran: The Life and Legacy of Popular Iranian
Female Artists, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011.
Tapper, R., The New Iranian Cinema, London-New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002.
Thornham, S., Feminist Film Theory. A Reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

Interviews:

· Badi’i, A., “Honar Khandan-e man madyun-e taraneh-ha-ye film ast,” interview with Radio
Farda, 14 Farvardin 1387 / April 2, 2008.
· “Manzumeh Khosrow va Shirin Sansur Shod,” – http://radiokoocheh.com/article/121037.
· “Hadadian Mashai ra be Alat-e Ahmadinejad Tashbih Kard,” – http://balatarin.com/permlink/
2011/4/15/2459199.
· “Ezharat-e Ajibe Salahshur,” – http://www.tabnak.ir/fa/news/197080.
48 KAMRAN TALATTOF

· http://sharghnewspaper.ir/News/90/05/24/8416.html.
· http://ali70.com/11042.
· http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oi82pS8fRfk&mode=related&search=.
· Behnud, Masud, “Ta’til-e Teâtre Pârs: Pâyân-e Lâlehzâr,” BBC Persian, 14 December 2004.
· Respectively, in Tehran Mosavar 148 (23 Farvardin 1346 / April 12 1967): 5; Tehran
Mosavar 151 (12 Farvardin 1347 / April 1 1968): 8.
· “Yek Mosâhebeh bâ Foruzân,” An Interview with Foruzan, Itilâ’ât-e Haftegi 1617, 1972.
Kiarostami’s Cinematic Poetry in Where is the
Friend’s Home? and The Wind will Carry Us

Farzana Marie Dyrud

I have come, along with the wind,


on the first day of summer.
The wind will carry me along
on the last day of fall.
~ Abbas Kiarostami1

Poetry in Iran pours down on us, like falling rain,


and everyone takes part in it.
~ Abbas Kiarostami2

Introduction

I am writing this on the gustiest night I remember this year. Everything that
can move is moving outside the window, even things which do not nor-
mally move. If I walk outside, I too will be moved in a way I am not nor-
mally moved, by a strong force that I cannot see. My imagination wanders,
to where I might end up if I simply let the wind carry me.
Wind and poetry have a special connection. They both move us. They
both come out of places that are hard to detect and are not easily pinned
down. Both also occupy a special place in the aesthetic affinities of film-
maker Abbas Kiarostami. We catch glimpses of what is happening in his
wind-blown imagination through his poetry, his photography, and his films,
a few of the intersections of which are the focus of this essay.
There are many connections between literature and Iranian film, such as
the use of literary stories and ideas, particularly in early Iranian film. In his
introduction to The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation, and
Identity, Richard Tapper notes that Iranian cinema “has firm roots both be-
fore and after the revolution, and in richer and more profound Iranian cultur-
al traditions of drama, poetry and the visual arts that have survived many
centuries of political and social change.”3 However, there is also a sense in
which a certain strain of Iranian cinema not only draws on themes from po-
etry but employs some of the same poetic techniques in its cinematography.
Some accounts of Iranian cinema discuss the importance of a cluster of films
made from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, categorized as “poetic realism” and
50 FARZANA MARIE DYRUD

characterized by a realistic portrayal of seemingly mundane daily life or sim-


ple human events, which take on a kind of poetic depth and meaning in the
subtle, unique way they are portrayed on the screen.
J. Mitchell, in his article “Reflections: The Real Worlds of Iranian
Cinema,” notes that, “With the rejection of many Western films and
themes, as well as poor quality dubbed Farsi Films, filmmakers returned to
their own cultural roots, drawing upon the rich Persian traditions of poetry,
passion plays (ta’ziyya), architecture, music, and storytelling... there is a
poetic quality which regularly focuses on the minutiae and the mundane:
the everyday practices of daily life.”4 This kind of “poetic” film is epito-
mized in the cinematography of Abbas Kiarostami. As a man previously
versed in photography and poetry, who even read poems in preparation for
filmmaking,5 it is not so surprising that Kiarostami made films which were
plot-light explorations in cinematic minimalism, experiments in perspec-
tive, and elaborations less on a story than on poetic imagery.
This essay explores several poetic dimensions of two films made in
Kiarostami’s inimitable style: Where Is the Friend’s Home? and The Wind
Will Carry Us. The first dimension is the actual use or echoes of poetic
phrases (or even whole poems) within the dialogue of the characters. The
second is the idea of rhymes and refrains (repeated patterns) within the
films. Thirdly, we will look at the idea of going – and stopping. The great
power of Kiarostami’s cinema is forcing the viewer to pause, to think, to
wonder about all the questions posed. Lastly, we will explore the minimal-
ist and symbolic nature of his films, that causes the viewer to strain to see
and imagine “beyond the frame” by limiting what is presented in a “show
less, tell less” fashion,6 which prompts the viewer’s active imagination and
participation in the interpretive process. In each section, Kiarostami’s voice
through his own poetry will contribute to the discussion.

Poetry in the Script

The most obvious “poeticism” of these two films begins in their titles: both
are taken from poems by modern Persian poets, Sohrâb Sepehri and
Forugh Farrokhzâd. By invoking these poems, Kiarostami has already
added a layer of meaning to his films, causing us to wonder what the con-
nection is between this film and this poem. What is the poem illuminating
about the film, and vice versa?

The Wind Will Carry Us


In the opening scene of The Wind Will Carry Us, a Landrover is driving
down a winding road carrying a film crew in search of a place with an am-
biguous address. Their directions say to pass the single tall tree on a hill.
Somewhat facetiously, the voice of one the characters (while we see only a
KIAROSTAMI’S CINEMATIC POETRY 51

long shot of the vehicle traveling through the countryside on winding


roads) says: “I’ll tell you what’s there. Near the tree is a wooded lane,
greener than the dreams of God.” The phrase is from Sohrâb Sepehri’s
poem, Address, which will be discussed again in regard to the other film.
However, this initial burst of poetic content sets the tone for the whole
movie. And, appropriately, a child appears to guide them (as at the end of
Sepehri’s poem).
Shortly thereafter, the filmmaker Behzâd is walking with their young
guide, Farzâd, to school in the village where he and his crew have come to
film a traditional ceremony around the death of an old woman (who hasn’t
died yet). They have to keep their goal a secret due to its sensitivity.
Behzâd begins saying a phrase, “When you’re fated to be black...” and the
youngster completes it: “even holy water cannot whiten you.” The under-
cover filmmaker is impressed and surprised that Farzâd knows poetry. It
turns out the boy learns the verses by heart whenever his teacher recites
them out loud. This, perhaps, begins the breakdown of Behzâd’s arrogant
stereotypes of the village and its people... and affirms the power of poetry
as a connection between people.
The most prominent poetry-rich scene in the movie is the “milking
scene.” Inside a dark cave used for keeping animals, Behzâd has a conver-
sation with a young girl who is milking the cow to fill his bucket. She has
a single lantern. He comments on how dark it is, saying,

“If you come to my house, oh, kind one,


bring me the lamp, and a window
through which I can watch the crowd
in the happy street.”

The verse is from Forugh Farrokhzâd’s short poem, Hadiyeh (Gift), which
begins,

I speak out of the deep of night


out of the deep of darkness
and out of the deep of night I speak.7

...and ends with the verse quoted by Behzâd. Strikingly, the scene is again a
filmic representation of the poem (as when the child appears to guide the
wandering Landrover). It is not totally clear what Behzâd’s motives are here.
After a brief conversation with the girl, in which he extracts very little in-
formation from her but ascertains that she has never heard of Forugh
Farrokhzâd, he proceeds to recite the poem after which the film is named.
As it is a fairly long poem, this scene consists of several minutes of nothing
but the milking of the cow (with the sound of the milk sploshing into the
metal bucket), and the recitation of the poem. Here is a portion of it:
52 FARZANA MARIE DYRUD

In my night, so brief, alas


the wind is about to meet the leaves...
...You, in your greenery,
lay your hands – those burning memories –
place your hands like a burning memory
on my loving hands
and entrust your lips, replete with life’s warmth
to the touch of my loving lips...

The end of the poem is changed when the girl interjects:

Girl: Your milk is ready.


Behzâd: The wind will carry us.
Girl: Your milk is ready.
Behzâd: Yes, yes, the wind will carry us!

The girl refuses to give her name or let him see her face, though she con-
cedes the poetry recitation. She gives him very little ground, but she does
seem drawn to the words and inquires at the end how many years of school
Forugh has had, as if to wonder, “Can anyone be a poet?” Behzâd tells
her that you do not need a diploma to be a poet. In a subtle twist that a cas-
ual viewer might miss, he says something which makes you realize that
this girl is secretly seeing the ditch-digger Behzâd met earlier up on top of
the hill where he goes to get reception for his cell phone calls. There is an-
other ambiguous subtext that helps explain why the girl may be reluctant
to show her face; it has been slashed in one of the mourning ceremonies
Behzâd has come to film. Though he misleads her by saying he is the
ditch-digger’s boss, he later helps to save the same man when the hole he
is digging for “telecommunications” collapses. In a roundabout way, it is a
victory over the dis-connect between human beings, especially between
city-bred Farzâd and the villagers, between “modern” and “traditional.” In
short, the whole interaction is far more complex than it seems at first, and
even more so because of the poetry that provides the core of the dialogue.
Another poetic message comes toward the end of the film, when Behzâd
is riding with the Doctor on his motorcycle. His selfish ambitions and per-
spectives have been progressively revealed, and it seems he is beginning to
change and soften as he encounters the world in a new way through his re-
lationship with the villagers. The doctor begins to recite Omar Khayyâm:
“They tell me she is as beautiful as a houri from heaven! [But I say] That
the juice of the vine is better. Prefer the present to these fine promises...”
and they finish together: “Even a drum sounds melodious from afar... pre-
fer the present.” Or in Fitzgerald’s famous translation of the same verse:
KIAROSTAMI’S CINEMATIC POETRY 53

Some for the Glories of This World; and some


Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!

The message of the quatrain from Omar Khayyam is about living in the
present, but there is also something weighty about the bonding between
the doctor, who is happy that he sometimes does not have too many pa-
tients, so that he can go for walks and observe nature, and the filmmaker,
who has just opened himself up to real relationship and understanding with
the villagers through their joint success at saving the ditch-digger. He is in-
volved; he cannot see them as mere subjects anymore. On another level,
we are perhaps being given an insight into the journey of Kiarostami him-
self, and his relationship with the “subjects” of his films.

Where Is the Friend’s House?


Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House? is not as replete with poetic
utterances as The Wind Will Carry Us, but it shares certain thematic el-
ements with the poem Address, by Sohrâb Sepehri, after which it is named.
Sepehri’s poem begins and ends with the question, Where Is the Friend’s
House? Both the poem and the film work with the notion of a quest, set-
ting out in search of something more or less obscure, and asking questions
along the way to discover something about how to proceed. Like the
“horseman at dawn,” Ahmad sets out to find his friend Mohammad Rezâ
Nematzâdeh’s house, without knowing where it is – only that it is in the
village of “Poshteh.” He has accidentally taken his friend Mohammad
Rezâ’s notebook, which puts Mohammad at risk of expulsion for the repeat
offense of a forgotten notebook. Ahmad senses the seriousness of the situa-
tion and is willing to risk even his father’s wrath to deliver the notebook.
This dedication expresses a friendship on his part that is willing to sacrifice
his own interests (including going out to play) for his friend’s sake, and he
is very serious about it. The idea of friendship is mentioned in a rather
mystical way in Sepehri’s poem also:

A wayfarer took the bright branch from his lips,


conferred it on the darkness of the sands,
pointed with his finger to a poplar tree and said,
“Just before that tree
there is a garden path greener than God’s dreams.
In it there is love as wide as the blue wings of true friendship.8
54 FARZANA MARIE DYRUD

Ahmad also matures in the process of his journey. Though one can tell he
is generally an obedient child, he acts contrary to his mother’s instructions,
to do what he knows is right. She simply does not understand.

You go on to the end of the path that takes up again


just beyond maturity,
then turn toward the flower of loneliness.

Ahmad learns that quests can be lonely. Not everyone will see the impor-
tance of your mission. This is portrayed cinematographically in Ahmad’s
repeated trek up and down the zigzag path with the single tree at the top
(as it turns out, the path was made specifically for the movie and the tree
was planted by Kiarostami, which points to the importance of the tree and
path in his symbolic vision). Loneliness, often represented in the shape of
a single tree, flower, or scarecrow is a theme in Kiarostami’s own poetry
(and photography). For example,

Yek gol-e kuchek bi-nâm


Ru’ideh be tanhâ’i
Dar shekâf-e kuh-e azim.

A little nameless flower


Blossoming alone
In the crack of a huge mountain.9

Cover photograph by Abbas Kiarostami


KIAROSTAMI’S CINEMATIC POETRY 55

We feel Ahmad’s aloneness as he wanders through the confusing labyrinth


of the village of Poshteh, asking directions from people who are less than
helpful and who even pose further barriers to the completion of his task. In
the end, he does not find the house. But it is he, the child, who ends up
with a solution (albeit arguably not a particularly ethical one) – he does
Mohammad Rezâ’s homework in the notebook for him. In Sepehri’s poem,
too, it is the child “high up in a pine tree” who knows the answer:

High up in a pine tree,


you will see a child
who will lift a chick out of a nest of light.
Ask him,
‘Where is the friend’s house?’

Rhymes, Refrains

In both of these films, as well as in several others not analyzed here,


Kiarostami utilizes a structure that is more poetic than narrative, with “epi-
sodes,” recurring actions, questions, or character movements providing the
patterns that serve as reference points for a somewhat circular or cyclical
view of time. Though the films contain a basic plot or storyline, it is not a
complex one and the emphasis (as well as what makes these films so com-
pelling) is on the imagery, both of the natural world and human beings.
The recurring themes or scenes can be seen as poetic rhyme schemes or
musical refrains, giving the viewer a point of reference and an experience
different from that of merely moving along a linear story line.
One scene already mentioned but particularly relevant here is when, in
Where Is the Friend’s House? Ahmad is running up and down the zigzag
path and through the grove, accompanied by “theme” music (music of any
kind is rare in the film). We also hear a refrain in the repetition of his ques-
tion: “Do you know where the house of Mohammad Rezâ Nematzâdeh
is?” There is a contrast, too, between “going” and “stopping,” and how
these patterns are (and must be) part of the natural flow of life.

It flies and settles


settles and flies away again –
the grasshopper
in the direction it alone knows.10

In The Wind Will Carry Us, there is another pattern involving a winding
path up a hill and someone in a hurry. This time, it is Behzâd’s pattern:
whenever his cell phone rings, he must race through the village while pull-
ing on his button-up shirt, and drive his car through an opening (the goats
always following him through), speeding up the hill while asking the
56 FARZANA MARIE DYRUD

person “if you can hear me, hold the line,” until he reaches a place with
better reception. Usually it is his boss, Mrs. Gudarzi, and each time he
must explain “why it is taking so long.” Apparently, in Tehran everything
should happen on schedule, even an old lady’s death!
In his book, Road Movies, Devin Orgeron describes Kiarostami’s keen
interest in the “metaphorical potential” of the road. Indeed, many of his
films rely heavily on some kind of travel, and these two are no exception.
In relation to the domestic roots of the filmmaker’s fascination with roads,
Orgeron notes, “the journey was an especially important philosophical and
poetic conceit in the Middle Ages, when Persian culture found itself... at
its own metaphorical crossroads.”11 The continuity and repetition of road
or journey symbolism is an interesting paradox, since a journey usually
means change.

Pauses (Punctuations)

Somewhat in contrast to the last poetic dimension of rhythms and patterns,


naturally involving motion and “going,” another noticeable poetic motif in
Kiarostami’s films is that of the “pause.” To begin with, his films tend to
have a distinctively pensive pace. As one critic said, “A Hollywood picture
is like taking a run on a nearly shoulderless main road with your diskman
blaring, while a Kiarostami picture is like taking a stroll on a nature
trail.”12 Yet that nature trail stroll is anything but mindless. In fact, rather
than distracting and entrancing the viewer with a constant bombardment of
images and their interpretations (leading to plot development), Kiarostami
makes a kind of film that breathes. It asks questions that it does not an-
swer, begins and ends in “odd” places, and leaves space for the viewer to
process what has just happened, to both appreciate and wonder about the
details of the setting.
Why does the woman carrying an enormous bundle of hay (or grain) on
her back appear twice in the movie The Wind Will Carry Us, merely greet-
ing Behzâd from behind the bundle and disappearing in the shed? We
never really see her face, she says nothing else, and she in no way ad-
vances the plot. Interestingly, we encounter another “huge moving bundle
of hay” (this time male, we can tell from his voice) in Ahmad’s quest to
find his friend’s house. Why pause to observe or meet these characters?
Why spend “valuable” screen time time showing men drinking tea, talking
about nothing... or at least nothing “relevant” to the story? As Khatereh
Sheibani has posited, “This multiplicity of possibilities liberates his film
from having a fixed meaning by providing space to its spectators to draw
their conclusions.”13 The space to “pause” is essential to this process.
In Where Is the Friend’s House?, Ahmad is forced to slow down when
he is joined by the old door maker, the first one to make an apparent at-
tempt to help him – though it seems that perhaps he just wanted someone
KIAROSTAMI’S CINEMATIC POETRY 57

to talk to and show his beautiful doors and windows. He walks so slowly,
and even stops at the water pump, pointing out a flower that has fallen to
the ground... strange and out of place amid the stones and buildings. The
path previously mentioned provides the contrast to this moment of stop-
ping to smell the roses or look at the flower:

The zigzag path on the hill between villages in Where Is My


Friend’s House is an exemplary open image. We see Ahmad’s tiny
figure running up and down across the hillside three times in the
film, mostly in a static framing and in long shot. The distant view
and length of the take in the absence of any conventional action
force us to concentrate on the image and absorb the abstraction im-
posed on the environment... Ahmad’s zigzagging symbolizes the
hurrying around in modern life, Kiarostami says.14

We see the same tendency to pause – to capture the moments in between –


in Kiarostami’s poetry. He uses elemental ingredients such as the moon,
snow, the sunrise, shadows, drops of rain, cherry blossoms, and wind to
gently seize otherwise ordinary moments, putting them “on pause” so that
we see them suspended in lyrical vividness, changed by some new surpris-
ing angle that can only be apprehended if we stop and look. Three of his
epigrammatic verses illustrate this affinity for pause:

The spider
stops
and takes a moment’s break
to watch the sun rise.

The gravedigger
stops work
to take a bite
of bread and cheese.

The train shrieks


and comes to a halt.

A butterfly sleeps on the rail.

In the introduction to his book of poems, Walking with the Wind,


Kiarostami contends that, “The aesthetic of close observation is akin to the
aesthetic of familiar objects: the imperative to pause and look more closely
at daily experience.”15 Perhaps the character of the Doctor, whose charac-
ter appears at the end of the film, epitomizes this kind of ‘pausing to look.’
58 FARZANA MARIE DYRUD

He, like Behzâd, also recites poetry, but seems to live out the close obser-
vation of, and delight in, the natural world around him.
Kiarostami’s cinematographic methods and decisions play a key role in
allowing space and time for audience participation in envisioning and inter-
preting the film. As Ch. Lippard describes it, “the long shot/long take gives
us more landscape and more time to absorb it... time for contemplation, for
consideration of what we see – and, often, what we do not.”16

“Beyond the Frame”

Kiarostami’s films have been seen as a cinematic equivalent of Iranian


modernist poetry of the 1960s. “The calling of art is to extract us from our
daily reality, to bring us to a hidden truth that’s difficult to access – to a
level that’s not material but spiritual," says Kiarostami in an interview with
Maja Jaggi. “That’s what poetry and music do...”17 The camera is deliber-
ately trained so as to leave gaps. Michael Anderson, in his review of The
Wind Will Carry Us, says that “...by referring to characters which the view-
er does not see, and in some cases does not hear, Kiarostami is evoking a
world not just beyond the material limits of the frame, but by implication,
beyond the material.”18 As Sepehri puts it, “The eyes should get cleansed,
we should see in a different way...”19
The Wind Will Carry Us is particularly replete with sounds and voices
which are only heard, the sources never seen. The viewer is required to
use his or her imagination to fill in the gaps. Behzâd’s companions are
never seen, only heard. We know that they sleep in, go strawberry picking,
and are annoyed at how long the project has been “stalled” (by the old
lady’s stubborn refusal to die), but we never see their faces. The village of
Siyâh Dareh is full of sounds, the sources of which are often unseen.
Behzâd carries on several conversations with the singing ditchdigger at the
top of the hill by the graveyard, and even calls him his “friend,” but we
never meet the man... we only meet him through his voice. These limita-
tions cause the viewer to be more involved in the “making” of the film.
Behzâd, like the camera, has a limited view. He is narrowly focused on
a particular task and fails to notice many things that are going on around
him. This begins to change toward the end of the film as he wakes up to
certain needs of the human beings around him (most startlingly, the plight
of the ditchdigger). It is only when he begins to grasp the art of living
more fully in the “here and now” rather than fretting about what may or
may not occur, that his original goal is actually fulfilled.
Some accuse Kiarostami of choosing far too simplistic topics for his
films during a politically and socially complex, contentious time. While
not everything may have a political undertone, it can hardly be argued that
Kiarostami’s films are simple or one-dimensional. His themes are natural
and often set in sublime, chiaroscuric countryside; they are also deeply
KIAROSTAMI’S CINEMATIC POETRY 59

human, full of symbolism and mystery. There are layers of complexity in


his approach to filmmaking which heighten the viewer’s consciousness
(and curiosity about) the unseen... the unnoticed... and even the eternal. In
both films, spiritual and philosophical questions arise, surrounding relation-
ships and misunderstandings, expectations and desires, laziness and dili-
gence, love and loneliness, light and darkness, contrasts and incongruities
(which Kiarostami loves to highlight in both his poetry and his films).
Seeing in a different way involves imagining what is not seen, as well as
grasping for the depths and truths about mysteries only brushed lightly in
passing, for the importance of human relationships and connections.
In Where Is the Friend’s House? the viewer is just as displaced as
Ahmad, not having a sense of how to navigate the narrow streets of
Poshteh. Even the path he runs along is a surreal in-between place. In our
imaginations it is as if we are suspended between the two worlds of the
two villages. Once again, there are many sounds that we hear without see-
ing a source, just as Ahmad is hearing but not seeing the meowing cat,
wondering where it is. We are given very limited information about
Ahmad’s mother, brother, and especially father, and must imagine or infer
what the consequences of this expedition will be for him – a clue might be
the violent windstorm that ensues when Ahmad returns home. We never
see Mohammad Rezâ Nematzâdeh’s house or where it is; in this sense we
are just as limited as the main character. And what takes place beyond the
frame is often just as important as what takes place within it.

A passerby’s footprints in the snow –


gone on an errand?
Is he coming back?
This way?

In The Wind Will Carry Us, we are compelled to wonder about the charac-
ter of the tea lady, who is working three jobs. She asks Behzâd, “Are you
in telecommunications?” and then remarks, “This place... is a world of
communication.” Yet we see her later, either exhausted or dejected or both,
sitting alone to one side while she tells her guest “get tea if you want.”
Her comment raises so many questions. Was “this place” Siyâh Dareh?
The tea-house? The world? What about those who are disconnected, not
plugged into the “world of communication...” Like the digger of the tele-
communications ditch at the top of the hill, who chooses to work alone?
Behzâd himself has been disconnected from those around him by his ab-
sorption with himself (we see this vividly as we watch him shaving, from
a perspective as if we are inside the mirror). This is something that begins
to change as certain events force him to think beyond himself and become
involved in the life of the villagers, rather than coming to observe them.
“Stop taking pictures,” says the tea lady, as if to say, stop merely
60 FARZANA MARIE DYRUD

watching... understand what is going on before your eyes. We see him soft-
ening somewhat, from snapping at Farzâd and kicking the turtle over onto
its back, to later helping the ditchdigger whose hole collapses, apologizing
to Farzâd, and offering to go to get medicine for the sick lady in the village
(who was supposed to die so he could get his footage).
At the end of the film, Behzâd takes the human femur he has been carry-
ing around in his car – a grotesque kind of trophy? – and throws it into the
flowing water, as if to release control and begin to live more in the mo-
ment, and more for the things that matter. A poetic conclusion to a film en-
titled The Wind Will Carry Us... (but this is just my interpretation).

My words
To myself
>Never seem quite finished...20

Notes

1 Abbas Kiarostami, trans. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak and Michael Beard, Walking with the
Wind: Poems by Abbas Kiarostami, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001, 225.
2 Cited in Rosa Holman.
3 Richard Tapper (ed.), The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation, and Identity,
London/New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2006, 2.
4 J. Mitchell, ‘Reflections: The Real Worlds of Iranian Cinema,’ Journal of Media and
Religion, 7:92-95, 2008, 94.
5 Dorna Khazeni, “Review of Kiarostami’s Walking with the Wind: Poems by Abbas
Kiarostami,” Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 37, 2002 – http://www.brightlightsfilm.
com/37/BOOKSKiarostami.htm (last accessed10 January 2011).
6 Phrase used by Peter Lennon in an article about Kiarostami, including quotes from his in-
terview, in The Guardian, 15 September 2000 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2000/sep/
15/culture.features1.
7 Forugh Farrokhzâd, translated by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak – http://www.forughfarrokhzad.
org/selectedworks/selectedworks1.asp (last accessed 10 January 2011).
8 Poem by Sohrâb Sepehri, translated by Jerome Clinton.
9 Abbas Kiarostami, Walking with the Wind, p. 67.
10 Abbas Kiarostami, Walking with the Wind.
11 Devin Orgeron, Road Movies: From Muybridge and Méliès to Lynch and Kiarostami,
New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008, 190.
12 Mike Lorefice, www.metalasylum.com/ragingbull/movies/friendshome.html (last accessed
10 January 2011).
13 Khatereh Sheibani, “Kiarostami and the Aesthetics of Modern Persian Poetry,” Iranian
Studies, 39:4, December 2006, 513.
14 Shohmi Chaudhuri and Howard Finn, “The Open Image: Poetic Realism and the New
Iranian Cinema,” Screen, 44:1 (Spring 2003), 49.
15 Abbas Kiarostami, Walking with the Wind, 7.
16 Chris Lippard, “Disappearing into the Distance and Getting Closer All the Time: Vision,
Position, and Thought in Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us,” Journal of Film and
Video. 61:4 (2009), 32.
17 From “Interview with Maja Jaggi,” The Guardian, Saturday 13 June 2009 – http://www.
guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jun/13/abbas-kiarostami-film (last accessed 10 January 2011).
KIAROSTAMI’S CINEMATIC POETRY 61

18 See http://www.reverseshot.com/legacy/spring04/wind.html.
http://www.reverseshot.com/legacy/spring04/wind.html (last accessed Jan. 10, 2011).
19 See Khatereh Sheibani, “Kiarostami and the Aesthetics of Modern Persian Poetry,”
Iranian Studies, 39:4, December 2006, 64.
20 Abbas Kiarostami, trans. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak and Michael Beard, Walking with the
Wind: Poems by Abbas Kiarostami, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001, 236.

Works Cited

Balaghi, Sh. and A. Shadid, “Nature Has No Culture: The Photographs of Abbas
Kiarostami,” Middle East Report, No. 219, Summer 2001, 30-33.
Chaudhuri, Sh. and H. Finn, “The Open Image: Poetic Realism and the New Iranian Cinema,”
Screen, 44:1, Spring 2003, 39-57.
Cheshire, G., “Abbas Kiarostami: A Cinema of Questions,” Film Comment, 32:4, Jul/Aug 1996,
34-43.
Holman, R., The Real Persian Allegory: Contemporary Iranian Cinema and the Politics of the
Poetic, Thesis (MA), University of Melbourne, 2008.
—, “Caught Between Poetry and Censorship: The Influence on State Regulation and Sufi
Poeticism on Contemporary Iranian Cinema,” Senses of Cinema, 2006. http://archive.sense-
sofcinema.com/contents/06/41/poetry-censorship-iran.html (last accessed 10 January 2011).
Kalami, P., Poetic cinema trauma and memory in Iranian films, Dissertation (Ph D.), Davis:
University of California, 2007.
Khazeni, D., “Review: Kiarostami’s Walking with the Wind: Poems by Abbas Kiarostami” Bright
Lights Film Journal, Issue 37, 2002, http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/37/BOOKSKiarostami.
htm (last accessed 10 January 2011).
Kiarostami, A., Walking with the Wind: Poems by Abbas Kiarostami, trans. A. Karimi-Hakkad
and M. Beard, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Lippard, Ch., “Disappearing into the Distance and Getting Closer all the Time: Vision, Position,
and Thought in Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us,” Journal of Film and Video, 61:4,
2009, 31-40.
Mir-Hosseini, Z., “Iranian Cinema: Art, Society and the State,” Middle East Report, No. 219,
Summer, 2001, 26-29.
Mitchell, J., “Reflections: The Real Worlds of Iranian Cinema,” Journal of Media and Religion,
2088, 7, 92-95.
Mottahedeh, N., “‘Life is Color!’ Toward a Transnational Feminist Analysis of Mohsen
Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30:1, 2004.
Naficy, H., “Iranian Writers, the Iranian Cinema, and the Case of ‘Dash Akol,’”
Iranian Studies, Vol. 18, No. 2/4, Sociology of the Iranian Writer, Spring - Autumn, 1985,
231-251.
Orgeron, D., Road Movies: From Muybridge and Méliès to Lynch and Kiarostami, New York:
Palgrave MacMillan, 2008.
Tapper, R., The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation, and Identity, London/New York:
I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2006.

