Since the early 1990s, contemporary Iranian cinema, with its culture of auteurism and poetic consciousness, has continued to inspire lively critical discourse and popular acclaim. Recent scholarship has tended to focus on the limitations imposed upon filmmakers by the theocracy’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The distinctive usage of allegory and symbolism is frequently read as a corollary of State intervention, which has inadvertently produced an oblique and encoded culture of filmmaking. Whilst such analysis rightly recognizes the effects of censorship and the stringent over-regulation of the Iranian film industry by the State, it potentially overlooks its indebtedness to Persian poetry and, in particular, the influence of medieval Sufi lyricism. This article seeks to examine those aspects of Iranian filmmaking which are a product of post-revolutionary material conditions and censorship protocols but also to recognize the ways in which Sufi poeticism has shaped the thematics and æsthetics of Iran’s contemporary cinema and in particular, the more recent work of popular auteur, Majid Majidi.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution transformed the Iranian film industry to such an extent that it effectively suspended much of the technical, commercial and creative progress that had been tentatively achieved during the late 1960s and early 1970s. With the end of the monarchial reign and the instalment of a totalitarian theocracy led by Ayatollah Khomeini, the film industry was forced to integrate the new values and beliefs of the clerical governance. This was not the first time that the Iranian film industry had been subject to state scrutiny, nor constrained by arbitrary censorship regulation. In fact, since its inception in 1900, the film industry has been continuously shaped and influenced by monarchial partiality, religious opposition and colonial occupation.
The political instability and scarcity of domestic investment after the 1979 revolution rendered the Iranian film industry practically defunct. It remained relatively paralysed for the next four years with on average only 13 films being produced each year between 1979 and 1983. (1) It wasn’t until the formation of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG) in 1982-3 that cinema was formally granted a place within the new cultural schema of the Islamic Republic. The death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 signalled the end of the “radical” revolutionary program and in many ways the clerical program of propagandist cinema. (2) Certainly the presence of Iranian films in the international foreign-film circuit reflects such a thesis, with only two post-revolutionary films being circulated in foreign film festivals in 1986 and 230 in 1990. (3) A large number of these were shown as part of the Pesaro Festival in 1990, which dedicated a significant part of its program to contemporary Iranian cinema. (4)
It is clear how the Iranian cinema which emerged during the late 1980s and 1990s can be theorized as a response to the economic imperatives and censorship restraints of the time. The on-site shooting, the employment of children and non-professional actors in feature roles and the absence of artificial lighting and elaborate sets all bears some relationship to the material conditions of filmmaking in post-revolutionary Iran. The reliance on exterior locations was in large part due to budgeting constrictions and lack of available studio space. (5) The trend of shooting outdoors and on-site in Iran had the added requirement of adhering to censorship regulations with regards to the representation of women on screen. The censorship protocols which came into effect from 1982 were somewhat abstract in their reference to the role of women in post-revolutionary film but they did stipulate that women should be depicted as “chaste” and that their involvement should not “arouse sexual desire”. As Hamid Naifcy commented, “modesty in its most general sense was encoded into the regulations”(6), necessitating an often restrictive Islamic dress code. The censorship regulations applicable from 1996 were even more detailed and prohibitive in their interpretation of acceptable dress and make-up, and inferred that, even if depicted in familial, domestic settings, Iranian women must be shown wearing the veil. Thus, in order to maintain the suspended disbelief of dramatic ‘reality’, many filmmakers chose to depict women in outdoor settings, where it was more conceivable that they would adopt the hejab or chador.
The frequent employment of children as actors is twofold in its significance as Persian filmmakers exploit the dramatic potential of children by portraying them as burdened by impoverishment and oppressive regulations. However, the use of children is also a device which allows directors to avoid those censorship prohibitions which relate specifically to the portrayal of men and women on screen. (7) In the case of Majid Majidi’s Bache-ha-ye Asman (Children of Heaven, 1997) and Rang-e Khoda (The Colour of Paradise, 1999), the relationships featured are often of a familial kind; pairs of young brothers and sisters together must overcome the rigid dictates of their parents. Thus, the function of children in Iranian cinema is paradoxical: they are used in one respect because they are afforded the freedom and rights often denied to adults and yet, equally, they are portrayed as bound by those same structural forces. Like the external locations which are sometimes understood as a device to dramatize internal and psychic experiences of protagonists (8), so too children can be interpreted as allegorical figures whose struggles are representative of more macro socio-political concerns.
