‘Social films’ (Film-e ejtema’i), understood in Iranian film reviews and journalistic discourse as socio-politically committed films characterized by realist aesthetics and mode of narration, have been a major part of Iranian post-revolutionary cinema since the 1980s. By picking up on ‘sensitive’ issues, and through focusing on the discriminatory aspects of social life in modern Iran, social films usually attract a lot of controversy from their early stages of production or become controversial through further politicization by either the regime’s or the audiences’ reactions. However, it seems surprising that little scholarly attention has been paid to this cinema, and social films have rarely been recognized as a part of a much broader distinct cinematic practice. Indeed, only a few number of the films associated with the label have been studied solely in the context of auteur studies of their directors (1); and many other features – including those conventional ones which have played an effective role in founding the tradition through their recurrent realist aesthetics – have been widely neglected. (2)
In his introduction to a chapter on social films in one of the few texts that have been written exclusively on the subject, Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad defines social films as those which explore ‘post-revolution social/political issues’ such as ‘social justice, the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, the place of the clergy in Iranian society, as well as women’s issues’ (3), asking whether and how the ‘filmmakers and the cinema-goers in Iran have resisted the regime’s attempts at controlling the political content of [social] films’. He is explicitly engaged with the political ‘content’ of this cinema, and what he aims to do is to ‘examine the politics of ‘social films”. (4) However, despite the fruitfulness of his approach in mapping the politics of social films, I will argue in this article that any study concerning social films should necessarily address this cinema in ethical terms as well; for any study that neglects the ethical implications of these films will risk betraying its own aims by becoming complicit with the suspicious blind spots that are inherent in such benevolent cinematic approaches to society. (5) In this sense, any politically informed study of social films should necessarily engage with the question of alterity, and it should also address its intersection with what I will call the ‘asymmetrical distribution of narrative privilege’.
In what follows, first I will defend the ethico-political significance of social films, especially those recurring instances in which the subalterns of Iranian society are narrated and in which their marginality and oppressive living conditions are criticized and reflected on. The subaltern other, who is deprived of the necessary access to the means of cultural production, is living in an invisible state due to his/her lack of access to opportunities for self-narration and self-representation. Thus his/her life story and experiences are unheard and untold unless some ‘benevolent privileged intellectuals’ bear witness to his/her story and thus open up a space for his/her singularity and cry of suffering to emerge.
On the other hand, I will problematize any naïve celebration of these narrations by introducing the question of alterity. That is, I will argue that social films’ blind instrumentalization of cinema – inspired by socio-political activism – in favour of depicting social maladies and inequalities, instead of meaningful self-reflexive practices in which social films reflect on their tradition and its complicity in social injustice, effectively installs a new form of subject-object relation that works against their overt social commitment. Narrating the subalterns of a community without taking into account the undeniable asymmetrical power dynamics that is inherent in such practices is itself in favour of reproducing the unjust community; since narrating those who do not have the privilege of narrating themselves always already risks the appropriation of their alterity. As I will argue, such risks should be accounted for, if social films are aimed at a just community of future.
Finally, in order to articulate my argument in a concrete manner, I will undertake close analysis of Close-up (6) and Crimson Gold(7), two of the major self-reflexive social films that rework the realist aesthetic that is characteristic of the tradition in order to take critical positions against the oppressive aspects of this cinema, while arguing that these cinematic narratives resonate with the idea of the ‘listening eye’. According to Emmanuel Levinas, the ‘listening eye’ is ‘concerned about and listens to the other’s story which always has to remain, to some extent, theirs’ (8); a sort of bestowing recognition on the unknowable other that disrupts the reduction of him/her to something simply representable and communicable that is always already subordinated to the representational powers of the self. The listening eye listens, since it is concerned less with ‘seeing’ than ‘listening’ (9) and since it listens to some kind of a story without rendering that story intelligible through the readymade frameworks of intelligibility. The listening eye breaks with the subject-object tradition through ‘a suspension of judgment and morality’ (10); but as we shall see, this break is not made possible unless the ‘eye’ accepts its embedding in this tradition and thus interrogates its habitualised altericidal visions.
Social films and the community-yet-to-come
In Close-up, Hossain Sabzian (playing himself) is a poor jobless man who very much loves cinema to the extent that he gets in trouble with the law for impersonating director Mohsen Makhmalbaf; while in Crimson Gold, Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin) is a poor pizza delivery worker and a former fighter in the Iran-Iraq war who is still affected by the injuries of war. Both of these characters are among the marginal individuals of Iranian society, not only due to their poor conditions of living, but also due to their inability in narrating their own life story and thus in getting their invisible marginal status recognized socially. In this sense, both Close-up and Crimson Gold can be considered as social films that are exclusively dedicated to bearing witness to the unheard life stories of those who suffer, but those whose sufferings are exacerbated due to their limited capacity to make their cry heard.
One of the main aspects of social films that this article investigates is their inevitable intersection with the questions of alterity, human precariousness (11), and the public sphere. (12) Hannah Arendt, inspired by Aristotle, conceives of human beings as political animals who have the ability to speak of and share their inner worlds, and as those who have the chance of creating the public space through such participations that invite the others to memorialize one’s deeds and actions. (13) Accordingly, taking into account the marginal role of subalterns in sharing their inner worlds and thus their extremely limited contribution to the construction of the ‘public space of appearance’ even in terms of memorializing their oppressions, it seems necessary to consider what happens if some people do not have the opportunity to enter this space and participate in it. (14) In this sense, bearing witness to the oppression of those who are still living in marginal conditions – and those who may not have the necessary access to the means and freedom of cultural and artistic production due to the asymmetrical distribution of narrative privilege – is indeed dependent on the presence of certain ‘privileged others’ who have the necessary benevolent impulses for bearing witness to the sufferings of the deprived others of their community. In this sense, perpetrators of social films, with their socio-politically inspired aims concerning a just future community, have been interested in narrating those who are underrepresented; since, bearing in mind Judith Butler’s conception of the public sphere as that which is in part constituted by what cannot be shown and heard (15), aiming for this future community is indeed dependent on a reflection upon the question of (in)visibility.
Furthermore, taking into account the interconnectedness of what Butler calls human precariousness and the act of representation, we should ask whether these acts of bearing witness do allow for representing the subaltern others without effacing their unfamiliar but nevertheless liveable lives; that is, whether they return us to the human ‘where we do not expect to find it, in its frailty and at the limits of its capacity to make sense’. (16) This problematisation of representation gains further significance when we consider the fact that Iranian post-revolutionary society is characterized by an intense regulation of the public sphere and thus retrieving subalterns’ voices in their own right through the present planes of representation – through positive forms and terms – is indeed difficult if not impossible. (17) In this respect, we should nevertheless focus on the difficulties of bearing witness, taking into account a conception of human as that which is not representable, but is embedded in what makes any representation impossible. (18)
However, such an insistence on the unrepresentable, and such hostility towards the present modes of representation, do not mean that we should avoid representation. (19) On the contrary, the human is ‘indirectly affirmed in that very disjunction that makes representation impossible’ and this disjunction is conveyed in the ‘impossible representation’. There is ‘something unrepresentable that we nevertheless seek to represent’, and this unrepresentable is something that ‘limits the success of any representational practice’. (20) We have to represent the unrepresentable, since leaving the other in an unheard state would effectively de-realize that specific other, exposing him/her to potential violence. (21) However, conveying the unrepresentable means that the representation should fail and show its failure. (22)
In this respect, exploring the ethics of the listening eye in Iranian social films necessitates an investigation in which each narration is evaluated based on its ability in bearing witness to the life of the invisible others without appropriating their story through successful representations. (23) That is, whether social films bear witness to the liveable lives and grievable deaths of the subaltern others, without any determinate return to the familiar/Same that conceals their alterity. Accordingly, through their bearing witness to different forms of oppression, social films might be considered as practices that pave the way for imagining the possibility of a just community-yet-to-come in which the alterity of the subaltern groups and individuals would find the necessary conditions of positing itself in its own right, and not being foreclosed as a merely negative alterity that is always already subordinated to the dominant discourses and ideologies. So, if the stories of bearing witness are based on a new humanism, and if they are aimed at imagining a just community-yet-to-come, then these stories would require to avoid closure, since ‘for a community to remain open to the “radical heterogeneity of human experience” it would not be able to assume a common understanding of what it means to be human’. (24) So bearing witness, as a ‘way of protesting a failure of community’ and an ‘attempt to bring into being a new form of community’, is inspired by what we may call the ‘ethics and aesthetics of hospitality’: instead of seeking ‘to wrench the other into the light of day, to render her fully present’, we should be taught how to ‘remember the other’s irretrievable difference’. (25)
Contesting the ‘good’ forms
The listening eye, deeply engaged with the radical heterogeneity of human experience and thus aimed at the community-yet-to-come, works against our habitualized objectifying gaze and our obsessive quest for familiarity and closure. (26) It is not aimed at fixing the other and not at reducing it to predefined categories that are easily-communicable. It does not reproduce the subject-object relation; on the contrary, it aims to interrogate the altericidal aspects of this relation. Bearing in mind the aforementioned ethical implications of closure, it may be said that the listening eye succeeds as it fails in achieving what Jean-Francois Lyotard ironically calls ‘good’ forms (27): forms that foster order, harmony, familiarity, representability, communicability and indeed closure. Of course, a representation is always a particular re-presentation of a subject matter; however, through striving for successful representations, good forms persuade us to lose a sense of the possibility of the representation’s incompleteness and failure. And if we take the representation to represent its subject matter in its entirety, then we leave no room for a sense of the unrepresentable as if the representation has already pinned down everything exhaustively. (28) In this respect, in order to ‘remember the other’s irretrievable difference’ and thus in order to preserve a sense of the unrepresentable, it may be said that social films should bear witness to the life stories of the subaltern others without seeking to capture them in their ‘entirety’ through the exploitation of good forms.