Internet:
Interview with M. Jaggi, The Guardian, Saturday 13 June 2009, –http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/
2009/jun/13/abbas-kiarostami-film.
Review: Walking with the Wind: Poems by Abbas Kiarostami, – http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/
37/BOOKSKiarostami.htm.
62 FARZANA MARIE DYRUD

Films:
Akbari, M., R. Arabshahi, K. Taleizadeh, M. Karmitz, and A. Kiarostami, 10 (Ten), MK2
Productions, Zeitgeist Films, 2002.
Kiarostami, A., Bâd Mâ râ Khâhad Bord (The Wind Will Carry Us), 2002.
—, Khâne-ye Dust Kojâst? (Where Is the Friend’s House?), 1999.
Which Half is Hidden? The Public or the Private:
An Analysis of Milani’s The Hidden Half

Julie Ellison

Traditions are constantly being redefined and recreated to suit the current
situation.1 Today’s notions of public and private space in Iran are recrea-
tions of older traditions, and as recreations or new definitions of older
practices emerge, they can create more definitive boundaries than pre-
viously existed. From the beginning of the Islamic era in Iran, traditional,
patriarchal concepts of public and private meant that men generally con-
trolled the public sphere while women exercised their power within the pri-
vate space.2 There were also separate gendered power structures, in which
women gained respect based on age, the gender of their children, and vari-
ous other factors. Women, especially in the countryside and tribal areas,
exercised considerable power, and were not highly circumscribed by
Islamic laws regarding veiling.3 As much of the Iranian population lived in
rural settings until the mid-1900s, most Iranian women were not required
to follow strict hejâb, or veiling, and their lives were not as strictly regu-
lated as they are today.4 Between 1925 and 1979, societal attitudes towards
women’s place within Iranian society underwent further changes, because
the Pahlavi regime forcibly revised the public/private space dichotomy.
Women increasingly gained power in the public sphere, becoming judges,
doctors, architects, etc.5 However, this forced modernization was too rapid,
and the Shah’s project ultimately failed. More conservative portions of so-
ciety such as the olamâ and bâzâris regained control. They enforced
Khomeini’s Islamization project, creating a neotraditional definition of
public and private space that required stricter gender boundaries in society
than had previously existed, as evidenced in Tahmineh Milani’s The
Hidden Half.
The neotraditional definition of public and private space further limits
Iranian women’s agency. Whereas in the past, urban women were relegated
to the private sphere but could exercise power within this subordinate
structure, now this space too has become public, as evidenced in the film
The Hidden Half. Neither the public nor the private sphere fully permits
Iranian women a place to be themselves without fear of societal reprisal,
and women’s fears are emerging in both literature and cinema. Utilizing
neohistoricist criticism, I argue that the title, The Hidden Half, refers to the
64 JULIE ELLISON

private feelings or true identities of Iranian women, which are not even al-
lowed to be fully revealed in the private, family sphere, so that women re-
main unknown even within a space that was historically reserved for them.
Tahmineh Milani, the director of The Hidden Half, is one of the first
Iranian women filmmakers to comment on the lack of space for women in
the neotraditional public-private dichotomy and to fully contextualize its
emergence in relation to the 1979 Cultural Revolution. Many other notable
directors, including Samirâ Makhmalbâf and Dâriush Mehrjui, tackle this
issue of women and hejâb, but they do so outside the context of the 1979
Revolution.6
When asked about the 1979 Cultural Revolution and why she was the
first to take on such a volatile subject, Tahmineh Milani simply stated, “I
can only make films about things I feel myself.”7 She has also said, “I was
18 years old when the revolution happened and most of the people who
were killed were from my generation.”8 The female perspective on the
1979 Revolution by Iranian women currently living in Iran is notably ab-
sent from the Iranian master historical narrative. While film does not imply
a strict connection with historical fact, it can act as a catalyst towards incit-
ing other women to discuss their own experiences. Milani wanted to en-
courage such a discourse through the production of this film.9
With regard to the pivotal issue of space in Iranian society, Milani
states:

For both men and women, their lives inside their homes where it is
private is one way and outside of their homes where they have to
observe social regulations it is another way... Our women also have
two faces inside their homes: the image of what their spouses or
their spouses’ families want them to have, and what is inside
them.10

Along similar lines, a recent article in The Guardian quotes Sohrâb


Mahdavi, an Iranian on-line editor as stating, “...Since the [1979] revolu-
tion, public space has been tightly controlled [by the clerical authorities],
so people have created their own ‘public’ spaces in private.”11 If public
space is highly regulated and the once-private space has now become a
self-regulated public space, where can Iranian women express themselves?
Milani refuses to hide her true self and has been labeled as an ardent
feminist for her assertive behavior. At an early age, and before many
Iranian women tried to enter the film industry, she aspired to it. Despite
the country’s forced liberalization of that period, her family felt that this
was an unsuitable occupation for a woman and forced her into an architec-
ture program.12 Architecture’s focus on the use of space profoundly im-
pacts how Milani presents women and their world in The Hidden Half.
WHICH HALF IS HIDDEN? 65

When asked about her architecture degree, she found many similarities
between challenges she faced as an architect and those she faces as an
Iranian woman filmmaker today. In both occupations, Milani’s power was
initially questioned, but as she proved herself, and as time passed, she
gained respect for her work.13 Her architecture degree not only prepared
her for examining spatial orientations, but also for being in a position of
power. Since it is impossible to fully divorce the author from her previous
history, these issues play into her film productions.
Milani broke into the film industry in 1979 as a script girl.14 This year
was pivotal for her as an individual, because she was finally doing what
she wanted to do. It was also monumental because of the revolution, which
reorganized society and the daily lives of the entire population. Although
many women had fought on behalf of Khomeini, they had no idea what
was in store for them. They wanted change, but the change that occurred
was not exactly what was anticipated. During interviews in Paris the pre-
vious year, Khomeini had talked about women’s rights, but three months
after assuming leadership of Iran, he instituted mandatory veiling for all
women.15 The rulings he issued thereafter indicated a return to the patriar-
chal order, which was far from what liberated women anticipated. One of
the ways that Khomeini struck at societal order was to severely restrict the
types of jobs women could hold.16 Before the revolution, women could be
judges, but within months of the revolution, they were forced to either
leave the legal system or become secretaries. In medicine, women could
no longer be general practitioners, and they were restricted to specializa-
tions focusing on the female body. The film industry as a whole also under-
went a total transformation.
Women who had prospered in the Iranian film industry during the 1960s
and 1970s were cast out. The FilmFarsi genre, which had popularized scantily
clad women who pranced and swayed under the male gaze of the audience,
existed no longer. Women who had risen to prominence, such as
Cheherazade, could no longer work in the industry. Women were restricted to
playing roles as modest, veiled women, at least during the initial period after
the revolution,17 the roles of what have been aptly termed “chaste dolls.”18
In Western society, the veil is stereotypically understood as a symbol of
oppression, and women wearing chadors represent oppressed Iranian wom-
en. This understanding is highly oversimplified. To some Muslim women,
the veil represents a return to tradition, while to other wearers, it represents
the ability to interact freely within society while maintaining their religious
beliefs. Regardless, Iranian women must wear the veil both on and off
screen.19 The veil has another meaning to modern Iranian women: they use
it as a way to protest, by pushing the boundaries regarding what is consid-
ered modest according to the clerics.20
When Iranian adult women act in a film, they are required to wear the
veil in all scenes, whether they are depicting events that occur in the public
66 JULIE ELLISON

or private spheres. The Hidden Half is no exception, but the forms of veil,
which demarcate the public/private dichotomy, can be varied and the man-
ner in which women observe the rules of hejâb can communicate political
allegiances to certain groups or political ideals.21
As Hamid Naficy notes, “If women had problems appearing in front of
cameras, they had less difficulty attending films schools and working be-
hind the cameras...”22 As long as women directors meet the required rules
of modesty, their films should in principle receive permission to be pro-
duced. The Ministry of Islamic and Culture Guidance did issue permission
for Tahmineh Milani’s The Hidden Half, to be filmed and released; but the
process requires filmmakers to anticipate what will be permissible in the
light of stringently enforced guidelines. They must self-edit before they
pass through this process, which is daunting and in some cases can take
quite a few years.23
The rules, applied to film, problematize the issue of the public and pri-
vate spaces in modern Iranian society, as Iranian women do not wear the
veil in intimate family settings, but if filmmakers wish to portray interac-
tions within the family setting, they are forced to veil the female characters
in a way that is unnatural.24 This raises the issue of whether the screen por-
trays real life, or real life follows the path of idealized film representa-
tions.25 The “cinematic” format leaves no place for privacy: all is open to
the view of the audience. Do Iranian women feel that their whole life and
all their actions are on display continually, whether in real life or cinema?
The Hidden Half takes on the issues of public and private space and its
neotraditionalization at the time of the Iranian revolution. As mentioned
previously, the film received permission for release from the Ministry of
Cultural and Islamic Guidance, under the influence of Khatami’s liberal at-
titude. But when the film was released and received critical acclaim, the ju-
diciary arrested the filmmaker and accused her of supporting groups that
were against the current government. This could have meant a death sen-
tence for assisting those committing crimes against God.26 She was jailed
for two weeks and released. Her arrest was a signal from the judiciary to
the filmmaking industry to be careful.
The Hidden Half was Milani’s sixth film and debuted in 2001. Her arrest
has not stopped her making films dealing with feminist issues. She has
gone beyond dealing with social issues in general to specifically confront-
ing issues facing modern Iranian women under the current theocratic state.
Films cannot be isolated as singular entities within a culture because they
are impacted by life and by other forms of art at the time of production.27
The Hidden Half is a part of the larger feminist movement in Iran today.28
Another of Milani’s films to deal with specifically feminist subject mat-
ter is The Unwanted Woman, which debuted in 2005. Simâ, the female pro-
taganist, has a husband who is cheating on her with a widow named Saba.
While on a trip, during which Simâ acts as a cover for their illicit
WHICH HALF IS HIDDEN? 67

relationship from the morality checks of the regime, she hears about a man
that has killed his wife for cheating on him. She helps the man escape law
enforcement because “...she is in a sense helping herself.”29 But even had
she not assisted him, his actions could be justified under Islamic law as ac-
ceptable. Although their situations are in a sense identical, she could not
have acted in the same manner as him, without fear of governmental repri-
sal.30 She could petition for divorce because of infidelity, but then she
would have to deal with the stigma of being a divorced woman,31 and lose
custody of her young daughter. For Simâ, it is better to maintain the
marriage.
Both The Hidden Half and The Unwanted Woman place Milani’s work
squarely within the realm of feminist criticism on the actions of the current
regime. Despite being challenged by artificial boundaries, she and many
other modern Iranian filmmakers have found ways to communicate their
indignation at the way women are being treated. Although her heroines are
not extremely aggressive, they manage to communicate that it is time for
change.
The protagonist in The Hidden Half is Fereshteh, played by the starlet,
Niki Karimi, who has appeared in many of Tahmineh Milani’s films. Some
critics have argued that Karimi is part of the “new star system,” replacing
the system that was suppressed for some time after the 1979 Revolution.32
According to Sadr, in the 1990s, Niki Karimi became stereotyped as a re-
presentative of “the educated non-traditional woman” who was a victim of
her social class.33 Fereshteh, the woman Karimi portrays in The Hidden
Half, is from a lower class background. She improves her social position
through her intellect, education, and the support of benefactors. Sadr’s cri-
tique of stereotyping in Karimi’s roles rings true. In the film, Fereshteh fo-
cuses on her education, though she does not lose her passion for that in
which she believes.
The Hidden Half has two parts to it: a framework story and a main story.
Fereshteh and her diary are the link between the two. In the framework
story, the husband, whose name is Khosrow, is a senior judge for the
Islamic Republic of Iran. He thinks the world of his wife, Fereshteh. They
have been married for 17 years, and all he has ever known is a caring
woman who maintains full hejâb and adheres to the rules of God and man.
It is significant to note that Fereshteh is wearing a black dress when we
first see her within the home in modern times, which represents complete
adherence to the Islamic cultural norms as imposed by the Iranian govern-
ment. She follows the rules of God as interpreted by the rules of men, and
she does so fully without appearing to have a desire to challenge societal
norms, especially in comparison with some of the women in Ziba Mir-
Hosseini’s Divorce Iranian Style, whose clothes push the boundaries of
what is acceptable by the current government’s modesty standards.
68 JULIE ELLISON

Khosrow doesn’t know all the reasons why Fereshteh is such a loving
wife and devoted mother. He is only aware of her actions and her beliefs
from the time he met her onwards. He married a kind girl willing to take
care of an ill, old woman (his mother) during a period of extreme cultural
and societal upheaval. He knows the image, the face that she projects both
to society and to those within her private sphere, but he does not know her
innermost feelings. He sees a girl from a provincial town who was attempt-
ing to better herself through higher education, but she was in the wrong
place, Tehran, during the 1979 Revolution and made the best of a bad
situation.
At the beginning of the movie, when he is talking to her about his up-
coming assignment from the President’s office, he asks her to pack a suit-
case for him because he must go to interview a female political prisoner
who is making a last chance appeal. When packing the suitcase for her
husband, she inserts her own diary to allow her husband to better know
her private self and hopefully impart a bit more understanding for this
woman’s case, since he could easily have been going to interview
Fereshteh, had she not ended up taking care of his mother after her own
close run-in with the law and Mr. Rastegâr.34
The gift of the previously withheld information from the wife to her hus-
band then causes one to ruminate further on what is hidden. The “hidden”
in the title of the film points to the issue of public and private space. What
is the hidden half? Is a woman’s private life completely eclipsed by her
public life or vice versa? Are women the hidden half of the population?
Milani masterfully films a scene where the light half falls on Fereshteh’s
face when she hurriedly visits her parent’s home to obtain her passport, at
a time she is afraid that the religious groups are going to imprison her. Up
to this point in the main story, she has been in the capital and center of re-
volutionary activity to pursue a university degree. She is beginning to
know herself, but just as she is exploring ideas and concepts that will allow
her to develop analytical skills, the basijis cause serious problems and she
must hide from her family (private sphere) and the connections she had
made at her time at the university (public sphere). Then her mother com-
ments on how much she has changed and how she doesn’t really know
Fereshteh anymore.35 She lives out the remaining years of the revolution
in a private setting (one in which she is not a true insider), where no one
knows her inner self. She does that to protect her family, her friends, and
herself.
In Iran, the requirement for actresses to wear the veil in representations
of both public and private spaces prevents a realistic depiction of everyday
life. In The Hidden Half, Milani intentionally points to the artificial usage
of the veil, in society and in film, to underline how unnatural it is for
women to have no space of their own. The characters in The Hidden Half
talk about their dress, how their choices in scarves and overcoats point to
WHICH HALF IS HIDDEN? 69

their political beliefs, and about whether they can have both a public and
private life.36
Just before Fereshteh goes into hiding, she discusses how problematic
veiling is as a visual marker of revolution. When she goes to her family’s
home, she changes from wearing the activist scarf and overcoat into a
black chador. Some critics would argue that her more acceptable Islamic
attire marks an evolution of her character, into a morally righteous Muslim
woman. From the viewpoint of these critics, when Fereshteh wears a scarf
and overcoat, although she adheres to Islamic guidelines, she is a “loose
woman,” but by taking on the traditional chador, she evolves into a higher
more, enlightened character.37
Fereshteh remains the same woman she once was despite an outward
modification of her attire. Furthermore, her political views remain the same
although they are to be hidden for 20 years. In this way, Milani suggests that
it is impossible to know what occupies a woman’s private thoughts, no mat-
ter how many visual markers point towards a traditional, religious woman.
In the framework story, Fereshteh is a woman of nearly 40. She has a
loving husband and two children, a boy and a girl. She has a nice house
and may come and go as she chooses. To all outward appearances, every-
thing is perfect, but then the audience sees her gazing off screen when she
is talking to her husband. This reversal of the gaze, to fall on the audience,
indicates that something is not in order. Her public and private space are
open to view, but her private feelings remain her own.
In the main story, which the husband is reading the night before his in-
terview with the convicted revolutionary, Fereshteh joins a militant Marxist
student organization. She strongly believes in improving the plight of the
masses. While attending meetings about her organization, she sees and falls
in love with a much older man, Mr. Ruzbeh Jâvid, at which point she be-
comes highly intrigued with the question of how one can have a personal
love life while being a public activist and revolutionary.
In a café scene, Fereshteh questions her group about love, and through
skilled filmmaking techniques Milani cuts to Mr. Jâvid’s answers to
Fereshteh’s perplexing questions. Their glances speak of a mutual desire,
and the difficulties young love encounters in Iranian society is referenced
in the film, because Fereshteh must ask for permission to love from her or-
ganization. In a sense, the organization has stepped in to protect her honor
in place of her family, whom she has left in the provinces. This scene also
implies Fereshteh’s questions are universal and perplexing, regardless of
class, age, and gender.
In a later scene, Nasrin, the ardent activist, who has already spent five
years in jail under the Shah’s regime and acts a model for the young girls
to try to emulate, criticizes Zohra for having posters of Gary Cooper and
Che Guvera on her bedroom wall. “How can such a superficial Hollywood
icon occupy a place next to an activist?” she asks.38 Zohra quips that she
70 JULIE ELLISON

fortunately has space for both. Milani masterfully inserts this scene as a
way of questioning what right a public group has to comment on Zohra’s
private space. Another important part to this scene is when Fereshteh ques-
tions whether all activists’ rooms look the same. These young female acti-
vists have in a sense surpassed their leader, because the leader follows the
organization’s directives blindly, while they think about what they are
being told to do and how to live. They also realize, before it is too late,
that they must limit their activities in public and private spaces, because no
one is safe from the more extreme Islamic religious groups at this time.
Iranian women participated in these guerilla movements, although gen-
der equality was often regarded as an issue of lesser importance, to be ad-
dressed after a successful revolution.39 Initially, international pressures that
called for human rights in Iran opened up spaces for these organizations.40
But they, and many other groups, were part of the unlikely alliance that
propelled Khomeini to power and created the highly regulated public space
which is the central matter of contention in The Hidden Half.
The left has a long history in Iran. During the 1940s and 1950s, the
Tudeh party tried to improve the lives of working men. Then, the National
Front headed by Mosaddeq emerged and, with the support of the Tudeh
party, gained control of Iran for a short period.41 Although, their control
was short-lived due to foreign intervention, their ideologies continued to
circulate among Iranian citizens.
In the 1960s, as modernization projects and international politics influ-
enced Iran, smaller leftist groups emerged, including Shoaiyan’s Group,
Golshorki’s Group, Setâreh-ye Sorkh (the Red Star), and Ârmân-e Khalq
(the People’s Ideal). In The Hidden Half, the young Fereshteh joins the
Organization of the People’s Fedaii Guerillas, hoping to create a better so-
ciety for all classes. However the choice of this particular organization is
an interesting touch by Milani, as they do not advocate women’s rights.42
At the beginning of the central story, Fereshteh is a committed writer.
She uses symbols in her articles, and Mr. Jâvid, a publisher, characterizes
her writing as meant for a certain period and time. If she truly wants to be
great then she needs to surpass symbols, which classify her writing style
into a specific era and genre of literature; her words need to be timeless. In
one scene, Mr. Jâvid talks about what red symbolizes and also what night
symbolizes. He criticizes her writing and in turn she tells him that he is out
of touch with her generation. He admits this is a possibility, and then
smoothly changes the topic into a matter that highly perplexes Fereshteh.
Fereshteh does not understand love, as evidenced in the aforementioned
café scene, and what role it can play in her life as a revolutionary. Mr.
Jâvid, an older and more experienced man, forces her to directly confront
this issue that she has heretofore only written about. Her love for Mr. Jâvid
is real, and he confronts her with its being the true reason for her visits to
his public office.43
WHICH HALF IS HIDDEN? 71

The Hidden Half’s central love story bears a striking resemblance to the
love story broached by Simin Behbahâni in her short story “The Broken
Cup.” Persian films often make references to pieces of literature by notable
Iranian authors, and since Behbahâni is a highly acclaimed Iranian feminist
and poet during the second half of the 20th century, it is no surprise that
Milani would allude to one of her short stories. In that short story, a wom-
an falls in love with a man. She was an activist and pursued that to the ex-
clusion of all else, including her beloved, who lived his life fully. She lived
her narrow existence and at the end was full of an unfulfilled love.44 In his
introduction to the translation of this short story, Kamran Talattof points
out that the character is at least loosely based on Behbahâni herself, since
she was an activist during the same time frame.45
At the end of the Behbahâni’s short story, the protagonist again gets a
chance to interact with her beloved, and the passage of time has taught her
the most important thing of all is to love. This short story by Behbahâni
serves as a very important comparison to the movie The Hidden Half as it
brings up the period when Mosaddeq was propelled into power and gives
further insight into the matter of love. Mosaddeq believed in free elections
and the nationalization of the oil industry to help the Iranian people get on
their feet and compete in a global market. One of the groups that propelled
him to power was the Tudeh Party, but they quickly became disenchanted
with him because he did not support the working man’s causes or move
fast enough to alleviate the hardships they were enduring at the time.46
The year 1953 was a pivotal one in Iranian history and in Behbahâni’s
short story, and it is also relevant to the character of Mr. Ruzbeh Jâvid.
During a later scene in The Hidden Half, Mr. Jâvid’s wife recounts that
he was an activist during the 1953 Revolution. She tells Fereshteh how she
first met and came into contact with him, and it is not what one expects.
Her cousin Mahmonir was an activist in a Marxist student organization that
supported Mosaddeq’s coup, and Mr. Javid was involved in the same organi-
zation. Mahmonir loved Mr. Jâvid, and she told her cousin all about him.
One day, when heavy rioting occurred, Mahmonir disappeared, and Mr.
Jâvid and Mahmonir’s uncle searched for her in vain. She was lost to them
all, and eventually Mr. Jâvid settled for her, Mahmonir’s cousin, until
Fereshteh appeared in their lives. Fereshteh reawakened a desire that had
long been buried in Mr. Jâvid just as in The Broken Cup when the belov-
ed’s hands starts to shake.47 Fereshteh’s face bears a striking resemblance
to that of Mr. Jâvid’s lost love, and his wife implies that is the only reason
that he has a deep affection for Fereshteh, which Ruzbeh later denies in
the film. Fereshteh’s face (which is visible despite the veil) awakens love
in Mr. Jâvid.
He has learned from history that love is more important than activism,
which will not necessarily succeed regardless of how much effort one in-
vests in it. He lost one girl, and although he lived a happy and successful
72 JULIE ELLISON

life, he tries to take a chance and grab love despite the societal upheaval of
the period. Mr. Jâvid becomes wise with age, but in trying to get Fereshteh
to act against societal norms, being the “other woman,” he fails again in
his attempt to be with his beloved.48
Milani’s film illustrates that her protagonists, and women in real life,
can learn from their predecessors. Women are not doomed to repeat the
same mistakes over and over again; they can be activists and have families
they love as well. Although Mahmonir and the female protagonist from
“The Broken Cup” do not get a chance at ultimate fulfillment, they do give
insight to Fereshteh on how to love and live your life according to your
own beliefs.
Although women were extremely persecuted in the public space immedi-
ately after the 1979 Revolution, they managed to persevere and find ways
to protest infringements on their personal space. One way of reclaiming
public space was to pursue higher education: today, women students are in
the majority at most universities in Iran.49
Fereshteh’s inner self gave rise to the person that her husband, the judge,
found appealing – an honest, hardworking, well-educated woman – but
Fereshteh never forgot her innermost moral beliefs. When faced with a real
cause, the life of a condemned female political prisoner who could easily
have been her, or one of her friends, she does not hesitate to fully acknowl-
edge her inner identity and thereby reclaim her private space, and in doing
so, possibly save the life of a woman who lived and fought for the very
same causes she had fought for during the revolutionary period.
Women’s true selves are the hidden half of society, because women on
screen must abide by Islamic moral values while opening up an “imag-
ined” private life to a public gaze. This cinematic representation of true life
borders on reality, as women are forced to appear in public in appropriate
hejâb and they hold what would once have been public meetings in their
homes. They must sneak around to avoid moral censors but this behavior
further infringes on the amount of space in the true private sphere.
The only thing truly private is one’s inner thoughts which, as the film
shows, time cannot take from you, especially if you truly believe.
Fereshteh symbolizes hope and resilience of spirit in the movie. She acts
morally when faced with Mr. Javid’s tainted love. Although time passes,
Fereshteh manages to maintain her ideals while pursuing her educational
ambition and personal, familial goals. She goes on to get married and have
two children. This public persona is open to all, but people are not aware
of the girl she once was.
Women’s innermost selves are hidden from sight underneath veils,
which are intended to protect their wearers’ honor. The veil is not a choice
for Iranian women: they must wear it in any and all public spaces.
Through her social commentaries, Milani is urging Iranian women to re-
claim space, which is theirs, and although it might be less than pleasant, it
WHICH HALF IS HIDDEN? 73

will pave the way for better things in the future.50 The Hidden Half must
redefine private space to emerge more fully into the light.

Notes

1 Fariba Adelkhah, Being Modern in Iran, trans. Jonathan Derrick, New York: Columbia
University Press, 2000, 107.
2 Nikki R. Keddie and Yann Richard, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003, 31.
3 Ibid., 31.
4 Janet Afary, Grassroots Democracy and Social Democracy in the Iranian Constitutional
Revolution, 1906-1911, University of Michigan Press, 1991, 201-204.
5 Mitra K. Shavarini, “Wearing the Veil to College: The Paradox of Higher Education in
the Lives of Iranian Women,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 38 (2006),
190.
6 Norma Claire Moruzzi, “Women's Space/ Cinema Space: Representation of Public and
Private in Iranian Film,” Middle East Report 212 (1999), 53.
7 Tahmineh Milani, “Tahmineh Milani Talks Back,” 1 December 2001, quoted by
Stephanie Scott in article http://newenglandfilm.com/news/archives/01december/milani.
htm// (last accessed 19 November 2009).
8 Ibid.
9 Tahmineh Milani, “Tahmineh Milani Interview,” – www.adventuredivas.com (last ac-
cessed 30 November 2009).
10 Ibid.
11 Peter Beaumont, “Iran’s Young Women Find Private Path to Freedom,” The Observer, 16
March 2008 – www.guardian.co.uk (last accessed 9 December 2009).
12 Stephanie Scott, “Tahmineh Milani Talks Back.”
13 Tahmineh Milani, “Interview with Tahmineh Milani: Between Censorship and a Smash
Hit,” interview by Claudia Auer transl. by John Bergeron, 2006 – http://www.qantara.de/
webcom/show_article.php/_c-544/_nr-14/i.html (last accessed 30 November 2009).
14 Scott, “Tahmineh Milani Talks Back.”
15 Eliz Sanasarian, The Women's Rights Movement in Iran: Mutiny, Appeasement and
Repression from 1900 to Khomeini,New York: Praeger, 1982, 125.
16 Shavarini, 190.
17 Kamran Talattof, “Class Notes - Film Farsi,” in Iranian Cinema Class, Tucson:
University of Arizona, 2009.
18 Shahla Lahiji, “Chaste Dolls and Unchaste Dolls: Women in Iranian Cinema since 1979,”
in New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, edited by Richard Tapper,
New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2002, 222.
19 Moruzzi, “52.
20 Beaumont, “Iran's Young Women Find Private Path to Freedom.”
21 Lahiji, 221.
22 Hamid Naficy, “Islamizing Film Culture in Iran: A Post-Khatami Update,” in The New
Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, edited by Richard Tapper, New
York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2002, 47.
23 Scott, “Tahmineh Milani Talks Back.”
24 Naficy, 47.
25 Edward Buscombe, “The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema,” in Film Genre Reader
Iii, edited by Barry Keith Grant, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003,18.
26 Scott, ‘Tahmineh Milani Talks Back.’
74 JULIE ELLISON

27 Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, Chicago:


University of Chicago Press, 1980, 5-6.
28 Kamran Talattof, The Politics of Writing in Iran: A History of Modern Persian Literature,
1st ed., Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999, 138.
29 Tahmineh Milani, “Unwanted Woman,”Arta Film Productions, 2005.
30 Ibid.
31 Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Kim Longinotto, “Divorce Iranian Style” (Twentieth Century
Vixen, 1998).
32 Sheibani Khatereh, “Authorship in Performance in the Post-Revolutionary Iranian
Cinema,” in Middle East Studies Association, Boston,: 2009.
33 Hamid Reza Sadr, Iranian Cinema: A Political History, New York, NY: IB Tauris & Co.
Ltd, 2006, 261.
34 Tahmineh Milani, The Hidden Half, Iran: Arta Film Productions, 2001.
35 Ibid.
36 Ibid.
37 Lahiji, 223.
38 Milani, The Hidden Half.
39 Talattof, 138.
40 Ervand Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, New York: Cambridge University Press,
2008, 157.
41 Ibid., 116.
42 Talattof, 138.
43 Milani, The Hidden Half.
44 See review by Kamran Talattof on Simin Behbahani, “A Window to the Past and Future:
Fenjan-E Shekasteh (The Broken Cup),”’ Iranian Studies 30, no. 3/4 (1997), 254.
45 Ibid., 249.
46 Abrahamian, 116.
47 Behbahani, 254.
48 Milani, The Hidden Half.
49 Shavarini, 189.
50 Milani, “Tahmineh Milani Interview.”

Works cited

Abrahamian, E., A History of Modern Iran, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Adelkhah, F., Being Modern in Iran, trans. Jonathan Derrick, New York: Columbia University
Press, 2000.
Afary, J., Grassroots Democracy and Social Democracy in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution,
1906-1911, University of Michigan, 1991.
Behbahani, S., and K. Talattof, “A Window to the Past and Future: Fenjan-E Shekasteh,” Iranian
Studies, vol. 30, no. 3/4,1997, 249-254.
Buscombe, E., “The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema,” in Film Genre Reader Iii, B. K.
Grant (ed.), Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Greenblatt, S., Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1980.
Keddie, N. R. and Y. Richard, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press, 2003.
Lahiji, Sh., “Chaste Dolls and Unchaste Dolls: Women in Iranian Cinema since 1979,” in New
Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, R. Tapper (ed.), New York: I.B.
Tauris Publishers, 2002.
Moruzzi, N. C., “Women's Space/ Cinema Space: Representation of Public and Private in Iranian
Film,” Middle East Report, vol. 212, 1999, 53.
WHICH HALF IS HIDDEN? 75

Naficy, H., “Islamizing Film Culture in Iran: A Post-Khatami Update,” in The New Iranian
Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, R. Tapper (ed.), New York: I.B. Tauris
Publishers, 2002.
Sadr, H. R., Iranian Cinema: A Political History, New York: IB Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2006.
Sanasarian, E., The Women’s Rights Movement in Iran: Mutiny, Appeasement and Repression
from 1900 to Khomeini, New York: Praeger, 1982.
Shavarini, M.K., “Wearing the Veil to College: The Paradox of Higher Education in the Lives of
Iranian Women,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 38, 2006, 189-211.
Sheibani, Kh., “Authorship in Performance in the Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema,” Middle
East Studies Association, Boston: 2009.
Talattof, K., The Politics of Writing in Iran: A History of Modern Persian Literature, Syracuse:
Syracuse University Press, 1999.

Internet:
Beaumont, P., “Iran’s Young Women Find Private Path to Freedom,” The Observer, 16 March
2008 – www.guardian.co.uk (last accessed 9 December 2009).
Milani, T., “Tahmineh Milani Interview” – www.adventuredivas.com (last accessed 30 November
2009).
—, “Interview with Tahmineh Milani: Between Censorship and a Smash Hit,” interview by
Claudia Auer translated by John Bergeron, 2006 – http://www.qantara.de/webcom/show_arti-
cle.php/_c-544/_nr-14/i.html (last accessed 30 November 2009).
Scott, S., “Tahmineh Milani Talks Back,” 1 December 2001 – http://newenglandfilm.com/news/
archives/01december/milani.htm// (last accessed 19 November 2009).

