Negar Mottahedeh’s Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema comes as a unique and worthy addition to the growing English-language scholarship on post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema. To date, this scholarship has produced several volumes on the social and political history of Iranian cinema as well as a few auteur studies, albeit limited to the work of only two prominent directors: Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1). Indeed, to a certain extent, Mottahedeh’s book continues the auteurist impulse by structuring each of the book’s three chapters around analyses of films by Bahram Bayza’i, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf respectively. But the strength of the work lies not so much in the auteurist approach such a structure implies, than in the way that Mottahedeh brings her analysis of Iranian cinema into direct and productive contact with established theories of film. I shall discuss this theoretical engagement in more detail shortly, but first, I believe it is worthwhile to outline how and why Mottahedeh’s approach should strike the reader as so unique in the field of Iranian cinema studies.
While scholarly writing on post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema is rather voluminous, much of this has emerged from within the fields of anthropology and sociology, rather than from within the discipline of film studies more specifically. I do not wish to diminish the particularly illuminating writing on Iranian cinema by important Iranologists (2), but rather to signal the apparently belated consideration within film studies of a national cinema that has been critically hailed as one of the most important and innovative “new” cinemas of the latter quarter of the 20th century. With the exception of a handful of book chapters and journal articles (many of them Mottahedeh’s own), which deliberately seek to theorise the cinematic processes of Iranian films (3), the major thrust of this work has been to situate films and filmmakers within the post-Revolutionary social, political and religious context and to explain how the parameters of State censorship limit the capacity of Iranian cinema to represent the “real” Iran. The most commonly cited example of this lack of realism is the prescription that women remain veiled, even in private situations where they would not be veiled in “real life”. Despite this emphasis on the ostensible lack of representational “realism”, however, it is generally beyond the scope of the disciplines within which these scholars work to engage with the long-standing debates within film studies around the questions of realism and the ontological status of the cinematic image, or with the numerous film theories that might illuminate the cinematic processes by which such films make meaning as films, rather than merely considering them as “failed” referents of an always already unrepresentable “reality”.
Refreshingly, while Mottahedeh’s book does takes up censorship and the question of realism as central issues, she moves far beyond these theoretically hollow and cinematically naive critiques of the difficulties of representational authenticity manifested in the necessity of women’s veiling. Indeed, following a critique of the fetishistic, touristic reception of Iranian cinema by western critics and festival audiences, she urges her reader to “abandon the comparative practices that read films ethnographically” (p. 149), particularly where representations of gender are concerned. Instead, Mottahedeh employs reading strategies that treat film as film, drawing upon both feminist film theory and semiotic theories of cinematic enunciation and deixis. In fact, she asserts that a close analysis of post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema will reveal that a new “filmic grammar” has emerged in Iranian cinema that disrupts and violates many of the narrative conventions of “dominant cinema”.
In the introductory chapter “Producing a National Cinema, a Woman’s Cinema,” Mottahedeh explains how and why the conditions for this “new filmic language” came into being in the post-Revolutionary period. Not only did the leader of the Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, consider cinema an important avenue through which the Islamic values of the Revolution could be taught; more importantly, through a revolution of cinematic form, these values could be powerfully felt by the national body. Cinema, which was seen by the Islamic regime as a product of the despotic west, had to be purified and Islamicised. Mottahedeh writes:
In an effort to produce a national cinema against the voyeuristic gaze of dominant cinema, the post-Revolutionary film industry was charged with reeducating the national sensorium and inscribing a new national subject-spectator severed from dominant cinema’s formal systems of looking (p. 2).
Mottahedeh argues that through a combination of the veiling requirement imposed on all on-screen women and the prohibition of the direct and desiring gaze (of both the characters and the camera), the scopophilic and voyeuristic impulses of dominant cinema are necessarily subverted. Drawing upon Laura Mulvey’s work on both the cinematic gaze and Iranian cinema, Mottahedeh asserts that post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema may be seen as “the apotheosis of 1970s feminist gaze theory” (p. 2). While I find such a grand statement to be somewhat problematic, I think that the important point Mottahedeh makes here is to show that censorship does not merely function as a means of restriction and limitation, but significantly works as a means of resistance to the domination of Western forms of media and systems of representation. It is this resistance that has enabled the development of this “new” cinematic grammar, which is substantively (although, I would argue, not radically) different from “dominant cinema” with its “standard language […] that by virtue of the dominance of American cinema around the world is embedded in the global sensorium” (p. 35). It is, argues Mottahedeh, moments where “conventional” film language is “ruptured”, “violated” or “interrupted” that the unconventional cinematic processes themselves emerge as “displaced allegories” of the national context in which the films are produced.