Lyotard’s conception of realism is exceptionally revealing here. According to him, reality is not something that we know naturally; on the contrary, ‘a sense of reality is generated through the beliefs and ideals of a particular culture’, and realist art is one of the things that ‘helps a culture create a sense of its reality’. In this respect, he associates realism with our familiar frameworks of representation – our good forms – as he asserts that the aim of realist art is to order the world ‘from a point of view that would give it recognisable meaning, a syntax and lexicon that would allow addressees to decode images and sequences rapidly’. Realist art is the art ‘we recognize and understand immediately’ as it presents the world to us ‘in a way that we are used to’, perpetuating our established ‘narratives about the world’ by preserving them from critique or change. (29) In short, realism captures the world through a decisive return to the familiar/Same, leaving no room for a sense of the unrepresentable.
Historically, good forms have found their best realization in cinema through what we know as ‘classical realism’ (30): an influential cinematic tradition that, despite its diverse manifestations, is nevertheless characterized by its potentials for familiarization, closure (31), and communicativeness. (32) In this sense, classical realism is rooted in the subject-object relation as it fosters straightforward forms that bring a sense of order and, of course, domination. It is charged with identity-thinking and its inherent reification: it is made possible if and only if the multiplicity of reality is reduced to some fixed and identifiable objects that are easily-communicable. (33) Similarly, such efficient ways of dealing with the world through successful representations promote good forms that are governed by an economy in which the alterity of the other is reduced to some transmissible objects (34) and in which the other is objectified and thus deprived of his/her abilities to talk or look back at the self. The self, denying any encounter with the irreducible alterity and thus foreclosing the possibility that it might be transformed through some sort of self-interrogation that could arise from its encounter with the other, unethically exercises his powers over him/her, reducing his/her singularity to some abstract categories and identities that are easily-communicable.
Classical realism, with its potentials for familiarization and closure, offers good chances for the instrumentalization of cinema as an influential media. And it is in this respect that Iranian filmmakers usually find classical realism very promising. On the one hand, the regime considers cinema as an important instrument for transmitting information ‘from the top to the bottom.’ (35) Conservatives, with their self-supposed moral superiority, quest for an apparatus that can be exploited and instrumentalized in order to establish and reproduce the dominant ideology. (36) On the other hand, however, the surprising point is that such a conception of cinema is not exclusively limited to these regime-promoted ideological practices. In general, many of the perpetrators of social films who understand committed art in alternative ways also consider cinema as an instrument that should be exploited in order to mediate between them – as benevolent intellectuals – and the community that is the ‘object’ of such benevolence. Committed cinema is considered to be an influential way of depicting the unjust aspects of the community; and this injustice is supposed to be detected by the ‘privileged visions’ of the intellectual filmmakers. So the ‘message’ is quite clear (social activism associated with the intellectual traditions is playing an important role here); what is at stake is the extent to which the filmmaker succeeds in instrumentalizing cinema in conveying that communicable message.
Of course, according to Zeydabadi-Nejad, Iranian social films may not be as easily-accessible as ‘entertaining films’ due to their political content and controversies (37); what he misses though is that such instrumentalizations of cinema as a part of broader socio-political movements often foster their own promotions of easily-accessible cinematic practices that are not reflexive and critical enough about their own underpinnings. Social films’ quest for instrumentalization of cinema is indeed a call for aesthetically neutral filmic practices that gain their ‘radical’ status only through efficient transmissions of their overtly political or moral messages. In this regard, the value of an artwork significantly depends on its ability to convey messages (pieces of information), and a ‘good’ artwork is the one that performs this task in an ‘economical’ (38) fashion by installing a particular mechanism of exclusion: aesthetic devices should be excluded unless they could be mobilized in the service of turning the artwork into a neutral channel for conveying messages. Similarly, every mediated aspect of the world – including the alterity of the other – should not have any implication beyond its function in installing this totality. (39) So the potential roughened forms (40) and excesses (41) of an artwork are considered to be troublesome interferences that disrupt the instrumentality of this communicative process and thus should be controlled, neutralized and impoverished. Once again, what is needed is an artwork that ‘we recognize and understand immediately’.
Of course, despite the apparent intellectual progressiveness of social films – portraying sensitive issues that attract controversy – such instrumentalizations of cinema effectively betray their own cause; since alterity is not something that is simply achievable through positive and instrumental practices (42); but rather is indirectly affirmed through negative as well as generative acts of resistance and disruption. And such hospitality towards the irreducible alterity of the other is most probably achieved through aesthetic counter-practices, since these practices are potentially fertile grounds for reflexive and defamiliarizing deployments of roughened forms and excesses. (43) Therefore, by denying us the solace of good forms (44), ‘the aesthetic’ removes itself from conventional conceptions of ‘the beautiful’ (45); the latter understood as that which fosters unity, harmony and repressive communicability by seeking ‘good’ and ‘perfect’ realist forms in order to preserve and sustain an established familiar/violent notion of ‘reality’. (46)
In this respect, I will map the embodiment of the listening eye in and against the conventional tradition of social films through my case-studies, asking how these distinctive instances foreground a non-instrumental approach to cinema in which the film’s encounter with the other is not reducible to an altericidal relation comprised of a manipulating subject and its manipulated object; but in which the underrepresented other is represented in a way that the dynamics of subordination-dominance is disturbed and the realist tradition of social films is problematized. In particular, I will show how Close-up foregrounds a unique cinematic hospitality towards the other by contesting the narrative and stylistic features of realist fiction films and by introducing a different conception – I will argue, a more sophisticated conception – of realism based on a reflexive approach to pro-filmic reality. Furthermore, I will map how Crimson Gold plays with realism by bringing its conventions and characteristics to the surface in a reflexive manner and thus providing the conditions for excesses to the extent that effectively overflow the realist economy of social films. (47)
Close-up: allowing the other to speak on his own terms
Due to his great admiration of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s films and his personal love for cinema, Hossain Sabzian impersonates this well-known director while approaching the middleclass Ahankhah family, persuading them to cooperate with him in what he pretends to be his next feature film. He eventually fails in keeping his role as the Ahankhah family gradually understands his plot, opening a legal case against him. Close-up picks up this real story, filming the scenes concerning Sabzian’s accusation and presence in a courthouse in a documentary-style and self-reflexive fashion, and also reconstructing those scenes/events which had happened prior to his detention in a classical mode. Furthermore, Sabzian plays himself in the film, as do directors Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami, and the Ahankhah family. As I will argue, Close-up succeeds in materializing the listening eye by moving beyond the ethico-ideological blindness of the classical mode of narration that very much informs the tradition of social films; limitations that are fundamentally rooted in a desire for an instrumentalized cinema that, driven by a benevolent impulse for ‘mirroring’ the social inequalities, unreflectively quests for turning the other into something simply communicable.