Film:
Milani, T., Unwanted Woman, Arta Film Productions, 2005.
—, The Hidden Half, Iran: Arta Film Productions, 2001.
Mir-Hosseini, Z. and K. Longinotto, Divorce Iranian Style, Twentieth Century Vixen, 1998.
Abbas Kiarostami and the Aesthetics of Ghazal

Khatereh Sheibani, York University, Canada

Out of all the forms of classical Persian poetry, Abbas Kiarostami’s film-
making is closest to ghazal, a subgenre of lyric poetry found in the poems
of Hâfez – Khâjeh Shams al-din Mohammad Hâfez Shirazi (d. 1325/26-
1389/90). Hâfez used the poetic form of ghazal to articulate his philoso-
phy. The similarities are found both on the philosophical and poetic levels.
Hâfez’s lyric poetry is related to the particular kind of poetic cinema
known as Sinemâ-ye Taghazzoli (roughly translated as lyric cinema), which
is reflected in Kiarostami’s aesthetics. At the same time, Kiarostami’s non-
narrative cinema and especially the formal poetic structure of his films is
influenced by the “spatial” poetic discourse in Hâfez’s poems. The impor-
tance of form in understanding film content is emphasized by André
Bazin:

Our intention is certainly not to preach the glory of form over con-
tent. Art for art’s sake is just as heretical in cinema as elsewhere,
probably more so. On the other hand, a new subject matter demands
new form, and is as good a way as any towards understanding what
a film is trying to say to us is to know how it is saying it.1

Hâfez of Shiraz was and still is the most influential poet in the Persian-
speaking world. He was born in 1325/26 in Shiraz, in south-central Iran.
He memorized the Qur’an by listening to his father's recitations – the name
Hâfez means “one who has memorized the Qur’an.” He also memorized
many of the works of previous poets such as Sa’di (d. 1292), Attâr (d.
1220), Rumi (d. 1273), and Nezâmi (d. 1209). While still in his early twen-
ties, Hâfez was patronized by Abu Eshâq Inju (1321-57), who held undis-
puted control of Fars. At this time the city was enjoying relative prosperity
after a period of anarchy and economic hardship under Mongol rulers.
When Hâfez was 33, the Mozaffarid dynasty (1314-93) Amir Mobâriz al-
Din Mohammad Mozaffar, invaded his hometown. Later, when he fell out
of favor with Shah Shojâ’ of the Mozaffarid dynasty, he had to flee to
Esfahan.
78 KHATEREH SHEIBANI

At the age of 52, at Shah Shojâ’s invitation, Hâfez returned to Shiraz


from exile. Between 1358 and 1368 he was reinstated to his post at the col-
lege, where he taught theology and wrote commentaries on religious clas-
sics. In the late 1380s, Shah Mansur Mozaffari became his patron. A life-
long resident of the city of wine, roses, and nightingales, Hâfez gained
much fame and influence in Shiraz. When he died at the age of 69, he had
composed some 500 ghazals, 42 quatrains (roba’is), and a few panegyrics
(qasidehs) over a period of 50 years. He only wrote when he was divinely
inspired, and averaged about ten ghazals per year. His focus was on writ-
ing poetry worthy of the Beloved.2
During his lifetime, Hâfez was famous beyond Shiraz – eastward to
India and westward to other areas of Islamic dominion. In the last three
centuries of greater confluence between East and West, he became recog-
nized as a world-class poet and is read in many languages. Goethe, for
instance, composed his West-östlicher Divan in emulation of the Divân of
Hâfez. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hâfez ranks with
Shakespeare. John Payne, who translated him into English, ranked him
alongside Shakespeare and Dante.3 While not everyone may agree, Hâfez
is nonetheless distinguished as the sultan of ghazal and Lisân-al Ghayb
(“Tongue of the Hidden”), or the Sufi poet who reveals the hidden truth,
from a nation famous for its poetic tradition. His poems and poetic mysti-
cism have had an enormous impact on Persian culture and literature and
still live in the Iranian mind. As Wheeler Thackston says:

[i]f Sa’di’s Gulistan has been read by more people, and Mawlavi’s
Mathnavi has been called the Koran in Persian, no book has been
so reverenced, no poet so celebrated, and no verse so cherished as
Hâfez’s ghazals ... Hâfez sang a rare blend of human and mystic
love so balanced, proportioned and contrived with artful ease that it
is impossible to separate the one from the other; and rhetorical arti-
fice is so delicately woven into the fabric of wisdom and mysticism
that it imparts the vivacity and freshness to ideas that, in and of
themselves, may not have been new or original with Hâfez.4

The secret of Hâfez’s eternal appeal may be that among all other Iranian
mystical poets of the classical epoch, few extended religious asceticism
(erfân-e zâhedâneh) to embrace a more playful, courageous, and question-
ing version called poetic mysticism (erfân-e rendâneh), which originated
in the school of Khorasani Sufism. In this school, poets and thinkers es-
chewed rational thought and logic in favor of a non-rational and poetic in-
terpretation of the story of Genesis in particular, and of life in general.5
Other poets versified the same concepts that culminated in Hâfez’s poet-
ry, but lacked the magic of his poetic style. Hâfez was not the founder of
the ghazal genre or of the philosophical doctrine of Sufism that he
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND THE AESTHETICS OF GHAZAL 79

followed. The themes he focused on already existed in Persian poetic and


philosophical traditions and are found in the poetry of Sa’di, whose gha-
zals greatly influenced Hâfez. As Daryush Ashuri has noted, Hâfez’s mys-
tical interpretation of life and religion was borrowed from Mirsâd al-ebâd
and Kashf al-asrâr, which were in turn mystical interpretations of the
Qur’an.6 In creating his own particular ghazal, Hâfez conveys meaning
through an exalted lyrical form that was innovative in its ambiguous and
imaginary language.
Hâfez’s poetry is mostly famous for his sublime use of lyrical language.
It is the magic of his words, or what modern linguists would call “stylistic
elements,” that make reading his poetry a unique experience for Iranians.
Thus it is partly the formal aspect of Hâfez’s poetry that made his Divân
the most celebrated literary text in Iran, and changed ghazal both on struc-
tural and contextual levels. An equal passion for form is found in
Kiarostami’s film grammar.
Despite other Persian poetic genres in lyric mode and in narrative poetry,
Hâfez’s ghazals are non-narrative and non-linear.7 However, this is not true
for ghazal as a lyric mode. Generally speaking, ghazal is a monorhyme
poem whose subject is love. It has seven to fifteen lines, in which the first
two hemistichs and the second hemistich in each following line rhyme. In
terms of poetic form, ghazal resembles qasideh. The main difference be-
tween these two lyric modes is that qasideh is considered “public” poetry
while ghazal is “private” poetry,8 and towards the last line of a ghazal the
poet mentions his pen name.
Ghazal began to flourish in the 12th century, representing both mystical
and secular love themes. These two different paths overlap frequently and
the result is a deliberate ambiguity. Other factors enhance the sense of am-
biguity. For instance, the gender of the beloved is mostly ambiguous since
the Persian language does not formally distinguish gender. The sexual am-
biguity of the beloved, who is usually called Sâqi, is a particular subject of
discussion in the ghazals of Sa’di of Shiraz, which are sometimes read as
homosexual lyrics. The secular ghazal reached its highest point in Sa’di’s
poems.
In the 14th century, Hâfez transformed ghazal both in form and content.
In his poetry, the two streams of secular and mystical ghazal merged to
shape a new form of ghazal. The imagery of secular and spiritual poetry is
now combined and extended to convey multiple levels of meaning. In con-
trast to other poetic modes, Hâfez’s ghazals have no thematic or formal
harmony. Bahâ al-Din Khorram-Shâhi comments that in Hâfez’s poetry9
the verses look semantically fragmented.10 This semantic fragmentation of
each ghazal couplet gives it a semantic autonomy. This formal characteris-
tic was new in Persian poetics, although it existed in the structure of the
Qur’an.11 Indeed, a lack of semantic unity is the most obvious common
stylistic feature of the Qur’an and Hâfez’s Divan. Khorram-Shâhi
80 KHATEREH SHEIBANI

concludes that although Sa’di influenced Hâfez to a great extent, the seem-
ingly fragmented semantic structure of Hâfez’s ghazals is inherited from
the non-linear structure of the Qur’an. In Hâfez’s poems, the verse demon-
strates an extraordinary autonomy, diversity, and divergence.12 What main-
tains each ghazal as a poetic unit is its rhythm, “rhyme, and the overall
poetic aura.” 13 Hâfez’s disjointed structure is evident in the following
poem:

‫ﺩﺭ ﺣﻖ ﻣﺎ ﻫﺮ ﭼﻪ ﮔﻮﯾﺪ ﺟﺎﯼ ﻫﯿﭻ ﺍﮐﺮﺍﻩ ﻧﯿﺴﺖ‬ ‫ﺯﺍﻫﺪ ﻇﺎﻫﺮ ﭘﺮﺳﺖ ﺍﺯ ﺣﺎﻝ ﻣﺎ ﺁﮔﺎﻩ ﻧﯿﺴﺖ‬
‫ﺩﺭ ﺻﺮﺍﻁ ﻣﺴﺘﻘﯿﻢ ﺍﯼ ﺩﻝ ﮐﺴﯽ ﮔﻤﺮﺍﻩ ﻧﯿﺴﺖ‬ ‫ﺩﺭ ﻃﺮﯾﻘﺖ ﻫﺮ ﭼﻪ ﭘﯿﺶ ﺳﺎﻟﮏ ﺁﯾﺪ ﺧﯿﺮ ﺍﻭﺳﺖ‬
‫ﻋﺮﺻﻪ ﺷﻄﺮﻧﺞ ﺭﻧﺪﺍﻥ ﺭﺍ ﻣﺠﺎﻝ ﺷﺎﻩ ﻧﯿﺴﺖ‬ ‫ﺗﺎ ﭼﻪ ﺑﺎﺩﯼ ﺭﺥ ﻧﻤﺎﯾﺪ ﺑﯿﺪﻗﯽ ﺧﻮﺍﻫﯿﻢ ﺭﺍﻧﺪ‬
‫ﺯﯾﻦ ﻣﻌﻤﺎ ﻫﯿﭻ ﺩﺍﻧﺎ ﺩﺭ ﺟﻬﺎﻥ ﺁﮔﺎﻩ ﻧﯿﺴﺖ‬ ‫ﭼﯿﺴﺖ ﺍﯾﻦ ﺳﻘﻒ ﺑﻠﻨﺪ ﺳﺎﺩﻩ ﺑﺴﯿﺎﺭ ﻧﻘﺶ‬
‫ﮐﺎﯾﻦ ﻫﻤﻪ ﺯﺧﻢ ﻧﻬﺎﻥ ﻫﺴﺖ ﻭ ﻣﺠﺎﻝ ﺁﻩ ﻧﯿﺴﺖ‬ ‫ﺍﯾﻦ ﭼﻪ ﺍﺳﺘﺴﻘﺎﺳﺖ ﯾﺎ ﺭﺏ ﻭﯾﻦ ﭼﻪ ﻗﺎﺩﺭ ﺣﮑﻤﺘﺴﺖ‬
‫ﮐﺎﻧﺪﺭ ﺍﯾﻦ ﻃﻐﺮﺍ ﻧﺸﺎﻥ ﺣﺴﺒﻪ ﻟﻠﻪ ﻧﯿﺴﺖ‬ ‫ﺻﺎﺣﺐ ﺩﯾﻮﺍﻥ ﻣﺎ ﮔﻮﯾﯽ ﻧﻤﯽ ﺩﺍﻧﺪ ﺣﺴﺎﺏ‬
‫ﮐﺒﺮ ﻭ ﻧﺎﺯ ﻭ ﺣﺎﺟﺐ ﻭ ﺩﺭﺑﺎﻥ ﺑﺪﯾﻦ ﺩﺭﮔﺎﻩ ﻧﯿﺴﺖ‬ ‫ﻫﺮ ﭼﻪ ﺧﻮﺍﻫﺪ ﮔﻮ ﺑﯿﺎ ﻭ ﻫﺮ ﭼﻪ ﺧﻮﺍﻫﺪ ﮔﻮ ﺑﮕﻮ‬
‫ﺧﻮﺩﻓﺮﻭﺷﺎﻥ ﺭﺍ ﺑﻪ ﮐﻮﯼ ﻣﯽ ﻓﺮﻭﺷﺎﻥ ﺭﺍﻩ ﻧﯿﺴﺖ‬ ‫ﺑﺮ ﺩﺭ ﻣﯿﺨﺎﻧﻪ ﺭﻓﺘﻦ ﮐﺎﺭ ﯾﮑﺮﻧﮕﺎﻥ ﺑﻮﺩ‬
‫ﻭﺭ ﻧﻪ ﺗﺸﺮﯾﻒ ﺗﻮ ﺑﺮ ﺑﺎﻻﯼ ﮐﺲ ﮐﻮﺗﺎﻩ ﻧﯿﺴﺖ‬ ‫ﻫﺮ ﭼﻪ ﻫﺴﺖ ﺍﺯ ﻗﺎﻣﺖ ﻧﺎﺳﺎﺯ ﺑﯽ ﺍﻧﺪﺍﻡ ﻣﺎﺳﺖ‬
‫ﻭﺭ ﻧﻪ ﻟﻄﻒ ﺷﯿﺦ ﻭ ﺯﺍﻫﺪ ﮔﺎﻩ ﻫﺴﺖ ﻭ ﮔﺎﻩ ﻧﯿﺴﺖ‬ ‫ﺑﻨﺪﻩ ﭘﯿﺮ ﺧﺮﺍﺑﺎﺗﻢ ﮐﻪ ﻟﻄﻔﺶ ﺩﺍﺋﻢ ﺍﺳﺖ‬
‫ﻋﺎﺷﻖ ﺩﺭﺩﯼ ﮐﺶ ﺍﻧﺪﺭ ﺑﻨﺪ ﻣﺎﻝ ﻭ ﺟﺎﻩ ﻧﯿﺴﺖ‬ ‫ﺣﺎﻓﻆ ﺍﺭ ﺑﺮ ﺻﺪﺭ ﻧﻨﺸﯿﻨﺪ ﺯ ﻋﺎﻟﯽ ﻣﺸﺮﺑﯽ ﺍﺳﺖ‬

Falsely pious, of our state unaware


No offense if their words our hearts tear.
On the path, whatever you meet is for your good
On the straight and the narrow, can’t be lost there.
Whatever the rook may play, we’ll knock it down
On the chessboard of lovers, Kings won’t dare.
What is this multi-patterned, tall, simple dome?
Who is wise to this riddle? Show me where?
Is this your grace, O Lord, powerful, wise?
Too many hidden wounds; no time to catch a breath of air.
It’s as if the Judge of our Court is not fair.
This royal seal, sign of God does not bear
Whoever wishes may come, and whatever, may declare.
No guards, no grandeur, this hall is bare
Those who enter the tavern, openly share.
Those who sell themselves, meet the wine-seller’s glare
Whatever befalls us is the doing of our affair.
Your grace is not rare, and there’s no one you’d spare
I serve the Tavern-Master, with his endless love and care.
Piety, sometimes is cold, sometimes will flare.
Hafiz gracefully declines from taking the head chair
Lovers are free fortune and fame’s snare.14
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND THE AESTHETICS OF GHAZAL 81

It is obvious in this ghazal that there is no semantic unity between the cou-
plets. Each verse is an autonomous unit that could exist independently.
Each line conveys a full meaning and at times the lines seem to be irrel-
evant to one another. However, this multi-meaning design of each of
Hâfez’s ghazals enriches the ghazal and brings a dynamic harmony out of
seeming disharmony. As Khorram-Shâhi indicates, the nonlinear structure
of each ghazal demands our full attention and meditation (hozur-e qalbi)
to comprehend its meaning.15

From Poetry into Film

In the 20th century, when cinematography was introduced to Iranian film-


makers, they adopted and adapted this nonlinear approach to the realm of
film. From a global perspective, history shows how the literary traditions
in each culture affect the national or regional cinema. For instance, cinema
in the West is primarily based on the rich tradition of Western novels and
fiction16 and is therefore mainly centered on narrative conventions.
Japanese cinema relies more on the dramatic traditions of kabuki and noh
theatre.17
In the Iranian film industry, making poetic films with a semilinear or
nonlinear structure is a well-established aesthetic practice. In these films,
there is a special interest in creating images that could stand alongside the
narrative part of a film and add a poetic impression. In Sara (1993), for in-
stance, Mehrjui depicts a lonely woman in her daily struggle with life. As
well as narrating Sara’s story, Mehrjui portrays the poetic moments of her
isolated life when she secretly sews endless pearls and beads on wedding
dresses. In a dimly lit setting, the poetic aura is reinforced by high-angle
shots of Sara surrounded – ironically – by a wedding dress that fills the
whole frame. The mise-en-scène, lighting, and choice of Niki Karimi as
Sara, with her innocent but serious face and deep gaze, underpin a sense of
isolation and desperation. In addition, Sara visually celebrates the colorful
life of the Tehran bazaar when it focuses on Persian carpets in the old
shops.
In Leyla (1996) the audience is invited to follow the story of an unfortu-
nate woman who cannot have a child and is maliciously forced to find a
new wife for her husband. The film is visually poetic with many symboli-
cally significant colors. Tinted red shots signify extreme frustration and
love, while tinted yellow frames represent spiritual serenity. Moreover,
Leyla emphasizes objects such as the traditional samovar and the ritual of
tea drinking, and the carnelian beads that signify a good omen and
spirituality in a scene that shows Leyla praying. The sound montage, ac-
companied by scenes that show her uncle playing tar, registers mystical
and spiritual moments in the film. The fascinating architecture of Leyla’s
house, a contemporary dwelling inspired by traditional Iranian domestic
82 KHATEREH SHEIBANI

architecture, is an extra symbolic touch. All this imagery adds poetic mean-
ing to the narrative.
Drawing on symbolic cultural and religious implications in a nonlinear
fashion is not exclusive to Mehrjui. There is a general interest in Iranian
cinematic aesthetics in conveying meaning in a non-syntagmatic manner.
Another example is Ali Hâtami’s filmmaking, which illustrates his fascina-
tion with the Iranian lifestyle of the Qajar era. Hâtami’s successful TV se-
rial, Hezâr Dâstân (1979–99) is enhanced by the elaborate portrayal of
Iranian culture and traditions in a transitional era towards the end of the
19th century. He masterfully represents how modernity, in the Qajar epoch,
is customized and merged into the Iranian lifestyle through a sophisticated
mise-en-scène. In fact, he built a cinematic town – Shahrak-e Ghazal – for
Hezâr Dâstân that was inspired by Qajar architecture. The scenes, cos-
tumes, music, and lighting create a poetic atmosphere and the general
“poeticity” is evident, for instance, in sequences shot in Tehran’s Grand
Hotel. The rich color and texture in these sequences and the traditional cos-
tumes and carpets create a lyrical and nostalgic space. Other mise-en-
scène-related examples that bring poetry into Hezâr Dâstân are images of
calligraphy and the representation of traditional Iranian beauty through
close-ups of the veiled Jayran,18 the girl who has a love affair with a revo-
lutionary character in the movie.
Bahram Bayzai, another prominent new wave director, used the poetics
of visual arts and Iranian theatrical traditions to examine the challenges of
modernity in Iranian society. His cinematic vision is rooted in Iran’s lit-
erary and performing arts. In Rakhshan Bani-Etamad’s Bânu-ye ordibehesht
(The May Lady, 1998), this “visual poetics” is complemented by “verbal
poetics,” as the contemporary poet Ahmadreza Ahmadi reads his poems
throughout the film. Hence, even in Iranian narrative films, non-linear mean-
ings become semantically and visually significant. In general, there is a ten-
dency in art films to convey meaning in a leisurely manner. Apart from clear
narrative concepts, figurative meanings are hidden between the lines. The
Iranian viewer is familiar with this figurativeness and takes pleasure in being
challenged by cinematographic symbols and metaphors.
Kiarostami’s cinema is poetic and non-linear in essence. In his film
style, however, this becomes more abstract. He was trained in the filmmak-
ing grammar of Mehrjui, Sohrâb Shahid Sâles, and Hâtami, and reaches
beyond the more visually oriented poetics in favor of what I call “abstract
poetics” or “philosophical poetics,” similar to ghazal.19 In contrast to di-
rectors such as Hatami, Kiarostami does not seek poetic moments in por-
traying, for instance, the lavish life of a Qajar prince in a hotel, accompa-
nied by the rich soundtrack of Badi’-zâdegân’s unforgettable Morgh-e
Sahar song – which to Iranian audiences nostalgically signifies Iranians’
struggles for freedom during and after the constitutional revolution.
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND THE AESTHETICS OF GHAZAL 83

Kiarostami’s abstract poetics reside in the way he discovers poetry in


everyday life, such as that of rural people in remote villages. He does not
use a poetic language, nor does he create spectacular scenes to play on the
audience’s emotions. His amateur actors usually speak in a local dialect
such as Gilaki or Kurdish, and their performances, which lack any trace of
theatricality, do not make the viewer cry or laugh. Kiarostami even avoids
using music to heighten emotions. In most parts of his films, viewers are
left to concentrate on the concepts in the absence of music. The philo-
sophical poetry that marks Kiarostami’s filmmaking is about the very es-
sence of everyday life.
If we omit the visual poetry of Hâtami’s Hâji Washington (1982) or
Mehrjui’s Hâmun (1990), there is still an essential narrative meaning in
these films. In other words, the visual poetics stays in the background to
“add” meaning to the body of the main narratives. In Kiarostami’s
Khâneh-e Dust Kojâst? (Where Is the Friend’s House?, 1987), on the other
hand, the poeticism of the film cannot be separated from the storyline. It
runs through every scene of the film, first and foremost because its twisting
narrative evades a linear unfolding of the events. This non-linear form, bor-
rowed from the structure of ghazal poetry, deconstructs the conventional
syntagmatic storyline. It is enhanced by the director’s decision not to use
music.20
Kiarostami’s philosophical poetics take root in his filmmaking sensibil-
ities, which carry the audience from the seen to the “unseen.” In Where Is
the Friend’s House?, for instance, the director’s ideas are shaped by poetic
signs and symbols. The film is a seemingly uncomplicated story about a
child named Ahmad, who is starting an odyssey to find his friend’s house
to give him a notebook he mistakenly picked up in school. To prevent his
friend being punished by the teacher he must find his house and deliver
the notebook. He is shown asking people for directions to Pushtih, the
nearby village up the hill, where his friend lives. Beyond this simple story,
however, lies a more complicated story about friendship and commitment.
The poeticism of Ahmad’s story resembles the design of ghazal based
on a specific interpretation of “reality” in mystical poetics, which bears no
resemblance to the common idea of realism in Western literature and cin-
ema. Reality in mysticism is a tangible but superficial variation of the truth
based on vahm, or illusion. From the Sufist perspective, narrative poetry or
cinema can be viewed as a “reality” that is illusionist. According to
Alirezâ Ra’isiyân, “narrative storytelling is based on everyday life reality,
which is illusionist because it is based on vahm ....” The nature of illusion,
he says, “is medium-oriented.”21 Therefore, it functions as a medium or in-
termediate element in narrating a well-structured story with a precise be-
ginning and ending. In contrast, in ghazal poetry the poet goes beyond this
realist/illusionist approach (bardâsht-e tavahumi) to embrace khiyâl or
84 KHATEREH SHEIBANI

imagination. For a Sufi, the illusionist reality of life merely conceals the
truth, while imagination exposes it.
Nonetheless, the artist should work with the “represented” reality of life,
based on vahm, in order to portray the “un-represented” truth hidden be-
neath the “seen.” In this journey from the seen to the unseen, the artist uses
words – in ghazal – or images – in film – to depict khiyâl, “which is essen-
tially aesthetical and not medium-oriented.”22 This is where the poeticism
of Where Is the Friend’s House? lies. In this film, Kiarostami as a lyric or
taghazzoli director portrays everyday events but does not rely on the illu-
sionist reality of everyday life. He reaches beyond illusion to embrace im-
agination in illustrating reality. This imaginary and poetic reality does not
depend on a realist/illusionist medium; thus, it is “liberated” from a linear
storyline with a clear-cut beginning and ending. The film, like a ghazal,
encompasses a fragmented, unfinished and ambiguous pattern.
Kiarostami’s aesthetics in this film are, as Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa says, en-
shrined in “a system of narrative based on ... a sense of metaphysical ab-
sences and presences. This system involves a relative freedom from the
structure of cause and effect.”23 This is one of the underlying principles of
mystical poetry and philosophy, in which the artist relies on his or her
sense of imagination rather than on rational thought and direct observation.
The meaning in Where Is the Friend’s House? is not encoded in the out-
come of Ahmad’s journey to Pushtih. On the contrary, the viewer should
make sense of what he or she sees in the non-linear “stories” that are put
together in the story of Ahmad. Thus, Where is the Friend’s House? un-
folds its meaning in a nonlinear fashion, a characteristic of ghazal that
brings harmony out of the seeming disharmony of a nonnarrative film.
Although the main story is about Ahmad, it is interrupted several times by
alternative stories, along with a detailed portrayal of Ahmad’s mother,
grandmother, and infant sibling. In the absence of a traditional narrative,
the fragmented images and scenes restore harmony to the film.
By focusing on a seemingly simple problem, Kiarostami attempts to take
the viewer away from the plain reality of a child’s journey to reveal the
more complex inner journey of a human being who is discovering the es-
sence of friendship, paradoxically at an early stage of his life. In this way,
this film turns out to be purely poetic. The poetry and imagery in it be-
come interchangeable elements. Although the formal aspects of ghazal are
thoroughly evident, the film’s poeticism is not limited to this form. Where
Is the Friend’s House? is a poetic film because of Ahmad’s sincere effort
to achieve benevolence towards human beings and companionship, two es-
sential facets of Sufism. Therefore, by employing an abstract poeticism,
Kiarostami exercises poetry in cinema. In the next two films of his
Rostam-Abad trilogy, he skillfully exchanges images for poetic words to
explore further notions of love and friendship in the midst of death and
grief.
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND THE AESTHETICS OF GHAZAL 85

As a superb manipulator of narrative incidents, Kiarostami increasingly


concentrates on slight, seemingly irrelevant details in a story, often obscur-
ing or hiding major plot twists. This is another technique that has enriched
his nonlinear philosophical cinema. In Where Is the Friend’s House?, while
the audience is still engaged in the story of Ahmad they have to confront
various other stories. Ahmad’s grandfather gives an account of a foreign
engineer. Then the camera focuses on a man who wants to sell wooden
doors. The story of Ahmad and his attempts to find the friend’s house is
once again interrupted by an elderly tradesman who makes old-fashioned
wooden windows. Ahmad asks him the directions to his friend’s house. He
then talks to the boy in a detailed manner about his profession, his life, the
villagers, and life in general. The audience, waiting impatiently to see if
Ahmad finally finds his friend’s house, has to watch a visually beautiful se-
quence of the windows in a twisted alley in the dark while the old man is
sharing his philosophical ideas with Ahmad.
Another example of inserting seemingly irrelevant details into the “main
story” is in the first scene of Namâ-ye nazdik (Close Up, 1990). A reporter
from a weekly magazine is informed that a movie fan named Sabziyân has
been arrested. The first sequence portrays the reporter, accompanied by
two soldiers and a driver, heading to collect information about this arrest.
In reality, Sabziyân is an impoverished bookbinder. But he falsely intro-
duced himself to a Tehrâni family, the Âhankhâhs, as the prominent direc-
tor, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Once the viewers get to see the Âhankhâhs’
house, though, they are not privileged to see its interior and the arrest.
Instead, the camera remains outside, watching the driver who is picking
some flowers from a pile of leaves and kicking a spray can. In other words,
the audience has to miss the “central” part of the plot at this stage – the
meeting with the deceived family and Sabziyân. Although they finally get
to see the restaged arrest later in the film, Kiarostami finds an opportunity
to break the sequence that enriches and decenters the narrative by embed-
ding another story into the first one. Once again, this fragmented style is
reminiscent of the structure of ghazal, with its semantically autonomous
lines.
Kiarostami’s disintegrated aesthetics are also achieved by his image-
oriented approach. From time to time he abandons the narrative sequence
in favor of static and photographic scenes. The most significant example in
Where Is the Friend’s House? is a long shot in which Ahmad climbs a
winding road on the hill with a single tree. This photographic effect is re-
inforced, as the audience is to see the same image-like shot more than
once. Elsewhere, we are shown the long shot of the village of Kokir with
olive trees. By themselves, these images could be seen as mini-themes of
Kiarostami’s films. Their fragmented structure allows him to capture more
than a single theme.
86 KHATEREH SHEIBANI

In Kiarostami’s later films, such as Zendegi va digar hich (Life and


Then Nothing, 1992) and Zir-e Derakhtân-e Zeytun (Through the Olive
Trees, 1994), he takes this technique further. Life and Then Nothing is
about a director and his son who go on a trip from Tehran to the earth-
quake-stricken region of Manjil, in order to find out if the lead characters
of Where Is the Friend’s House?, Bâbak and Ahmad, are alive. Instead of
focusing solely on the director’s search for the boys, Kiarostami chooses
“distracting” long takes of landscape through the front, rear, and side win-
dows of a car. These images of the natural environment encode his engage-
ment with a nonnarrative poetic style. What makes this nonlinear film even
less narrative-based is its ending, when the viewer – who by now has seen
many minor actors from Where Is the Friend’s House? – is disappointed
by not learning whether Bâbak and Ahmad are still alive.

Unique Spatial Aesthetics

Kiarostami’s nonnarrative aesthetics originate in a “spatial” approach that


is also seen in the structure of Hâfez’s ghazals. The concept of spatiality in
Hâfez’s poetry is crucial, and is a subject of debate and speculation among
the scholars of Hâfez. In his seminal work, Hâfez’s Mind and Language,
Khorram-Shâhi meticulously explores the fragmented stylistics of the
poet’s ghazals. Other scholars examined their formal characteristics. For in-
stance, Alimohammad Haq-Shenâs used the Chomskian generative gram-
mar to explore the structure of ghazal. In the generative grammar,
Chomsky proposed that each sentence has two levels of representation; the
deep structure that underlines the semantic relations of a sentence and the
surface structure that represents the phonological form of a sentence.
Following this linguistic model, Haq-Shenâs has made a distinction be-
tween the surface structure and the deep structure of the ghazal to come up
with an explanation for the fragmentary composition. He speculates that it
is merely “the surface structure of ghazal in the Divan of Hâfez [that] is
fragmented, while its deep structure is non-linear [but] ‘circular,’ or ‘spheri-
cal’.” 24 Therefore, the meaning in a ghazal of Hâfez is only superficially
fragmented. Hence, the unity of meaning should be sought beyond its im-
mediate literal meaning, because as Khorram-Shâhi explains, the ghazals
of Hâfez evade a linear structure. Khorram-Shâhi indicates that the “spheri-
cal” structure of ghazal makes it possible to read it from wherever you
wish and to end it wherever you wish.
It is noteworthy that Hâfez’s deviation from the original structure of
ghazal was a matter of critical debate more than 90 years ago, when the
Iranian historian and linguist Ahmad Kasravi concluded that the “haphaz-
ard” structure of ghazal resulted from the poet’s fancy for a new form with
no sustaining logic at all.25 Modern critics tried to come up with a more lo-
gical reason for the non-linearity of ghazal. In Haq-Shenâs’s opinion,
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND THE AESTHETICS OF GHAZAL 87

behind this circular or spherical approach are two seminal notions of “ori-
gin” and “center” in Islamic-Iranian culture, which values roots and origin
and is highly centrist.26 “In a center-oriented culture,” he says, “the see-
mingly fragmented units are all related to one another through their con-
nection to the centrer. It does not matter whether these bits and pieces are
well-matched with one another.”27
Barâheni believes that although the influence of the Qur’an on Hâfez’s
poetry is inevitable, the structure of his ghazal is symptomatic of a histori-
cal incident during the poet’s life: the invasion by the Mongols and their
successors. According to Barâheni, the Mongol domination of Shiraz and
the subsequent anarchy had made the city into a prison for its citizens.
Hâfez was imprisoned in his hometown, and his poetry was imprisoned in
verse. Hâfez saw the world “as fragmented and instantaneous, [and] as a
result, each verse instead of a whole poem became the formal and semantic
unit of Hâfez’s poetry.”28 Whether the structure of Hâfez’s ghazal was in-
spired by the Qur’an or Mongol tyranny, or both, the result is a sense of
imprisonment in a nonlinear structure.
The nonlinearity that is represented in Hâfez’s ghazal influenced Iranian
nonnarrative cinema that is focused on images and icons rather than on a
narrative center, and this is powerfully embodied in Kiarostami’s filmmak-
ing, which is the best example of Sinemâ-ye Taghazzoli.
The spatial universe of Kiarostami’s films can be seen in self-contained
and self-referring schemes. Whether or not viewers are consciously aware
of this culture-specific nonlinear discourse, they understand that
Kiarostami’s films cannot be read transparently. On the contrary, they are
ambiguous texts that should be meticulously examined and reassessed. In
the absence of narrative aesthetics, the viewer becomes sensitive to images
and their symbolic meanings, in the same way that Persians read Hâfez’s
poetry. For instance, the scene in which the driver shoots a canister in
Close Up becomes symbolically significant when, in a graphic counter-im-
age, a similar shot shows the reporter rolling the same can in the same
street. Moreover, in Bâd ma-râ khâhad bord (Wind Will Carry Us, 1999),
the zigzagging rolling apple recalls the canister images in Close Up.
“Considering the recurrence of such paths and patterns in Kiarostami’s
work, from the zigzagging path in Where Is the Friend’s House? to the
kicked spray can in Close Up, they virtually amount to a directorial
signature.”29
In Hâfez’s poetry, each verse or couplet can stand as an independent se-
mantic unit. Barâheni says that “in each verse a complete image is offered.
In some cases, however, the image spills over from the first verse into the
second.”30 The first two verses of ghazal number 1 of Divan illustrate this:

‫ﮐﻪ ﻋﺸﻖ ﺁﺳﺎﻥ ﻧﻤﻮﺩ ﺍﻭﻝ ﻭﻟﯽ ﺍﻓﺘﺎﺩ ﻣﺸﮑﻞ ﻫﺎ‬ ‫ﺍﻻ ﯾﺎ ﺍﯾﻬﺎ ﺳﺎﻗﯽ ﺍﺩﺭ ﮐﺎﺳﺎ ﻭ ﻧﺎﻭﻟﻬﺎ‬
‫ﺯ ﺗﺎﺏ ﺟﻌﺪ ﻣﺸﮑﯿﻨﺶ ﭼﻪ ﺧﻮﻥ ﺍﻓﺘﺎﺩ ﺩﺭ ﺩﻟﻬﺎ‬ ‫ﺑﺒﻮﯼ ﻧﺎﻓﻪ ﺍﯼ ﮐﺎﺧﺮ ﺻﺒﺎ ﺯﺍﻥ ﻃﺮﻩ ﺑﮕﺸﺎﯾﺪ‬
88 KHATEREH SHEIBANI

Oh! Beautiful wine bearer, bring forth the cup and put it to my lips
Path of love seemed easy at first, what came was many hardships.
With its perfume, the morning breeze unlocks those beautiful locks
The curl of those dark ringlets, many hearts to shreds strips.