The employment of non-professional actors, a key feature of Iranian cinema, can also be related to economic constraints and the scarcity of institutes specializing in the performing arts. Jafar Panahi’s decision to cast Dayereh (The Circle, 2000) with non-professionals was a purely pragmatic one as he was unable to find professional actors who fitted his physical criteria for the roles. Yet the commonality of this form of casting amongst prominent Iranian directors demonstrates its acceptability as a production practice. In Sib (The Apple, 1998), Samira Makhmalbaf goes even further and has her subjects play themselves in their own homes with very little scripted dialogue. In Abbas Kiarostami’s Dah (Ten, 2000), all performances are executed by non-professionals, who essentially tell their own stories with minimal scripting. While non-professionals may enhance the drama with their “artlessness” or authenticity, they also work outside or even occasionally against the imagination or prescription of the director. Thus films which feature or document the lives of non-actors demonstrate to a greater degree the elements of spontaneity, improvisation and flexibility.
The 1990s was to be a period of dramatic growth in the local Iranian film industry, both in terms of the sheer number of domestic productions as well as the increase in international exhibition and acclaim. The “New Iranian Cinema”, as it was then identified, was in fact continuing the tradition of realist cinema initiated by Daryush Mehrjui in Gav (The Cow, 1968), but interrupted by the political and economic instability of 1970s. Perhaps the first filmmaker to revisit and thus augment some of Mehrjui’s experimental conventions was Abbas Kiarostami in 1987 with the first of his trilogy of films, Khaneh-ye Dust Kojast (Where is My Friend’s House?). His film has received much critical attention for its distinctive realism, including its preoccupation with the minutiæ of prosaic existence, its child protagonist, its long, meditative takes and elliptical narrative structure. In an interview in 1993, Abbas Kiarostami commented:
I believe that the people living around us, and indeed we ourselves, are full of stories. “Life is a film” people say and they are right. For me, reality transcends cinema: even when I am making a film, the events that take place around it are more fascinating […] Close-up, for example, is a completely true story, yet a completely baffling one. (9)
This emphasis on “reality” is a point of continuity for many Iranian auteurs when discussing their national cinema – that is, the sense that a contrived narrative or ideological polemic must always be subordinated by capturing life as it is in all its “baffling” and “fascinating” actuality. It seems the initial financial and legislative constraints in the new Islamic Republic at first may have necessitated a cinematic approach that produced this documentary or reality effect. However, the conception of “reality” cinema is further problematised when coupled with the notion of lyricism and the term “poetic realism” has become a popular idiom to describe recent Iranian productions. As previously discussed, the poeticism of Iranian cinema is frequently understood as a strategy to circumvent the directives of the MCIG, a form of encoding which allows the auteur to articulate meanings or ideas which may otherwise be prohibited. Yet an alternative reading of these symbolic gestures looks not only to the inhibiting material conditions or censorship restrictions but also at the centrality and influence of Persian and Sufi Poetry in Iranian culture.
The deep-seated influence of poetry on both the creative and daily life of Persians cannot be underestimated according to Kiarostami.
In Iran, in conversation, the use of poetry is not limited to intellectuals, or poets, or even poetry lovers […] Illiterate people, during the day, recite a couple of verses in order to relate to one another and express their viewpoints. Poetry in Iran pours down on us, like falling rain, and everyone takes part in it. Your grandmother, when she wanted to complain about the world – she complained in poetry. Or if she wanted to express her love for your grandfather, she expressed it with poetry […] (10)
The pervasive influence of lyricism not only affects the tenor of personal expression in Iran but, by extension, the way in which Persian filmmakers treat their social subjects. Jafar Panahi in an interview once emphasized the importance of the “poetic mode” to Iranian cinema where “humanitarian events” are “interpreted in a poetic and artistic way” (11). This notion of Persian “poeticism”, which is a recurring theme in discussions of Iran’s cinema by both its filmmakers and critics, is still in many ways bound to its long history of association with Islamic mysticism and the Sufi canon of poetry.