The film opens with the efforts of a reporter, Hossain Farazmand, in gathering information in order to narrate Sabzian’s story; a narrative that is eventually published in Soroush magazine. Also, the Ahankhah family narrates their own version of the story in their legal case against Sabzian. More significantly, however, Sabzian rejects both of these narratives as he underlines the biased characteristic of these reports. Accordingly, Kiarostami’s efforts, and thus the main plot, are structured around Sabzian’s desire to present an alternative narrative that goes beyond the limitations and discriminations of the stories available. In this sense, Close-up’s point of departure is a lack of narrative privilege: Sabzian is bereft of any access to the basic means for self-narration, and consequently, he is helpless in contesting the narratives of the others with an alternative narrative of his own. So Kiarostami takes a starting point that is charged with altruistic impulses as he struggles to provide the conditions for such an alternative narrative. In this sense, Close-up is ultimately a narrative of Sabzian’s (social) vulnerability and precariousness. Sabzian has a singular life story, and thanks to that life story, he has an undeniable singularity; a singularity that testifies to his irreducible presence, a presence that might not be narratable in a conventional manner, but nevertheless exists. In short, he has what Butler would call ‘a liveable life’ and ‘a grievable death’.
More significantly, however, Kiarostami’s efforts are also aimed at another important possibility as well: that such an alternative narrative, if it emerges, might not be (re)appropriated by the others – including the Ahankhah family, the courthouse attendants, and more importantly, the film itself. So Kiarostami is trying to reproduce his benevolent impulses through the aesthetic aspects of this narrative, avoiding the always-already-present risks of possession and acquisition by letting Sabzian’s story to ‘remain, to some extent, his’. Therefore, what makes Close-up an interesting case is not only its explicit message at a thematic level, but, more importantly, is its narrative and aesthetic treatment of Sabzian’s life story that moves beyond the limitations of Iranian social films and their normative heritage in classical realist cinema.
Unlike classical realism, Close-up is not aimed at narrating a character whose psychological characteristics are determined and given, and is not necessarily engaged with a character who struggles to achieve his goals throughout the plot either. Interestingly, Close-up starts from the point in which Sabzian’s struggles (approaching the Ahankhah family while pretending to be filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf) have indeed come to an end. Also, rather than playing a decisive functional role in depicting what has already happened, the flashbacks of Close-up (which I categorize here as reconstructed scenes) deliberately and systematically sideline and marginalize the events and exploit them as a mere device/pretext for narrating Sabzian’s story in a detailed fashion by foregrounding his presence and agency in the midst of such events; an agency that, as we shall see, is fundamentally different from those instances that we are accustomed to in classical realism.
Therefore, we do not encounter a character who struggles for his dramatic ends, and even if we notice struggles and obstacles, these instances are definitely irrelevant to those of the classical narrative. Sabzian’s struggles are not aimed at achieving tangible ends in the outside world, but are primarily aimed at creating an alternative space in which he would be able to voice his own singularity and promote his own version of the story. More significantly, his obstacles are not those conventional ones in classical narrative, but are primarily based on his lack of narrative privilege. He is not following a specific trajectory: he is not proceeding from A to B, from order to chaos and then to a restored order; instead, he is practicing his failure in representing and narrating himself, and that practice is not reducible to any linear narrative time. At the end of the film he is not successful in gaining narrative privilege; on the contrary, he is constantly accepting his failure and his lack of privilege in a repetitive order throughout the film. Of course, his version of the story is told; but the mediation (Kiarostami, his crew, and their camera) is always already there, foregrounded and made explicit against any non-reflexive celebration of realism (denial of the mediation) (48), and thus against any naïve celebration of ‘colourful’ and ‘escapist’ emancipations through artistic practices. (49)
If the classical narrative gains its coherence and potential for pleasure from presenting a well characterized protagonist who invites audience identification, then it sounds reasonable to say that Close-up does not take such coherence and identification as a given fact. Sabzian is not characterized with definite features from the very beginning, and those narratives presented by Farazmand and the Ahankhah family (narratives that are aimed at such hasty characterizations), are devalued from the very beginning. Sabzian is defamiliarized, rather than being rendered familiar, and such defamiliarization provides the conditions for the whole film itself: after all, we want to hear the story of a man whose word cannot be taken for granted, and who is not familiar enough to be encountered through a straightforward storyline. Close-up, unlike classical narratives, denies us any early fixation; instead, it employs defamiliarization as the driving force of the whole narrative.
However, apart from these possibilities, Close-up’s overall approach has its own share of risks. That is, the narrative introduces its character, defamiliarizes it, but eventually captures and comprehends his alterity through its evolutionary process. Accordingly, there is an important paradox in play here: Kiarostami tries to present a faithful narrative of Sabzian, and he does so through providing an alternative space that is hospitable to his voice. But at the same time, this very struggle for creating alternative spaces is already an implicit effort for comprehending and thus possessing him. In this sense, Close-up puts Sabzian on a track that may lead to the reduction and acquisition of his alterity; since narratives like Close-up are very much aimed at familiarizing what has been defamiliarized initially. Of course, it may be argued cogently that this appropriation is nevertheless inevitable: narrating/representing a subject matter is indeed in favour of locating it in the realm of meaning and consciousness, and hence it is always already aimed at a certain degree of appropriation. Thus, what is at stake here is not whether we should avoid any narrative, but is asking how films like Close-up recognize the aforementioned risks, and then try to acknowledge – or even partially transcend – these limitations through a reflexive approach.
Kiarostami plays with the dominant forms of narrating legal cases, as well as the legal system itself, by letting Sabzian to ‘speak for himself’ without his sayings being interrupted and appropriated. First of all, Kiarostami dedicates a specific camera to Sabzian, capturing his close-ups, and Kiarostami explicitly asks him to talk to this camera whenever he thinks there is a need for saying things that are not normally allowed in a legal context. This camera allows Sabzian to speak, while there is an unmentioned guarantee that his words are not interrupted nor put into question by the people around him. Furthermore, Kiarostami deliberately rejects any use of conventional editing by not cutting Sabzian’s close-ups and his speech to the facial expressions and reactions of the other attendants. We, as spectators who are more or less educated and thus conditioned by classical conventions of storytelling and communicativeness, normally expect to see the faces of the others, let alone their probable objections or polemic reactions; but Close-up systematically denies us such pleasure, and instead exposes us to his monologues as they are being stated, not as they are normally re-interpreted by the reactions of others.
More interestingly, Close-up does not include any lawyer here: Sabzian defends himself on his own terms. It is surely a promising reflexive approach to the conventions of legal system, as well as to the dominant traditions of filmmaking. There is no legal mediation, and there is no lawyer who is supposed to translate Sabzian’s speech into legal terms; a translation that would help him in his case, but would inevitably deny him any singular and unique use of everyday language, regardless of how incoherent such uses might be. We read Sabzian’s voice through his own use of language, and of course through Kiarostami’s extensive use of close-up shots. So, Kiarostami acknowledges the mediation of his camera, but at the same time, he not only reflects on the necessity of it, but he also tries to deconstruct and dismantle those mediations which would impose extra and double appropriation. Once again, Sabzian’s story remains, to some extent, his.
Furthermore, Close-up introduces a new approach to temporality, especially in courthouse scenes. Here, the numerous close-up shots take an ambiguous situation in relation to the whole narrative. On the one hand, they are closely interconnected with the main plot, understood as Kiarostami and his crew’s quest for the true story of Sabzian’s legal case. On the other hand, however, the extreme uses of close-up shots, as well as the overtly static mise-en-scène and framing, effectively decontextualizes these shots and thus the whole courthouse scenes. Accordingly, against the classical conventions, the time is unsettled in its linear sense; since, apart from following the plot, we are indeed watching a separate film that is screening at the same time; a film that is not reducible to the more familiar and obvious one that we are supposed to follow in a linear order. (50) Also, not only the temporal aspect of the narrative loses its linear grasp, but the spatial aspects of these scenes lose their organic interconnectedness with the diegetic space as well. Here, there is a significant embodiment of the listening eye in play: the audience not only sees Sabzian speaking on his own terms but also recognizes him while he is simply there onscreen, without any necessary reduction to the narrative and its limitations.