The unity of each ghazal partly depends on each verse. Beyond that, the
ghazal as a whole is a harmonious unit. Kiarostami’s filmmaking is similar
in style. Each scene or image is a self-contained unit. At the same time,
each film, as a collection of images, is a congruent whole, as we saw in
Life and Then Nothing. This is taken further in Dah (Ten, 2002), with its
ten independent and at the same time interrelated parts.
Kiarostami’s filmmaking thus resembles Hâfez’s poetry in its deliberate
manipulation of form. In general, what makes a poem into poetry is the ar-
rangement of words or formal structure,31 and this is the most essential el-
ement of Hâfez’s ghazal. Similarly, what makes Kiarostami’s films poetic
is their formal structure, the editing or lack thereof, the mise-en-scène and
cinematography. As in Hâfez, the meaning in Kiarostami’s films is mainly
signified by form. This differs from a narrative film or novel, where the
shots or words refer to the concrete reality in the outside world, to a specif-
ic culture and society and its historical background.
Ghazal, as a form of mystical poetry, does not specify a time or space
since it does not depict illusionist reality. Words, in their poetic and imagi-
native form, treat time as a timeless commodity. They may have immediate
social and historical meanings, but beyond that, the verses of a ghazal have
a universal meaning that could apply to the past, present, or future.
Therefore, even a reader who is not familiar with the history of Shiraz in
the age of Hâfez can understand his poetry and apply it to his or her pres-
ent condition. Similarly, in a poetic film such as Taste of Cherry, the lan-
guage does not signify a specific time. This film does not explore concrete
reality in the outside world, nor does it set out to portray a “story” about a
man who wants to commit suicide. On the contrary, this man, Badi’i, rep-
resents a universal story of human beings and how they challenge and
question concepts such as life and death. Through successive images of
Badi’i, Kiarostami moves from a narrative about a specific man in a specif-
ic place to a timeless story problematizing the questions of life and death.
Thus, it can be interpreted as relating to the present situation, or the past,
or to future possibilities. It is about life with all its complexities, from the
beginning to eternity.
The structure in Hâfez’s ghazals and Kiarostami’s films is not segregated
from the content, and both draw on artistic forms to articulate their philo-
sophical points. In both, the ambiguity of form gives rise to several inter-
pretations. Because of their timeless poetic approach, Kiarostami and
Hâfez were, and still are, condemned for being indifferent to the social and
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND THE AESTHETICS OF GHAZAL 89

political realities of their societies and for not deserving global acclaim.32
When Iran was suffering the aftermath of a revolution and facing war with
Iraq, Kiarostami illustrated everyday issues in relatively peaceful environ-
ments. In the same way, Hâfez, living under Amir Mubarez al-Din
Mozaffar’s tyranny, was versifying about a hedonistic life, drinking wine
and dreaming of an imaginary beloved, instead of writing about the social
and political situation.
The stylistic ambiguity and a universal humanist approach in Hâfez’s
ghazals and Kiarostami’s films make them semantically multilayered or
polysemous. Besides their literal or immediate meanings, mostly related to
the historical realities of their time, they carry allegorical meanings. There
are usually two different layers in poetic language: its literal and linguistic
meaning and its connotational poetic meaning, which elevates it from a
purely linguistic level to a spatial poetic ambience. This signification trans-
cends historical and visual reality into an abstract form of reality. Like
Hâfez’s poetry, Kiarostami’s filmmaking reaches beyond “current” issues
to philosophical questions about life.
In addition to the formal influences of Hâfez’s poetry on Kiarostami,
ghazal has had thematic effects. For instance, asking for directions, a com-
mon theme in Hâfez, is a recurring topic in Kiarostami’s films. This verse
from Hâfez’s second ghazal depicts the poet’s concern:

‫ﮐﺠﺎ ﺭﻭﯾﻢ ﺑﻔﺮﻣﺎ ﺍﺯ ﺍﯾﻦ ﺟﻨﺎﺏ ﮐﺠﺎ‬ ‫ﭼﻮ ﮐﺤﻞ ﺑﯿﻨﺶ ﻣﺎ ﺧﺎﮎ ﺁﺳﺘﺎﻥ ﺷﻤﺎﺳﺖ‬

My eye-liner is the dust of your door and fence


Where shall I go, tell me, you command me whence

Asking for directions symbolizes the Sufi’s quest to find the “friend,” a
term repeatedly used to refer to God. In the journey to eshrâq or illumina-
tion, a Sufi seeks his leader’s guide. The leader or guide in Sufism is personi-
fied as an archetypal wise old man. In Where Is the Friend’s House? he is
represented by the old door maker who tries to help Ahmad find his
friend’s place. The sequence shows the old man and Ahmad tramping
through the winding back alleys of the village in the dark. Occasional
shafts of light shine through the traditional wooden windows while the
man philosophizes about life – perhaps mirroring the director’s own philo-
sophical concerns. The old man is the only person who listens to Ahmad.
He offers to help him find the friend’s house and tells him about his craft
(making wooden windows and cribs) and how this is getting lost in the
ugly world of metal and modernity. Seeing the old man, the viewer is made
to feel nostalgic for an older world that is dying. Ahmad thus represents
youth with its humanistic concerns. The relationship between the door mak-
er and Ahmad is reminiscent of the relation of the leader (morâd or pir in
Sufism) to the pupil (morid) depicted in Hâfez’s poems, as in this passage:
90 KHATEREH SHEIBANI

‫ﮐﻪ ﺳﺎﻟﮏ ﺑﯽ ﺧﺒﺮ ﻧﺒﻮﺩ ﺯ ﺭﺍﻩ ﻭ ﺭﺳﻢ ﻣﻨﺰﻟﻬﺎ‬ ‫ﺑﻪ ﻣﯽ ﺳﺠﺎﺩﻩ ﺭﻧﮕﯿﻦ ﮐﻦ ﮔﺮﺕ ﭘﯿﺮ ﻣﻐﺎﻥ ﮔﻮﯾﺪ‬

With wine color your robe, one of the old magi’s best tips
Trust in this traveller’s tips, who knows of many paths and trips

As the old man and young boy labor on, the old man, tired, asks Ahmad
to leave him behind and continue his quest. Here Kiarostami deconstructs
the conventional relationship of morid and morâd so that the morid is the
one who takes the lead.
In the next film in the trilogy, the person playing the old man acts as his
real character, a resident in Pushtih after the earthquake. He is shown car-
rying a toilet to install in the new house he is building. This time his philo-
sophical concerns take an ironic twist. In Where Is the Friend’s House? the
old man represents the morâd or “purveyor of truth,” as Rosenbaum puts
it,33 while in Life and Then Nothing he is criticizing art and cinema in gen-
eral and Kiarostami’s authorial power in particular.34 He acknowledges his
role in the former film and condemns Kiarostami for making him play an
old hunchback. By showing the same man as a younger person, with less
ambitious concerns about life, Kiarostami endorses the revisiting of en-
trenched concepts such as the spiritual leadership reserved for a morâd.
In Life and Then Nothing, it is the director who is asking for directions
in frequent stops along the way. This request is a philosophical concern il-
lustrated by Persian poets such as Khayyâm, known for his discursive
scepticism, or by Hâfez’s ontological questions about life and Rumi’s a
priori mystical wandering.35 Both Ahmad and the director (Kiarostami’s
alter ego) in Life and Then Nothing represent the philosophical uncertainty
inherited from Persian Sufism and especially from ghazal.
Another theme in Kiarostami’s aesthetics is the image of ruins, a recur-
ring key icon that is directly borrowed from Hâfez’s ghazal.36 Take, for ex-
ample, the rubble left after a devastating earthquake in Life and Then
Nothing, or the construction sites in Taste of Cherry. To an Iranian viewer,
ruins signify a mystical notion mostly associated with Hâfez’s poetry. The
image does not mostly signify devastation or despair, but an elitist isolation
of the Sufi in his quest for absolute truth, as reflected in these verses of
Hâfez:

‫ﺍﯾﻦ ﭼﻪ ﻧﻮﺭﯼ ﺍﺳﺖ ﺧﺪﺍﯾﺎ ﺯ ﮐﺠﺎ ﻣﯽ ﺑﯿﻨﻢ‬ ‫ﺩﺭ ﺧﺮﺍﺑﺎﺕ ﻣﻐﺎﻥ ﻧﻮﺭ ﺧﺪﺍ ﻣﯽ ﺑﯿﻨﻢ‬

In the ruins of the magis I see God


What is this? How can I see it?37
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND THE AESTHETICS OF GHAZAL 91

‫ﮐﻪ ﺍﻧﺪﺭ ﺧﺮﺍﺑﺎﺕ ﺩﺍﺭﺩ ﻧﺸﺴﺖ‬ ‫ﺑﯿﺎ ﺳﺎﻗﯽ ﺁﻥ ﺑﮑﺮ ﻣﺴﺘﻮﺭ ﻣﺴﺖ‬
‫ﺧﺮﺍﺏ ﻣﯽ ﻭ ﺟﺎﻡ ﺧﻮﺍﻫﻢ ﺷﺪﻥ‬ ‫ﺑﻪ ﻣﻦ ﺩﻩ ﮐﻪ ﺑﺪ ﻧﺎﻡ ﺧﻮﺍﻫﻢ ﺷﺪﻥ‬

Come bearer, that chaste drunk


Who is forever in the tavern sunk
Give me, ill repute bring to my name
The cup and wine I shall only blame

The words also suggest the state of a thinker who rejects the norms of so-
ciety. In contrast to the mosque, church and monastery, where “order” and
“harmony” are maintained and institutionalized, the ruins are a refuge for
drunken rends (hedonists) who reject the monotonous world of the ascetic
Muslim. Rendi, a “disregard of conventional morality in pursuit of pleas-
ures of music, drink, sex, and drugs,” was a fact of life in Shiraz in
Hâfez’s era.38 As Limbert points out, this “desire to ignore the dictates of
both reason and religion is what Hâfez evokes so beautifully in his poet-
ry.”39 A Sufi prefers the state of rendi and the freedom it brings to zohd
(asceticism), which is usually related to hypocrisy. It is in the ruins of a
tavern that an unconventional rend is able to meditate and also to embrace
the more colorful and joyful life of the sinner. The residents of “the house
of ruins” – what Hâfez called manzel-e virâneh or kharâbât – are those
who rejoice in earthly life, not those who believe in the other world:

‫ﭼﯿﺴﺖ ﯾﺎﺭﺍﻥ ﻃﺮﯾﻘﺖ ﺑﻌﺪ ﺍﺯ ﺍﯾﻦ ﺗﺪﺑﯿﺮ ﻣﺎ‬ ‫ﺩﻭﺵ ﺍﺯ ﻣﺴﺠﺪ ﺳﻮﯼ ﻣﯿﺨﺎﻧﻪ ﺁﻣﺪ ﭘﯿﺮ ﻣﺎ‬

Last night the Master left the mosque for the tavern
Is there any other choice left to us?

The imagery of ruins in Kiarostami’s films evokes the depth of a thinker’s


loneliness and isolation, and the challenge to societal conventions. Like a
rend, a modern intellectual turns from the institutionalized order to em-
brace the natural disorder reminiscent of an isolated land.
This approach to filmmaking as a poetic form inspired by Persian ghazal
is what makes Kiarostami unique. His nonnarrative aesthetics convey a ta-
ghazzoli or lyrical aura, that creates a cinematic world based on imagina-
tion rather than illusionist reality. He wrote:

The problem with narrative films is that people from all walks of
life come out of watching it with the same story. Nonnarrative film
allows people to use their own mind, frames and experiences, and
walk out with experiences they have created from watching the film
... I like films that have lasting power where you come out and im-
mediately or much later begin to reconstruct what happened. I like
92 KHATEREH SHEIBANI

to put you to sleep, let you have a nap, but afterwards make you
stay up at night thinking.40

As an offshoot of ghazal, Kiarostami’s films tend towards simultaneity


over sequentiality. When his latest film, Ten, premiered at the Cannes Film
Festival in May 2002, he stated:

Sometimes, I tell myself that Ten is a film that I could never make
again. You cannot decide to make such a film ... It's a little like
Close-Up. It's possible to continue along the same path but it re-
quires a great deal of patience. Indeed, this is not something that
can be repeated easily. It must occur of its own accord, like an inci-
dent or a happening ... At the same time, it requires a great deal of
preparation. Originally, this was the story of a psychoanalyst, her
patients and her car, but that was two years ago ...41

In other words, Kiarostami does not intend “to continue along the same
path.” Each work “happens” to him by accident. As he declares, the mean-
ing in Ten is constructed simultaneously. For him, making a film should
“occur” “like an incident or happening” “on its own accord.” This echoes
Mohammad Rezâ Shafi’i-Kadkani’s “Poetry is an accident which occurs in
language.” 42
Because Kiarostami’s films develop meaning simultaneously through
space, and not through time in a conventional linear fashion, their “unity”
cannot be grasped unless the audience watches them in a spatial manner.
In most cases, the unit of meaning is in the sequence or even in the shot
and image, rather than in an extended narrative. In this way, Kiarostami
joins directors such as Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson, who approached
filmmaking by integrating the genres of poetry and film.

Interactive Stylistics

As we have seen, Kiarostami’s aesthetics are nonlinear, fragmented, and


spatial. His stories avoid a conventional and cohesive narrative and create
gaps to be filled in by the audience, who get to participate in the “game”
of completing the meaning, of semantically finishing the film. This idea is
reinforced by the director’s view that “when you see a film, you should
come away with your own interpretation, based on who you are. The film
should allow that to happen, make room for that interaction.”43 In
Kiarostami’s later films, such as Wind Will Carry Us or Ten, this “unfin-
ished stylistics” is taken to the point where the films seem incomplete
without the audience’s contribution. Employing nonprofessional actors, the
lack of resolution or ending in a film, long shots and extreme long shots
that have a detaching effect, as well as narrative ellipsis and ambiguity, are
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND THE AESTHETICS OF GHAZAL 93

the techniques Kiarostami uses to achieve an open-ended and interactive


end product. Through these poetic conventions, he presents an innovative
cinematic language to the world.
It is not only the audience who participates. The actors have a vital role
in shaping the films too, as most of this director’s films are not based on a
fixed written scenario. The non-professional actors do not memorize their
lines but extemporize, as he admitted in an interview with Rosenbaum.44
When Kiarostami premiered his digital film Moonlight in London in 2004,
he acknowledged that he achieved the best results when he did not inter-
fere in his actors’ performance. “That is when incidents happen automati-
cally,” he says. “I believe we directors both make and destroy, because we
tend to make things artificial. We ask our actors to forget themselves and
obey our commands.”45 However, since Kiarostami’s films are not based
on fixed scenarios and the actors are amateurs, his films represent a natural
flow. Because actors extemporize, their words are often “the unthinkable
structure of the unconscious,” in Lacan’s words.46
The nonlinear structure of Kiarostami’s films is partly the result of narra-
tive ellipsis. This is evident, for instance, in Life and Then Nothing. While
the dominant theme is finding out about Bâbak and Ahmad, the movie
does not take the audience to the“main point.” We get to see the other ac-
tors, but have to wait to find out if Bâbak and Ahmad are still alive. The
film finishes without the audience’s expectations being fulfilled. This lack
of resolution and deliberate narrative ellipsis themselves provide the miss-
ing parts in the narrative.
In Homework, a film in which students in a poor neighborhood in
Tehran are surveyed about their homework, the camera does not focus on a
specific student. Kiarostami also shuts off the soundtrack when children
are reciting religious war chants. This creates a comic situation that ulti-
mately has a detaching effect. It stops the viewer from becoming absorbed
in the narrative. Instead, the audience becomes conscious of its place as
the “spectator” who is observing a comic scene that is not part of the
narrative.
In Close Up, when Sabziyân is released from jail, he gets to meet
Makhmalbaf, his hero, for the first time. The viewer expects to see how
the two men will interact. However, the conversation between them is not
heard. Instead, the audience hears a conversation between members of the
film crew talking about a technical problem in recording the sound. It is
not known whether the soundtrack was meant to be turned off, or whether
– as reported in the film – it is a failure of the sound equipment, but in any
case it has a distancing effect on the audience, who are left to guess about
the conversation between the two men. In a similar way, Kiarostami delib-
erately does not show the old woman whose death the film crew members
are awaiting, or the man digging a hole in The Wind Will Carry Us.
Generally speaking, there are always more things missing than represented
94 KHATEREH SHEIBANI

in his narratives. These missing parts are either not provided or are
delayed.
In all of these films, Kiarostami’s camera does not affect his characters.
It is invisible, external, and detached. The use of amateur actors is success-
ful in presenting down-to-earth performances that resemble the lives of
people in real settings. In portraying the events, the director’s camera con-
stantly switches from an objective perspective to a subjective one. It is ob-
jective when it acts in a detached and invisible way, an approach enhanced
by the use of long shots. The camera only becomes subjective when it
serves as the character’s eye. In Where Is the Friend’s House?, for in-
stance, we witness the adult world through Ahmad’s eyes, or in Taste of
Cherry and Life and Then Nothing we examine suburban Tehran and the
roads through the eyes of the drivers.
Also, when Kiarostami himself appears in his films – as he does in
Homework and Taste of Cherry – the camera is consciously subjective, re-
ferring to Kiarostami as the authorial power. His filmmaking conveys a
continuity of time and space. This switching from a subjective to an objec-
tive perspective and vice versa brings a realistic, nondramatic perception
that demands greater audience participation. The viewer is not drawn into
the image. Instead, he or she stays outside the story and judges it with a
critical eye, a detachment reinforced by Kiarostami’s use of irony.
Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or-winning Taste of Cherry is about having free-
dom of choice in a society that dictates morality to its citizens. In this film,
Mr Badi’i, who wants to commit suicide, questions orthodox morality,
which regards man as God’s creation who should surrender to God’s will.
He rejects Islamic modes and decides to end his life. As a result, Taste of
Cherry is an artistic interpretation of life that is outside the religious
boundaries of Iranian society. Kiarostami’s humanism elevates man above
culture.
Badi’i is a daring and questioning man who is looking for someone to
help him to commit suicide. The person whom he hired should check on
him the day after he would commit suicide. First he has to toss a few
stones at him. If Badi’i is still alive, he should help him get out of the
grave, but if Badi’i is dead, he should bury him and collect the money left
in the dashboard of Badi’i’s car. In his journey to the outskirts of Tehran,
Badi’i meets three people. Each of them represents a different stage he is
to accomplish in his search for the meaning of life and death. His journey
resembles the stages a Sufi should pass through in his or her spiritual
growth, called Maqâmat va ahvâl-e Sufi. The first person Badi’i meets is
from Kurdistan. Ironically – since Kurds are well known as brave warriors,
not only in Iran but in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq – this is a young but timid
soldier. As soon as Mr Badi’i proposes his plan, the soldier runs away.
This creates an ironic scene that distances the viewer from the depressing
story of a man who intends to end his life. Badi’i leaves this man behind,
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND THE AESTHETICS OF GHAZAL 95

symbolically passing the immaturity related to youth and lack of


experience.
The second encounter is with an Afghani seminarian. He looks older
and is more positive in outlook than the soldier; he is a man of God who
believes that there is no choice but to live. The seminarian and Badi’i sig-
nify two conflicting ideologies of poetic and ascetic worldviews rooted re-
spectively in Eshrâqi and Khorasani mystical schools of thought. The neo-
platonic ideas of Eshrâqi mysticism, as Daryush Ashuri explains,47 are well
presented by Ebn Arabi and Nasafi and are founded in rational thought
and the concept of causality. Khorasani Sufism, on the other hand, is based
on emotional feelings, hope, and worship and is expressed in a poetic and
mysterious language. It is strongly represented in Kashf al-asrâr by
Maybudi and Mersâd al-ebâd by Najm al-Din Râzi and is later developed
in Hâfez’s ghazals. Khorasani-oriented poets and thinkers such as Hâfez
rejected rational thought and logic in favor of a poetic and affectionate in-
terpretation of the story of Genesis, in particular, and of life in general.48
The following conversation between the seminarian and Badi’i illustrates
the conflict between the two philosophies:

BADI’I. I have decided to free myself from this life. As for the rea-
son, it doesn’t help you and I cannot tell it either. Even if I do, you
wouldn’t understand. It’s not because you don’t understand. I mean
you can’t “feel”49 what I feel. You may understand it, sympathize,
and show your compassion, but you cannot feel it ... That’s why I
ask you as a Muslim to help me.
SEMINARIAN. Yes, I understand you. But suicide is wrong. Since
the Hadiths, our twelve Imams and the Qur’an refer to suicide and
say that man must not kill himself. The body is a token granted by
God and man should not torment his body. I understand you. But
suicide viewed from every angle is not the right thing to do ...
BADI’I. I know that suicide is among the deadly sins but living un-
happily is a sin, too ... I think God is so great and merciful he can-
not see his creatures suffer. That he doesn’t want to force us to live.
That’s why he grants him this solution. Have you ever thought
about the logic behind this?

From Badi’i’s perspective, God is a compassionate lover who cares for his
creatures. Unlike the Afghani seminarian, whose relation to God is one of
inferiority, Badi’i’s feeling toward God is that of a mutual relation between
lover and beloved, both of whom impatiently search for each other. This
conflict of ideas is highlighted in the film by the shot/reverse shot filming
of the scene. In these scenes Badi’i and the seminarian are never seen to-
gether, emphasizing that they belong to the two worldviews of poetic mys-
ticism and asceticism. Badi’i’s poetic view of life reminds us of the
96 KHATEREH SHEIBANI

passionate rend portrayed in Hâfez’s poetry. In the rend’s universe, the re-
lationship with God is not a static one of God/creator to man/creature. On
the contrary, it is a dynamic and mutual relation of two comrades or lovers.
Like a rend, Badi’i is in search of meaning for his life; he is thoughtful
and contemplative, a madman in his sanity.
In fact, the story of Badi’i in Taste of Cherry takes one back to the story
of Adam, the first man, and according to Sufis the first rend. The history
of poetic Sufism itself goes back to a perceptive interpretation of the story
of Genesis in the Qur’an. As Daryush Ashuri shows,50 unlike previous
Semitic religions such as Judaism and Christianity – especially the latter,
which stresses mankind’s original sin – there is no such focus in the
Qur’an. Humankind, according to the Qur’an, is God’s best friend, his
deputy or caliph, and this is underlined in the second book, verse 29-32:

When your Lord said to the angels: “I am placing on the earth one
that shall rule as My Deputy,” they replied: “Will You put there one
that will do evil and shed blood, when we have for so long sung
Your praises and sanctified Your name?”
He said: “I know what you do not know.”
He taught Adam the names of all things and then set them before
the angels, saying: “Tell Me the names of these, if what you say be
true.”
“Glory to You,” they replied, “we have no knowledge except that
which You have given us. You alone are wise and all-knowing.”
Then He said to Adam: “Tell them their names.” And when Adam
had named them, He said: “Did I not tell you that I know the se-
crets of heaven and earth ...?”
... Then Adam received commandments from his Lord, and his
Lord relented towards him. He is the Forgiving One, the Merciful.51

In the Qur’anic version of the story of Adam and Eve, God forgave their
sins immediately. What is stressed here is man’s knowledge, which is a to-
ken of God’s eternal knowledge, ironically obtained by eating from the for-
bidden tree. Man, as God’s caliph and the first rend, descends to the world
of mortals to “discover” the mystery of life and “the logic behind the exist-
ence of the universe and humankind.” 52 This is described several times in
Hâfez’s ghazals and especially in one infamous verse:

‫ﻗﺮﻋﻪ ﻓﺎﻝ ﺑﻪ ﻧﺎﻡ ﻣﻦ ﺑﯿﭽﺎﺭﻩ ﻓﺘﺎﺩ‬ ‫ﺁﺳﻤﺎﻥ ﺑﺎﺭ ﺁﻣﺎﻧﺖ ﻧﺘﻮﺍﻧﺴﺖ ﮐﺸﯿﺪ‬

The angels couldn’t bear the burden


Therefore, the man had to take the mission
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND THE AESTHETICS OF GHAZAL 97

Hence, sin has made human beings knowledgeable and powerful, rather
than sinful and corrupt. This sinful but knowledgeable man is the rend,
who – according to the Sufi worldview and reflected in Hâfez’s poetry – is
privileged over the rational fundamentalist, known in Persian as zâhed or
the ascetic.
It is through the discovery of the meaning of life that the Sufi’s life is
transformed, because as Ashuri indicates, the task of a Sufi is to “discover”
the logic behind the existence of the universe and humankind.53 Badi’i is a
modern rend who abandons religious mysticism (erfân-e zâhedâneh) to
embrace a more playful, courageous, and questioning version called poetic
mysticism (erfân-e Rendâneh). Being a rend, he dares to question and
challenge his creator, too. In Kiarostami’s philosophy, rooted in Hâfez’s
ontological thought, the concept of change is crucial. Being a rend is all
about “becoming” and not “being.” It is on this journey to becoming that
man discovers the meaning of life.
The third person whom Badi’i meets is a Turkish taxidermist, Mr
Bagheri, who works in the Museum of Natural History. All three of the
men who confront Badi’i are from Iran’s ethnic minorities. This evokes, as
Michael Fischer points out, “the strong communal life of Iran’s ethnic
minorities in contrast to the anomie of middle-class Tehrani [Badi’i].”54
The taxidermist resembles the old man in Where Is the Friend’s House?,
since he acts as a guide, known in Sufism as a pir. The pir gives both
physical and spiritual directions to a lost person. While they are driving up
a hilly road, the taxidermist asks Badi’i to turn left. Badi’i says:

BADI’I. But I am not familiar with this road.


TAXIDERMIST. Well, I am. Turn left. It’s longer but more beauti-
ful. I have been the prisoner of this desert for 35 years now.

The taxidermist is aware of the power of making choices in life. During


their conversation in the car, he is the one who talks most of the time and
Badi’i is the listener. He tells Badi’i that when he himself was once con-
templating suicide, he gave up the idea just for the taste of mulberries:

TAXIDERMIST. Finally, I was so fed up that I decided to end it


all. One morning before dawn, I put a rope in my car. My mind
was made up ... I reached mulberry gardens. I stopped. Still dark. I
threw the rope over a tree. But it didn’t catch hold ... So I climbed
the tree and tied the rope tight. Then I felt something soft under my
hand. It was mulberry, sweet ones. I ate the first and the second and
the third. Suddenly I noticed it wasn’t dark any more.

The taxidermist’s words reveal his poetic worldview. They also echo a sen-
tence by the Romanian-French philosopher, E. M. Cioran: “Without the
98 KHATEREH SHEIBANI

possibility of suicide, I would have killed myself long ego.”55 This is the
inspiring idea that motivated Kiarostami in the making of Taste of Cherry.
From his perspective, the world is far from being perfect, but there is still
a lot of promise to be discovered even in the simplest things, such as the
taste of cherries:

TAXIDERMIST. Have you lost all hope? Have you ever looked at
the sky when you wake up in the morning? At dawn, don’t you
want to see the Sun rise? ... The night at the full moon? ... Refusing
them all, you want to give up the taste of cherry?

Through the taxidermist, the audience enters the garden of Persian poetic
philosophy, introduced by philosophers such as Khayyam and Hâfez whose
choice was the immediate pleasures of this world over the best of the other
world.56 In the taxidermist’s mind, the world is the representation of
beauty, love, and hope despite all its misfortunes and unhappiness. Like a
Sufi, he is a lover, a madman in his sanity, thoughtful and in search of a
reason to live. Both Badi’i and the taxidermist portray modern, liberated
rends. By granting himself the choice either of living or ending his life,
Badi’i enters the realm of rendi where a man is an “individual” who could
abandon the norms of his society to embrace his own choices. In this way,
Taste of Cherry reminds us of the story of Adam eating the fruit of the tree
of knowledge and his subsequent descent to Earth, as described in the
Qur’an
In his previous films, Kiarostami was always focusing on “ideas” rather
than on questions that concern “humankind.” In Taste of Cherry, he high-
lights the plight of modern human beings. This may explain why this, of
all his films, has the largest number of close-ups and wide shots. Once
again, Kiarostami uses the road and his “windshield camera,” both of
which symbolize the journey of a man in search of the meaning of life.
Badi’i, in his expeditions, is more in search of life than death, its happy
and unhappy moments, and the film is about people’s metamorphoses in
finding new meanings for their lives.
In embracing poetic mysticism and the state of rendi, Hâfez became
Persia’s iconic everlasting poet. In modern times, Kiarostami, influenced
by the philosophy of rendi, crosses ethnic, geographical, and political
boundaries to touch the very essence of humanity.