Sufi poetry was most prolific during the late 12th and 13th centuries, with verses being conceived in Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hindi and Andulusion. (12) The history of Sufism itself, however, dates back even earlier to the 10th century when mystical theologians produced some of their first exegeses in Eastern Iran, including Abu Bakr al-Kalabadhi’s The Doctrine of the Sufis. (13) The Sufi’s adopted the ghazal as a vehicle for mystical expression, a poetic model which had previously been limited to courtly, romantic or homiletic use. The ghazal was traditionally employed as a form of romantic lyricism (it literally translates to “a conversation between lovers”), usually with unrequited love as the central focus. (14) The ghazal was thus a poetic mode which idealized the notion of the unavailable ‘Beloved’, meticulously conjuring the perfection of their physical beauty and the pain of failing to unite with them romantically.
Shams-ud-din Hafiz (c. 1320-1389) is, of course, one of Iran’s most famous practitioners of the ghazal, although his body of work was produced much later than the classical Sufi poetry of Farid ad-Din Attar and Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. In Hafiz’s work, references to desire, drinking and inebriation are not unusual, making his classification as Sufi poetic contentious. However, the allusions to “worldly pleasures” seem to operate both literally and metaphorically, making him the simultaneous mystic and provocateur in the realms of Islamic spirituality. But even in the traditional Sufi ghazal, the mystic poet relies heavily on the ambiguity of the metaphor. Central to this poetic genre and the Sufi program in general is the intense yearning to be united with the ‘Beloved’ – the ‘Beloved’ being the divine Khoda (God) of Islam. The Sufi poet, however, often adopts an earthly figure or a series of nature similes in order to connote the Deity. The emphasis is thus in the realm of the experiential and the affective – the oscillation between the suffering of separation and the ecstasy of union. Both the court and Sufi poet used a series of motifs or symbols in their ghazals which became analogous with the Beloved, the Lover poet or the experience of love itself. The season of spring, a garden in full bloom, the cypress tree and rose were all used as emblems of the ‘Beloved’, usually described in a hyperbolic, excessive or idealized fashion. The ghazal poet also uses a series of metaphors to represent themselves as the Lover, most commonly the nightingale, the wine-cup and the mirror figure, which also denote the human heart. Intoxication or the drinking of wine meanwhile signals the mystical state of devotion and ecstasy. (15) This kind of encoding is particularly evident in the work of Hafiz, where allusions to taverns, wine-drinking and intemperance are coupled with references to the divinity of Khoda.
Sufi resonances can be found in the work of Iran’s most prominent auteurs, but perhaps most strikingly in Majid Majidi’s Rang-e Khoda (1999) and, more recent, Beed-e Majnoon (The Willow Tree, 2005). Both films figure blind protagonists whose spiritual desires seem curbed by their physical disability. Rang-e Khoda details a blind boy’s journey back to his family residence in rural Iran during the school break. We soon learn that the contact Mohammad (Mohsen Ramezani) makes with the natural phenomena around him has far more mystical implications than mere physical orientation. For as Mohammed very gently handles the bud of wheat or stone from the river bank, he murmurs the sounds of the Persian alphabet, as if the letters are literally inscribed into the earth and legible to the finger tips. The braille of the school lesson on which the film opens and the indentations of the wheat bud are not differentiated by Mohammed, who comprehends both as instruments of learning or, more pointedly, a message to be decoded. The reasoning behind Mohammad’s ‘languaging’ of the natural world soon becomes clear when he is sent by his father (Hossein Mahjoub), who is deeply uneasy with his son’s disability, to become the protégé of a blind wood-cutter. The displacement from his home and from his grandmother inspires great distress in Mohammad. When questioned by the woodcutter as to the reason for his suffering, his answers recall the sentiments common to the Sufi œuvre and in particular the ghazals of Hafiz.