One of the other significant aspects of Close-up is its focus, not on the construction of the story world, but on how the story world is constructed. Classical narrative employs transparency as its fundamental principle, drawing the audience into the constructed story world, without making him/her aware of how such construction is actually happening. The camera is supposed to be entering an always-already-present pro-filmic reality, recording what is happening, without indicating that such recording is really involved. Close-up, however, chooses a different path as it explicitly reminds the audience of the mediation. There is no ‘realist’ narrative of Sabzian, since realism, in its classical sense, is undone from the very moment that Sabzian rejects the already-in-hand narratives of himself (51); narratives that nevertheless claim their privileged access to the ‘truth’ while not questioning the conditions for the possibility of such privilege and its covert blind spots. Close-up too is aimed at being realist, and thus it does effectively strive for realism. There is definitely a pro-filmic reality in play; however, what significantly distinguishes Close-up is its cautious focus on this reality, building its narrative on it, without falling prey to any ideologically-charged realist notion of cinema – camera or cinematic apparatus as a mechanical reproduction of ‘objective’ reality. In fact, the para-documentary style (52) – the interconnectedness of the documentary style and the overtly reconstructed scenes – helps Close-up to practice a different notion of realism: reality is not what is given, but is what Close-up tries to grasp despite its tragic awareness of its eventual failure in doing so. (53) Close-up’s version of realism recognizes the complicity of cinematic practices in establishing and reproducing altericidal visions: it does reflect on this heritage, and also does this reflection in relation to someone who is always already subordinated to this medium and its historically constituted traditions. In this sense, Close-up practices what I intend to call ‘ethical realism’; a realism that approaches pro-filmic reality, but at the same time, treats that reality as that which always overflows any realism and thus as that which is always already irreducible and ungraspable.
Contrary to the aforementioned possibilities, however, the ending seems suspect as the legal case against Sabzian is eventually closed, and he is legally and personally forgiven by the Ahankhah family. Of course, the community is represented as a primal factor in Sabzian’s subordination and marginalization; but nevertheless we are told that it is a community that is worth celebrating when Sabzian, as a more or less outsider, is re-integrated back into it. The film effectively subordinates him to the value system of the broader community: he should ask for forgiveness so he could be able to be recognized as a ‘legitimate insider’ by a community that has marginalized him, pushing him into a corner, without any guarantee that this re-integration would not perpetuate such mechanisms of subordination and exclusion. (54) Close-up’s reflexivity does not inevitably call for such a ‘happy ending’ that re-establishes and reproduces asymmetrical power dynamics and its underlying values in an unreflective manner, since there is no need to persuade and push Sabzian into a helpless apology that denies him any afterlife or possible rebellion beyond the boundaries of this film. This is indeed a very serious ideological blind spot (55); however, the overall possibilities of the film should not be reduced to this limitation.
Crimson Gold: allowing the other’s story to remain his
Crimson Gold has significant resonances with Close-up in terms of its reflexivity towards the realist tradition of social films; however, at the same time it is representative of a considerably different reflexive approach nonetheless. In what follows, I will map the significant ways in which Crimson Gold tries to bring the realist conventions and norms that are characteristic of social films to the surface in order to show their limitations in a playful way. Of course, as we shall see, bringing the conventions to the surface means that the film itself is very much situated within the tradition; but at the same time, its playfulness and reflexive approach prevents it from being simply reducible to it.
In Crimson Gold, the overall structure of the plot is familiar: the film starts with a climactic situation in which a man, whom we later understand is called Hossein, is robbing a jewellery store; and when his plan goes wrong he commits murder and then kills himself. The plot then flashes back in time, focusing on the characters involved in this initial climactic situation. In this respect, the whole plot could be initially understood as a struggle to describe what has happened prior to the final incident and what has caused the conflict. Also, all of the scenes are structured in a classical manner and the montage is quite clearly following the norms of continuity editing. So, unlike Close-up, the film is not preoccupied with making visible the different techniques and devices it exploits; on the contrary, like the classical mode, the style is not obtrusive, not attracting attention to itself while only serving the plot. Like many other social films, Crimson Gold is a realist feature film narrating the life story of an individual who lives on the margins of society. So Crimson Gold is aimed at achieving the benevolent objectives associated with social films, and in doing so it does intend to convey some messages to its addressees. These characteristics unanimously eventuate in a pleasurable result: the story is more or less familiar, and the way that the story unfolds seems conventional and thus easily graspable. But is Crimson Gold really a mere reproduction of the dominant cinematic forms that we, as spectators, are familiar with? The experience of watching this film and a close analysis of it suggest that the film is building on the familiar forms; more importantly, however, these familiar conventions and expectations are playfully literalized and relocated at the surface of the text.
In terms of their approaches to central characters, conventional social films pursue their aims by depicting well-defined characters who are easily representable. It is due to the fact that these films are mainly committed to bringing into light what has always been concealed in darkness. So, if the main concern is about recognizing those who have been denied recognition in the public sphere, the other should be portrayed as something familiar, or at least as something graspable through our familiar – normative as well as normalizing – frameworks for thinking about the human; and recognizing a human being in the face of the other is indeed dependent on a more or less defined character.
In a similar manner, Crimson Gold puts at its centre a marginal character; but, unlike the conventional instances, it does not take him for granted and it denies the spectator such transparency. By doing so, Crimson Gold highlights a very important consideration that is significantly neglected by the conventional features of the social films tradition: the obsessive defamiliarization in the early stages of Crimson Gold is indeed in accordance with the ethico-political aims of social films; since defamiliarization inevitably necessitates the existence of such a narrative. That is, narrating and representing someone who is not always already familiar – someone whose alterity is concealed and thus ungraspable for the moment – proves its own necessity and ethico-political significance. Furthermore, this necessity gains even more significance if we consider it through its intersection with the lack of narrative privilege: Hossein is not only unfamiliar but he is also unable to get his unfamiliarity recognized due to his lack of access to the necessary means of self-narration. He is simply a working class man, with no academic or technical skill. He is always numbed by the pills he takes because of the war injuries and accordingly he is even unable to do his simple pizza delivery work without any error. So obviously Hossein is not able to use some sort of medium in order to narrate himself and thus the ‘social film’ undertakes this narration on behalf of him.
After the early scenes, the narrative undertakes a simultaneous familiarization and defamiliarization of Hossein’s character. With its focus on Hossein in his everyday life and interactions before his attempt to rob a jewellery store, Crimson Gold follows the aforementioned conventional order – depicting the events that lead to the final climatic situation; but it is my contention that, once again, such following is accompanied by a great deal of playfulness. For instance, in many cases there is no strictly meaningful link between the scenes and each scene does not inevitably necessitate the one that follows. This unconventional approach disrupts the totality of the narrative in a significant way: each scene more or less plays a part in the whole film, but at the same time each part is not justified by – and thus is not reducible to – the totality of the narrative. The spectator, educated by the instrumentality of the realist social films, desires the complete picture in the least possible time with the most possible details; but Crimson Gold systematically disrupts such desires.
Accordingly, Crimson Gold disturbs this economy in order to achieve something different: it tends to show Hossein in his most ordinary moments of life, and, more importantly, it does so by avoiding any explicit ascription of meaning to these moments. Bearing in mind my previous discussion of the precariousness of life, Crimson Gold aims to recognize the liveable life of Hossein in his most silent and least dramatic moments. Or, it may even sound better to say that Hossein’s life, the life of a lonely and marginal character, is nothing but a sum of these insignificant moments; and, interestingly, Crimson Gold does not strive to get Hossein’s life recognized through imposing dramatic meanings and significations that are more or less ‘external’ to the life he is leading. What seems important to Crimson Gold is to locate and acknowledge the liveable life where it seems impossible to find.