Throughout Displaced Allegories, Mottahedeh argues that one of the most important characteristics of this new filmic language is its focus on the technological processes of filmmaking itself – film’s formal properties – which are brought to the surface, and at times made visible, in the director’s negotiation of censorship regulations. Drawing upon Christian Metz’s theorisation of filmic enunciation, Mottahedeh refers to the consciously constructed nature of filmic enunciation in post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema as necessarily “reflexive” (4). Mottahedeh shows that this reflexivity is not limited to moments where the filmic apparatus literally intrudes into the diegetic space of the film, as in, for example, Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (1994), the coda of The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997) or Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror (1997). Rather, such reflexivity is also achieved allegorically: for example, by the use of mirrors and framing devices in The Travellers (Bayza’i, 1992), through the rupturing of narrative continuity which foregrounds the camera as the site of the film’s enunciation in Bashu: The Little Stranger (Bayza’i, 1989) and even via the use of colour and rug weaving in Gabbeh (Makhmalbaf, 1996), which serves as an allegory of the processes of filmic construction. Throughout the book, these examples and many others are illuminated in elegantly detailed and often multi-layered analyses of sequences from specific films. By foregrounding this process of reflexive enunciation, Mottahedeh argues that “[e]nunciation bridges [the] gap between the industrial location of production and the film’s narrative statement.” (p. 47) In other words, the films are as much about their industrial and national contexts of production as they are about the particular stories they tell. It is in this sense that they function as “displaced allegories”.
This brings me to a minor quibble I have with the book. In as much as Mottahedeh’s reading of the films as displaced allegories of the industrial, technological and ideological apparatus of post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema is valid and convincingly argued, I was somewhat disappointed that she did not seek to theorise the concept of allegory in an Iranian context in more detail. This is surprising, considering the fact that she draws heavily on the work of Walter Benjamin – one of the first 20th-century thinkers to theorise allegory and to redeem it from its denigration by the Romantics (5). In particular, she draws on Benjamin’s concept of the “optical unconscious” and cinema’s capacity to re-tool and politicise the senses. She writes:
It is precisely for these reasons that cinema can be seen as a valuable tool in Khomeini’s political and utopian project of regenerating the national body: a project that corresponds to the “politicization of aesthetics” (p. 29).
Given the tendency for allegory to emerge at times of social and political upheaval (6), it would have been useful to connect this idea of a politicised aesthetics to the project of allegory as a mode of political resistance more generally. Additionally, her discussion of temporality in Bayza’i’s films owes much to a Benjaminian understanding of the allegorical temporality of ta’ziyeh (Iran’s traditional form of religious theatre frequently compared to the Christian Passion Play), in which “the present must be understood meaningfully, in urgent conjunction with the past” (p. 58) (7), and could have benefited from a more detailed unpacking of the concept of allegory and how and why it produces this kind of temporality. That said, in Chapter One, Mottahedeh conducts an exquisitely detailed analysis of Bayza’i’s complex allegorical film The Travellers, a film that draws heavily upon the allegorical tradition of the ta’ziyeh.
Displaced Allegories addresses itself primarily to a reader literate in semiotic and feminist film theory. While Mottahedeh is careful to define and clarify her key analytical terms, such as deixis, enunciation and voyeurism, at times a reader not versed in such film-theoretical concepts may find the text somewhat challenging (8). It may also have been useful for Mottahedeh to situate her own work in the ongoing debates on semiological film theory, if only to justify her use of a heavily language-based understanding of cine-semiotics and an emphasis on deixis, while apparently also relying heavily upon Metz’s later work on filmic enunciation in “The Impersonal Enunciation, or the Site of Film,” where he repeatedly rejects deixis as a useful concept for the analysis of film (9). Throughout the book, she appears to float indiscriminately between what may be described as “first” or “structural semiology” and “second” or “psycho-semiology” influenced by post-structuralism. While I do not think this detracts from the fine film analysis that Mottahedeh undertakes throughout the book, it does prevent it from making a more powerful intervention into understanding the ongoing importance of various forms of cine-semiology to contemporary film theory more generally. This is not intended as a major criticism of the book nor of Mottahedeh’s chosen theoretical frameworks, but rather I wish merely to highlight one of the possible roads not taken. I do, however, wish to praise this book and highly commend Mottahedeh for taking the road she did, one of the many roads where Iranian cinema and established theories of film may intersect and make rich and productive contact. Displaced Allegories makes a vital, original and important intervention into the theorisation of post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema.
Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema, by Negar Mottahedeh, Duke University Press, Durham, 2009.
- See, for example, Hamid Dabashi, Close-Up Iranian Cinema Past, Present and Future, Verso, London, 2001; Hamid Reza Sadr, Iranian Cinema: A Political History, I.B. Tauris, London, 2006; Shahla Myrbakhtyar, Iranian Cinema and the Islamic Revolution, McFarland and Company, Jefferson, 2006; Dabashi, Makhmalbaf at Large: The Making of a Rebel Filmmaker, I.B. Tauris, London, 2008; Eric Egan, Films of Makhmalbaf: Cinema, Politics and Culture in Iran, Mage Publishers, Washington, 2005; Alberto Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Saqi Books, London, 2005; Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Abbas Kiarostami, University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 2003.
- See, for example, Nasrin Rahimieh, “Framing Iran: A Contrapuntal Reading of Two Cinematic Representations of Post-Revolutionary Iran”, Edebiyat, no.9, 1998, pp. 249-275; Rahimieh, “Marking Gender and Difference in the Myth of a Nation: Bashu, a Post-Revolutionary Iranian Film”, Thamyris, vol. 3, no. 2, 1996, pp. 261-277; Roxanne Varzi, “A Ghost in the Machine: The Cinema of the Iranian Sacred Defence” in Richard Tapper (ed.), The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2002; Michael M.J. Fischer, Mute Dreams, Blind Owls, and Dispersed Knowledges: Persian Poesis in the Transnational Circuitry, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2004.
- See, for example, Mottahedeh, “New Iranian Cinema” in Linda Badley, R. Barton Palmer, Steven Jay Schneider (eds), Traditions in World Cinema, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2006; Mottahedeh, “‘Life Is Color!’ Toward a Transnational Feminist Analysis of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh”, Signs, no. 30, 2004, pp. 1403-1428; Mottahedeh, “Bahram Bayzai’s Maybe … Some Other Time: The Un-Present-Able Iran”, Camera Obscura 43, vol. 15, no. 1, 2000, pp. 163–191; Shohini Chaudhuri and Howard Finn, “The open image: poetic realism and the New Iranian Cinema” in Catherine Grant and Annette Kuhn (eds), Screening World Cinema, Routledge, London and New York, 2006, pp. 163-181; Lindsey Moore, “Women in a Widening Frame: (Cross-)Cultural Projection, Spectatorship, and Iranian Cinema”, Camera Obscura 59, vol. 20, no. 2, 2005, pp. 1-33; Hamid Naficy, “Veiled vision/powerful presences: women in post-revolutionary Iranian cinema” in R. Issa and S. Whitaker (eds), Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema, National Film Theatre, London, 1999.
- In part, this is also filtered through John Mowitt’s application of semiotic film theory in his book Re-takes: Postcoloniality and Foreign Film Languages, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2005.
- Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne, Verso, London and New York, 1985.
- Both Ismail Xavier and myself have argued this point. See Ismail Xavier, “Historical Allegory” in Toby Miller and Robert Stam (eds), A Companion to Film Theory, Blackwell, Malden, 1999, pp. 333-334; Michelle Langford, Allegorical Images: Tableau, Time and Gesture in the Cinema of Werner Schroeter, Intellect Press, Bristol, 2006, p. 72; Langford, “Allegory and the aesthetics of ‘becoming-woman’ in Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman”, Camera Obscura 63, vol. 22, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1-41, p. 3.
- Mottahedeh has treated the temporality of the ta’ziyeh in detail in “Scheduled For Judgment Day: The Ta’ziyeh Performance in Qajar Persia and Walter Benjamin’s Dramatic Vision of History”, Theatre InSight, vol. 8, no. 1, 1997, pp. 12-20, and in her recent book Representing the Unpresentable: Images of Reform from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 2008.
- If this is the case, I would recommend Warren Buckland’s edited volume, The Film Spectator: From Sign to Mind, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 1995, as useful background reading.
- Metz’s article appears in Buckland’s The Film Spectator.