Is this the end of Iranian cinema?
Fraught with political pamphleteering, award-winning Iranian film ‘Taxi’ panders to Europeans.
I have had occasions to reflect on the fate of what we can now call a postnational cinema, a proposition not so outlandish in the heightened age of transnational globalisation. The idea is based on a conception of national cinemas, or any other national cultural movement, as predicated on national traumas.
The leading Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi’s newest film, “Taxi”, which just garnered the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, pushes the idea of any national cinema even farther into the hinterland of European film festivals. It opens new frontiers of wonder as to the future of art and its relevance to the collective fate of a people in whose name these festivals brand their prizes.
As the prize was announced in Berlin, high-ranking cinema officials in Tehran denounced the festival for being too political, while Panahi himself retorted that no one was more political than these officials, as BBC Persian pitted the two positions against each other and thus dragged the top film prize even further into its politics.
Win for freedom of speech
This politicking, of course, does not have to wait for Iranian officials who were not happy with this prize.
“In a win for freedom of speech tonight,” as Nancy Tartaglione, the international editor for website Deadline, put it, “Iranian director Jafar Panahi was awarded Berlin’s Golden Bear for his latest movie, ‘Taxi’, despite being banned from film-making in his home country and not being allowed to travel abroad.”
Panahi is indeed one of the most globally celebrated victims of censorship and the wanton tyranny of the state in which he lives. He is also a world-class film-maker. But have these two factors now crisscrossed to generate a third space where the making of national cinemas is no longer plausible?
The best evidence I can offer to elaborate this point are two diametrically opposed reviews of Panahi’s “Taxi”, one in English by Kevin B Lee of the highly influential Indiewire praising this film to the moon, calling it “a unique cinematic masterpiece”, and another in Persian by Iranian film critic Mohammad Abdi for Iranwire politely but severely criticising it, dismissing it as “having problems from the get-go”.
Lee considers it “an essential film of the year, if not the decade”, praising it as “thoroughly exciting, entertaining and ingenious work of cinema … to the company of all-time greats”. But Abdi has a drastically different view.
“Almost all the actors, including Panahi, act astonishingly badly,” he says. He considers the dialogues of the film “sloganeering, designed to give information to foreigners and not integral to the characters persona”.
A good parody
The film, Abdi believes, could have been a good parody, a joke, except it is not.
Film critics of course are all entitled to their opinions and do in fact invariably disagree on the quality and significance of a film, though perhaps not quite as drastically. But the issue is not just the difference of opinion between two film critics. The issue is something far more serious.
Panahi's 'Taxi', as I see it, benefits from every potent technique with which he is known and praised - particularly his uncanny ability to thrive on that strange combination of fact and fantasy that I long ago termed 'factasy'.
While Lee might indeed see something in the film that merits the label “a masterpiece”, Abdi makes a very persuasive case that it is fraught with political pamphleteering – and when that happens, for the benefit of the film-maker’s German and European audiences to whom a more subtle Persian prose and cinematic poetry would be entirely lost, then, alas, art has categorically collapsed into not just political counter-propaganda but much worse, into anthropology.
Panahi’s “Taxi”, as I see it, benefits from every potent technique for which he is known and praised – particularly his uncanny ability to thrive on that strange combination of fact and fantasy that I long ago termed “factasy”.
But that particular matrix of film-making has been entirely exhausted and done to perfection by Panahi’s own mentor Abbas Kiarostami in, among other films, 2002’s “Ten”. Panahi fails to push the idea anywhere farther than Kiarostami has already done.
In the absence of any cinematic innovation like the ones we see in Panahi’s real masterpiece “Crimson Gold”, the film does indeed collapse into political pamphleteering, especially in that awkward moment when the leading Iranian human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh begins repeating almost line by line his legitimate political denunciations of the Islamic republic – for listening to which we really need not have bothered one of the national treasures, and masters of world cinema.
Something terrible is happening to Iranian cinema when one film-maker favoured by the government, Majid Majidi, is given a multibillion dollar budget to make a biopic trilogy on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, while another is censored and sentenced by the same government and has to struggle against unconscionable limitations when making a film, risking his own cinematic legacy and integrity.
Panahi’s latest films are watched, praised, prized, or else criticised on a lopsided analytical grid, within an asymmetric and distorted hermeneutic circle, skewed in its cinematic concepts, cockeyed in its aesthetics. People praise him, confused between their political solidarities and their cinematic judgement.
Panahi is not the only or the first film-maker to make a film while incarcerated. Yilmaz Guney, too, directed his masterpiece “Yol” from jail – though he gave detailed instructions to his assistant Serif Goren to do the shooting. But as a magnificent Kurdish film-maker of unwaveringly progressive politics he had the advantage of a much simpler technical capacities.
Panahi’s is a different world and the new technologies of representation that digital camera has enabled come as a mixed blessing, when they make it possible for film-makers like Panahi to make “films” while banned form making films, send it to festivals like Berlin and receive accolades, and from there to circulate it around the world, all rightly to celebrate Panahi’s political courage, as it slowly dawns on us that when watching these films we may also be looking at the dying flames of a once glorious national cinema.
The decline and perhaps even fall of a “national cinema” does not mean magnificent film-makers will no longer come around in that nation. Jean-Luc Godard once famously said: “Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.”
May Iranian and world cinema continue to end with the kind of films Kiarostami tirelessly makes.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.