“Everybody try to film as much as poss today on mobiles - v\imptnt - these are eyes of world,” the Twitter feed persiankiwi declared today. This dramatic call for video and still photographic footage of the events unfolding in Tehran after the disputed June 12 national election is, on one level, a challenge to the government’s control of the media. On another level, though, the call is a challenge to the entire aesthetic regime of the post-revolutionary Iranian cinema, in particular, the government program to enforce the “commandments for looking” (ahkam-i nigah kardan).
According to Negar Mottahedeh’s terrific Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema, after the dust settled from the 1979 revolution, the government initiated a program to “purify” its citizens’ senses after years of steady poisoning by Western media during the Shah’s reign. The most noticeable effect of the government’s attempt to purify the national sensorium was to create a cinema of the veil based upon a “modest and averted gaze.” By imposing a strict Shiite prohibition against the desiring gaze, Mottahedeh says, the government hoped to bind the nation to the “imaginal world of the Shiite imams” (emphasis in original). In other words, a purified cinema would transmit meaning not through a direct depiction of events, or through seamless special effects, but through what was not visible on screen.
As a result, post-revolutionary Iranian cinema assumed the clerics’ preoccupation with otherworldliness, whether it took the form of the ninth-century Imam Husayn’s escape to the land of no-where (Na-koja-Adbad) or the famous 1978 telephone call from the Ayatollah Kafi of Mashhad to the same Imam Husayn, urging him to leave Karbala after 1,100 years and take up the cause against the Shah in Iran. This phone conversation was recorded on cassette tape and distributed to Iranians across the globe.
The director Bahram Bayza’i works squarely within this otherworldly strain of Iranian cultural practice. His 1992 film The Travelers opens with a woman directly addressing her audience, informing them that she is about to travel by car to her home by the Caspian Sea. She calmly adds, “We shall all die.” And sure enough, later in the film the family is wiped out. Shot in a documentary-style talking head shot, the opening scene is a voice from the dead.
Otherworldliness of a more perplexing kind pervades the work of Abbas Kiarostami. His films usually feature a Kiarostami surrogate figure, a Tehranian sophisticate bearing witness to another’s struggles with quotidian Iranian life. In both Life and Nothing More and The Wind Will Carry Us this figure travels to the countryside to a place from which he signals, implicitly or explicitly, his existential distance. A darling of Western critics and film festivals, Kiarostami has been denounced by film critics in his own country as an “identity dealer” trafficking in images of rustic Iranians for hard currency. In this view Kiarostami’s outsiders offer a voyeuristic glimpse into the post-revolutionary real, acting as a camera obscura for the polluting Western gaze.
Kiarostami’s critics—they’re not all government lackeys—object to the way he looks at Iranian life. If post-revolutionary Iranian cinema examines the country with an explicitly mediated gaze, Kiarostami interposes an otherworldliness that doesn’t conform to Shiite orthodoxy. Kiarostami’s otherworldliness is the same as the students and protesters in the streets of Tehran with their mobile phones. It is the otherworldliness of Cannes and YouTube and Twitter. Mir Hussein Moussavi’s supporters are taking out their cellphones, not to place a call to a medieval imam, but to present an unaverted gaze on political unrest for the world outside Iran.