Drawing upon Judith Butler’s discussions of the differential allocation of vulnerability and grievability, it may be said that the public sphere is in part constituted through regulating and thus limiting the ‘work of mourning’; since there shall be no mourning, unless that mourning is taking place limitedly and only in accordance with those whose lives have been considered liveable and thus grievable already. In this sense, narrating a person could be considered as a potential act of mourning that person: a narrative gives that person a name and a life story and thus acknowledges him/her as someone who does have a life, and as someone whose life is precarious, always already undone by the others, and always already exposed to the touch and the violence of them. Accordingly, Hossein’s life is celebrated through his narrative, regardless of how miserable or strange his life would seem to be initially. Furthermore, his life is considered grievable through such celebration, as something that is always already exposed to death, and thus as something that is always already mourned and grieved. Borrowing from Butler’s words, narrating those who have not been narrated, at least not in their own singularity and alterity, effectively makes the claim: ‘this will be a life that will have been lived’. (56) And it is indeed a claim that is made by the listening eye: the listening eye listens to the other, while there is no guarantee that what it hears will be intelligible or easily-communicable. (57)
Of course, it may be argued that, despite its reluctance to appropriate its main character, Crimson Gold effectively reduces Hossein to a mere victim (a ‘victim of society/injustice/class differences’). In fact, Crimson Gold exploits Hossein in order to provide the conditions for portraying the dark sides of community: while delivering pizzas, Hossein encounters all sorts of people, all of which are the perpetrators or victim of some kind of a social injustice. Hossein himself is a victim indeed, and his victimhood is even exacerbated since his job exposes him to the difficult task of witnessing other forms of social injustice that he himself may not be a part of. So in this sense the narrative does provide some motivations for Hossein’s suicidal rebellion: after all, he is rebelling against the established order that is relegating him and many others to a state of victimhood.
This argument against the pathological aspects of Crimson Gold seems cogent; however, it effectively neglects the overall approach of the narrative to Hossein’s character. As mentioned before, the film is focused on Hossein in his very ordinary moments of life, but these moments do not reveal much about him. Many of the scenes show Hossein on his motorcycle going from one place to another. Due to their recurrences, these extensive shots and scenes become a major stylistic aspect of the film and eventually provide the conditions for the possibility of a unique cinematic excess (58): not only do we see Hossein in his most ordinary moments, but we also see him while he is simply there, without any justification or any significant meaning and narrative function. He is always ambiguous and his reactions are far beyond clear. He often rejects his fiancé, but at the same time he is worried about her well-being. He is humiliated by those who treat him as a peasant, but his reactions are not determinate. He is often numbed and silent (59), and there is no significant physical or facial expression through which his interior feelings and thoughts might be conveyed. But nevertheless he is onscreen, conducting a life that may be strangely opaque but is a life on its own terms nonetheless.
In the final scene, Hossein finds a very rare occasion for exploring the lifestyle of a very rich man when he is unusually invited by that man to join him in eating pizza: Hossein explores the house; he drinks from the expensive bottles of wine; he dives in the private swimming pool and so on. But he is still so expressionless and we are not allowed to clearly know what he is thinking. He rebels after this scene and obviously his rebellion is motivated by this rare encounter with the luxurious living conditions of the rich people of his community. But his recurrent and memorable expressionless face prevents us from reducing him to any a priori and readymade framework. In this sense, Crimson Gold simultaneously exploits and moves beyond the conventional narratives, since it foregrounds certain expectations, but it does not provide answers in a determinate manner. Not only is Hossein not comprehensively familiarized, but his familiarization is endlessly deferred.
It may be said that Crimson Gold is withholding explanatory devices in order to elicit responses from the spectator such that he/she might be provoked to actively provide answers for him/herself (a sort of democratization of spectatorship). But this is not the case with Crimson Gold. On the contrary, the answers are there, and the blanks and gaps can be filled quite easily, in case we are satisfied with general explanations that effectively translate Hossein’s particularity and concreteness into abstract terms. However, the interesting point is that such readymade filling, despite its accessibility, is not desirable or even satisfying here. There is something in play that goes beyond the mere act of filling the blanks: what we encounter here is a sort of questioning the very act of ‘filling’ since filling is decentred as if some kind of a story is not necessarily dependent upon such an act of filling the blanks. So, in a sense, the film is providing the answers like many other social films that are aimed at maximizing communicativeness; but the point is that, unlike these conventional features, Crimson Gold is delegitimizing the centrality of answers so that the film gains its affects at a quite different level. The point is not only that such answers seem quite unsatisfying, but also that the act of providing answers – filling the blanks, as if there is a puzzle to be solved – loses its edge throughout the film such that the affections of the film are not theoretically grasped even if we strive to provide ‘better’ answers. Despite the fact that, at the surface, the story unfolds in a smoothly linear order, the film effectively denies us the pleasures of such linearity since there is no easy passage from A to B through which we gain a better grasp of Hossein, and by which we may imagine a future C and D that could bring us to a much more comprehensive knowledge of him and his life story. The linearity is preserved at the surface, but it is nevertheless trapped in a constant process of being interrupted and negated.
In this sense, Crimson Gold provides the condition for what we might call ‘bestowing recognition to the unknowable other’; a sort of recognition in which the self must abandon his/her familiar – but nevertheless ‘unethical’ – desires for knowing and grasping the other in a total manner. (60) Crimson Gold is denying the spectator his/her conventional expectations for identification with the character, foregrounding a different sense of identification through which he very much remains at a decisive distance: Hossein’s liveable life and grievable death is acknowledged through providing him with some kind of a story; but such a story does not deprive him of his irreplaceable alterity. Hossein’s story is very much his, and the film is clearly reluctant in clarifying many ambiguous aspects of his life. It is in this sense that the film works as the ‘listening eye’: Hossein, as the embodiment of alterity, significantly remains exterior to the grasp of the narrative – as well as the grasp of the spectator – since the camera is obsessed with the surfaces and thus resists any determinate psychological – or even crude sociological – explanations. His story unfolds in front of our eyes, but his story is always already his and it more or less remains that way.
Some concluding remarks
One of the main limitations of social films is due to their explicit promotion of ‘positive’ images of the marginal groups of society to counteract underrepresentation and negative representations. In this approach, usually associated with social and political activism, a promotion of positive images is considered to be an ethico-political ideal that is simply achievable through the very call for such alternative images as if the established power dynamics are not that resilient. Despite its political and social significance in some specific periods, this negative-positive binarism usually results in naïve celebrations of positive images while gravely missing the point that ‘positive’ is itself ‘a politically and ethically fraught label’, carrying ‘implicit value judgments’ that are inherently ‘subjective and culturally specific’ and thus ignoring ‘the political ideologies that are being taken for granted in such an endorsement’. (61)
On the contrary, my argument is that ‘alternative and progressive social films’ are those which, unlike the conventional realist features, considerably take into account the difficulties and risks in establishing a cinema based on alterity. Progressive social films, including Close-up and Crimson Gold, are not solely concerned with what the characters and events are supposed to represent (the so-called content); but, more importantly, are focused on ‘how the image is framed and shot, and which generic conventions it engages, distorts or challenges’. In this respect, by focusing on the ‘mediations which intervene between representation and reality’ (62), these films make explicit ‘how the history of meaning-making in images carries internalized norms and exclusions that can be challenged by dissident representations’. (63) Progressive social films, inspired by the ethics of alterity, are not simply in favour of ‘affirmative’ struggles; but, more importantly, they critically interrogate their own tradition through denaturalizing and thus revealing its altericidal visions.