Notes

1 André Bazin, What Is Cinema? Essays Selected and Translated by Hugh Gray, Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1970, 30.
2 This information has been gathered from John Limbert, Shiraz in the Age of Hafez, http://
www.hafizonlove.com/bio/index.htm; http://www.farhangsara.com/fhafez1.htm,
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND THE AESTHETICS OF GHAZAL 99

last accessed 28 March 2006; and Reference Guide to World Literature, 436, John D.
Yohannan, “Hafiz,” in Reference Guide to World Literature, edited by S.
Pendergast and T. Pendergast, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Detroit: University of Michigan, 2003,
436.
3 John D. Yohannan, 436.
4 Wheeler McIntosh Thackston, A Millennium of Classical Persian Poetry: A Guide to the
Reading and Understanding of Persian Poetry from the Tenth to the Twentieth Century,
Bethesda: IBEX Publiushers, 1994, 64.
5 Daryush Ashuri, Erfân va rendi dar she’r-e Hâfez: yek bardâsht-e hermenutik (Mysticism
and Rendi in the Poetry of Hâfez: A Hermeneutical Interpretation), Tehran: Nashr-e
Markaz, 1998, 79.
6 Ibid., 80.
7 Rezâ Barâheni, Talâ dar mes: dar she’r va shâ’eri (Gold in Copper: on Poetry and
Poets), 3 vols., Tehran: Ferdows, 2002, 543-45. Although quatrain is also a non-narrative
poetic form, it is essentially very short, with a linear structure that holds together its the-
matic and formal harmony.
8 William Hanaway, “Persian Poetry,” 897, edited by Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan,
The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Princeton, NJ: Princton
University Press, 1993.
9 By indicating Hâfez’s poetry, I mean his lyric poetry or his Divân of Ghazals, as it is
commonly known in Persian literature.
10 Bahâ al-Din Khorram-Shâhi, Zehn va zabân-e Hâfez (Hâfez’s Mind and Language),
Tehran: Nâhid, 1982, 200–26.
11 Ibid., 1-18.
12 Ibid., 20.
13 Ibid., 22.
14 I have used Sharyar Sharyari’s translation, quoted from http://www.hafizonlove.com/di-
van/02/071.htm, last accessed 10 March 2010.
15 Bahâ al-Din Khorram-Shâhi, Zehn va zabân-e Hâfez, 20.
16 Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin, A Short History of the Movies, 8th edition, New York and
San Francisco: Longman, 2003, 416.
17 See Keiko I. McDonald, Japanese Classical Theater in Films, Cranbury: Associated
University Presses, 1994.
18 Jayran is played by the famous pre-revolutionary actress, Minoo Abrishami.
19 To some extent, Kiarostami uses visual poetics in Through the Olive Trees in showing the
attractive scenery of northern Iran, seen in his long shots of olive trees and rice paddies.
Apart from this film, he is mostly involved with philosophical poetics.
20 Music is used in only two scenes of the film, both of them when the boy is shown in a
long shot climbing the hill to reach his friend’s house.
21 Alirezâ Ra’isiyân, “Sinemâ-ye shâ’irâneh, sinemâ-ye taghazzoli (Poetic Cinema, Lyrical
Cinema),” edited by Zaven Qukasian, A Collection of Essays on Abbas Kiarostami’s
Films, Tehran: Âgâh, 1997, 31-32.
22 Ibid., 32.
23 Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Abbas Kiarostami, Urbana and Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 2003, 59.
24 Ibid., 177. The definition recalls the verse by Hafez:
‫ﻭﻧﺪﺭﺁﻥ ﺩﺍﯾﺮﻩ ﺳﺮﮔﺸﺘﻪ ﯼ ﭘﺎ ﺑﺮ ﺟﺎ ﺑﻮﺩ‬ ‫ﺩﻝ ﭼﻮ ﭘﺮﮔﺎﺭ ﺑﻪ ﻫﺮ ﺳﻮ ﺩﻭﺭﺍﻧﯽ ﻣﯽ ﮐﺮﺩ‬
The heart, like a compass, whirling
In its circle, wandering, but unwavering
25 Rezâ Barâheni, Talâ dar mes, 544.
26 Ali-Mohammad Haq-Shenâs, Maqâlât-e adabi, zabân-shinâkhti (The Literary and
Linguistic Articles), Tehran: Nilufar, 1991, 179.
100 KHATEREH SHEIBANI

27 Ibid., 179.
28 Rezâ Barâheni, Talâ dar mes, 550.
29 Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum,35.
30 Rezâ Barâheni, 295.
31 Any segment of a poem is visually recognizable as poetry through its form. Rhythm and
meter, the verbal components, come afterward, when read. This poem by Rumi is a good
example:
‫ﻭﻉ ﻭﻉ ﻭﻉ ﻫﻤﯽ ﮐﻨﺪ ﺣﺎﺳﺪﻡ ﺍﺯ ﺷﻠﻘﻠﻘﯽ‬ ‫ﻋﻒ ﻋﻒ ﻋﻒ ﻫﻤﯽ ﺯﻧﺪ ﺍﺷﺘﺮ ﻣﻦ ﺯ ﺗﻒ ﺗﻔﯽ‬
‫ﺩﻕ ﺩﻕ ﺩﻕ ﻫﻤﯽ ﺭﺳﺪ ﮔﻮﺵ ﻣﺮﺍ ﺯﻭﻕ ﻭﻗﯽ‬ ‫ﻭﻉ ﻭﻉ ﻭﻉ ﭼﻪ ﮔﻮﯾﺪﻡ ﻃﻔﻠﮏ ﻣﻬﺪ ﺑﺴﺘﻪ ﺭﺍ‬
‫ﻗﻢ ﻗﻢ ﻗﻢ ﺷﺐ ﻏﻤﺎﻥ ﺗﺎ ﺑﺼﺒﻮﺡ ﺳﺎﻗﻘﯽ‬ ‫ﻗﻮ ﻗﻮ ﻗﻮﯼ ﺑﻠﺒﻼﻥ ﻧﻌﺮﻩ ﺯﻧﺪ ﻫﻤﯽ ﻣﺮﺍ‬

It is quoted from Rezâ Barâheni, Talâ dar mes, page 54. As Barâheni indicates, in this
poem there is a direct link between the form and the poet’s emotional thought.
32 Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, 50, and Yahyâ Âryanpur quoted in Rezâ
Barâheni, 731.
33 In Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, 18.
34 It is noteworthy that although Kiarostami shows up quite a few times in his films – expli-
citly in Close-up and Homework and implicitly in Through the Olive Trees – to assert his
authorial power, at the same time he criticizes his own authorship and directorship in Life
and Then Nothing and Wind Will Carry Us.
35 This is how Rumi raises the same concern:
‫ﺑﻪ ﮐﺠﺎ ﻣﯽ ﺭﻭﻡ ﺁﺧﺮ ﻧﻨﻤﺎﯾﯽ ﻭﻃﻨﻢ‬ ‫ﺯ ﮐﺠﺎ ﺁﻣﺪﻩ ﺍﻡ ﺁﻣﺪﻧﻢ ﺑﻬﺮ ﭼﻪ ﺑﻮﺩ‬
36 Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, 59.
37 My translation.
38 John Limbert, Shiraz in the Age of Hafez: The Glory of a Medieval Persian City, Seattle
and London: University of Washington Press, 2004, 73.
39 Ibid., 73.
40 Harvard Film Archives, 7 June 2000, quoted in M.J. Michael Fischer, Mute Dreams,
Blind Owls, and Dispersed Knowledge: Persian Poesis in the Transnational Circuitry,
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004, 259.
41 Quoted in Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, 124.
42 ‫ﺷﻌﺮ ﺣﺎﺩﺛﻪ ﺍﯼ ﺍﺳﺖ ﮐﻪ ﺩﺭ ﺯﺑﺎﻥ ﺭﺥ ﻣﯽ ﺩﻫﺪ‬
43 Quoted in Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, 107.
44 Ibid., 111.
45 This is taken from a report by Parviz Jahed on the BBC Website, titled “Towards
Omitting the Director from Cinema,” – http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/arts/story/2004/02/
040203_la-pj-Kiyarustami.shtml (last accessed 1 May 2012).
46 Nial Lucy, Postmodern Literary Theory, Malden, 1997, 23.
47 Daryush Ashuri, 36.
48 Ibid., 73.
49 My emphasis.
50 Daryush Ashuri, 64.
51 Translated by N. J. Dawood.
52 ‫ﮐﻪ ﺍﯾﻦ ﺳﯿﺐ ﺯﻧﺦ ﺯﺍﻥ ﺑﻮﺳﺘﺎﻥ ﺑﻪ‬ ‫ﺑﻪ ﺧﻠﺪﻡ ﺩﻋﻮﺕ ﺍﯼ ﺯﺍﻫﺪ ﻣﻔﺮﻣﺎ‬
53 Daryush Ashuri, 47.
54 Ibid., 47.
55 M.J. Michael Fischer, Mute Dreams, Blind Owls, and Dispersed Knowledge: Persian
Poesis in the Transnational Circuitry, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004, 240–1.
56 Quoted in M.J. Fischer, Ibid., 241.
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND THE AESTHETICS OF GHAZAL 101

Works cited

Ashuri, D., Erfân va Rendi dar She’r-e Hâfez: Yek bardâsht-e Hermenutik, Tehran: Nashr-e
Markaz, 1998.
Barâheni, R., Talâ dar Mes: dar She’r va Shâ’eri, 3 vols., Tehran: Ferdows, 2002.
Bazin, A., What Is Cinema?, trans. by H. Gray, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
Fischer, M.M.J., Mute Dreams, Blind Owls, and Dispersed Knowledge: Persian Poesis in the
Transnational Circuitry, Durham, NC: duke university Press, 2004.
Hanaway, W., “Persian Poetry,” in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Alex
Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan (eds.), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Haqq-shenâs, A.M., Maqâlât-e Adabi, Zabân-shenâkhti, Tehran: Nilufar, 1991.
Khorram-Shâhi, B., Zehn va Zabân-e Hâfez, Tehran, Nâhid, 1982.
Limbert, J., Shiraz in the Age of Hafez: The Glory of a Medieval Persian City, Seattle and
London: University of Washington Press, 2004.
Lucy, N., Postmodern Literary Theory, Oxford / Malden: Wiley - Blackwell, 1997.
Mast, G., and B. Kawin, A Short History of the Movies, 8th edition, New York and San
Francisco: Longman, 2003.
McDonald, K.I., Japanese Classical Theater in Films, Cranbury: Associated University presses,
1994.
Preminger, A., and T. V. F. Brogan, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics,
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Ra’isiyân, A., “Sinemâ-ye Shâ’erâneh, Sinemâ-ye Taghazzoli,” in A Collection of Essays on
Abbas Kiarostami’s Films, Z. Qukasian (ed.), Tehran: Âgâh, 1997.
Saeed-Vafa, M. and J. Rosenbaum, Abbas Kiarostami, Urbana and Chicago: University of illonois
Press, 2003.
Thackston, W.M., A Millennium of Classical Persian Poetry: A Guide to the Reading and
Understanding of Persian Poetry from the Tenth to the Twentieth Century, Bethesda: Ibex
Publishers, 1994.
Yohannan, J.D., “Hafiz,” in Reference Guide to World Literature, S. Pendergast and T. Pendergast
(eds.), Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Detroit, 2003.

Internet:
Jahed, P., “Towards Omitting the Director from Cinema,” report on the BBC website – http://
www.bbc.co.uk/persian/arts/story/2004/02/040203_la-pj-Kiyarustami.shtml (last accessed 1
May 2012).
Limbert, John, http://www.farhangsara.com/fhafez1.htm (last accessed 10 March 2006).
Sharyari, Sh., http://www.hafizonlove.com/divan/02/071.htm (last accessed 10 March 2010).

On-line sources
Limbert, John, Shiraz in the Age of Hafez – http://www.hafizonlove.com/bio/index.htm.
Contemporary Liminal Encounters: Moving
Beyond Traditional Plots in Majidi’s Bârân

Omid Tofighian

In Majid Majidi’s film Bârân, Latif, an Iranian youth working on a Tehran


construction site, embarks on a mission to save Bârân and her family from
destitution. Bârân’s family are Afghan refugees, and Bârân has no work
permit. She deceives the builders and laborers by impersonating a boy and
calling herself Rahmat. After struggling with the heavy work, she is given
Latif’s lighter job, preparing the food and tea. Latif begins to mistreat
Bârân, until he accidentally stumbles across her secret. This has a profound
effect on him and he dedicates himself to improving her situation, espe-
cially after she is forced to leave her job.
The film is a contemporary version of a number of traditional literary
plots which share a similarity of form. There are elements in the different
story structures that overlap and which I refer to as “chameleon” elements,
because they have the ability to change appearance while retaining their
form. However, Majidi has created a film that incorporates new elements,
themes, and ideas and that required him to appropriate the original plots in
unprecedented ways. He also uses the chameleon elements to reposition
meaning, i.e., from a didactic allegory based on metaphor to a nonrealist
allegory. In this paper I will discuss how the film moves beyond traditional
allegorical and commonplace storylines by concealing the emphasis in
meaning within the language of the film. Instead of looking beyond the
film for meaning, or trying to uncover it from behind the story, Majidi di-
rects us to concentrate on the particulars associated with contemporary is-
sues and themes and the enhanced place of liminality as we engage with
the film.
I will first explore the plot by drawing comparisons between it and four
traditional plot structures and then move on to analyze it critically, using
radical typology, to disclose the new directions the film takes. Second, I
will address the importance of the opening scene and its relation to other
parts of the film and describe how it informs us of the major themes in the
plot. Third, it is important to explain the significance of the settings Majidi
chooses for the events and the relevance these have to his plot. Finally, to
support my interpretation of the film as a radical rewriting of traditional
plots, I will discuss details pertaining to the characters, Bârân and Latif:
104 OMID TOFIGHIAN

two examples of the way in which Majidi has reinvented and updated tra-
ditional multisignifying elements.

Plot Structure

The film uses a developmental plot to depict the many forms of progress
one makes in search of something one loves. The storyline shares affinities
with a common traditional framework used to narrate a number of arche-
typal tales: 1) a chivalrous quest in which a man’s love is tested as he
seeks to save his beloved; 2) a philosophical search in which an individual
gradually arrives at intellectual and emotional insight or enlightenment
after contemplating events and experiences; 3) a moral code or series of di-
dactic rules that uses the trials of a character to teach virtues; 4) a mystical
ascension describing how a spiritual traveler initially aims to be with his
loved one and eventually becomes immersed in the divine. These four
types of interpretation (master narratives) became well established in the
medieval tradition and influenced the Iranian literary tradition (representa-
tions). In the form of an Iranian film and in the context of contemporary
Iranian culture, it is not surprising that mystical ascension is expressed
more clearly in Bârân and is the interpretation most often made by view-
ers. However, the framework of all four narratives is the same and the con-
stituents of each style have affinities with each other and often overlap.
The plot of the film exhibits many important features essential to the
four examples mentioned above. Particular elements such as the figure of a
traveler, a pure and innocent object of desire, a labyrinthine environment,
tests of character, a progression through “stations” and “states” of insight,
provide the basis for the four traditional forms of the plot and are imported
into the film. Whether the goal is love, knowledge, justice, or gnosis, the
basic style of each plot has a similar form. The plot structure is dynamic,
because of the multidimensional overlap of meanings that run through in
harmony. Majidi’s layered storyline is sensitive to the role of the charac-
ters, events, and objects within the different levels of meaning; what the
characters, events, and objects signify in one interpretation of the plot does
not conflict with the nature of the signifier in the other versions. For in-
stance, Latif may represent a romantic savior type if we consider the film
to be a chivalrous quest; or an example of someone who achieves intellec-
tual insight through praxis in a philosophical allegory; or an agent being
governed by moral imperatives if we understand the film to be a form of
moral education; or a spiritual wayfarer if we see the film as describing a
mystical ascension. Each view of Latif’s character shares aspects with the
others and this, as well as many other multisignifying or “chameleon” el-
ements, allows different perspectives of the plot to function simultaneously.
By using chameleon elements, Majidi authorizes a variety of meanings,
each reinforcing the potency of the others. Other elements which possess
CONTEMPORARY LIMINAL ENCOUNTERS 105

this “interdimensional” transformative quality are the character of Bârân;


differences between the ethnic, civil, and social status of the characters; the
four elements; and labyrinthine settings.
However, the potential of what I have called chameleon elements far ex-
ceeds the functions I have described above. The four layers of the plot I
mentioned have their roots in previous eras and need to be appropriated to
remain relevant to a film that seeks to elicit an urgent recognition of con-
temporary events and issues. Majidi’s multisignifiers effectively transport
the traditional plot structures into the present by deconstructing some of
their essential features. While many stories controlled by the traditional
plots mold the contents of the narrative to correspond with and obey con-
ventional form, Majidi attempts to rewrite the plot itself. In Bârân there is
a special integral relationship between the socio-cultural-political context
of the film, the particular elements that make up the film and the plot. This
interdependent relationship opens the original plot structure to updating in
a way I will explain below. In this case, Majidi’s updated chameleon el-
ements function to rework the plot to address certain international and
urban problems.

Radical Typology

The first interpretation of the tale I described above, a chivalrous quest, is


a literal account of the narrative, while the other three are examples of a di-
dactic or realist form of allegory made popular in the Middle Ages (as op-
posed to nonrealist or antirealist allegory). In realist allegorical tales, the
true meaning of the film lies beyond or beneath the presentation of images
and the sequence of events. This form of reading attempts to demytholo-
gize the story by rationalizing it and rendering the medium secondary and
arbitrary – the true message transcends the work or is immanent and there-
fore hidden. In these four types of reading, Bârân becomes a model of
heroism, a philosophical theory, moral prescriptions, or instructions for
mystical guidance. In the last three cases, the allegorical interpretation
gives primacy to a removed essence and the particular details of the film
are treated simply as the means of conveying that message.
An alternative to this form of allegorical realism is a nonrealist allegori-
cal style which attempts to convey meaning by close consideration of the
film language, i.e., the message, or messages as such, emerges or emerge
from the interaction between the characters, objects and particular events
also may have significance in themselves. Meaning exists only because
there is a film language that the director used to communicate, and it can
be discovered by deeply investigating the film dynamics. What the film is
truly designed to express is spoken and acted in the particulars of the story
and is not transcendent or immanent. According to a nonrealist approach,
one must not attempt to translate narrative into theory, but must realize and
106 OMID TOFIGHIAN

accept the possibilities inherent in the narrative itself, i.e., in the individual
characters, their activities and behavior, the settings, the events, and the un-
ique interrelations between all these elements. In contrast to understanding
the film by decoding it in terms of a realist allegory, one can open up a
horizon upon which to reread and refigure the familiar features as they are
presented. In this case, the film continually perpetuates meanings rather
than embodying one essential meaning.1
Certain elements of traditional plots are incorporated into the film once
the original elements have been prefigured as types (e.g., the romantic
hero) and the prominent features displayed in Bârân are to be seen as anti-
types of the original types (the antihero).2 This is a basic typological read-
ing and does not mean that type and antitype are opposites but rather that
antitypes are new forms that seem to have been anticipated by the old
forms. However, this relationship is established only after the originals
have been prefigured to make a meaningful connection between the old
and the updated. In other words, the types can be seen as figures and the
antitypes fulfill them; the types are interpreted retrospectively as setting up
the antitypes. Radical typology takes this approach even further by disre-
garding the authority of an essential and absolute theory or meaning that
the typological relationship represents. Meaning resides in the significance
of the new antitypes chosen to depict the original types, which requires
that the plot be modified to accommodate the new signifier. In fact, the
meaning of the antitypes and the plot must be considered essentially fluid.
In this respect, radical typology is a form of interpretation that is forever
present and open to contemporary interpretations in that it requires that the
same process of prefiguring be continued, to continuously spawn new nar-
rative meanings. The old narrative is necessary but becomes an introduc-
tion to a more important narrative sequence which has the potential to be
reinvented and acquire whole new meanings and purposes. One may argue
that prefiguring types in this way“ “remythologizes” a work as opposed to
demythologizing it by reducing it to a realist form of allegory.

If orthodox typology involves a thorough rewriting of scripture, ra-


dical typology involves a shift of emphasis from the sacred to the
secular. While it may appear to be arrogant appropriation, similar to
that by which one set of scripture becomes a foil to another, its ef-
fect is to liberate the imagination. Its business is not dogmatic asser-
tion but narrative exploration.3

I will now give a number of examples from the film to justify a reading in
terms of radical typology. I will argue that Majidi’s purpose in prefiguring
the traditional narratives was primarily to draw awareness to contemporary
issues pertaining to refugees, ethnic identity and ethnic relations, gender,
rites of passage, the consequences of war, and liminality.4 By appropriating
CONTEMPORARY LIMINAL ENCOUNTERS 107

and moving beyond traditional story lines, and therefore directing attention
to these recent issues, Majidi reveals the profound potential inherent in
contemporary representations of characters, objects and themes. For him,
the meaning is made available by considering that which is exoteric rather
than esoteric.

Bârân As Antitype
Film introduction
The film begins with creation. In the first few seconds the screen is black
– there are only sounds which include the breathing of the creator.
Suddenly, a luminous image takes the screen. The sounds become recog-
nizable now that we see small pieces of dough being separated from a
large pile, rolled into identical balls and placed next to each other in order.
This is followed by the baker rolling them out and throwing them onto
oven plates. We are witness to the traditional method of preparing bread
dough and slapping it onto the rotating plates of an oven to make the
popular lavâsh bread (a kind of bread made in many countries including
Iran and Afghanistan). Throughout the process we can only see a pair of
hands in brisk motion and hear the faint sound of breathing made in a
manner that matches the pace of the baker’s work – the only signs of life
in an otherwise mechanical task. In relation to many themes running
through the film this introductory scene proves to be extremely potent. The
objects created and the slices of lavâsh are identical as they are based on
the model envisioned by the baker, i.e., an ideal. They are all the same in
many ways: prepared in the same manner, made of the same ingredients,
equal in dimension and value and are, in principle, all used for the same
thing. In the context of a film that deals with different forms of discrimina-
tion one may justifiably decipher an egalitarian metaphor. There is cer-
tainly a strong humanitarian factor expressed in the film and the opening
scene, the creation of many of the same objects, can be seen to express
equality and support the films underlying critique of ethnic, class, gender,
and social prejudices (the bread is a symbol of equality since it is con-
sumed in many countries). The humanitarian quality of the film is one of
its foremost virtues. However, I want to interpret the opening scene from
another perspective.
By contrasting the creation motifs at the beginning with the film’s final
image, a number of messages can be derived. The last frame shows a foot-
print left in the mud by Bârân, and Latif’s faint reflection in a puddle of
water next to it. It begins to rain, disrupting the image in the puddle while
Bârân’s footprint begins to dissolve. The impression left by Bârân repre-
sents a unique creation and a sign of individual identity. Both the mark in
the mud and the mark left on Latif have been made by the weakest mem-
ber of one of the lowest echelons in contemporary Iranian society: an
108 OMID TOFIGHIAN

Afghan Hazara girl. Bârân functions as a liminal character by initiating re-


newal, but she performs her act passively: her mere presence in many si-
tuations automatically disrupts the status quo, breaks down conventional
barriers, shatters stereotypes, challenges traditional categories, and allows
new hypotheses to emerge.5 Consistent with her role as a liminal character,
Bârân instigates Latif’s transformation and helps maintain his perpetual
change which renders her a creator in a rather peculiar sense. In contrast to
the baker, Bârân does not create but, in her own way, recreates, i.e., she de-
constructs and then rearranges the pieces into a new order.
The last scene uses religious symbols to convey a certain message per-
taining to individual identity that runs throughout the film and must be
understood in relation to the opening scene. Bârân makes an impression on
the earth or mud: something is again created, but in contrast to the bread
of the opening scene, Majidi refers to the clay from which Adam was cre-
ated, in the Quran. The bread signifies bodies whereas in the last scene
Majidi performs the unique act of forming character. Bârân’s footprint
therefore reflects the creation of a man distinct from every other man, an
individual imprint in mud which cannot be reproduced as opposed to mul-
tiple pieces of lavâsh. Taken a step further, the last scene depicts God, the
creator, represented as a woman – an icon which corresponds with the way
the divine is represented in philosophical and mystical literature (cf.
Diotima in Plato’s Symposium, Sofia in Gnosticism, Lady Philosophy in
Boethius, Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the female beloved in
Sufism). Also, by making Bârân the only female character, the film makes
a significant point about the role of the female in personal salvation and
enforces her liminal status.6 The opening scene/final scene dialectic reflects
the strong theme of personality, individuality, and freedom amidst repeti-
tiveness, uniformity, and conformity.7 Later in this paper I will indicate the
scenes that depict the contrast between the individual and the masses, and
the contemporary context in which it must be understood.8

Settings

But there are many places within the earth itself, all around it wher-
ever there are hollow regions; some of these are deeper and more
extensive than that in which we live, others deeper than our region
but with a smaller expanse, some both shallower than ours and
broader. All these are joined together underground by many con-
necting channels, some narrower, some wider, through which, from
one basin to another, there flows a great volume of water, mon-
strous unceasing subterranean rivers of waters both hot and cold;
and of fire too, great rivers of fire; and many of liquid mud, some
clearer, some murkier . . . (Plato, Phaedo 111c-d).
CONTEMPORARY LIMINAL ENCOUNTERS 109

Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood,


for the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard it is to tell what the
wood was, wild, rugged, harsh; the very thought of it renews the
fear! It is so bitter that death is hardly more so. But, to treat of the
good that I found in it, I will tell of the other things I saw there
(Dante, The Divine Comedy, Canto 1).

The many settings chosen for the film are instrumental in the presentation
and interconnection of major and minor events in the plot. There is a par-
ticular recurring form to the physical settings, which can be described as
spaces consisting of relatively narrow interconnected pathways of varying
lengths. In some places the paths lead to a court, an enclosed garden, yard,
or room that either contains portals leading to other pathways, or the path
leading in continues in other directions. Almost every scene involves a cor-
ridor, alley, aisle, path, road, or flight of stairs.
In addition, at every turning point or salient moment, the four elements
are represented in a variety of forms; fire, water, earth, and air/wind feature
prominently throughout the winding path systems and in the spaces to
which they lead. One is reminded of the underground rivers in Plato’s
underworld myth at the end of the Phaedo, which had an immense influ-
ence on the mystical thought of many religious and philosophical schools.
Dante’s The Divine Comedy is one example of the literary tradition that de-
scribes the soul’s journey, and it shares many important features with
Bârân, including the significant use of the elements (also, consider the in-
fluence on Dante of Aristotle’s meteorology, which deals with the transfor-
mation of the four elements into one another).9 Plato, Dante, and other
authors writing in the same tradition illustrate how the four elements,
which make up our bodies, can only transform into each other, whereas the
soul has the potential to transform itself when it limits the influence of the
body, and ultimately to escape the labyrinth in which it is imprisoned.
Throughout the film, one element appears in a scene only to be replaced
by another element in another scene shortly after – all of them imbedded
in the labyrinth setting. Latif transforms simultaneously with the elements,
but by virtue of his individual will he is able to liberate himself from per-
petual change and finally exit the maze.
The first main example of a system of pathways is the interconnecting
halls, stairwells, and corridors of the construction site. This setting exhibits
narrow flights of stairs which take workers to different floors of the build-
ing. The floors consist of long corridors with rooms on either side; the top
floor seems to be a series of large rooms and is often bright because it is
still without a roof; on the edges of the bottom floor there are large dark
spaces which store building material; the center of the bottom floor is a
mostly empty square which holds the kitchen, contains various openings to
the outside, and has no ceiling. It is therefore exposed to full view from
110 OMID TOFIGHIAN

every level. The four elements feature prominently throughout the location:
fire burning in drums, heaters, stoves, and gas burners; hot and cold water
released from hoses, in drums, and carried in buckets; earth used to mix
mortar, plaster, and cement; and air represented as blowing wind, steam,
and mist. At every significant moment in the film, the elements participate
in different ways and the camera always captures the presence of at least
one element in most frames. The use of the four elements continues when
Latif leaves the construction site and their significance increases.
Once Latif leaves the site and begins traveling in search of Bârân, the
environment shifts but the framework that has become familiar continues.
In the following scenes, Latif must traverse Tehran’s roads, the streets and
alleys of Tehran’s inner city, the walkways leading through the villages on
the outskirts of the city, and the busy and cluttered aisles of Tehran’s ba-
zaar. During Latif’s search one realizes that these settings repeat the con-
struction site. For instance, the busy inner-city streets lead Latif in and out
of “rooms” such as a hostel, a bus, or the back of a truck. The serene path-
ways of the villages direct him to hidden sanctuaries where he meets im-
portant people and encounters significant events. And the maze of the ba-
zaar and its regular inhabitants move Latif as though the market were a liv-
ing entity. The organs of the labyrinth force him to move from a
precarious location to a spot where he can be rescued and finally provides
him with the financial means with which to rescue Bârân.10
The role of the elements becomes more dominant in the scenes after
Latif leaves his workplace. Many of the rural trails and paths have adjacent
rivers or streams and it rains or snows a number of times in the film, the
most notable being the rain in the last scene. Also, puddles and small
bodies of water are prevalent in many different settings. Smoke and steam
abounds in the offices and rooms where Latif finds himself along his trav-
els, and fire appears regularly for various purposes – in one case a fire
burns Latif’s sock. Earth is represented by mounds of dirt and gravel, piles
of rocks, and by the soil of a small potted plant he takes care of while in
his hostel room. But earth makes its most significant appearance in the fi-
nal scene, where Bârân’s footprint is left in the mud as she departs for
Afghanistan. If we consider the strong connection between Iranian national
identity and the “clay” of the land, the scene becomes even more potent,
since it suggests a challenge to the Iranian sense of self by an outsider.
As I briefly explained above, the sequence of events incorporates a dy-
namic contrast between the individual and the masses: the road occupied
by the many and the path of the individual who branches off to undertake
his/her own adventure. The events that occur on the building site after
Latif discovers Bârân’s secret distinguish Latif’s purpose and behavior
from the rest of the workers; he becomes a curious individual, a caretaker,
sensitive to aesthetic and emotional nuances, and even begins to improve
his appearance in the workplace – distinguishing him further from the crew
CONTEMPORARY LIMINAL ENCOUNTERS 111

of laborers. After leaving the site, new scenes and images are used to re-
present a fundamental dichotomy in the film, i.e. the separation between
the individual and the masses. There are many scenes that symbolize this
theme, often presented at moments preceding a particular stretch in Latif’s
journey or development. For instance, he suddenly leaps out of a crowded
bus when he spots a former Afghan colleague, Sultan. He eventually
catches up with him and is given important information about Bârân’s
whereabouts. At another point he gets off a bus, walks alone, and shortly
after has a private conversation with an Afghan cobbler who impresses
Latif by reciting poetry. In other scenes he leaves a busy street and rents a
bed in an empty hostel. Afterwards, Latif is shown sharing the same room
with many others, before continuing his journey alone. There are numerous
examples of this “one and many” or “individual and masses” dynamic.
They are integral to Latif’s search through the mazes of intertwined pas-
sages and rooms. As already noted, the film is bracketed by two scenes, in
binary opposition: the many identical pieces of bread at the beginning and
Bârân’s lone footprint in the mud at the end. Note that in the first, Latif is
seen queuing with many other customers to buy bread, while he is alone at
the end of the film. Between the first and final scenes, Majidi uses Latif’s
story to assist the viewer to experience the movement from the mundane
and insignificant existence to the unprecedented achievement of being a
unique person.
The film contains many interesting and innovative examples of what I
have described as antitypes. The journey through the labyrinth setting does
not seem to lead to a final destination.11 The elements are omnipresent in
the film but do not represent a particular emotion, idea, stage or state. Latif
as a wayfarer does not completely achieve what he had intended – he can-
not be with Bârân, her return is not certain and he is still unsure about how
to integrate the knowledge he has gained. Bârân’s future is still precarious,
and Latif's acts of charity turn out to have little effect in relation to the
family’s overall troubles. The tale is far from ideal and represents a gritty
relentless reality. The director makes no attempt to hide these harsh facts:
an interpretation focusing on some “essential meaning” for the film would
ignore Majidi’s deliberate focus on the power of particular characters and
events. The film’s plot and constituent elements resist reduction to an ideal
plot with an ideal and predictable meaning. The four types of plot I listed
earlier cannot contain this dimension of the film: its striking representation
of the contemporary hardships faced by minorities and victims of war. The
liminal excess embodied by Bârân disrupts any attempt to draw compari-
sons with conventional storylines and themes. The two main examples of
antitypes I would like to focus on here are Bârân as an object of desire and
Latif as the seeker.
112 OMID TOFIGHIAN

Bârân
Bârân shares many characteristics with her counterpart in the four tradi-
tional plots I described above. She is the object of desire; her role in the
film often leads Latif to some form of knowledge; she inspires moral duty;
and she functions as a mystical guide on Latif’s road to self-realization.
However, there are significant differences between Bârân and her counter-
parts, or types, in previous tales. She certainly fulfills her function in accord-
ance with the older plots, i.e. she functions as a chameleon element. But
she is more passive than active – one could even say that she is unaware
of her powers. Majidi shapes her character to correspond to a new era by
intensifying certain liminal traits which include passivity and suffering,
low social status, and various other forms of marginality. He transposes a
traditional character into the context of Tehran after the US War on Terror
in Afghanistan and its aftermath, and the influx of Afghan refugees. Majidi
adds some significant contemporary features, presenting her as a displaced
member of a minority ethnic group, a poor and struggling victim of war
and, most importantly, a young girl whose age is ambiguous.12
She is a chameleon not only in the sense of being at home in all of the
four main foundational plots, but also in fact, for she begins as the boy
Rahmat, and continues to be Rahmat for some of the time and Bârân for
the rest. Her role changes depending on the context – she is shown on the
building site, moving debris in a river, in a courtyard making Afghan tea,
at home taking care of family, and finally preparing a truck to leave Iran.
In each scene her appearance is different and the influence she has on other
elements in the film, particularly Latif, changes. One of the most salient
moments in the film depicts Latif spying on Bârân as she feeds the pigeons
on the brightly lit top floor of the construction site. She is seen smiling for
the first time, which in turn affects Latif and marks a pivotal transition
point in the character and in the film. Majidi represents the whole encoun-
ter using potent imagery and devices to convey the idea that both charac-
ters are entering a phase of transformation – one actively and the other pas-
sively. Latif actively pursues the characteristically passive Bârân. In the
frame just before Latif sees Bârân, Majidi uses the technique of chiaros-
curo to communicate Latif’s liminal moment. This frame is significant be-
cause it tells the viewer that Latif must deeply consider the purpose and
importance of his interest in Bârân, which until then had remained unclear.
His realization is somehow revealed when the film shows us a smiling
Bârân, in an illuminated space, surrounded in angelic fashion by fluttering
pigeons. It is important to note that at the end of the film we hear a sound
similar to the fluttering of pigeons after Bârân dons her burka, just as it
seems she is about to smile for the second time.13
Bârân is a “shapeshifter,” since she plays both male and female roles, is
active in both male and female jobs and activities, and switches between
CONTEMPORARY LIMINAL ENCOUNTERS 113

the public and private spheres. Also, Bârân’s influence on Latif is ambigu-
ous, fluid (like the meaning of her name, which means “rain” and is also
another name for the river of Kabul)14 and is never made completely clear.
One cannot completely define the relationship as one based on physical at-
traction, or a relationship between siblings, friends, or based on charity. All
of these factors lend credence to the argument that Majidi is enhancing the
liminal status of Bârân to break free from the traditional character role.15
The original chameleon character which moved between different tradi-
tional plots has been reshaped to anticipate the contemporary version
which transforms into the antitype, so providing new meaning.