Mohammad: You know nobody loves me. Not even Granny. They all run away from me because I’m blind […] Our teacher says that God loves the blind more because they can’t see, but I told him if it was so, He would not make us blind so that we can’t see him. He answered: “God is not visible. He is everywhere, you can feel him. You can see Him through your fingertips.” Now I reach out everywhere for the God ’till the day my hands touch him, and tell Him everything, even all the secrets in my heart.
Mohammad is, of course, pained by the fact that, unlike his sisters, he cannot attend the local school and must live much of the year many miles from his family in Tehran. But the source of his anguish also evokes the torment of the Sufi poets when describing their separation from God. As Hafiz wrote: “We are like lutes once held by God/Being away from his warm body/Fully explains this constant yearning.” (16) Mohammad expresses a similar feeling of division from God and his intense longing to “reach out”, “touch God” and “tell him everything, even the secrets in [his] heart” alludes to the affective “yearning” so characteristic of the Sufi poet’s condition.
Other elements of the film support the notion that Majidi infuses a mystical element to Mohammad’s experience of blindness. The farm on which his father, grandmother and sisters reside is in the full bloom of spring when Mohammad arrives home from school. The camera dwells on the fields full of richly coloured flora and it appears more like the idealized paradise of the ghazal garden than a functioning farm. The image of the “rose”, the archetypal motif of the ghazal used to represent to the Beloved, appears on a card that Mohammed has carefully reserved as a present for one of his sisters. Whilst shaving the father breaks the small hand mirror he is using and peering into the fragmented glass, his reflection is distorted. Possibly in this moment Majidi is inviting a comparison between the literal blindness of Mohammed and the emotional myopia of his father. The fragmented mirror certainly seems to indicate the broken and damaged subjectivity of the patriarch and foreshadows the greater ills to come both in terms of his failure to re-marry and his attempt to appropriately support his son.
The hermeneutic nature of the film’s conclusion again locates it in the realm of Islamic spirituality. Being escorted back home by his father from the woodcutter’s workshop, Mohammed falls into the rapids of a river and is washed-up, seemingly dead, on the beach. His father, who is also on the shore having attempted to save him, embraces Mohammad and cries over his son’s lifeless body. The camera focuses in on Mohammad’s hand which is gradually illuminated and moves ever so subtly as if he is again reading braille. While the possibility of his having survived the rapids is unlikely but not implausible, this final gesture of the film more clearly recalls Mohammed’s earlier attempts to “reach out everywhere for God” and the viewer is left wondering whether, in death, Mohammed finally achieves the union which has painfully eluded him in life. Like the ghazal, which simultaneously alludes to romantic and mystical love with its use of open metaphors, the final moments of Majidi’s Rang-e Khoda accommodate both a literal and spiritualised reading.
The theme of blindness as a state of separation from God is also central to the story of Beed-e Majnoon (The Willow Tree). Here, the character of Yousef (Parviz Parastui) regains his sight after an operation in Paris. The experience of “seeing”, at first so ecstatically overwhelming, soon becomes destructive as Yousef find himself rejecting his family, his profession and previous intellectual interests in pursuit of physical beauty, sensuality and delusional fantasy. Beed-e Majnoon could easily be interpreted as a moral fable which heavy-handedly illustrates the dangers of shallow pleasures and profane desires. But Majidi complicates the allegory by the lyrical allusions he threads through the narrative. Pari (Leila Outadi), the object of Yousef’s desire, is a student of the arts and her thesis, which she gives to Yousef to read, focuses on Sufi poetry and the links between sight and the experience of mystical awakening. Yousef even places a rose between the pages of her manuscript when he attempts to visit her at the university. Just as a beautiful human figure or a natural entity operate in the Sufi ghazals as symbols of Khoda, so too Pari may be interpreted as an ambiguous figure who simultaneously connotes mystical sublimity and erotic fetishism. Pari’s unavailability as a romantic or sexual partner inspires in Yousef the excruciating yearning that Mohammed expresses in Rang-e Khoda and again recalls the longing of the great Sufi lyricists.