Crimson Gold and Close-up are not aimed at treating their central characters in typical ways and, more interestingly, they are not exploiting the familiar narrative devices in order to get them recognized through a familiar channel. Crimson Gold and Close-up are aimed at narrating the invisible while resisting the current (altericidal) frameworks of visibility. Recognizing the other through the current frameworks that we are used to is indeed reinforcing the presupposed universality of these established frameworks while concealing their undeniably violent particularity and exclusions. So, there would be no ethics, since ethics is understood here as a form of self-interrogation, as a form of stepping back by which the other may find an alternative space for being recognized in his/her alterity and not in his/her reducibility to sameness. What is at stake is putting into question our frameworks for thinking about the human through our encounter with the alterity of the other. But if the other is supposed to fit into these frameworks – if he/she is brought into a light to the extent that there would be no room left for acknowledging the ambiguity of that which is unrepresentable and that which always remains ambiguously unrepresentable despite our best efforts through our ‘best’ forms – then the other is always already in our grasp –always already phrased– and thus there is no possibility for any meaningful critique – and thus no meaningful alternative future – anymore.
The just community of future – the community-yet-to-come as the community that is not realized yet and in a sense will never be realized since it is based on an infinite openness towards the heterogeneity of human experience – is fundamentally rooted in such an alternative encounter with the other. This community is inspired by an ethics of alterity through which the other, despite his/her ambiguity and unknowability, is acknowledged and listened to (64); an acknowledgement and listening that is inevitably dependent on some sort of self-interrogation. It is indeed a significant point that most of Iranian social films gravely miss: if the present unjust community is circumscribed by what cannot be shown and heard, and if the normative frameworks for thinking about the human are in part established through such circumscriptions, then the blind instrumentalization of cinema in favour of rendering the subaltern others communicable through ‘positive’ images is not good enough. Of course, they are bringing into light those who have been left in darkness or those who have been always already appropriated by the dominant ideology; but we should nevertheless ask what if the benevolent and intellectual lights of social films are doing their own share in appropriating the subaltern others, rendering them familiar without acknowledging the risks and dangers of such familiarizations. Recognizing the others while they are reduced to the Same and thus stripped of their alterity is not in favour of giving them a voice of their own; quite the contrary, it is relegating them to a deeper void of silence.
Indeed, what I have been advocating here is the significance of some kind of a story; a kind that might not be a ‘good’ story but a kind that nevertheless acknowledges a life where such acknowledgment is unimaginable and where such recognition is not carried out through a regular return to the familiar/Same. It is in this sense that bearing witness to the past histories and present realities of oppression seems to be playing a critical role in the community-yet-to-come; since, by discovering some kind of a story where such story seems forgotten or never heard of, these instances of bearing witness operate at the limits of intelligible mourning: they do mourn those who are not normally regarded as human – unless they are appropriated and reduced to the normative conceptions of human – or those who are considered as less-than-human or not-yet-human and thus not ‘properly’ human (introducing inner exceptions into the category of the human by claiming that ‘there is a life that will never have been lived’). And such a critical mourning is indeed associated with a counterclaim: ‘this will be a life that will have been lived’; a counterclaim that, as I have argued, cannot be uttered in any instrumental use of any form of communication.
Ethics, in the sense of this article, is fundamentally dependent on such recognition performed by the listening eye; since the other’s story, his/her alterity and the singular flux of his/her life story, is always already exterior to ‘our’ horizons of knowledge and limits of knowability; and such exteriority, if respected, guarantees self-interrogation. Progressive social films self-interrogate in order to elevate themselves to the status of the listening eye; and these self-interrogations very much take as a point of departure the interrogation of the altericidal visions of the social films tradition that are complicit in the foreclosure of the community-yet-to-come. In this sense, progressive social films take part in a broader countercultural practice that is radically aimed at providing the conditions for the possibility of what Derrida enigmatically describes as ‘[being] unprepared, or being prepared to be unprepared, for the unexpected arrival of any other’. (65)
My grateful thanks to Jane Stadler for the encouragement and for her exceptionally generous, invaluable advice on the drafts of this article.
This article has been peer reviewed.
- Some of the films by Iranian well-known directors, including Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, Rakhshan Bani Etemad, Dariush Mehrjuyi, and Abbas Kiarostami.
- Realist feature films by various directors, including, but not limited to, Tahmineh Milani, Rasoul Sadre-ameli, Sirous Alvand, Alireza Davoudnejad, Pouran Derakhshandeh, Behrouz Afkhami, Iraj Ghaderi, Bahman Farmanara, Masoud Kimiai, Ahmadreza Darvish, Ebrahim Hatamikia, Rasoul Mollagholipour, Saman Moghaddam, Maziar Miri, Kamal Tabrizi and others.
- Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad, The Politics of Iranian Cinema: Films and Society in the Islamic Republic, London: Routledge, 2010, p.3.
- Ibid., pp. 55-56.
- Unexamined benevolence is the danger and the intellectuals should call for constant self-vigilance. For detailed discussions of the ethico-political implications (and dangers) of intellectual benevolence see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Words: Essays in Cultural Politics, London: Routledge, 1988; and Sangeeta Ray, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Words, Wiley and Blackwell, 2009.
- Namaye-nazdik (Close-up, 1990), directed by Abbas Kiarostami.
- Talaye Sorkh (Crimson Gold, 2003), directed by Jafar Panahi and written by Abbas Kiarostami.
- Joanna Zylinska, The Ethics of Cultural Studies, London: Continuum, 2005, pp. 58-9.
- ‘[T]he problem with conceiving of logos in terms of speech and speaking is not only that it ignores the importance of listening but also that it obscures how listening makes the ethical response possible’ (See Lisbeth Lipari, ‘’Rhetoric’s Other: Levinas, Listening, and the Ethical Response’’, in Philosophy & Rhetoric, Vol. 45, No. 3, Penn State University Press, 2012, pp. 227-245; and also Gemma Corradi Fiumara, The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening, translated by Charles Lambert, London: Routledge, 1990). Furthermore, listening is also important here in the sense that it aims to capture the narrative quality of ethical attention, not just to another person, but to their story and to details beyond what the eye might be capable of grasping from appearances alone. See Jane Stadler, Pulling Focus: Intersubjective Experience, Narrative Film, and Ethics, New York and London: Continuum, 2008.
- See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, London/New York: Verso, London, and Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, London and New York: Verso, 2009.
- According to Habermas, the ‘public sphere’ in is an idealized space that encompasses institutions such as the media that facilitate the public interaction of and rational debate between citizens, and it also refers to the shared social circumstances and experiences of people’s lives (See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989). Also, as Eric O. Clarke points out, the public sphere might ideally encompass all citizens, but in reality it excluded underprivileged people such as women and people who did not own property, or people who were considered property (See Eric O. Clarke, Virtuous Vice: Homoeroticism and the Public Sphere, Duke University Press, 2000).
- See Noëlle McAfee, “Bearing Witness in the Polis: Kristeva, Arendt, and the Space of Appearance,” in Revolt, Affect, Collectivity: The Unstable Boundaries of Kristeva’s Polis, edited by Tina Chanter and Ewa Plonowska Ziarek, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005, pp. 113-126.
- Based on a similar question, Kelly Oliver foregrounds the notion of ‘bearing witness’ as a performance in which those who have been oppressed and thus denied subjectivity find the chance of recreating their subjectivity through their public testimonies that bear witness to their oppression and humility (see Oliver, Kelly, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001). Subsequently, it seems reasonable to ask a further question concerning the fact that present communities –especially those which are still asymmetrically structured on the basis of class, racial, gender and sexual discriminations– do not allow for the freedom of ‘public’ testimonies of the oppressed groups and minorities. Furthermore, Nancy Fraser uses the concept of subaltern counterpublics to discuss ‘parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs’. See Fraser, Nancy. Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press, 1992, p. 123.
- Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, p. xvii.
- Ibid., p. 151.
- Drawing upon Levinas’ philosophy, Butler asserts that ‘it is possible to see how dominant forms of representation can and must be disrupted for something about the precariousness of life to be apprehended’. Butler situates representation and its ethical implications within a broader social realm, by stressing the implications of the aforementioned disruptions for ‘the boundaries that constitute what will and will not appear within public life’, and for ‘the limits of a publicly acknowledged field of appearance’. See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, p. xi.
- Ibid., p. 144.
- In addition, it is my contention here that we should critically engage with the so-called prohibition on figurality and representation that is based on an absolute account of alterity (see Lisa Downing, ‘’Re-viewing Sexual Relation: Levinas and Cinema,’’ in Film-Philosophy 11.2, August 2007).