Latif
Latif’s chameleon character transforms in response to Bârân’s various lim-
inal features. He, too, shares many qualities with the original characters
from the traditional interpretations, but a number of aspects allow one to
consider him an antitype. Latif belongs to an ethnic minority know as
Azeri or Azeri Turks. He is a poor adolescent village boy, working under
the supervision of the main engineer on the site – another Azeri Turk and
probably a friend of the family. Like Bârân, Latif shifts identity depending
on the context, and changes his own status through his encounters with
Bârân. For instance, he risks his job to rescue Bârân from inspectors; he
loses his savings and surrenders his ID card to improve her miserable
situation; and he realizes at the end that he has matured and that his actions
were not in vain when Bârân, in her own way, acknowledges his efforts.
Latif’s unconventional and unstable personality is expressed in other
ways, as well. He is uncertain of many things in life. When he discovers
Bârân’s secret, he seems even more confused. He does not seem to have
any direction except that he wants to help Bârân. In his various attempts to
help her and her family, he acts whimsically and changes his mind about
how to help frequently. In many respects Latif is an antihero in contrast to
the protagonist in the traditional plots.16
At a certain point, Latif sells his Iranian identification card to raise funds
to help Bârân’s family. As a mystical allegory this is a striking representa-
tion of the annihilation of the self, signaling the final stage of the quest.
The same may be said for the other allegorical readings, particularly the
moral version, since in Iran giving up one’s identification card for the sake
of another would be seen as an extremely significant sacrifice which entails
social paralysis: one is literally and metaphorically without an identity.
However, in Bârân this does not signal the end of the film and there are a
few moments afterwards of greater importance. The scene in which Latif
loses his identity is important and symbolic but in Majidi’s appropriation
of the plot it is demoted (the traditional stories would have it as the
culmination).
114 OMID TOFIGHIAN

Conclusion

The particulars of the film give us better information about the meaning
without needing to look beyond or beneath, i.e., without bypassing the ac-
tual details of the film using a realist form of allegorical interpretation.
Among other things, Latif realizes that discrimination is repugnant and he
understands the consequences of war and his obligation towards fellow hu-
mans. In other words, within the real context of contemporary issues and
events, he connects with his empathy for others and achieves a sense of
the importance of virtue. By witnessing Bârân’s impact on Latif, the viewer
is introduced to the power of liminality and its significance in social con-
texts. In addition, Majidi prescribes breaking free from mainstream percep-
tions to engage truly with the many problems associated with contempo-
rary issues such as refugees, ethnic identity and ethnic relations, gender,
rites of passage, and the consequences of war. The relation between the
opening and closing scenes, as well as many other devices in the film, in-
dicate Majidi’s optimism about the impact one can have if one transcends
the commonplace prejudices relating to these issues. These factors support
the non-realist interpretation that there is an interdependent relationship be-
tween the meaning of the film, the objects, the characters and the particular
encounters between them.

Notes

1 Individuals such as Vico, Auerbach, Benjamin, Hayden White, and Coupe have presented
methodologies in many ways consistent with what I am proposing here. Early Christian
biblical interpreters, Dante and Blake have rendered good examples of literature that has
employed similar approaches. In this article I will remain closer to the method presented
by Laurence Coupe. In his book Myth, London: Routledge, 1997, Coupe describes a theo-
ry he calls radical typology, which I want to appropriate and use in combination with
other literary doctrines (particularly Auerbach and White’s notion of figural realism) in
my reading of Bârân.
2 Cf. Coupe (1997) section: “Radical Typology: Permanent Possibility.”
3 Coupe, 112.
4 See Weinberger’s comments on how many Iranian “films are normally shot on location;
they often tend to rely on nonprofessional actors; and they concern working class people
struggling with a single large material problem” (6-7). Weinberger observes that many
Iranian films lack conventional religious references and motifs and draws attention to
how social institutions contribute to the problems of the characters (on pages 7-8, he iden-
tifies the similarities with Italian Neorealism and gives examples throughout the paper).
5 Liminality is a term first used by Arnold van Gennep to refer to the phase in a rite of pas-
sage or transition ritual when change occurs in relation to place, state, social position, and
age (Victor Turner The Ritual Process – Structure and Anti-Structure, Chicago: Aldine
Transaction, 1969, 94). The concept was made popular by Turner, who realized its appli-
cability to a wide range of sociological and anthropological topics. According to Turner, a
liminal phase is an intervening period in the sequence of a ritual when the subject’s status
and qualities are ambiguous. The initiate does not possess the attributes of the excited
state of being or the upcoming state; social status is temporarily suspended; and the
CONTEMPORARY LIMINAL ENCOUNTERS 115

stability characteristic of mundane social structures is shattered. In fact, liminality can be


contrasted with structure, i.e., the hierarchy-based social system (political-legal-economic)
that governs everyday life. A familiar character trait of liminal figures is passivity, humil-
ity and a willingness to accept punishment. These features play a crucial role, in various
ways, in empowering the liminal person, people or other entity and provide possibilities
for surviving the liminal phase and successfully re-entering the social structure – a struc-
ture which is disrupted and transformed after interaction with an example of liminality.
6 Langford also recognizes Majidi’s use of a female character in all-male settings as a de-
vice to communicate the necessity for interaction between men and women and the pro-
motion of virtue in “Negotiating the sacred body in Iranian cinema(s): National, physical
and cinematic embodiment in Majid Majidi’s Bârân (2002),” Negotiating the Sacred II:
Blasphemy and Sacrilege in the Arts, Burns-Coleman, E. and S. Fernandes-Dias,
Canberra, 2008.
7 Chaudhuri and Finn interpret the closing scene of Panahi’s The White Balloon as inform-
ing the narrative of the film and adding a political dimension to a seemingly simple story.
In the final frame a lone Afghan boy, who helped the main characters retrieve their lost
money, is left standing in the street holding a white balloon while Iranians celebrate New
Year. Chaudhuri and Finn argue that the use of this device, the injection of a marginal
character, calls the charming characters and their quest into question and raises awareness
of a political reality which until then seemed absent; S. Chaudhuri, and H. Finn, “The
Open Image: Poetic Realism and the New Iranian Cinema,” Screen, 44.1 Spring, 2003,
56.
8 Also, consider Dabashi’s analysis of the role of certain Iranian women in effectively insti-
gating social and political progress. Dabashi, Close Up: Past, Present and Future, New
York: Verso, 2001, 216–223, provides an insightful study of three influential female fig-
ures, Tâhereh Qor’at al-Ayn (1814-1852) and the pre-constitutional revolution writers
Bibi Khânom Astarâbâdi and Tâj al-Saltaneh, and highlights their impact on society, poli-
tics, culture, literature and, consequently, cinema.
9 Boyde Philomythes and Philosopher: Man in the Cosmos, Cambridge: Cambridge univer-
sity Press, 1981, section 3: “Meteorology.”
10 Cf. Chaudhuri and Finn, 2003, 45, who discuss the use of labyrinth settings in Iranian
cinema and the influence of Italian Neorealism.
11 Cf. Chaudhuri and Finn, 2003, 47.
12 Cf. Langford, 2007, 3.
13 In his essay “Veiled vision/powerful presences: women in post-revolutionary Iranian cin-
ema,” Naficy (1999) provides an interesting critical study of the hermeneutics of veiling –
particularly the details of the relationship between a woman’s inner self and her appear-
ance which is available to the male gaze (44-65). In the light of Naficy’s critique, one
may interpret Bârân’s final act of covering as a device to communicate socially and cultu-
rally suppressed emotions and thoughts. In the last scene, Majidi not only abides by the
strict Islamic codes of chastity and modesty, but takes the rules to an unnecessary extreme
by having Bârân cover her face – something she was not obliged to do throughout the
whole film. The face-to-face encounter with Latif, along with the suspense associated
with the fact that she was about to smile, preceding the veiling, enables the viewer to
imagine a spectrum of inner thoughts and feelings considered taboo for an unmarried pair
in an Iranian Islamic context. By hiding Bârân’s final reaction, Majidi opens up a range
of possible meanings which would have been difficult, or impossible, to evoke if he had
dictated the viewer’s understanding by actually representing Bârân’s expression.
14 Fisher, Mute Dreams, Blind Owls, and Dispersed Knowledges: Persian Poesis in the
Transnational Circuitry, Durham, NC and London, duke University Press, 2004, 316.
15 Bârân’s character as I have described it here resembles in many respects the identity of
the trickster character: a liminal figure depicted in mythology, literature, and art. For a
116 OMID TOFIGHIAN

cross-cultural and cross-historical study of the trickster character see Lock,


“Transformations of the Trickster” – www.southerncrossreview.org/18/trickster.htm (last
accessed date 2008).
16 For an interpretation of Latif’s character which identifies him as the post-revolutionary
Islamic ideal citizen and, paradoxically, as an example of the “cracks and contradictions,
the shadow of the very nation state he is supposed to embody” see Langford, 2008.

Works cited

Primary:
Dante, The Divine Comedy, trans. with commentary by C.S. Singleton, Princeton University
Press, 1970.
Plato,“ “Phaedo” in The Last Days of Socrates, trans. by Tredennick and H. Tarrant, introduction
and notes by H. Tarrant, Harmondsworth, 1993.

Secondary:
Boyde, P., Philomythes and Philosopher: Man in the Cosmos, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1981.
Chaudhuri, S., and Finn, H., “The Open Image: Poetic Realism and the New Iranian Cinema,”
Screen, 44.1 Spring, 2003, 39-57.
Coupe, L., Myth, London: Routledge, 1997.
Dabashi, H., Close Up: Past, Present and Future, London / New York: Verso, 2001.
Fisher, M.M.J., Mute Dreams, Blind Owls, and Dispersed Knowledges: Persian Poesis in the
Transnational Circuitry, Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2004.
Langford, M., “Negotiating the sacred body in Iranian cinema(s): National, physical and cine-
matic embodiment in Majid Majidi’s Bârân (2002),” Negotiating the Sacred II: Blasphemy
and Sacrilege in the Arts, Burns-Coleman, E. and S. Fernandes-Dias, Canberra, The
Australian National University, E Press, 2008.
—, “Allegory and the aesthetics of“ “becoming-woman” in Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I
Became a Woman,” Camera Obscura, 64: 22 (April), 1–41, 2007.
Lock, H., “Transformations of the Trickster” – www.southerncrossreview.org/18/trickster.htm (17
August 2011)
Naficy, H., “Veiled visions/powerful presences: women in post-revolutionary Iranian cinema,”
Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema, Rose Issa and Sheila Whitaker (eds.), London:
British Film Institute, 1999.
Turner, V., The Ritual Process – Structure and Anti-Structure, Chicago: Aldine Transaction, 1969.
Weinberger, S., “Neorealism, Iranian Style,” Iranian Studies, 40: 1, 5-16, 2007.
Virtuous Heroines: A Mythical Reading of Female
Protagonists in Contemporary Iranian Television
Serials

Niloofar Niknam

Television Drama Serials and the Nature of TV in Iran

In Iran, terrestrial broadcasting is monopolized by the state. Television,


along with other social institutions, altered fundamentally after the revolu-
tion, to match revolutionary ideals and the desire to build a society based
on Islamic values. According to the Islamic Republic’s Constitution, televi-
sion must be used as a tool to “serve the diffusion of Islamic culture” and
must “strictly refrain from diffusion and propagation of destructive and
anti-Islamic practices” (Khiabany 2008: 29).
While television drama serials have altered over time since then, with
crucial changes to reflect social and political shifts, the main doctrine has
been very much a constant. Serials have become a very popular form of
television in Iran in recent years, achieving audiences numbering in the
millions. Most of the serials produced in Iran can be defined as drama se-
rials, since the plot develops over several weeks with a strong sense of
linear progression (Hall 1982). They last for a season, and sometimes for
two or more, and are broadcast once a week, building to a clear ending (in
contrast to Western soap operas).
Drama serials, according to John Tulloch (1990:35), provide opportu-
nities for more complex characterizations. Moreover, because they are in
essence entertainment, television drama serials are a dependable way of re-
presenting a dominant ideology, yet remaining popular. Josie Delap
(2007:6) writes, “as opposed to other television genres, drama serials, can
be most useful in this regard partly due to their popularity, but also because
their status as fiction enables them uniquely to address questions that can-
not be approached in ‘serious’ programs.” The fictional character of serials
permits a type of “plausible deniability” for audiences. Mass entertainment
and addressing issues can be regarded as the two main functions of drama
serials, although the latter is more significant in a country in which the es-
sential duty of the mass media is to protect and promote the dominant
theocratic ideology. A well-known Iranian writer of scripts for television
serials, Mas’ud Behbahâni Niyâ, has said in an interview that their duty as
the producers of television programs is not merely to occupy people’s time.
118 NILOOFAR NIKNAM

“We are given a voice to be heard by millions of people all over the coun-
try. What we are supposed to do is to refine the general culture.”1
The meanings encoded in television messages do not reflect reality in an
objective sense, rather the “preferred meaning” imprinted in televisual
codes implicitly refer to the dominant ideology (e.g., capitalism, theocracy,
etc.). With respect to gender, the patriarchal ideology is the preferred
meaning. The ideal femininity or masculinity in a television drama is em-
bodied in the protagonists. A cursory look at the female protagonists in
Iranian television dramas shows that representations of women have altered
at various times following the revolution. The main drama productions in
the early years after the revolution were some remarkable historical serials,
with inconspicuous roles for women. In fact the depiction of women in the
new state was contested, and in need of re-definition. In the early 1990s,
drama series representing middle-class families, with an emphasis on
housewife heroines, became a popular television genre. The past decade
has been different: a multitude of television series have been produced and
broadcast by a variety of channels. In addition to this surge in production,
women are increasingly at the center of dramas and in many cases are the
main characters of a series.
Before examining the dominant gender ideology and the representation
of heroines, we should clarify the notions of ideology and myth from a
semiotic point of view.

Myths and Ideology in Iranian TV Series

The concept of myth in semiotic knowledge was developed by Roland


Barthes, who wrote that myth works like a language to simplify the sym-
bolic order of meaning in a text, by “reading” signs (Barthes 1973). The
visual reading of a sign follows the same principles as a linguistic reading.
In both, we have a material signifier, which expresses the sign, and a men-
tal concept, the signified. A myth, according to Barthes, is a way of think-
ing about something, a way of conceptualizing or understanding it which
is typical of a particular culture. (Fiske 1988:106)
In the case of television, signs are used to trigger a range of connota-
tions attached to the signs. “Barthes calls this social phenomenon, the
bringing-together of signs and their connotations to shape a particular mes-
sage, the making of the ‘myth’” (Barthes 1973). The study of television
myths has been developed best by two communication scholars, John
Fiske and John Hartley. Hartley (1978:46) explains that the prime function
of myth is to organize meaning: they are themselves organized into coher-
ence in a mythology or ideology. The sign itself can be read in the three
orders of meanings. The first order reflects a metonym – a denotative read-
ing of the sign – while mythical reading happens at the second order,
where a sign points to the broad principles by which a culture organizes
VIRTUOUS HEROINES 119

and interprets the reality it faces (Hartley 1978, Fiske 1978). Television ap-
pears to support social assumptions that match its functional myths regard-
ing age, stereotypes, gender relations, cultural background, etc. For in-
stance the sign of the female protagonist praying at midnight becomes the
signifier of a cultural value (in this case, religious identity) which the serial
attempts to embody. The“ cultural meaning” of this particular action (pray-
ing) as a sign, is what Barthes calls a myth.
“Ideology,” in the third order, is the key concept for analyzing mythical
representations. For Hall, ideology is a concept that can reveal the “politics
of signification” engaged in by media institutions (Hall, 1982). Bignell
(2002:24) writes: “an ideology is a way of perceiving reality and society
which assumes that some ideas are self-evidently true, while other ideas
are self-evidently biased or untrue.” So how can ideology, with such as-
sumptions, perceive the reality? A specific ideology, thus, is shared by
members of a group, but might appear false to another group. For instance,
for a group of people who control political and social institutions, the cru-
cial goal is to remain in power and perpetuate the institutions they control,
even by force. This dominating group attempts to represent the current sys-
tem of beliefs about society as natural, necessary and common sense: to
maintain it as the “dominant ideology.” For Barthes, myth helps to make
the dominant ideology seem natural and real to us all, putting it outside of
the arena of political debate (Bignell 2002).
Undoubtedly, the dominant ideology will benefit from a particular repre-
sentation of gender in a television serial, embodied in the mythical mean-
ing encoded in the drama.2 This chapter tries to explore firstly what aspects
of the dominant ideology have most affected the representation of heroines,
and secondly what myths point to this ideology.
Four of the most popular drama serials from the last decade demonstrate
this: Narges (2006), Zir-e Tigh (Under the Blade) (2007), Ruzhâ-ye Zibâ
(Beautiful Days) (2009), and Rastegârân (Saved People,) (2009). Ruzhâ-ye
Zibâ was broadcast on a Tehran channel, the other three were broadcast
nationwide. A short summary of each serial follows in the next section,
followed by the analysis.

Narges
Narges (the name of the heroine) was definitely one of the most remark-
able television series of recent years for its popularity. According to the of-
ficial sources, up to 80% of the population watched it.
The series portrays two families. The first consists of Narges herself, her
younger sister Nasrin, and their ailing mother, their father having died a
year previously. They are a lower-middle-class family. Nasrin meets
Behruz, the son of the other family, and this is the beginning of all the
troubles since Behruz’s father, the main antagonist in the serial, opposes
120 NILOOFAR NIKNAM

their marriage. Narges, representing an ideal woman, endures numerous


troubles regarding her sister’s marriage but remains supportive and strong
to the end. She devotes herself to her mother and her sister, who is head-
strong and disobedient in return. Though her mother’s sudden death breaks
Narges’ heart, she does not give up, but rather she feels more responsible
for her sister and continues striving to overcome their problems. She prays
daily. In the end, she marries the man she desires, while her sister is left as
the loser.
Some scandals peripheral to the series are worth mentioning. While the
series was being screened, the actress Pupak Goldarreh playing Narges suf-
fered a car accident and, after some time in a coma, died. Her mysterious
death, and especially the rumor that she was with her boyfriend at the time,
was in sharp contrast to the holiness of the character. A sex tape of another
actress, Zahrâ Amir Ebrâhimi who played the role of Zohreh in this serial,
was widely distributed and caused an unprecedented nationwide scandal.
Although the actress denied that she was the woman on the tape, the police
conducted a special investigation. She managed to leave the country and
appeared recently in an interview with the BBC Persian channel. She com-
plains about Iranian culture, in which the personal lives of others attract so
much attention. She says: “I think the state is responsible for spreading the
idea that people who appear on television or cinema screens are all saints
and have no private lives.”3

Zir-e Tigh (Under the Blade)


This is the story of a recently engaged couple, Maryam and Rezâ, whose
fathers are good friends and workmates. In a brawl between the two men,
Maryam’s father pushes Rezâ’s father away: he falls, hits his head and
eventually dies of his injuries. His death is the beginning of the main con-
flict of the series. Although Rezâ loves Maryam, he is intent on getting re-
venge on her father.
Maryam’s father is imprisoned and the relationship between Rezâ and
Maryam suffers. Rezâ’s uncle, the main antagonist, goads Rezâ to pursue
revenge. Maryam maintains her faith in her father’s innocence, but never
begs Rezâ for amnesty. She studies at the university and spends the rest of
her time at home helping her mother with the household. Maryam and
Rezâ are both from lower-middle-class families.

Ruzhâ-ye Zibâ (Beautiful Days)


Simâ, a good-hearted girl who has a birthmark on her face, lives in a big
house with her handicapped father. She has devoted her life to taking care
of him. Following the father’s passing, all the siblings gather to read the
father’s will; the father apparently has left the house to Simâ in gratitude
VIRTUOUS HEROINES 121

for her devotion to him. The father’s will annoys the other siblings, who
had planned to sell the house to developers. They decide to find a husband
for Simâ, so she will leave the house. She meets the man they have chosen
and falls in love with him, but he leaves her on the wedding night. To
avoid family conflict, Simâ decides to leave the house, so her siblings can
sell it. She starts work at a domestic help service. The remainder of the se-
ries covers her new adventures, in which she manages to solve all her cus-
tomers’ problems quickly and effectively. The whole series is a flashback
on her life, while she is lying in a coma after a car accident. She is always
positive and supportive toward others, but opens her lonely heart when she
writes in her diary or while praying to God.

Rastegârân
Rastegârân is a recent series, screened during the summer of 2009. It de-
picts the journey of a woman, Khojasteh, from the south of Iran to Tehran,
in search of her husband who moved to Tehran for work a few months ear-
lier. There is evidence that he has robbed people and was at the center of a
large scam. She finds he is now a fugitive, and may even have started an
affair. But the heroine does not believe any of this; she insists that her hus-
band is innocent and strives to find him.
She represents an extraordinary woman whose patience, perseverance
and capacity to face problems are exaggerated. She is the absolute heroine.
The last scene in the serial is worth special comment. We see Khojasteh,
her husband, and their newborn baby in a train compartment on the way to
the south of Iran, where they used to live. Khojasteh has fallen asleep hold-
ing the baby. Opposite her, her husband sits facing in the direction the train
is moving, gazing intently at the road through the train window. The road
signifies the progression of life, and his far-seeing gaze may indicate that
he is prepared to supervise and support his family, allowing his wife to
peacefully asleep.
It is also worth mentioning that each episode begins with this Qur’anic
verse: “And those saved from the covetousness of their own souls, they are
the ones who achieve prosperity” (The Exile, verse 9).

Character Reading: Heroines As Subjects

According to Fiske (1987:151), character portrayal on television aims to


deny the differences between the real and the representation in both the
production and the reception process. A character can be read in various
contexts and perspectives. The concept of the character here is based
mainly on the “realistic theory of the character” introduced by Fiske, in
which a character is a discursive, textual structure that fits in with the no-
tion of the subject rather than the self. Discursive interpretation emphasizes
122 NILOOFAR NIKNAM

social and realistic readings of the individual. This discursive view of the
character, according to Fiske, perceives the character as having a socio-
political dimension. The characters could be understood through the values
they embody, values that are deeply encoded in the “symbolic codes” of
the culture and the society (Fiske 1987).
For example, when Maryam addresses her father as “âqâ jun,” meaning
“dear sir,” it can be read as giving insight into her polite character, but it
also can be read as a sign of female subordination in the patriarchal family;
âqâ is the popular substitute for bâbâ or pedar in some areas and is used
by both female and male children to address their father. This paper fo-
cuses on the latter, giving a less individual interpretation and a more
semiotic reading of the characters.
Women in television dramas, especially series and soaps, often appear as
the heroine or the villain. Pingree and Cantor, analyzing the female charac-
ters in many American soap operas, (1983:22) conclude that female char-
acters are identified as good or bad: good characters are family oriented
and keep their ambitions and selfish desires in check. Bad characters are
openly seductive and aggressive in their careers. Myra Macdonald
(1995:61) makes a similar point, that woman in her role as a cultural sym-
bol typically gyrates between extremes: virgin or whore. All the binary op-
positions regarding gender roles are set in an ideological context. In the
context of Iranian society, both holy and evil femininity are strongly tied to
Islamic and traditional moral values. In all four selected series, the primary
female characters are unambiguously dramatic heroines, sharing many
similar attributes.
I have employed Fiske’s character trait table to give a better discursive
reading of the heroines in their social and cultural context. For Fiske, a dis-
cursive reading “passes through the attractiveness surface to see character
as an embodiment of abstract social and political values” (Fiske 1987:158-
9). This table favors traits that are not individual, but social, political, or
economic in origin. Comparing the traits of all the heroines in tabular form
also reveals their many similarities. However, the table used here differs
from Fiske’s version, since the purpose is to identify common patterns,
rather than conflicts between characters.

Super-moral Heroines: The Feminine Ideal

As mentioned earlier, the main ambition of the television system estab-


lished after the revolution was to educate people and spread Islamic moral
characteristics. This took precedence over entertainment. Although televi-
sion programs today, and especially drama serials, are less bound by these
early revolutionary principles, productions still broadly support an Islamic
idealization of attitudes regarding society, gender, family, individuals, etc.
Gender issues have been central to political ideologies in Iran. In fact,
VIRTUOUS HEROINES 123

political ideologies, together with sacred texts and reference to Persian and
Islamic traditions and literature, produce particular discourses on women
and gender roles. Such discourses are embodied in heroines in an attempt
to promote the ideal femininity. In a traditional context, women are identi-
fied most explicitly by their roles in the family, as a caring daughter, a sup-
porting wife, and a devoted mother. Najmabadi (1998:98), referring to an
old text on rules for training and educating children,4 writes: “desirable
moral traits for girls include tidiness, being obedient to one’s mother, not
hiding anything from one’s parents, lack of arrogance, hard work, and
learning womanly crafts.” The best wife is “adorned with intelligence, pi-
ety, continence, shrewdness, modesty, tenderness, a loving disposition,
control of her tongue, obedience to her husband, self-devotion in his ser-
vice, and a preference for his pleasure, gravity, and the respect of her own
family” (Najmabadi 1998:92).5
The image of the ideal woman in contemporary Iran is rather far from
the classical patriarchal perception of women. Not all of these traits are as
appreciated as in the past. The new image of women encourages her to
participate in social roles (as long as this participation does not interfere
with her essential roles at home). An industrial capitalist society, indeed,
demands the active participation of women in various social institutions.
However, patriarchy can still be regarded as the dominant ideology of gen-
der discourse in an Iranian cultural context. This ideology can be read in
the hidden meanings, called myths, of televisual signs. These myths as-
sume that women should be long-suffering, virtuous, self-sacrificing, and
pious. Such mythical implications overlap, due to the integration of moral
characteristics.

