Cinema and the condition of coloniality

The winners of this year’s Cannes top prizes were an Iranian and a Tunisian – but both set their films in France.

Palme d''Or - Blue is the Warmest Colour
'Blue is the Warmest Colour' won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or award this year [AFP]

A Tunisian and an Iranian filmmaker won the two top prizes at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The much coveted Palme d’Or award went to Tunisian Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, which has shocked some critics with its graphic sex scenes. Variety magazine described it as containing “the most explosively graphic lesbian sex scenes in recent memory”.

Far from sporting any such racy claims to fame, and yet securing the award for best actress, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s new film, The Past, “chronicles the return to Paris after a four-year absence of an Iranian man to meet his estranged wife, played by actress Berenice Bejo of The Artist. He becomes temporarily enmeshed in her world, that of her daughter and the new man in her life”.

French? Or Iranian?

Though the two films were made by a Tunisian and an Iranian, both are set in France – and both films are in the French language. But scarcely anyone asks the filmmakers why they made their films in France, or whether – having done so – the result is still a Tunisian or Iranian film.

Why? Farhadi’s own response has been by way of a simile: “When you are used to walking in a certain way, then you would not change the manner of your walking when you go into another place – you don’t walk differently, even though it might be a flatter and less dangerous place to walk.” 

The formation of national cinemas – and national cultural movements in general – are predicated on national traumas.

The simile will not do. Yes, people may always walk the same way casually in a park – but certainly in two entirely different ways when running from a fire or rushing to embrace a loved one. But the question remains: What is the difference between a Tunisian and an Iranian filmmaker producing a film in France? Is the result still part of Tunisian and Iranian national cinema, or has it entered the realm of post-national cinema?

The BBC, for example, identified the Tunisian director as “the Tunisian-born French director Abdellatif Kechiche”. But Farhadi is always, and rightly so, considered “an Iranian director”. Why? What’s the difference? The two directors might travel between Paris and Tunis, or Paris and Tehran, as frequently or as infrequently. They may speak Arabic, Persian, French, or even English in one or another circumstance. So the answer is not in which language they are more idiomatic, or whether they are more at home in Paris, Tunis, or Tehran. The answer must be elsewhere. 

To answer that question we need to go upstream to the two different conditions of coloniality in which a Tunisian and an Iranian filmmaker find themselves. Tunisia was for decades a French colony: France occupied Tunisia in 1881, which remained a French protectorate until 1956, when it found its independence. As a former colony it has had a very close link with France, and as such is thoroughly caught up in its colonial and postcolonial history.

Iran, on the other hand, was never officially a European colony, though it was entirely located in the geopolitics of coloniality from the early 19th century, and was twice occupied during the First and Second World Wars by the Russian/Soviet Union and UK/Allied forces.

National conciousness through cinema

As I have extensively argued in my works on Iranian and Palestinian cinemas, formation of national cinemas – and national cultural movements – in general are predicated on national traumas.

The Tunisian national consciousness today is integral to an entire history of aggressive French colonisation, and even in the conditions of its postcoloniality, it has reflected that intimate relation. France is integral to that consciousness, even after the Tunisian revolution – or perhaps particularly in the aftermath of that cataclysmic event.

During and in the aftermath of that extended period of colonisation, a sustained circularity of labour and capital has kept Tunisia and France on a closed loop, which has resulted, among other things, in France being as much a home to Abdellatif Kechiche as Tunisia. Nothing has changed in that intimate relationship since Tunisia ignited the Arab Spring.

“The previous governments of presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy,” as has been correctly reported by Nadege Puljak, “fostered close ties with Ben Ali’s regime, and ministers in Sarkozy’s administration sparked anger in Tunisia by failing to immediately back the uprising, the first of the revolts that became known as the Arab Spring.” 

And soon after the success of the Tunisian revolution and the ousting of Ben Ali, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki travelled to France hoping to rebuild “strained ties with the country’s former colonial ruler in the wake of its popular revolution”, reported the AFP news agency.

The question that world cinema faces today is: In what direction is post-national cinema heading?

That close and even intimate link is not just because of obvious economic ties. It has a richer psychological disposition. From Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) to Albert Memmi in The Colonizer and the Colonized (1965), to Ashis Nandy in his Intimate Enemies (1983), postcolonial theorists have extensively theorised the condition of coloniality and the manner in which the two sides of the imbalance begin to fade into each other in both degenerative and reproductive mutations. 

Consider two postcolonial novels: one by Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North (1962); and the other by Iranian writer Simin Daneshvar, Savushun (1969) – one flamboyantly racy and murderous, and the other entirely sedate and subdued in their respective encounters with the conditions of coloniality. Compare the vindictive, angry, and murderous escapades of Salih’s protagonist Mustapha Sa’eed, with the melodious and poised demeanor of Daneshvar’s protagonist Zari, and you have a clear indication of two vastly different encounters with European colonialism.

The same applies to Asghar Farhadi when compared to Abdellatif Kechiche. Farhadi comes from a cinematic tradition whose defining national trauma is formed by revolutionary uprisings against domestic tyranny, extended war against a neighbouring Arab country, and the continued struggles of Iranians for a democratic future. In the formation of that national trauma, colonial forces such as the French, the British, or the US have a very faded memory. Paramount are the towering tyrannies of monarchs and now mullahs.     

The respective characters of Abdellatif Kechiche and Asghar Farhadi may both speak French and live in Paris, but they exude the temperaments of two very different takes on our humanity. This is not to say that Iranians do not speak French, or that Tunisians do not have a pride of place for their Arabic, but simply to mark the varied conditions of coloniality that occasions the habitat of a filmic consciousness.

When today we talk about “national cinema”, it does not mean that films made within the national boundaries of a nation-state are entirely nativist or immune from influence from the world of cinema. Every national cinema is deeply influenced by world cinema, even if a filmmaker never leaves their homeland. But the world they inhabit, the images they see, sounds they hear, dreams they envision, are the creatures of a different habitat.

The question that world cinema faces today is in what direction is post-national cinema heading, when the rise of a range of democratic movements in the Arab and Muslim world have enabled a manner of visuality beyond the postcolonial limits and possibilities.

We are at the very nascent moment of a critical artistic consciousness when both Kechiche and Farhadi are overcoming the traumatic moments of their creative consciousness, in what Walter Benjamin considered a “Copernican turn” in historiography: when history is remembered or forgotten only to the degree that it can alter the vision of present. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature a Columbia University in New York. Among his books is Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema (2007).