- The human ‘is not identified with what is represented but neither is it identified with the unrepresentable; it is, rather, that which limits the success of any representational practice’. On the contrary, however, something altogether different happens ’when the face operates in the service of a personification that claims to “capture” the human being in question. For Levinas, the human cannot be captured through the representation, and we can see that some loss of the human takes place when it is “captured” by the image’. See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, pp. 144-5.
- According to Butler, ‘if violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated’ (See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, p. 43). Furthermore, Butler considers this realization and de-realization as an ontological matter; since the vocalization of the precariousness of the life of the other is deeply engaged with the ontological question concerning what human is and what counts as a livable life.
- Inspired by Arendt’s conception of ‘comprehension’, Joanna Zylinska advocates the same argument by provoking us to speak of the unspeakable, without any illusion of turning the unspeakable to something simply intelligible (see Joanna Zylinska, The Ethics of Cultural Studies, p. 106). This struggle to stay open to the shock of experience, to sustain that shock instead of rapidly turning it into a meaningful and well-formed experience, is closely related to the contemporary non-religious understandings of ‘the sublime’ as that which marks the limits of reason and expression (and, of course, the limits of representational thought) (see Philip Shaw, The Sublime, The New Critical Idiom, London: Routledge, 2006).
- In this respect, the narration of the subalterns’ life stories and experiences in Iranian social films, I believe, should be understood as an invitation to a ‘ceaseless labor of remembrance’, a labor that teaches us ‘how to live in memory of both the dead and all those whose living human presence continues to be disavowed by the present world order’. See Sam Durrant, Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004, p. 1-2.
- Sam Durrant, Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning, p. 12. In other words, any society or community claiming to embody the idea of the just is ‘immediately unjust, for it precludes the possibility of dissent’. Thus, for politics to be just, it must ‘strive to affirm the idea of the just as ‘unpresentable’’, and this would involve a ‘commitment to justice as that which remains always to be determined’ (see Philip Shaw, The Sublime, p. 126). In this sense, the importance of the question of alterity is primarily due to the arguments concerning the conditions for the possibility of imagining a just community of future, of dreaming of a ‘community that would not be dependent on the affirmation of identity or sameness’; since bearing witness to the past histories and the present realities of oppression is involved with a recognition of our infinite difference, a recognition that is far removed from any desire for closure. This is a community the redrawing boundaries of which must remain ‘incomplete’ and ‘unsuccessful’, since the success of a just community-yet-to-come is measured precisely by its ‘failure to complete itself, its capacity to remain perpetually open to the difference of the other, to the possibility of different others and not yet imagined modes of being’ (see Sam Durrant, Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning, p. 111).
- Sam Durrant, Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning, pp. 13-14.
- The ethics of the listening eye, in which ‘the extreme exposure and sensitivity of one subjectivity to another’ is not superseded by one subject’s totalizing theorization, is indeed a call for permanent vigilance. See Joanna Zylinska, The Ethics of Cultural Studies, pp. 58-9.
- See Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘’Acinema,’’ in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Reader, edited by Philip Rosen, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
- Yvonne Sherratt, Continental Philosophy of Social Science: Hermeneutics, Genealogy, Critical Theory, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 212.
- Simon Malpas, Jean-Francois Lyotard, London: Routledge, 2003, p. 44. For further discussion see Jean-Francois Lyotard, Postmodern Fables, trans. Georges Van Den Abeele, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997; and Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence 1982-1985, trans. Don Barry, Bernadette Maher, Julian Pefanis, Virginia Spate and Morgan Thomas, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992, pp. 5-6.
- For detailed discussions of the narrative and stylistic aspects of classical mode of narration see David Bordwell, Narration in Fiction Film, The Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
- For discussions of narrative closure in films see Noel Carroll, ‘’Narrative Closure,’’ in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film, Routledge, 2009, pp. 207-216. However, as I will argue through my case-studies, I will take closure in a broader sense that is not limited to Carroll’s focus on unified narratives. That is, I will understand closure as closely intertwined with other concepts like excess, totality, economy, and melancholia, taking into account the altericidal as well as ethical implications of this term (see Colin Davis, Critical Excess: Overreading in Derrida, Deleuze, Levinas, Zizek and Cavell, Stanford University Press, 2010).
- David Bordwell states that ‘although a narration has a particular range of knowledge available, the narration may or may not communicate all that information’ and that the ‘degree of communicativeness can be judged by considering how willingly the narration shares the information to which its degree of knowledge entitles it’. Of course, he deservedly foregrounds the issue of communicativeness; however, his approach is general and he does not pursue the implications of his conception of communicativeness far enough. See David Bordwell, Narration in Fiction Film, p. 59.
- Yvonne Sherratt, Continental Philosophy of Social Science, pp. 211-16.
- See Tim Beasley-Murray, Mikhail Bakhtin and Walter Benjamin: Experience and Form, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007, especially pp. 115-116.
- I have deliberately used ‘regime’ (that is, the Islamic Republic) instead of ‘state’ since, given the complex power dynamics in Iran and the presence of different forms of restriction, censorship and financial support, the regime’s promotion of films is not necessarily equal to the state’s promotion; especially in the reformist period (1997-2005) in which social films found a relatively better atmosphere for engaging with controversial issues despite the overall dissatisfaction of the regime. For more details about censorship, its consequences for the content and style of Iranian films and its various manifestations (including the so-called ‘self-censorship’) see Richard Tapper, The New Iranian Cinema – Politics, Representation and Identity, London and New York: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2002. Furthermore, In terms of my case-studies, it can be argued that the dominant ideology and its apparatuses have always already appropriated Hossein Sabzian (Close-up) and Hossein (Crimson Gold) under the label of ‘’mostazafan’’ (dispossessed, disinherited, subaltern) in order to stress the necessity of attention to their poor living conditions. In practice, however, such ideological appropriations have historically resulted in a deeper silence and invisibility. See Ervand Abrahamian, Essays on the Islamic Republic, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
- That is, returning to Lyotard’s conception of realism, cinema can be instrumentalized for perpetuating the established ‘narratives about the world’ in order to reproduce the status quo.
- Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad argues that social films have become controversial for ‘going against the hegemonic/repressive order’; a controversy that has attracted censorship as well as public attention. Furthermore, ‘awareness of film censorship makes Iranians extra-vigilant towards political ‘messages’ in ‘social films’’. And it is due to the fact that the controversies around films ‘have predisposed audiences to consider them ‘political’ and hence they try to discern the oppositional aspect(s) of the films’. In addition, the audiences sometimes ‘try to ‘edit the films’ for themselves rejecting some parts of the films’. Indeed, these controversies, discussions and negotiations ‘highlight cinema’s role as a significant social practice beyond simply a form of entertainment’, and thus conditioning the expectations of the audiences. See Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad, The Politics of Iranian Cinema: Films and Society in the Islamic Republic, pp.10-12.
- See Kristin Thompson, ‘’The Concept of Cinematic Excess,’’ in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen Eds. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, sixth edition, New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. pp. 513-24; also see Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor, Princeton University Press, 1988.
- For a more detailed discussion of totality and representability in cinema, see Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘’Acinema’’. For discussions of the critical potentials of excess (albeit focused on (over)reading), see Colin Davis, Critical Excess, 2010.
- See Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor.
- According to Thompson, filmic excess arises from the conflict between the materiality of a film and the unifying structures within it; that is, excess overflows narrative functions (such as causality and motivation). Cinematic excess, in this sense, stresses and highlights stylistic devices to an unusual degree, calling attention to the materiality of the film beyond the unifying narrative structures. See Kristin Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” p. 514. Also see Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Several Eisenstein Stills”, in The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, translated by Richard Howard, Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.
- Any sort of respect for the alterity of the other is intertwined with alternative modes of thought which pave the way for acknowledging that alterity without reducing it to pre-defined identities that are easily-communicable. For detailed discussions of the irreducibility of alterity to any form of thematisation see Shane Weller, Beckett, Literature and the Ethics of Alterity, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006, pp. 1-30.