Strong Females: Patient in the Face of Suffering

Women’s patience in the face of problems has always been appreciated in


Iranian culture, especially from a religious perspective. Patience, regardless
of gender, is believed to be a quality of the true Muslim, yet patience is
identified as a more feminine quality. Referring to some notable clerics’
views, Ziba Mir-Hosseini (2000:57) writes: “woman, because of her nature
and natural attraction that exists in her, can ascend the levels of the perfec-
tions and reach the highest peak of blessedness faster than men. Because a
woman has greater patience, the fruit of her patience will be sweeter.”
According to Shahidian (2002:10), in classic patriarchy characterized by
patrilocally extended households, women are excluded from nondomestic
production and are subject to discriminatory practices and institutions.
Most women in such systems adopt a long-suffering, even reverent, attitude
to these institutions in order to maintain their family status. Patience in the
face of suffering is a way for women to gain limited security. It gives the
false impression that women fare well under patriarchal structures.
124 NILOOFAR NIKNAM

A strong character is needed to endure sustained difficulties. All our


heroines seem to be gifted with such strength. Narges’s father has passed
away the year before the serial opens. She loses her mother as the story un-
folds, yet must remain strong to protect her sister and overcome problems.
Khojasteh, similarly endures many problems. After arriving in Tehran, she
is robbed. She has hardly any contacts in Tehran and no idea of where to
find her husband. Every day she discovers new evidence against him. In
her husband’s apartment, she hears the voice of a woman on the telephone
recording machine, speaking to her husband in an intimate voice as if she
is having an affair with him; Khojasteh does not believe the voice and
keeps her faith in his innocence. She is pregnant and is hospitalized due to
all the mental pressures she has suffered during her journey, but at no point
does she give up or suspect her husband. At the end, her husband is found
to be innocent. All accusations get dropped and they return to their home
town.
This patience in the face of problems and in supporting others does not
necessarily mean that the heroines are invulnerable. The heroines embody
a myth in which women are expected to endure hardships without involv-
ing others. In other words, they must play the role of strong, invulnerable
women. This myth undoubtedly undermines women, presenting them as
victims. The only people these ideal females can express their grief to are
their mothers or their closest friends. If their parents are dead, the heroines
sometimes speak what is in their hearts to their gravestones. However, their
best refuge is their prayer mat. In front of God they can break down emo-
tionally. Narges is the most exaggerated of the four in prayer. Whenever
she feels the need to share her troubles with someone, she unrolls her
prayer mat and starts talking to God [Fig. 1 depicts Narges praying, a posi-
tion in which she is shown many times]. Sima, on the other hand, writes
diaries as well as praying. Prayer is represented not merely as a religious
practice, but also as a way of releasing emotional pressures. This point will
be discussed further under the myth of faith.
In struggling with their problems, the heroines do not challenge patriar-
chal power relations. The narrative structure of the stories pits them against
an antagonist. However, the antagonists in these dramas, except in Ruzhâ-
ye Zibâ, take the form of patriarchs. Narges struggles with Shokat;
Khojasteh struggles against the hostility of another powerful male domina-
tor, her husband’s employer; Maryam is deeply affected by Rezâ’s vengeful
uncle. The stories tell us that women are not to overcome these antagonists
by reversing the power relations, but by fighting against the antagonistic
acts, within a patriarchal framework. They emerge the winners, but remain
pure and kind. Powerful female characters, therefore, pose no threat to pa-
triarchal society.
VIRTUOUS HEROINES 125

Virtuous Girls: Pure in Body and Mind

Perhaps one of the most remarkable cultural messages the ideal femininity
in these serials tries to convey is a patriarchal cultural myth in which wom-
en are signified as supermoral, to the extent that the audience perceives a
kind of holiness in the characters. This virtuousness is based more on the
heroines’ moral attributes than on outward piety. All four heroines are ex-
tremely moral, both in the sense of avoiding reprehensible acts and in the
active virtues of being generous, faithful, forgiving, chaste, trustworthy, po-
lite, etc.
It could be said that all four protagonists are symbols of forgiveness and
gratitude. Simâ longs to help others. She eventually becomes the manager
of a kindergarten and focuses all her love and attention on the children.
Khojasteh is robbed by a young woman on her arrival in Tehran. In later
episodes, she meets the robber, forgives her, and also helps her with her
family and financial problems. Narges has been explained as the ideal
woman in a noteworthy study by Delap (2007:48):

She respects her mother, seeking, and more importantly, heeding


her advice. When her mother tells her that Ehsan is not an appropri-
ate husband because he is divorced, she takes this to heart and
abandons her hopes of marrying him even though she is very much
in love with him.

Sexual abstinence is another aspect of the heroines’ virtue. Khojasteh’s


husband is absent from the story line, while the other three heroines’ rela-
tionships with their fiancés or newly-found lovers follow similar patterns.
They do not talk openly with their partners. The relationship is always fol-
lowed by polite and serious discussion. Both sexes feel tense in front of
one another, but for women the level of anxiety is higher (Narges shows
the least tension). The heroines try to avoid meeting the boy in private.
Simâ falls in love with her sister-in-law’s brother, in a match planned by
her brother and his wife. Narges loves her best friend’s brother who is di-
vorced and has a child, and later becomes her employer. Maryam is en-
gaged to the son of her father’s best friend, and they only meet through
family gatherings. The message is that a virtuous girl finds the best form
of love through family connections.
In addition to their relationship with their partners, they are generally
conservative in their social contacts with men. Although their social behav-
ior varies, they all follow the social norm according to which opposite
sexes should not treat each other in an intimate manner. The cautious inter-
personal contacts between the sexes demonstrate a low level of confidence
in women and their subordinate position. In this regard, Narges and
Khojasteh appear to be more decisive and confident than Maryam and
126 NILOOFAR NIKNAM

Simâ. Narges is presented as the only woman who has dared to talk
bravely eye-to-eye with Shokat (the antagonist, and a patriarch).
One of the signifiers supporting the myth of the virtuous woman is the
polite language they use. Macdonald (1995:60) posits that women are more
polite and formal in their language than men, and this implies praise but
also suggests women are instinctively submissive. All four women utilize a
formal and respectful language. Maryam and Simâ call their father “âqâ
jun,” a traditional way of addressing one’s father which literally means
“dear sir.” Even among their friends, we never hear them use common
slang.

Selfless Heroines: Pillars of the Family

The striking traits shared by all the heroines point to a myth in which an
ideal woman is supposed to be a devoted mother/sister/wife/daughter.
Reviewing cultural politics and texts produced by Islamic feminists,
Shahidian (2002:5–30) also concluded that women are traditionally ex-
pected to show patience and acceptance. Self-sacrifice is regarded as the
essence of the most beautiful feminine and maternal roles. The role of sac-
rificing and standing last to take pleasure from material and mental riches
appear in patriarchal culture, where there is no limit to a woman’s sacrifice.
Selflessness is a valued trait in various religious traditions, Islam among
them. Mir-Hosseini (2000:56–57) refers to a notable cleric’s view who says
that a real Muslim woman is an imaginary character called the Iranian
Muslim woman, who will end the contamination of females around the
world through her self-sacrifice, dignity, and honor. According to this cler-
ic, self-denial and self-sacrifice along with devotion to God, infallibility,
hejâb, and knowledge of the tradition are the main attributes of an ideal
Muslim woman.
Selflessness is expected especially with regard to family members.
Women are supposed to be pillars of their families, while the family is sup-
posed to be a sanctuary for women. Amini, in The Rituals of Matrimony
(1999),6 writes that housekeeping is a woman’s most significant duty, and
she should not give other activities such as work outside the home, or edu-
cation, a higher priority. Education and an profession outside the home
must not interfere with her duties at home, since no one else is able to take
her important roles. State policies and laws on women’s rights and roles,
formulated since the revolution, are based on the premise that women’s
presence outside the home, especially in a male-female integrated environ-
ment, may pose a threat to the Islamic family (Paidar 1996:58). Moreover,
women are supposed to improve relationships in the family. Although
family relations in Iran are tied to traditions, the contemporary family is
evolving. Shahidian (2002:49–50) points to factors such as modernization,
cultural interaction with the West, state intervention, and migration from
VIRTUOUS HEROINES 127

rural to urban areas. With all the recent changes, more is expected of a
woman. She is to supervise children, do all the heavy household chores
and entertain unexpected guests, as well as being responsible for protecting
her family’s honor and social image. She can satisfy all these duties only
through self-sacrifice.
The four heroines are bound by these womanly duties, and also the duty
of respect for one’s parents, which in Iranian culture is treated as a signifi-
cant Islamic moral principle. Narges spends almost all her time and energy
on her mother and, after her death, on her younger sister. Sima has devoted
her life to her handicapped father and her siblings’ comfort. In one epi-
sode, she has invited all her siblings; they come to her birthday party with-
out remembering her birthday. Following her father’s passing, she inherits
the house according to her father’s will. The other siblings, who are plan-
ning to sell the house, are not pleased with their father’s decision. Simâ is
legally the heir, but she does not want to let the property cause any disrup-
tion in the family, so she tells them to feel free to sell it.
At one point in Zir-e Tigh, Maryam goes to Reza’s small shop to meet
him after a long time. She says: “If my father is informed that I have come
to you, his honor will be undermined! (...) I feel so ashamed, this is the
feeling I cannot stand. (...) Now make up your mind, and whatever your
decision may be, I will accept it.” Reza’s uncle (the antagonist) enters the
shop. He begins a harsh conversation with Maryam. Maryam remains si-
lent and only asks him to speak politely about his father. She looks at Reza
and leaves, in tears (Fig. 2 depicts Maryam looking at Rezâ with tearful
eyes.).

Faith: Praying and Veiled Heroines

All the heroines of these four series wear a specific form of hejâb called
the chador when appearing outside the home. The châdor, an all-envelop-
ing head-to-toe cover that does not cover the face, is regarded as the
superior form of veiling in the Iranian-Islamic tradition. The veiled her-
oines bring up two different issues. First and foremost, which cultural myth
is the veil supposed to represent? And second, given such restrictive cos-
tumes, how can the producers establish the beauty of a character, which is
essential for attracting a large viewing audience? Regarding the first issue,
women’s veiling can be considered the most notable manifesto of the
Islamic Republic, as well as a significant symbol of “ideal Islamic
womanhood.”
Delap notes that the women in imported foreign dramas shown in Iran
are rarely if ever veiled, while Iranian women are always depicted in strict
Islamic dress. This points to “the designation of woman as a cultural mark-
er and the corresponding use of the body of women as the location of na-
tional and ethical values” (Delap 2007:44). Foreign women can be shown
128 NILOOFAR NIKNAM

unveiled, since they are not supposed to convey any religious message.
She argues that it is more vital to define female identity than male identity,
therefore the preferred representation of Iranian women is as ideal Islamic
citizens. At the same time, veiling is a way to protect Iranian/Muslim
women from the Westernized contamination of females.
The logic behind the portrayal of women in a veil has a long history in
the discourse of patriarchal culture and religion. The veil ensures that
God’s moral order is not defied. The veil is an institutionalized practice of
Islamic patriarchy (Shahidian 2002:93-4). As Delap puts it, there are two
strong logic strains at play here. Firstly, hejâb is there to protect women
and their honor, and by extension the honor of the men of their family,
their family as an entity, and their country. Secondly, women must be
veiled because their beauty poses a threat to society. The latter argument
assumes that women are a danger to men; they are the aggressor who must
be controlled and segregated from the men. (2007:45).
From a media perspective, since looking into the screen removes the dis-
tance between the image and viewer, an unveiled woman may provoke
“carnal thoughts” and desire. To avoid visual voyeurism, women must ap-
pear on screen with a visual shield: a veil, a curtain, or a wall (Mottahedeh
2008:9). State-run TV in Iran depicts women in a way that minimizes their
sexuality, to highlight women’s position as cultural markers in contrast to
their depiction in the Western media.
The second issue is how this well-veiled woman is able to create visual
allure for the mass audience. Even in theocratic societies, media produc-
tions need to appeal to the majority of the audience, so producers must
think in terms of the visual attractions of their characters. Fiske (1987:12)
posits that attractiveness does not necessarily depend on physical beauty,
though beauty is the most important element. The attractiveness of a hero-
ine must not be risked by allowing her to challenge the patriarchy too
clearly – for attractiveness is always ideological, never merely physical or
neutral. Where physical beauty is limited, or where the intention is not to
emphasize it, the rational solution could be to emphasize other aspects of
attractiveness. Accordingly, in a society in which the ideological codes of
morality are based on the norms and traditions of a patriarchal system, a
heroine whose commitment to these moral codes is proven may simply be
considered a pleasant character, creating sufficient attractiveness. Though
none of the four heroines look homely, the audience has no clue about their
true physical figures. This is a serious issue in considering television dra-
mas in the Iranian theocratic context. A young, gentle, polite, selfless, and
considerate girl is apparently attractive to the viewers, at least to the male
viewers.
VIRTUOUS HEROINES 129

Conclusion

The heroines of four recent drama serials in Iran were studied using
Fiske’s subjective reading of character and Barth’s notion of myth, to see
what view of gender is being presented. In a semiotic framework, a sign
can be read in three different orders. A metonym (the first order of mean-
ing) decodes the signs as they appear or are supposed to appear. The myth
is actually the second order of a signified meaning; it is a metaphor that
goes one step further than a denotative significance. Looking more closely
at the sign represented, we can perceive that myths serve the ideological
interests of a particular group in society (1973:137) in representing a pre-
ferred message; This perception points to the third order of significance.
These three orders of meanings can be illustrated using an example in
one of the series which was briefly mentioned above. In the second epi-
sode of Ruzhâ-ye Zibâ (Beautiful Days), Simâ invites all her siblings to a
meal on the evening of her birthday. After the meal, they leave without re-
membering her birthday or asking the purpose of the party. She writes (we
hear her own voice) in her diaries the same night:

Tonight is one of the most memorable nights of my life, or better to


say it was. The night has come to an end, but it is unforgettable to
me. My birthday didn’t cross anyone’s mind; not even a word was
said. But I tell myself: Happy birthday.

The text denotes (in the first order) the loneliness of a character and de-
mands the audience’s sympathy for the heroine, while in the mythical order
of meaning, we have the self-sacrificing sister who has served all her fami-
ly members and does not even expect anyone to remember her in return, or
ask her the reason for her service to them.
The third order of meaning is the broader signification of the signified,
the ideology that assigns an intentional or preferred meaning to the visual
signs. By deconstructing a myth, or reading its hidden meanings, we can
read its ideology – the values and beliefs it upholds (Laughey 2008:73). In
this case, the ideology presents an ideal woman who, according to tradi-
tional and religious virtue, puts other family members’ satisfaction before
her own. The depiction of an ideal woman on state-run television is deeply
influenced by patriarchal and Islamic discourses, thus, the heroines are ex-
tremely pure and innocent. Their presentation is shaped by several myths:
myths that suggest women should be strong and tolerant, should be moral
in every possible way, should gladly put others’ needs before their own
and have a strong faith in God, shown by obeying his commands (such as
wearing a veil) or simply by addressing wishes and problems to him.
Of these three orders of meaning, this study concentrated only on the
mythical and ideological orders. In fact, the author has her own vision
130 NILOOFAR NIKNAM

regarding the televisual signs. The results of the study thus are inevitably
affected by this preferred interpretation of the author. Another researcher
may highlight a totally different reading of the signs, and accordingly sug-
gest disparate or even contrary findings. To avoid this, more realistic and
practical methods are suggested.
This study has also not included a broader review of gender relations in
traditional and contemporary gender discourses, available through religious
or literary texts. Moreover, “normal women,” those who are somewhere in
the spectrum between the heroine and the antagonist, are absent from this
research. These average women also share many attributes, and are there-
fore able to reflect the dominant ideology regarding “normal” femininity,
through other mythical meanings.
Television is a cultural and social institution that is capable of generating
myths as well as uniting people of various backgrounds. Although new
media and other technological advances such as satellite channels, the
Internet, and mobile phones have been increasingly providing people with
new sources of information and entertainment, state-run television, and its
drama series in particular, is still very popular. In spite of this, Iranian tele-
vision dramas have been given much less attention than cinema produc-
tions. While it is probably impossible to find firm empirical evidence that
television cultivates traditional or stereotypical images of women, since
these images are deeply rooted in culture (Gauntlett 1999:214), it is reason-
able to say that television drama in Iran reinforces the patriarchal ideology.
There remains a need for deeper and broader research investigating televi-
sion codes and signs, utilizing more practical visual methodologies such as
content analysis. Heroines are only a small group among the many charac-
ters in television serials. The relations and conflicts of characters with one
another may provide us with a deeper comprehension of cultural myths. A
further study should examine the other characters, such as the evil females,
their relations and roles, and the cultural and political values they are sup-
posed to represent.

Notes

1 Interview with Mas’ud Behbahâni Niyâ, Tabnak news site –


http://tabnak.ir/fa/pages/?cid=17385 (18 August 2012).
2 See the discussion of ideology and ideology of representation in Kamran Talattof's The
Politics of Writing in Iran: A History of Modern Persian Literature, Syracuse: Syracuse
University Press, 2000, 10-12.
3 Interview with Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, BBC Persian available in Persian –
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oauWXz6Uesk&videos=hAY4oocâAM (last accessed
February 2010).
4 Zhenerâl Mirzâ Taqi Khân Kâshâni, Tarbiyat: nâme’ist dar qavâ’ed-e ta’lim va tarbiyat-e
atfâl, Isfahan: Dâr al-tabâ’ah-e Farhang, 1881, 47.
VIRTUOUS HEROINES 131

5 Tusi, The Nasirean Ethics, 161; Akhlaq-i Nasiri, 215-16, trans. G. M. Wickens, London:
George Allen & Unwin, 1964.
6 The book is written in Persian. The original title is Aadab-e Hamsar-daari.

Works cited

Amini, E., The Rituals of Matrimony, Tehran: Islamic Historical Publication, 1999.
Barthes, R., Mythologies, trans. by A. Lavers, London: Granada, 1973.
Bignell, J., Media Semiotics: an Introduction, 2nd ed., Manchester: Manchester University Press,
2002.
Cantor, M., and P. Suzanne, The Soap Opera, Beverly Hills: Sage, 1983.
Delap, J., Narges: Constructing and Contesting Identities in an Iranian Television Serial, Mphil
Thesis in Modern Middle Eastearn Studies, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford,
2007.
Fiske, J., “Television Culture: Popular Pleasures and Politics,” London: Methuen, 1988.
Fiske, J., and H. John, Reading Television, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1978.
Gauntlett, D., TV Living: Television Culture and Everyday Life, London: Routledge, 1999.
Hall, S., “The Rediscovery of ‘Ideology’: Return of the Repressed in Media Studies,” in Culture,
Society and the Media, M. Gurevitch, T. Bennett, J. Curran and J. Woollacott (eds.), London:
Routledge, 1982, 56-90.
Hartley, J., Reading Television, Florence, KY: Routledge, 1978.
Khiabany, Gh., “The Iranian press, state and civil society,” in Media, Culture and Society in Iran:
Living with Globalization and the Islamic State, M. Semati (ed.), London-New York:
Routledge, 2008, 17-36.
Laughey, D., Key Themes in Media Theory, Buckingham: Open University Press, 2008.
MacDonald, M., Representing Women: Myths of Femininity in the Popular Media, London:
Edward Arnold, 1995.
Mir-Hosseini, Z., Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran, New York: I.
B. Tauris & Co Ltd., 2000.
Mottahedeh, N., Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema, Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2008.
Najmabadi, A., “Crafting an Educated Housewife in Iran,” in Remaking women: Feminism and
Modernity in the Middle East, L. Abu-Lughad (ed.), Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1998.
Paidar, P., “Feminism and Islam in Iran,” in Gendering the Middle East: Emerging Perspectives,
D. Kandiyoti (ed.), Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996, 51-68.
Shahidian, H., Women in Iran: Emerging Voices in the Women’s Movements, Westport and
London: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Talattof, K., The Politics of Writing in Iran: A History of Modern Persian Literature, Syracuse:
Syracuse University Press, 2000.
Tulloch, J., Television Drama : Agency, Audience, and Myth, London & New York: Routledge,
1990.
132 NILOOFAR NIKNAM

Character Trait Narges Maryam Sima Khojasteh

Personal identity

Hometown Tehran Tehran Tehran South of Iran


Place Urban Urban Urban Urban
Age Young Young Young Young
Marital status Receives Engaged Receives Married
proposal – proposal –
marriage unfinished
relationship
Love status In love In love In love-lost In love
Parental status No children No children No children Pregnant
Faith Pious Pious Pious Pious

Personal style

of Dress Chador Chador Chador Chador


of Caring Tough, soft- Soft, soft- Soft, soft- Tough, self-
centered centered, centered, centered
emotional emotional
Face Homely Pretty Homely Pretty
(has a birthmark)
Body Average Average Average Slim

Social condition

Class Lower middle Middle class Lower middle Lower middle/


class class middle class
Living situation Living with her Living with her Living with her Living with her
mother – house parents – house father – house husband – not
available
Profession Jobless, to a University Jobless, to a Housewife
trainee job student domestic help
agency
Education University, University, University, University,
Bachelor’s student unfinished student
degree
Financial Dependent on Dependent on Dependent on Dependent on
condition family, to family family, to husband
independence independence

Table 1: The value structure of characters


VIRTUOUS HEROINES 133

Figure 1. Narges sitting at her praying rug

Figure 2. Maryam at Reza’s shop


Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman

Asghar Seyed-Gohrab, Leiden University

A preference for metaphors, impressionism, and surrealism rather than real-


ism can be seen to a greater extent in many Iranian films produced after
the 1979 Islamic Revolution than in previous periods. One of these films is
The Day I Became a Woman by the award-winning director Marziyeh
Meshkini (2000).1 In this movie, there are several metaphors illustrating
the unbearable constraints of the religious, cultural, and political norms
and values imposed on women. What makes this film special is that its di-
rector is a woman and her talent as a director has earned the film prizes at
several festivals.2 It is Marziyeh Meshkini’s debut: her husband Mohsen
Makhmalbaf wrote the script.
The film consists of three episodes describing three stages of becoming
a woman in Iran: childhood, marriage, and old age. The first episode re-
counts the story of a girl, Havvâ, who will turn nine years old within a few
hours, at which time she will be accorded the status of womanhood.
According to religious tenets and traditional cultural practices, when a girl
turns nine, she should be regarded as marriageable and a set of religious
rules are applicable to her. From that moment on, she should perform her
compulsory daily prayer, fasting, and so on. Although in today’s Iran such
a tenet can be found more in books than in real life, it is striking to see
how Meshkini highlights the moment, showing the inhumane aspects of
male-female relationships.
Extremely poignant is the metaphor of the veil, illustrating three stages
of womanhood, a visible metaphor that is exploited in all three episodes in
the film. The emphasis on the veil as an identity marker for woman is seen
from the beginning. In one of the very first scenes, in which Havvâ’s
grandmother awakens her, she is in a white tent and, as she wants to come
out of the tent, she playfully veils herself with the opening of the tent. The
word châdor is used for both a tent, and the common black veil that ex-
poses the face. The ambivalence is significant in this episode, as Havvâ’s
becoming a woman is marked, later, by her wearing a black veil.
Innocence gives way to experience, although Havvâ is too young to under-
stand the transition fully. This tent/veil demarcates woman’s living space,
protects her modesty, and emphasizes her chastity. She becomes a
136 ASGHAR SEYED-GOHRAB

mysterious object whose body shape is concealed and it is for this very
reason that she becomes the object of men’s desiring gaze. The arbitrari-
ness of traditional cultural norms and Islamic beliefs about becoming a
woman at the age of nine is emphasized by Hasan, who naively says to
Havvâ’s mother, “We could play yesterday, why not today?”
Havvâ can enjoy her childhood for one hour, the last hour before be-
coming a woman. She plays with a little boy, who may be her brother, but
their friendship is also depicted ambiguously and even sensuously, espe-
cially when the two share a lollipop in turns; then he cannot be her brother.
In a few minutes, this innocent sharing of a lolly will be redefined as a
sensual and even sexual transgression, for which Havvâ could be severely
punished. The scene becomes even more erotic as Havvâ rubbing the lolli-
pop around her lips as if she is putting on lipstick, producing sucking
noises. Langford observes that “these sounds, in their uncanny resemblance
to a kiss, stand in for and bridge the gap, separated by the chain of alle-
gorically connected signifiers – wall, tent, chador – to virtually connect
male and female bodies.”3 This is an innocent scene for children but, to-
gether with the exchanges of the lollipop that Hasan and Havvâ lick in
turn, it is erotically provocative. However, Michelle Langford doubts
whether the children are licking the same lollipop, as we do not see the
two children in the same frame.4 There are other ambiguous elements in
this scene: the little boy wants to have ice cream, something sweet, but
Havvâ comes back with sour tamarind and a lollipop. The boy says several
times that he actually wanted ice cream and not something sour. The sour-
ness is perhaps a portent of the bitter separation that will be forced on them
within a few minutes.
Another theme in this sensuous scene is segregation. The camera shot of
the little boy implies he is behind window bars, appearing as a prison. He
is forbidden to come out of the house; he must learn to live separately from
women. The little boy is already imprisoned, something that is also going
to happen to Havvâ. She will be separated from her friend and may not
play with him again. She will be wrapped in a black veil. The separation is
also the little boy’s loss. The camera emphasizes this by a long shot, fram-
ing the boy’s emotions and how he looks at Havvâ, who is involuntarily ta-
ken away by her mother. The separation is underscored by two shots: one
of the little boy and one of Havvâ; her mother is almost outside the frame.
Solidarity is another theme treated in this film. Women show little or
no compassion with each other. In the first episode, Havvâ’s mother buys
a veil to initiate Havvâ into womanhood. Her grandmother reiterates that
Havvâ should wear the veil now, and congratulates her on becoming a
woman. It is also the grandmother who plants the seeds of guilt and fear
in Havvâ’s heart by saying to her: “God will not forgive you” if you do
not wear the veil. Loyal to traditions, neither the mother nor the grand-
mother make any effort to change the norms. Female solidarity appears in
MARZIYEH MESHKINI’S THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN 137

a combined effort to maintain tradition at the expense of the child’s


happiness.
This lack of compassion and understanding is also emphasized in the
second episode, in which bicycle racing is introduced metaphorically.
Women have no physical contact with their female friends; are they sup-
posed to have contact in a race? Women cycling around the protagonist
Âhu do not help her in any way, and are indifferent to what she is experi-
encing just as in any race. The galloping horses on either side do not dis-
turb the women, they simply go on with their own race. In one scene, one
of the women asks for water, which is not brought to her. The metaphor of
cycling shows women’s loneliness in their solitary existence, and also how
they race for freedom, instead of showing the excitement and energy nor-
mally associated with sport. The race is a somber and lonely activity, em-
phasizing women’s loneliness, the lack of compassion between women,
and women’s lowly position in society.
The title of the film in Persian is ambiguous, as the word zan means a
woman as well as a wife. Langford points out that while zan has these two
meanings, two different words are used to indicate a man and a husband.5
Both Lanford and Erfani rightly point out that the Âhu scene shows how a
man/husband seeks to pin down a woman/wife.6 There are of course, other
elements working here. Meshkini shows that the traditional concept of
manliness, which includes prowess and control over one’s household (in-
cluding one’s wife), the ideas of honor, etc., belong to a traditional tribal
culture and that a woman can also be as manly as a man, in these respects.
Âhu’s aspirations for emancipation and freedom could be taken as an ex-
ample of such manliness. She can achieve this only when she has proven
she has become an emancipated woman, master of her own will and
intentions.
In Havvâ’s episode, becoming a woman means reaching the eligible age
of marriage, in order to be a wife. In the second episode, Âhu is a wife but
she tries to find her own individuality as a woman, independent on any
men, divorcing her husband while racing on a bicycle. Here the word zan
refers to having attained individuality, volition, and emancipation rather
than to being a wife. In the third episode, Hurâ, who has never been mar-
ried, tries to become a “wife” by buying all the necessary accoutrements
for a wedding, as if she were going to marry. The one thing that she wants
to buy but cannot remember is perhaps marriage, which paradoxically
would remove her freedom.
The third episode depicts a lonely old woman named Hurâ. She has
come to Kish Island to purchase her trousseau. When she is asked whether
she has anyone at home, she says that she has a rooster and that she is
worried about the bird. When two of the bicycle girls (of the second epi-
sode) arrive at the seashore and ask her what she is going to do with all
the household items, saying that such things are more appropriate for
138 ASGHAR SEYED-GOHRAB

young women who are going to marry, she simply says that she has bought
everything she was denied all her life. Even when Hurâ asks the girls to
drink tea, she does not give them any tea and why they have to leave is
not clear.

