“I am With You,” Sassan Bakhtiar, 2013, Source: Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar

Taking the Politics out of Iranian Cinema

by Marisa Sittheeamorn, Mehdi Pilehvarian

“Let’s not forget that art is supposed to be some kind of universal language to overcome the barriers that separate us” – Mani Haghighi

Iran is one of the most propagandized countries in existence. Through news and the media, Iran is portrayed as a dangerous and war-torn conflict zone, nuclear-bearing, uncivilized and ravaged by violence, crime, and poverty. This damaging illusion elicits fear, anger, and sympathy from outsiders, simultaneously blaming and victimizing the country and its citizens, and further perpetuating the polarizing rhetoric that surrounds it.

The media’s mischaracterization of Iran could not be further from its current reality, and is ignorant to the complexity of each individual that makes up its population. Yes, the country endured a war that lasted over eight years. However, since its end in 1988, Iranians have worked hard to move on, pick up the pieces, and rebuild their society. Its people represent more than the decisions of those in power, and their true identities deserve to be known by the rest of us.

Source: “Corso Como from The Real Me, Edition of 4 & Edition of 7, Luster Photo Paper, 2014” by contemporary artist Sassan Bakhtiar, who is known as “a man on a mission to inform the world of the true nature of Iran.” His work commonly focuses on the reintroduction of Iranian culture, heritage to the world and challenges the negative stereotypes associated with Iran that are portrayed through the media.

Like everywhere else in the world, art is a popular medium through which Iranians have been able to express themselves. In addition to self-expression, art offers people a platform to connect with one another, transcending language and cultural barriers, and crossing physical borders. Poetry, literature, music, drawing, painting, sculpting, photography, and film are just a few of the channels that pave way for Iranians to directly connect with people outside their nation, avoiding falsifications made by the media middle-men.

Unfortunately, the reception of this art is sometimes consumed with existing preconceptions and political implications that surround the country. There is no denying that social environments inform artistic processes, however, art is not always a direct response to the relevant political times. Simplistic stories about family, love, or friendship suddenly become misappropriated as in-depth social commentaries, highlighting what western audiences interpret as sensationalized protests against governments and political leaders. According to film producer Elhum Shakerifar, the work of debut directors are simultaneously, “being reduced to this same narrative of political posturing, so dominant that it crushes all other understandings of Iran in its wake.”

Mani Haghighi on set, Source: The Up Coming

Alas, the reductionist approach of Iranian film to its political positioning is all too common. Questions from audience members at major festivals often center around issues of censorship and freedom of expression, affecting new and established filmmakers across all genres. During the 2018 press conference for his film Pig, at Berlinale, celebrated director Mani Haghighi addressed his frustration on this topic, stating, “I can’t tell you how extremely annoying it is to be asked political questions all the time.. We’ve made a piece of art. Good or bad. And we would like to discuss how we’ve done that, and what it means to you… Yes there’s censorship in Iran. Yes, it’s difficult to live with. And, yes, we’re dealing with it, in different ways, depending on the political climate. But there is so much more to discuss.”

Despite rising frustrations among Iranian filmmakers, it can sometimes be impossible to deny the role of the state in the creation of art. The reality of political influence, however, does not place it at the center of every story.

Bahman Mohasses in “Fifi Howls From Happiness” (2013), Source: The New York Times

One film that demonstrates this distinction is “Fifi Howls from Happiness” by Mitra Faranahi. The documentary follows director Farahani as she tracks down Bahman Mohasses, the ‘Persian Picasso,’ who has been living anonymously out of a hotel room in Rome. Shot shortly before his death, the film offers Mohasses an opportunity to craft his final biography and share his story in his own words and on his own terms. While censorship was to blame for the destruction and banishment of his art in Iran, politics is not the driver of his story. Faranahi acknowledges the role of politics in his story, but is careful not to let it consume the plot. Instead, “it is the purity of his passion” for endless art that motivates the film, and reveals isolation, dedication, and outrage.

Valuing art, be it through film, writing, poetry, painting, or performance, must be done in a way that honors the intentions of both the storyteller and the story. Watching an Iranian film should be consumed like any other film – for it’s story, for the characters, for the script – not for the political leaders of its country of origin. Instead of inappropriately politicizing a story, we must ingest and respect it for the beautiful, simplistic piece of art its creator intended it to be.

As an apolitical organization, FCC hopes to highlight the artistry of Farsi cinema and provide filmmakers with the network necessary to foster more authentic and original content. It is our hope, as we all continue to navigate a society that is wrought by escalating international tensions and prejudicial misconceptions, to make people remember the unifying power of film. Appreciating art for its universality might just be the way to feel a little more connected and at peace with our complicated existence.

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