Caught Looking 

New Iranian films, Old World dilemmas

Wednesday, Jan 9 2002

In the new film Kandahar, artificial legs fall from the sky, and women in burkas glide across the desert, alien creatures in an otherworldly land. Written and directed by the prolific Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose work ranges from the folkloric color of Gabbeh to the galvanizing politics of A Moment of Innocence, Kandahar premiered at Cannes last year, where it received respectful if mostly disappointed reviews. In the months since, the world seemed to tilt on its axis. Not only did an Iranian film about Afghan women secure U.S. distribution, it received extraordinary recognition from extraordinarily unlikely sources: Time’s Richard Corliss has deemed it the “best” film of the year, while The New Yorker‘s David Denby has solemnly invoked Fellini and Buñuel by ways of comparison. And, of course, something else happened -- September 11, a date that fell in the middle of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which is where Kandahar was picked up by a small New York--based distributor called Avatar Films.

I saw Kandahar, at its first press screening at Cannes, wrapped in a black pashmina to protect me from the merciless air conditioning of the festival‘s vast Lumiere theater. The dislocating irony of watching that film in that theater while wearing that scarf would soon be as merciless. Kandahar is filled with women in black (dubbed “black heads” by Afghan men), except here the covering is the burka and, as we now know, is a matter of life and death, not comfort or vanity. The women in the film are nearly all anonymous, nameless, wordless specks in the sand, and almost always on the move -- toward a wedding, away from the war. The only one to emerge from anonymity is a journalist played by Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan refugee who, as a teenager, immigrated to Canada in 1989. A writer herself, Pazira has explained in interviews that she wanted to return to Afghanistan to find a friend who, no longer able to endure the Taliban, was contemplating suicide. Pazira didn’t find her friend, but Makhmalbaf did find a story. As with many Iranian directors, he was moved to blur fact and fiction, which explains how Pazira‘s story turned into a film about a woman called Nafas.

Shot around the Iranian border and in Afghanistan, the film traces Nafas’ struggle to reach Kandahar in the three days before the final solar eclipse of the century, the day the character‘s (now) sister has chosen to kill herself. To enter Afghanistan, Nafas disguises herself as a returning refugee’s fourth wife (three others stand quietly by), donning the burka that becomes both her protection and her prison. She manages to cross the border, entering a country like no other: Young boys study the Koran with Kalashnikovs at the ready, while women slip one another makeup and mirrors under their coverings. There‘s a certain surreal beauty to so much of this -- the rough landscape, the turquoise and yellow burkas of a wedding party, the delicate lines of a human skeleton bleaching in the desert. But this is a terrible beauty, a journey of despair, which, at its most powerful, seems to vibrate with a great and violent urgency. Even when Makhmalbaf’s craft fails him -- the whole thing feels hastily put together, and the flat English line readings are murder on the ears -- the sense of the director as a moral artist never does. His fury, the underlying feeling that something must be done right now, thrusts the story forward even when his filmmaking threatens to grind it to a halt.

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There‘s a curious footnote to Kandahar: In the film, Nafas meets a black American who, having come to Afghanistan looking for God, has put down his guns to become a doctor. It’s now alleged that the actor, Hassan Tantai, is a fugitive named David Belfield who‘s wanted for the 1980 Bethesda, Maryland, murder of an anti-Khomeini Iranian dissident. Makhmalbaf has denied knowing anything about Tantai’s background, which has done little to quell the controversy. On a December 20 segment of NPR‘s All Things Considered, reporter Benjamin Nugent, from Time.com, characterized Makhmalbaf as having had “a bit of a revolutionary past,” neglecting to mention that the director had been a revolutionary in a very different war, this one against the Shah. In 1974 at age 17, Makhmalbaf was jailed for stabbing a policeman -- he was also shot in the stomach -- and served four years, until Khomeini swept into power. On his release, Makhmalbaf worked for the new government before deciding that fascism had taken hold. He gave up politics first for radio, then turned to film.

The controversy over Tantai may help the film attract a wider American audience, one that may at the same time see it more as a way into Afghanistan than into Iranian cinema. That’s understandable even if most of us -- including many of those critics who lay claim to national cinemas like explorers planting flags in already-inhabited lands -- won‘t know when the truth of Kandahar leaves off and its fiction begins. Critics, as with audiences in general, have a way of confusing movies with life, especially when that life is foreign to theirs, and particularly when that foreign life is presented via aesthetic conventions more familiar to us from documentary cinema. In Kandahar, as in so many Iranian neo-realist features, the actors are all nonprofessionals, and there’s enough evident truth to the story -- including that of Pazira‘s own life -- to give the film a frisson of the real. Those are, after all, real one-legged men racing on crutches to retrieve prosthetic legs being parachuted into a Red Cross base. Where this becomes tricky is that all too often the shiver of the real in Iranian film has been indistinguishable from the shiver of exoticism. Which brings me back to watching Kandahar in the South of France while wrapped in an expensive Tibetan scarf.

In his recent study Close-Up: Iranian Cinema Past, Present and Future, Iranian scholar Hamid Dabashi argues that as Iranian film reaches larger world audiences, its makers need to embrace a less nativist perspective, or risk the sort of exoticization -- the National Geographic effect -- that plagues many Third World filmmakers. Dabashi is concerned with not merely the international reception of Iranian cinema but with its very future, as well as with that of a country in the midst of shaking off a tyrannical theocracy. Surprisingly, one of the filmmakers he believes has failed in his responsibility as a public intellectual, and let his creative ego run amok, is Abbas Kiarostami, whose 1999 The Wind Will Carry Us contains, Dabashi argues, “one of the most violent rape scenes in all cinema.” The scene? A Tehran documentarian retrieves a bucket of fresh milk from a young Kurdish woman in a dark stable. It sure didn’t look like Straw Dogs when I saw the film, and that‘s the problem. Dabashi holds that in revealing what would have remained private in the director’s earlier work, Kiarostami dehumanizes the girl, and, in the process, reaches the limit of universalizing something that is, in fact, culturally specific. Who knew?

One reason this matters to audiences in the West is that it begs the question of how we are to look at films by Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf without Edward Said‘s Orientalism in one hand and Dabashi’s book in the other. Is it fair to expect Kiarostami to bear a heavier burden of the real than, say, Michael Mann? Does making politically righteous films excuse Makhmalbaf from aesthetic critique? How, too, are we to watch the documentary My Name Is Rocky, featured in the UCLA series “12th Annual Celebration of Iranian Cinema”? Crudely shot, the video opens in a Tehran courtroom in which runaway girls come before an unseen male judge to plead their case. Theirs is a pathetic and depressing litany of abuse: the paternal beatings, the forced marriage, the rape. It‘s tough, at times unpleasant viewing, but what keeps you watching are the girls, who hold you with their tears, their nail polish, their lipstick and, in one case, a black eye. Director Bahman Moshar’s tactics are often questionable -- he films a weeping teen who asks not to be on-camera and a woman who appears to be trawling for tricks, as well as a girl surreptitiously stuffing her chador in a knapsack. I‘m not sure that any of us have a right to these images -- but neither, as with Kandahar, could I look away.

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