Use of Cultural Metaphors

The metaphoric nature of the film is emphasized by the culturally laden


names of the protagonists. The little girl is Havvâ, or Eve, reminding the
viewers of the creation myth, unfolding a set of ideas and prejudices about
women. There are several references to the creation myth: like Eve, the
tempter of Adam, Havvâ (the Islamic equivalent of Eve) teaches the little
boy a trick. Havvâ is also presented as innocent, lacking any experience,
and doing everything on the basis of intuition. Havvâ has no knowledge or
understanding of what is going to happen when noon comes.
The name Âhu is ambiguous in Persian, meaning both “gazelle” and
“deformed” or “misshapen.” This second meaning of the word Âhu links
one of the persistent ideas about the creation of woman, i.e., that she has
one rib less than men, that she can never be man’s equal, and is misshapen.
Hurâ is derived from the Arabic name hur or huri, referring to large black-
eyed virgins in Paradise who are promised in marriage to pious believers
as their reward. Is Meshkini ironically referring to the fate of Iranian wom-
en as never being rewarded with freedom? Are Havvâ, Âhu, and Hurâ one
and the same person? Another strong aspect of the film is the metaphor of
trade. Kish and several other Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf were
places of migration from East Africa. In medieval times, African slaves
were brought to Persia and the rest of the Middle East and Central Asia
via this island. Today, Kish is a free-trade zone, a place where exotic wares
enter Iran. In this film the elements of trade and the marketplace are visible
especially in the third episode.7
Time, and place and journey together constitute another strong set of
metaphors skillfully exploited in this film.8 The way time is used in this
film enhances the artistic quality of the episodes. There are different con-
cepts of time. Firstly, the pace of the film is very slow and the camera
takes all the time needed to register events. Secondly, time is obtrusively
present, especially in the first episode in which Havvâ becomes a woman
at 12 o’clock sharp. Her grandmother offers her a stick and teaches her
how to put it in the sand, using it to measure time. Havvâ can look at
clocks and she can ask people what the time is, but she should maintain
the traditional tribal way of measuring time. Precisely at noon, the shadow
of the stick on the sand disappears, indicating that her childhood is ended
and she has become a woman, and she must return home.
This theme is reiterated by the outgoing tide, in the scene in which she
trades her scarf for a plastic fish. Meshkini offers an effective criticism of
MARZIYEH MESHKINI’S THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN 139

the pitiless way a little girl is reclassified as a woman. The disappearing


shadow, in an area where the blistering sun shines, is extremely effective.
Meshkini exploits this metaphor in the next episode in which the girls
bicycle in the scorching sun. In this episode, we experience a sense of
timelessness. Although everything, including the camera, is in motion, no
indication of time is given. The third episode also takes place during the
hottest part of the day. The passage of time in this film lies in the relations
between the three episodes: the little girl turns into a woman, a young
woman is married and divorced, and an old woman realizes that she has
missed everything and tries to fill the gap with purchases.
Space also has a strongly metaphorical value in this film. Women should
stay at home and, if they do come out, they should be forcefully returned
home, otherwise they will be frowned upon and punished. In the first epi-
sode, when Havvâ goes onto the roof, her grandmother emphatically states
that this is a zesht (literally an “ugly”) act. It is immoral because people
can see her hair. When Havvâ becomes a woman, she should return home
and not play with boys on the street. In the second episode, horsemen from
different generations and with diverse motivations gallop after Âhu, asking
her to return home, otherwise she will be punished, in both this world and
the next. In the third episode, Hurâ is away from her home and her rooster
but she creates a new home on the shore and later on a provisional raft,
which may sink at any moment.
The metaphor of the journey is present in all three episodes. In the first
episode, references to a journey appear with shots of a boat and sounds of
the sirens of a boat. Although Havvâ does not journey physically, her jour-
ney is internal; it lies in the growth of Havvâ to womanhood. In the scene
in which she trades her scarf for a plastic fish, boys make a sail from her
scarf. The boat sailing out with Havvâ’s scarf as a sail could be a symbol
of Havvâ’s journey through life. Does it mean that she finds freedom with-
out wearing a veil? The fish she gets in exchange is a symbol of fertility,
but a plastic fish is the opposite: does freedom mean giving up hope of
having children? In the very last scene, when Havvâ’s mother puts a black
veil on her, we hear the siren of a ship from a distance. Does this herald
the start of the journey? Or have they missed the boat? This is also a mes-
sage in the last scene of the third episode, in which Hurâ starts her journey.
Meshkini does not indicate the destination. Is it the achievement of free-
dom, equality between men and women, etc.? Also in the second episode,
in which the metaphor of journey is highlighted by the bicycle race, it is
not clear what the goal is. At several points we see signboards along the
road, indicating a position on the road but without any significant informa-
tion. Âhu is taken away by her two brothers, but the camera shot shows us
her as merely as silhouette while the race is going on.
It may be added here that, at the time this film was being made, there
were discussions about the permissibility of bicycling for women in public.
140 ASGHAR SEYED-GOHRAB

Other sports were subject to similar debates. So this episode had a strongly
political overtone. While Âhu, wrapped in a black veil, is pedaling to win
the race in competition with other women, her husband, her father, and
other men criticize her for her rejection of the traditional cultural and reli-
gious norms. We even witness a divorce while she is pedaling on the bi-
cycle and her husband is galloping alongside her on the horse asking her
to explain. Meshkini shows how easily a divorce can be performed in the
Islamic Republic. A mullah can formalize a legal divorce through a simple
“yes” or “no” while riding a horse.
Meshkini also applies a metaphor from the natural world, namely the
hunt and the hunter. Âhu (“gazelle”) is an object to be hunted. For Âhu,
the only way to become a woman is to divorce, which means her freedom
and actual escape from her husband, the hunter. Langford connects her
analysis of this scene with the male gaze and says that, initially, Mashkini
wants the viewer to identify with the male perspective. However as Erfani
has rightly shown, this is only part of the perspective, as the name of Âhu
on the bike brings to the mind the ideas of racing, the hunt, and being
hunted, and “the camera does not invite identification with his [the hus-
band’s] gaze.”9 In fact, the episode begins with a horse rider calling Âhu,
who shies away a herd of gazelles. This idea is strengthened as the film
progresses and as Âhu tries to obtain a better position in the race. This po-
sition in the crowd also camouflages her from the husband/hunter, as the
other women are all wearing black veils. The veil functions here as protec-
tion. In the first episode, the male presence and perspective are embodied
in Hasan, who does not realize what is taking place and why he cannot
play any longer with Havvâ after noon, and his innocence is central.
However, in the Âhu episode, the men are resolved to exercise their domi-
nance and their will. Although Âhu disentangles herself from the authority
of her husband and divorces him while she is cycling, Meshkini does not
allow the spectator to see what happens at the end, in which Âhu’s brothers
arrive, stop Âhu, and take away her bicycle. The camera moves away from
the scene so that the spectator cannot identify the three individuals. They
become silhouettes, we can only see that one person runs away. Is this
Âhu? In the last episode, the viewer learns that Âhu’s brothers took the
bike and she could not finish the race. Hurâ fades into an unknown
destination.
In the last episode, the metaphor of the journey gains a magical and
even a transcendental dimension. The episode begins with Hurâ’s airplane
landing in Kish airport and its modern shopping hall: several shots are de-
voted to emphasize trade and the modern outlook of the island Kish. Hurâ
moves in a hypermodern setting. The price for this free movement has
been extremely high, because it appears later that she lives alone, never
married and has saved money all her life in order to take this journey.
Hurâ sighs that she could not achieve anything in her life to fulfill her
MARZIYEH MESHKINI’S THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN 141

material and other desires: no trousseau, no husband, no marriage and no


child. It is not clear why she is not married. She says that a woman inter-
fered: another bride? Her mother? She suggests to a little black boy that
she could have had such a boy. It is not clear, but it is evident that she has
lived a celibate life involuntarily. The wedding dress and the trousseau that
she has purchased are strong symbols of her unfulfilled desires. When she
sails into the sea with curtains as a white sail and a wedding dress at the
center of the camera shot, we see her unrequited love and forlorn desires.
This episode is sometimes described in terms of magical realism, as it is
somewhat mysterious. The scene is in sharp contrast to the female incar-
ceration in the first episode.
Considering this scene in the light of her purchases, we might conclude
that Hurâ is reviewing her life before she dies. She has bought everything
she desires except one thing; but what? Meshkini does not give any clues.
Is it marriage, a child, freedom, or happiness? None of this is for sale. The
scene also has a negative connotation: the purchases float on the water on
an improvised raft and can easily drift away, and sink. The boundary be-
tween the sea and the land is a clear metaphor for journeying to the here-
after. The unforeseen dangers of the sea contrast to the safety of the land.

Conclusion

By focusing on the cultural position of women, Meshkini highlights the


contrast between traditionalism and modernity. The first episode is situated
in a backward area in which we see almost no signs of technology and
modernity. Almost everything is primitive, and static. Also camera shots
are long and static. Here, all the people live in traditional mud houses, no
Western-style shops, not even a clock, which would symbolize modernity.
The emphasis is put on a sober traditional lifestyle, whereas in the second
episode, traditionalism, symbolized by listening to one’s husband and abid-
ing by tribal codes and conventions, is placed in the foreground. The signs
of leaving behind traditionalism can be detected in the bicycles, the walk-
man, and the presence of women outside their houses. In fact, there is no
sign of a house in the second episode. The third episode emphasizes how
Hurâ, as a traditional woman, manages to live in a place surrounded by
modern commodities, mostly imported from the West.
The bicycling women symbolize both dynamism and modernity, though
also loneliness. It is not without symbolic significance that the protagonist
is named Gazelle: a symbol of beauty and agility that is also often seen as
prey or a victim. Every shot incorporates camera movement. The charac-
ters, including the protagonist, are also on the move. It is as if Meshkini
wants to express movement toward progress, getting rid of traditionalism.
The contrast between bicycles and horses is a powerful metaphor to show
how tradition and technology go side by side, and how Âhu is trying to
142 ASGHAR SEYED-GOHRAB

disentangle herself from the shackles of tradition. The mullah shouts that
the bicycle is the “devil’s mount” and that she should dismount. The con-
trasts between men and women are striking. All the men ride horses, hold-
ing to traditional and tribal norms and values, while the girls are cycling
and even listening to music through a walkman. Some of the horsemen are
half-naked, while the women are entirely wrapped in black veils. The
horsemen gallop on the sands while the girls cycle on the asphalt road.
The road to freedom is narrow, engulfed by the barren desert, which sym-
bolizes traditionalism. Âhu’s resistance and disobedience to her husband
dishonors not only her husband, but also her own tribe and family. In the
same way as Havvâ’s grandmother shouts that God will punish her if she
does not wear the veil, the elderly men on horses shout at Âhu that God
will punish her if she does not dismount from her bicycle and return home.
Âhu has two battles to fight: the race against the women, which is physi-
cal, and the fight against her husband, family, and tribe, which is mental.
Erfani sees four women in this movie, the fourth one being Meshkini
herself, who holds the fragmented narrative together. Erfani rightly refers
to the fact that short films are more easily approved by the Ministry of
Culture and Islamic Guidance.10 Erfani’s observation is true, but as the
film is allegoric, metaphoric in its presentation and metonymic in interpre-
tation, it could also be interpreted as the story of women in a country like
Iran. Havvâ represents the pre-modern era in Persia when traditional norms
and values were dictated to women; the second episode is the entrance of
modernity and women’s emancipation, represented by Âhu’s bicycle race.
The last episode does not allow us to draw any conclusion, as Hurâ buys
everything her heart desires but there is one thing she wanted to buy but
cannot remember. The film may refer to past, present, and an uncertain fu-
ture, as Hurâ puts everything on a precarious raft and sets out on the water.
Havvâ, the protagonist of the first episode, receives a veil as a birthday
gift, referring to the end of her childhood and of her freedom. When she
trades the veil for a plastic fish, the boys made a sail from it and sailed into
the sea. This can be interpreted as the veil being used as a means of attain-
ing freedom when used otherwise. The veil, a symbol of tradition, is traded
for a plastic fish, which attracts Havvâ. The black veil, which also func-
tions as a sail, is in sharp contrast to the white wedding dress in the third
episode and the white curtains, through which the old woman sails into the
sea. These metaphors of veils indicate that the veil is a symbol of both
freedom and imprisonment, depending on how it is used. The color white
of the third episode is complementary to the first episode: the sad implica-
tion of the color white here is that it symbolizes the virginity and childless-
ness of the old woman. As Erfani points out, the veil in the first episode is
used by boys to make a sail and to journey smoothly on the sea, but the
same veil becomes an impediment for women in the second episode, in
which the veil catches the wind, making it hard for the cyclists to go
MARZIYEH MESHKINI’S THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN 143

ahead.11 It is as if even natural forces are against Âhu’s as she tries to free
herself from her husband and his tribe.

Notes

1 For the achievement of Makhmalbaf’s family see Adrian Danks, “The House that Mohsen
Built: the Films of Samira Makhmalbaf and Marziyeh Meshkini,” in Senses of Cinema,
22, 2002 –http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/22/makhmalbaf) (last accessed 27 April 2002).
2 For women’s participation as a crucial element in introducing modernity to Iran see H.
Dabashi, Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and Future, London and New York: Verso,
2001, 216.
3 Michelle Langford, “Allegory and the Aesthetics of Becoming-Woman in Marzieh
Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman,” in Camera Obscura, 2007, 12.
4 Ibid., 12.
5 Langford, 13. In her discussion, Langford relies on Farzaneh Milani’s discussion that
woman are linguistically defined in relation to man. See F. Milani, Veils and Words: The
Emerging Voices of Iranian Women, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992, 72.
6 Farhang Erfani, Iranian Cinema and Philosophy: Shooting Truth, New York: Palgrave,
2012, 135.
7 For slavery in Persia see Encyclopaedia Iranica, under Barda and barda-dāri.
8 Also see Adrian Danks, 2.
9 Langford, 12-18; Erfani, 135.
10 Farhang, 150.
11 Ibid., 136.

Works cited

Dabashi, H., Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and Future, London and New York: Verso, 2001.
Danks, A., “The House that Mohsen Built: the Films of Samira Makhmalbaf and Marziyeh
Meshkini,” in Senses of Cinema, 22, 2002 (last accessed 27 April 2002,
http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/22/makhmalbaf).
Erfani, F., Iranian Cinema and Philosophy: Shooting Truth, New York: Palgrave, 2012.
Langford, M., “Allegory and the Aesthetics of Becoming-Woman in Marzieh Meshkini’s The
Day I Became a Woman,” in Camera Obscura, 2007, 1-41.
Milani, F., Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse
University Press, 1992.
Multiple authors, in Encyclopaedia Iranica, under Barda and barda-dāri
Index

A Bignell, J. 131, 119


Âbâdân 11, 41 Blanchot, Maurice 23, 29
Adam 96, 98, 108, 138 Bombay 10
Afghan 11-2, 103, 108, 115; ~ refugees Bresson, Robert 92
15
Afghanistan 107, 110, 112 C
Ahmadi, Ahmad Rezâ 82 camera 20, 22, 26-7, 29, 34, 41, 43, 58,
Afkhami, Behruz’s Shokarân 66, 85, 93-4, 98, 110, 116, 136,
(Hemlock, 2000) 42 138-41, 143
Alev, Zhâleh (b. 1927) 40; ~-s’ Tufân-e Cantor, M. 122, 131
Zendegi (The storm of life, 1968) Catholicism 21
40 censorship 11-4, 46, 61, 73, 75
allegory, 15, 61, 103-06, 113, 116, 143, Central Asia 138
147; ~ -ical 11-4, 89, 103, 105, 136 chiaroscuro 58, 112
American soap operas 122 Christianity 96
Amini, E., The Rituals of Matrimony cinema 9, 11, 14-8, 31-2, 42, 45, 47,
126, 131 49-50, 60-1, 73-5, 82, 115-16, 131,
Amir Ebrâhimi, Zahrâ 120, 130 143; American ~ 73-4; anti- ~ sen-
Anderson, Michael 58 timents 11; ~ Rex (Âbâdân) 11;
Ansâri, Rabi’ 36, 46 first ~ 9; history of ~ 20; Indian ~
archetypal tales, see tales 33; Japanese ~ 28, 81; Mayak ~
Aristotle 109 company 10; meta-cinematic reflec-
Armstrong, Louis 27 tions 19; new ~ codes of conduct
asceticism 78, 91, 95 42; lyrical ~ 77, 84, 87, 91, 99,
Âshuri, Dâriush 79, 95-7, 99-101 101; ~ -ic codes 43; ~-tic devices
Attâr, Farid al-Din (d. 1220) 77 20; ~ -tic minimalism 55
Azeri 113 cinematographic symbols 82
cinematography 49-50, 81, 88
B Cioran, E.M. 97
Baluch 38 clergy 9
Bani-Etemâd, Rakhshân 44, 82; ~- close-ups 82, 98
s’Bânu-ye ordibehesht (The May codes: ~ of morality 15, 32, 128; sym-
Lady, 1998) 44, 82 bolic ~ 16, 122
Barâheni Rezâ (b. 1935) 87, 99-101 contemporary film criticism 16, 18-20,
Barthes, Roland 118-19, 131 45, 47
Bazin, André 20, 29, 77, 98, 101
BBC Persian channel 46, 48, 120, 130 D
Behbahâni Niyâ, Mas’ud 117, 130 Daftari, Irân 40
Behbahâni, Simin 17-8, 71, 74 dance 31-5, 37-40, 44-7
146 INDEX

Danish comedy series 10 French New Wave 19


Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) 78, 108- Freud, Sigmund 32, 35
09, 114, 116 funeral rites 26-7
Delap, Josie 116, 125, 127-28, 131
Deleuze, Gilles (1925-1995) 20-1, 29 G
Delkash (famous Persian female singer) gender 9, 15-6, 32, 35, 38-9, 41, 43-5,
34 47, 63, 69-70, 79, 106-07, 114,
Desmond, Jane 33, 40, 45-7 118-19, 122-23, 129-31; ~ and
sexuality 32, 35; ~ boundaries 16,
E 63 ; ~ equality 70; ~ ideology 118;
Ebn Arabi (1165-1240) 95 ~ segregation 9
elements, (four elements) 104, 109-10 Ghaffâri, Farrokh 10, ~-’s Janub-e
Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1803-1882) 78 Shahr (The South End of the City)
Enlightenment 104 10
Ershâdi, Homâyun 26 ghazal (lyrical poetry)77-92, 95-6, 99;
~-’s Shab-e Quzi (The Night of the
F Hunchback, 1963) 10
Farâhâni, Golshifteh 43 Godard, Jean-Luc 29
Farrokhzâd, Forugh (1935-1967) 10, Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-
50-1, 60; ~’s short poem Hadiyeh 1832) 78; ~’s West-östlicher Divan
(Gift) 51; ~-s’ Khâneh siyâh ast 78
(The House is Dark, 1963) 10 Golestân, Ibrâhim 10; ~-’s Khesht va
Fâzel, Javâd 36, 46 Âyeneh (‘Mud brick and Mirror,’
female body 15, 31-2, 41, 65, 136; ~ 1965) 10; ~-’s Mârlik 10; ~-’s
characters 13, 35, 39, 43, 66, 108, Wave, Coral and Rock 10
115, 122, 124; ~ cinematic figures
35; ~ protagonist 15, 35, 66, 72, H
117-19 Hâfez of Shirâz (c. 1326-1390) 15, 77-
femininity 110, 122-23, 125, 130-31 80, 86, 91, 95-101
feminist criticism 67 Hakimolâhi, Hedâyat 36
feminist discourse 43 Haq-Shenâs, Ali-Mohammad 86, 99
Film Festival: Cannes ~ 18, 92; Hartley, John 118-19, 131
International ~ 11-2; Locarno ~ 19; Hâtami, Ali 37, 82-3; ~-’s Haji
Pessaro ~ 10; San Francisco ~ 10; Washington (1982) 83; ~-’s Towqi
Venice Film ~ 10 (Towqi, a ring-necked dove) 37
FilmFarsi 15, 32-4, 36-7, 40-1, 45-6, Hejâzi, Mohammad 36, 46
65 hejâb 31, 42, 46, 63-4, 66-7, 72, 126-
Fischer, Michael 97, 100-01 28
Fiske, John 15, 118-19, 121-22, 128- Hollywood 42, 56, 69
29, 131 human rights in Iran 70
Flynt, Larry 35 humanism 19, 94
Foruzân (Parvin Khayrbakhsh, b. 1936)
37, 41, 45-6, 48 I
Foucault, Michel 35, 45, 47 ideal woman, see woman
INDEX 147

identity 10, 12-5, 25, 35-7, 40, 49, 60- Khorram-Shâhi, Bahâ al-Din 79, 81,
1, 72-5, 106-08, 110, 113-15, 119, 86, 99, 101
128, 132, 135; ethnic ~ 15, 106, Kiarostami, Abbas (born 1940) 14-5,
114 19-30, 49, 50, 53-62, 77, 79, 82-
India 10, 78 101; ~’s abstract poetics 14-5; ~’s
Irâni, Ardashir (1886-1969) 10; ~-’s aesthetics 77, 84, 90, 92; ~’s cine-
Dokhtar-e Lor (‘The Luri Girl’) 10, matographic methods and decisions
32 58; ~’s humanism 94; ~’s non-nar-
Iran-Iraq War, see war rative cinema 77; ~’s non-tradi-
Islamic: ~ dress code 11, 42; ~ femin- tional use of cinematic techniques
ists 126; ~ government 11-2; ~ 21; ~’s oeuvre 20; ~’s philosophy
idealization of attitudes 122; ~ in- 14, 19, 83, 97; ~’s poetry 57; ~’s
tellectuals 12; ~ law 63, 67; ~ mor- secularism 28; ~’s soundtracks 22;
al (-ity) 14, 72, 122, 127; ~ patriar- still-life-sequences 28; ~-’s Bâd mâ
chy 128; ~ Republic of Iran 12-4, râ khâhad bord (The Wind Will
17-8, 31, 67, 117, 127, 140; ~ Carry Us, 1999) 14, 22-5, 49-50,
Revolution (1978-1979) 11, 13, 15, 52-3, 55-6, 58-62, 87, 92-3, 100; ~-
43, 135 ’s Close Up 85, 87, 92-3, 100; ~-’s
Italian Neo-Realism 19, 114-15 Dah (Ten, 2002) 88; Khâne-ye dust
kojâst? (Where Is the Friend’s
J Home?, 1987) 21, 62; ~-’s Mashq-e
Jaggi, Maja 58, 60-1 Shab (Homework, 1990) 93-4, 100;
Jalili, Jahângir 36, 46 ~-’s Moonlight (2004) 93; ~-’s
Johnston, Claire 32 Orderly or Disorderly (1981) 21; ~-
Judaism 96 ’s Ta’m-e Gilâs (Taste of Cherry,
1997) 22, 94; ~-’s Two Solutions
K for One Problem (1975) 13, 21; ~-
Kânun (the state-sponsored center for ’s Zendegi va Digar Hich (Life and
the intellectual development of chil- then Nothing aka Life Goes On,
dren and young adults) 21 1992) 22, 86; ~-’s Zir-e Derakhtân-
Karbalâ 12, 17-8 e Zeytun (Under the Olive Trees,
Karimi, Niki 44, 67, 81 1994) 86
Karimi, Nosratollâh 37; ~-’s Takhtkhâb- Kimiyâ’i, Mas’ud 39, 46-7; ~-’s Qaysar
e Seh Nafareh (A Bed for Three, (1969) 39
1972) 37 Kish (island) 137-40
Kasravi, Ahmad (1890-1946) 86 Kurdistan 94
Khatami, Mohammad 66, 73, 75
Khayyâm, Omar (c. 1048-1123) 52, 90, L
98 Lippard, Chris 58, 60-1
Kheradmand, Farhâd 22
khiyâl (‘imagination’) 83-4 M
Khomeini, Ruhollah (1902-1989) 14, Macdonald, Myra 122, 126, 131
63, 65, 70, 73, 75 Mahdavi, Sohrâb 64
148 INDEX

Majidi, Majid 15, 103-16, ~-’s Bârân Mozaffar al-Din Shah 9


(2001) 15, 103-16 Mulvey, Laura 32, 44, 47
Makhmalbâf, Mohsen 12, 44, 61, 85, music 27, 33, 37, 39-40, 43, 46-7, 50,
93, 135, 143; ~-’s Gabbeh 61 55, 58, 82-3, 91, 99, 142
Makhmalbâf, Samirâ 44, 64, 143 Muybridge, Eadweard 35
martyrdom 12, 16-8, 28 Mozaffar, Amir Mobâriz al-Din 77, 89
Mas’ud, Mohammad 36 mystical: ~ allegory 113; ~ ascent 15,
masculinity 35-6, 118 104; ~ doctrine 12; ~ ghazal 79; ~
Maybodi’s Kashf al-asrâr 95 guidance 105, 112; ~ interpretation
Mehrjui, Dâriush 10-1, 42, 47, 64, 81- 79; ~ journey 12; ~ literature 108;
3; ~-’s Hâmun (1990) 11, 83; ~-’s ~ poetics 83; ~ poetry 84, 88; ~
Leilâ (1997) 42; ~-’s Santuri (The poets 78; ~ religious framework of
Music Man, 2007) 43; ~-’s Sâra transcendence 29; ~ schools of
(1993) 81 ; ~-’s The Tenants (1986) thought 95, 109; ~ and secular love
11 79; ~ and spiritual moments 81; ~
Meshkini, Marziyeh 12, 16, 44, 116, wandering 90; ~ way 53
135, 137-43; ~-’s The Day I be- mysticism 17-8, 78, 83, 95, 97-9
came a Woman (2000) 16, 116, myth 12, 15-6, 105-06, 109, 114-15,
135, 143 118-19, 123-27, 129-31, 138
metaphor 12, 16, 46, 82, 103, 107, 129,
135, 137-42 N
Middle Ages 56, 105 Nancy, Jean-Luc 19, 23-4, 27-9
Milani, Tahmineh 16, 44, 63-75; ~-’s Narges (2006) 119, 120, 131
The Hidden Half 16, 63-4, 66-8, narrative 24, 26, 28-9, 44, 47, 55, 64,
70-1, 73-5; ~-’s The Unwanted 77, 79, 81-8, 91-4, 99, 104-06, 115,
Woman 66-7, 74-5 124, 142; ~ aesthetics 86-7, 91; ~
Milani, Farzaneh, 143 conventions 81-2; ~ ellipsis 92-3; ~
Ministry of Culture and Islamic film 82, 84, 88, 91
Guidance 11, 66, 142 National Front 70
minority: ethnic ~ 44, 112-13 nationalism 14
Mir-Hosseini, Ziba 17, 45, 61, 67, 74- nature mortes 28
5, 123, 126, 131; ~-’s Divorce Nezâmi Ganjavi (d. 1209) 31, 77
Iranian Style 67, 74-5 non-linear film 79-80, 82-4, 86
Mitchell, J. 50, 60-1 nudity 33, 36, 40
modernity 14, 16-8, 32-3, 35, 43-4, 46-
7, 82, 89, 131, 141-43 O
Mohseni, Majid 10; ~-’s Parastuhâ be Ohanian, Avans 10; ~-’s Âbi-o Râbi 10;
lâne barmigardand (The Swallows ~-’s Hâjji Âqâ Film Star 10
Return to their Nests, 1963) 10 Orgeron, Devin 56, 60-1
morality 11, 14-5, 32, 67, 91, 94, 128 Ozu, Yasujiro 92
Mosaddeq, Mohammad (1882-1967)
70-1 P
Moshfeq-e Kâzemi, Sayyed Mortezâ Pahlavi: ~ era 14; ~ dynasty (1925-79)
(1904-1978) 36, 46 34, 36; ~ regime 63; ~ street 40
INDEX 149

Pahlavi, Mohammad Rezâ Shah 10 Ruzhâ-ye Zibâ (Beautiful days, 2009)


Palme d’Or 29, 94 119-20, 124, 129
Panâhi, Jafar 115
passion plays (ta’ziyyeh) 9, 12, 50 S
Payne, John 78 Sa’di, Mosleh al-Din (d. 1292) 77-80
Persian Gulf 138 Sâberi, Niktâj 40
Persian language 14, 79 Saddam Hussein 12
Persian literature 16-8, 74-5, 99, 130 Sadr, Hamid Rezâ 67, 74-5
Persian poetry 15, 60-1, 77, 99, 101 Saeed-Vafâ, Mehrnaz 29, 84, 99-101
philosophy 14-5, 19-20, 23-4, 45, 77, semiotic reading 122
84, 97-8, 108, 143 Sepantâ, Abd al-Hoseyn (1907-1969)
photography 22, 28, 49-50, 54, 85 10
Plato 108, 116; ~ ’s Phaedo 108, 109 Sepehri, Sohrâb (1928-1980) 50-1, 53,
poetic cinema 61, 77, 99; ~ realism 49, 55, 58, 60
60-1, 115-16; ~ techniques 49 sexuality 15, 17-8, 31-2, 35-6, 38-47,
poetry 14-5, 26, 32, 49-52, 54, 57-61, 79, 125, 128, 136; conception of ~
77-9, 81-4, 86-92, 96-7, 99-101, 35; male ~ 35; ~ in Iranian popular
111; ~ in cinema 84 culture 15; subversive ~ 35; fixa-
tion of the West with ~ 35
Q Shafi’i-Kadkani, Mohammad Rezâ 92
Qâderi, Irân 40 Shahid Sâlis, Sohrâb 82
Qur’an 77, 79-80, 87, 95-6, 108, 121 Shahidian, H. 123, 126, 128, 131
Shakespeare, William 74, 78
R Shirdel, Kâmrân 10
Ra’isiyân, Alirezâ 83, 99 shot 14, 19-23, 26-9, 39, 51, 82, 85,
Rahnamâ, Fereydun (1939-1975) 10; ~- 87-8, 92, 94, 99, 114, 136, 139-41;
’s Siyâvash in Perspolis (1963/4) counter-~ 22; high-angle ~ 81; re-
10 verse ~ 61, 95; static framing ~ 57;
Rastegârân (Saved People, 2009) 119, static ~ 20; wide ~ 98
121 solidarity 136
Râzi, Najm al-Din 95 sound 14, 19, 27-8, 43, 51-2, 58-9, 81,
realist/illusionist medium 83-4 93, 107, 112, 136, 139; off-screen
refugee 15, 103, 106, 112, 114 ~ 22-3; ~ cues 23; ~ editing 23;
Reich, Wilhelm (1897–1957) 35, 45, ~space 28; ~ track 22, 82, 93
47 storytelling 50, 83
rend 91, 97-8 stylistic device 20
Riyâhi, Shahlâ (b. 1926) 40; ~-’s stylistic elements 79
Marjân (1956) 40 Sufi 61, 78, 83-4, 89-91, 94, 96-8
Rosenbaum, Jonathan 14, 19, 29-30, Sufism 78, 84, 89-90, 95-8, 108
90, 93, 99-101
Rumi, Jalâl al-Din (d. 1273) 77, 90, T
100 tales: archetypal ~ 104
Russia 9-10 ta’ziyyeh, see passion plays
Russikhân 9
150 INDEX

Tapper, Richard 17-8, 45, 47, 49, 60-1, 127-29, 135-36, 139-40, 142-43;
73, 74-5 black ~ 136, 140, 142
television drama serials 117-18, 122, visual arts 49, 82
128, 130-31
television serials 15, 117-19, 130-31 W
theatre 9, 17, 45, 47; kabuki and noh ~ war: Iran-Iraq ~ 12, 15, 93
81 West 9-11, 14, 34-5, 45, 78, 91, 126,
traditionalism 13, 16, 141-42 141
Tudeh party (Peoples party) 70-1 Western films and themes 12
Tulloch, John 117, 131 Western imperialism 12; ~ media 11,
typology 103, 105-06, 114 128; ~ modernity 14; ~ political
philosophy 14; ~ society 65; ~ co-
V mic 40; ~ dance 33, 37; ~ films 12,
Vahdat, Nosratollâh (b. 1927) 36-7; ~-’s 50; ~ literature 85; ~ novels 81; ~
An Isfahani in New York 37, 46; ~- style 34
’s Arus Farangi (The Western westernization 14, 32-4, 38, 40
Bride, 1964) 37; ~-’s Ki Dast-e Gol woman: ideal ~ 15, 120, 123, 125-26,
be Âb Dâdeh? (Who has been 129
naughty? 1973) 46; ~-’s Naqs-e
Fanni (Mechanical defect, 1976) 37 Z
veil 10, 17, 31, 35, 41-2, 45, 47, 63, Zir-e Tigh (Under the Blade, 2007)
65-6, 68-9, 71-3, 75, 82, 115-16, 119-20, 127
Backlist Iranian Studies Series:

J.C. Bürgel & C. van Ruymbeke (eds.)


Nizami: A Key to the Treasure of the Hakim
ISBN 978 90 8728 097 0

J. Coumans
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. An Updated Bibliography
ISBN 978 90 8728 096 3

F. Lewis & S. Sharma (eds.)


The Necklace of the Pleiades. 24 Essays on Persian Literature, Culture
and Religion
ISBN 978 90 8728 091 8

C. Pérez González
Local Portraiture. Through the Lens of the 19th-Century Iranian
Photographers
ISBN 978 90 8728 156 4

A. Sedighi
Agreement Restrictions in Persian
ISBN 978 90 8728 093 2

A.A. Seyed-Gohrab
Courtly Riddles. Enigmatic Embellishments in Early Persian Poetry
ISBN 978 90 8728 087 1

A.A. Seyed-Gohrab (ed.)


The Great <Umar Khayyæm. A Global Reception of the Rubáiyát
ISBN 978 90 8728 157 1

A.A. Seyed-Gohrab & S.R.M. McGlinn (eds.)


One Word – Yak Kaleme. 19th-Century Persian Treatise Introducing
Western Codified Law
ISBN 978 90 8728 089 5

A.A. Seyed-Gohrab & S.R.M. McGlinn (eds.)


Safina Revealed. A Compendium of Persian Literature in 14th-Century
Tabriz
ISBN 978 90 8728 088 8
A.A. Seyed-Gohrab, F. Doufikar-Aerts & S. McGlinn (eds.)
Embodiments of Evil: Gog and Magog. Interdisciplinary Studies of the
‘Other’ in Literature & Internet Texts
ISBN 978 90 8728 090 1

S. Tabatabai
Father of Persian Verse. Rudaki and his Poetry
ISBN 978 90 8728 092 5

Forthcoming titles in the Iranian Studies Series:

J.T.P. de Bruijn, The Journey of the Faithful to the Place of Return.


A Persian Allegory on the Development of the Human Soul by Sanâ'i of
Ghazna, Founding Father of Persian Sufism

J.T.L. Cheung, The Nartic Epic Tradition. Remnants of Iranian Lore from
the Caucasus

S.R.M. McGlinn, Abdul-Baha’s Sermon on the Art of Governance

R. Rahmoni & G. van den Berg (eds.), The Story of Barzu as Told by Two
Storytellers from Boysun, Uzbekistan