When asked whether the “humanitarianism” of his films is attributable to the influence of religion, Majidi answers by referencing the tradition of the Sufi poets:
Our literature is very rich with poets such as Hafiz, Saadi, Rumi. In their writings, these poets have always given a great importance to the human being. Contemporary cultural themes stem from this tradition as well as the rituals associated with them. The manner these themes are dealt with is influenced by the particular beliefs of the Iranians that existed and continue to exist nowadays. (17)
Majidi’s response confirms that the process of reading his films through the lens of Persian poeticism, and in particular Medieval Sufism, illuminates motifs and metaphors which may otherwise remain oblique or overlooked. Majidi, like Kiarostami, thus encourages viewers not only to understand the human experience in poetic terms but to see it as bound to the “cultural themes” which have permeated Persian lyricism. From this and other interviews conducted with Iran’s auteurs, it appears that one of the undisputed tenets of contemporary Iranian cinema is the relevance of mediæval court and Sufi poetry in informing both the structural, thematic and metaphorical layers of filmmaking.
Readings which emphasize the poetic humanism and Sufi-influenced spirituality of Iran’s recent cinema should not diffuse the potential for a more politicised or subversive reading of their symbolic content. Instead, such analyses enrich the spectator’s experience of the film and broaden hermeneutic understanding. When discussing the poetic quality of his films, Abbas Kiarostami often emphasizes the importance of the “open metaphor” and the flexibility of meaning which it facilitates. Just as the ghazal has continued to be central to both popular and mystical culture, so too the symbols and themes of contemporary Iranian cinema may be read as both illuminating spiritualised and politicised humanism. Iranian filmmakers have been both adaptive and creative with their response to censorship protocols, but the “poetic” nature of their recent cinema shouldn’t be read entirely as a by-product of resistant filmmaking. Perhaps Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf puts it most concisely when he described Iranian cinema as being “caught between poetry and censorship” (18).
This article has been refereed.
- Hamid Naficy, “Islamizing Film Culture in Iran: A Post-Khamati Update”, in Richard Tapper (Ed.), The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity (New York: Tauris, 2002), p. 41.
- Ali Mohammadi and Eric Egan, “Cinema and Iran: Culture and Politics in the Islamic Republic”, Asian Cinema, 12:1, Spring 2001, p. 17.
- Hamid Naficy, “Cinema Exchange Relations: Iran and the West”, in K. Nikki and R. Matthel (Eds), Iran and the Surrounding World (Washington: Washington Press, 2002), p. 265.
- Laura Mulvey, “Kiarostami’s Uncertainty Principle”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 8, No. 6, June 1998, p. 26.
- M. Saeed-Vafa, “Location (Physical Space) and Cultural Identity in Iranian Films”, in Richard Tapper (Ed.), p. 202.
- Hamid Nafiy, “Veiled Vision/Powerful Presences”, in Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Fridl (Eds), The Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-revolutionary Iran (London: Tauris, 1994), p. 138.
- Bert Cardullo, “‘The Children of Heaven’, On Earth, Neorealism, Iranian Style”, Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2002, p. 111.
- Shohini Chaudhuri and Howard Finn, “The Open Image: Poetic Realism and the New Iranian Cinema”, Screen, Vol. 44, No. 1, Spring 2003.
- Faraj Nayeri, “Abbas Kiarostami in Interview”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 3, No.12, December 1993, p. 27.
- Abbas Kiarostami in Lila Azam Zanganeh (Ed.), My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes; Uncensored Iranian Voices (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), p. 86.
- Stephen Teo, “The Case of Jafar Panahi”, Senses of Cinema, No. 15, July-August 2000.
- Lourdes Alvarez, “The Mystical Language of Daily Life: Vernacular Sufi Poetry and the Songs of Abu Al-Hasan Al-Shushtari”, Exemplaria, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 2005, p. 2.
- A. Schimmel, in the forward to The Book of God of Farid al-Din ‘Attar, (Manchester: University Press, 1976), p. x.
- Paul Smith, Divan of Hafiz (Melbourne: New Humanity Books, 1983), p. 64.
- J. T. P. Bruijn, Persian Sufi Poetry (Richmond: Curzon, 1997), p. 63.
- Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz, The Gift, (London: Arkana, 1999), p. 116.
- Mohsen Makhmalbaf, in interview with Hadani Ditmars, “From the Top to the Hill”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, No. 12, December 1996, p. 10.