- Reflexivity was ‘first borrowed from philosophy and psychology, where it originally referred to the mind’s capacity to be both subject and object to itself within the cognitive process, but was extended metaphorically to the arts to evoke the capacity for self-reflexion of any medium or language’. In the broadest sense, artistic reflexivity refers to ‘the process by which texts foreground their own production, their authorship, their intertextual influences, their textual processes, or their reception’. See Robert Stam; Robert Burgoyne; Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond, London and New York: Routledge, 1992, pp. 202-7. Traditionally, reflexivity has been addressed through political terms (‘politics of reflexivity’), and its ethical implications have been largely neglected. However, it is my contention in this article that, due to its focus on the asymmetrical power relations between the so-called subjects and objects of representation and narration, artistic reflexivity needs be addressed through its intersection with the question of alterity as well. Furthermore, defamiliarization has often been considered as a mere artistic device associated with formalistic practices, neglecting its probable ethical implications.
- See Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘’Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?’’, in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.
- The beautiful occurs ‘when one comes in contact with an object (whether it is a painting or poem, or a seascape or starry sky). Beauty is a feeling of harmony between oneself and that object: it appears perfectly shaped for one’s perception and generates a sense of well-being’. See Simon Malpas, Jean-Francois Lyotard, p. 46.
- According to Robert Sinnerbrink, if cinema is supposed to achieve a critical status, it has to move beyond its conventionality associated with classical realism: the cinema ‘have to suspend life – action and movement – in order to think and articulate it; but cinema’s own life – conventional Hollywood narrative, if you will – has to be interrupted, suspended, if cinema is to become philosophical, even political’. See Robert Sinnerbrink, ‘’Re-enfranchising Film: Towards a Romantic Film-Philosophy’’, in New Takes in Film-Philosophy, edited by Havi Carel and Greg Tuck, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp. 25-47, p. 28.
- In order to enable ‘opportunity and genuine non-hierarchical difference and allowance for otherness – in other words, transformed futures’, and thus in order to imagine ‘hopeful possibilities’, we should understand ‘[c]inema’s own materiality’ in a reflexive manner as ‘a crucial ‘ground’ for such an event and engagement’. See Hamish Ford, ‘’Broken Glass by the Road: Adorno and a Cinema of Negativity’’, in New Takes in Film-Philosophy, pp. 65-85.
- Sabzian is equally impotent when it comes to ordinary and everyday language; he definitely needs Kiarostami to ask him certain questions in order for him to provide the audience with some certain, relevant answers. Those questions that Kiarostami poses for Sabzian in order to provoke him are indeed rooted in asymmetrical power relations, and thus are always already fueled with the risks of domination and subordination. It is in this sense that Kiarostami acknowledges the role of the medium, and more significantly, the role of the asymmetrical power relations between the so-called subjects and objects of representation that are already from the very beginning.
- ‘If works of art are to survive in the context of extremity and darkness, which is social reality, and if they are to avoid being sold as mere comfort, they have to assimilate themselves to that reality. … Much of contemporary art is irrelevant because it does not take note of this fact, continuing instead to take a childish delight in bright colours’. See Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, translated by C. Leonhard, G. Adorno, and R. Tiedemann, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983, p. 58.
- According to Rick Altman, ‘the excesses in the classical narrative system’ alert us to ‘the existence of a competing logic, a second voice’ (See Rick Altman, “Dickens, Griffith, and Film Theory Today,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 1988, p. 345-6).
- That is, the aforementioned Farazmand’s narrative (published in Soroush magazine), the Ahankhah legal case against Sabzian, and also, in a sense, all the hasty judgments that are aimed at simply categorizing him as a criminal.
- That is, a cinematic style that aims to bridge the distinctions between narrative film and documentary by using real people to re-enact their own life stories. For further details see Cousins, Mark “Paradocumentary in Iran,” in Mark Cousins and Kevin Macdonald, Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary, London: Faber and Faber, 2006, pp. 412–415.
- In fact, the reconstructed scenes of this film, which are more or less in conformity with classical codes and conventions of storytelling, contests naïve and ideological notions of realism in a more radical fashion. In themselves, they apparently conduct classical conventions and trajectories; but if viewed through their interactions with documentary-style scenes, they are in fact undermining what they seem to perform at an explicit level. In this sense, their classical stylistic construction is nevertheless demystifying their apparent realist illusion. We already know that the film is mainly structured around Kiarostami’s efforts in narrating what has happened, and thus we already know that these reconstructed scenes are just in favour of completing the plot. As a result, the reconstructed scenes are viewed as artificial as well as fabricated. In this sense, Kiarostami exploits classical conventions in order to literalize them at the surface and thus demystify them, rather than simply accepting them as means to a realist portray; an acceptance that would be illusionistic nonetheless.
- Furthermore, Close-up effectively reinforces the privileged status of Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf as those who have the luxury to represent and narrate the subaltern others. In this sense, these two well-known directors are not only implicitly celebrating their privileges, but are nevertheless celebrating the community that has provided them with such a privileged status.
- Of course, it may be argued that Kiarostami is being ‘realistic’: Sabzian is eventually re-integrated back into the community if his aim is some kind of recognition after all. But the point is that such a realistic position does not ask Kiarostami, accompanied by Makhmalbaf, to celebrate this inevitable but nevertheless tragic re-integration passionately.
- ‘[T]here can be no celebration without an implicit understanding that the life is grievable, that it would be grieved if it were lost, and that this future anterior is installed as the condition of its life… “[T]his will be a life that will have been lived” is the presupposition of a grievable life, which means that this will be a life that can be regarded as a life, and be sustained by that regard. Without grievability, there is no life, or, rather, there is something living that is other than life. Instead, “there is a life that will never have been lived,” sustained by no regard, no testimony, and ungrieved when lost’. See Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, pp. 14-15.
- Levinas’ distinction between ‘the said’ and ‘the saying’ is indicative of a somehow similar point: the said is communicative, but the saying, as something that provides the conditions for the possibility of the said, is not exactly achievable through the said; however the failure of the said in achieving the saying, or as Butler puts it, the failure of representation in conveying the unrepresentable, is understood to be an ethical imperative. See Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998 .
- In Thompson’s terms: ‘excess does not equal style, but the two are closely linked because they both involve the material aspects of the film’. See Kristin Thompson, ‘’The Concept of the Cinematic Excess,’’ p. 515.
- As Angela Stukator remarks: ‘filmmaker may work against the logic of identity is by avoiding dialogue altogether: While the questions are raised primarily through stylistic and formal strategies, it is crucial to note that they may also emerge in elements such as gestures, silences, or pauses. These elements constitute a challenge to the representational norm inasmuch as they have remained unrepresented within the legitimized and available circuit of images and sounds’ (p. 123). (see Angela Stukator. ‘’Critical Categories and the (Il)logic of Identity,’’ Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Vol. 2 Issue 2/3, 1993: pp. 117-128).
- For detailed discussions of the ethical significance of bestowing recognition to the other despite its fundamental unknowability see Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, New York: Fordham University Press, 2005; and for case-studies in the area of film studies informed by this approach to recognition see Kate Rennebohm, ‘’Approaching the Other as Other: A Study of the Ethical Nature of Chantal Akerman’s Films’’, Thesis, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 2011.
- Lisa Downing, “Testing Positive: Gender, sexuality, representation,” in Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters, Routledge, 2010, pp. 36-49, p. 37. While Downing is discussing positive images of homosexuals and people with HIV, her point applies to other minorities or stigmatized groups as well.
- It is in this sense that poststructural/postcolonial ethics finds the positive-negative paradigms deeply problematic, since ‘they rest on the ethnocentric assumption that all cultures judge the good and the bad by the same universal criteria’. See Libby Saxton, “The South Looks Back: Ethics, race, postcolonialism,’’ in Film and Ethics, pp. 50-61.
- Lisa Downing, “Testing Positive: Gender, sexuality, representation”.
- In a sense, the just community of future resonates with ‘the saying’, rather than with ‘the said’, and with ‘significance’, rather than with ‘signification’. See Davis, Colin, Levinas: An Introduction, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.
- “Hospitality, Justice and Responsibility: A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” in Questioning Ethics: The Cotemporary Debates in Philosophy, edited by Richard Kearney and Mark Dooley, London and New York: Routledge, 1999, p. 70.