Thursday, September 4, 2014

What I’m Learning from Iranian Cinema

The following is from a zine I'm working on with my friend Steve Elkins called "An Introduction to Iranian Cinema" based on a month of films we screened this summer at Hibbleton Gallery.  The zine will be released this Friday (9/5/14) at BOOKMACHINE books + zines (inside the Magoski Arts Colony) during the Downtown Fullerton Art Walk.

Epilogue (or What I'm Learning From Iranian Cinema)

In the world after 9/11, perceptions of Middle Eastern countries have not been particularly positive in the USA.  Places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran have, in the popular American mind, an aura of menace about them.  These places, we are meant to believe, are hostile, fundamentalist, anti-American breeding grounds of terrorists.  Indeed, not long ago, president George W. Bush listed Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, on his infamous “Axis of Evil.”  As Americans, we are supposed to be afraid of places like Iran, and suspicious of Iranians.

For the past month at Hibbleton Gallery, we have been screening films made by directors from Iran, one of our supposed “enemies.”  These films have presented me with a very different picture than the popular American stereotypes.  They present a portrait of a country, not filled with abstract menace, but filled with human beings with loves, families and sensibilities that are anything but “foreign” or “scary.”  In the sensitive, artistic films of Moshen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami, and Bahman Ghobadi, I’ve actually found kindred spirits who share some of the same concerns and sensibilities I do—a passion for social justice, an awareness of the beauty of ordinary life, an outrage at oppression and war.  Ironically, I’ve found myself connecting more deeply and meaningfully with these Iranian films than I typically do with American films—which are so full of special effects and phony depictions of life.  By contrast, the films of Iran, often with a tiny budget, manage to capture the essence of human life with more truthfulness and grace than any Hollywood blockbuster.

My new friend Farshid, who learned about our film series from a Persian American web site, has proved to be an invaluable resource for helping me understand Persian culture, and what things are like in Iran today.  Farshid once told me that there is a vast gulf between the ideology of the Iranian government and the ideology of most ordinary Iranians.  Farshid is not a fanatical religious zealot.  He’s actually an atheist, with a deep love for his culture, mixed with deep sadness over the restrictions imposed by his government.  Even as an American, I could relate to Farshid’s concerns.  I love people. But I’m often deeply suspicious of my own country’s policies.

What I’m learning from Iranian cinema is that art is one of the best ways to transcend political, national, or ideological barriers.  Through film, just like poetry or music or painting, we can step for a moment into the shoes of the supposed “other” and see that we are not so very different after all—that what we thought divided us was actually artificial and phony.  I’m reminded of a quote from Moshen Makhmalbaf’s beautiful film Kandahar, The Sun Behind the Moon: “If the walls are high, the sky is higher still.”  Our shared love of beauty, of art, of human expression can let us rise above even the most daunting of walls, and peek over at each other, and shake hands, and say, “Salaam.”  (Persian for “hello” and “peace”)

Still frame from Moshen Makhmalbaf's latest film "The Gardener" (2014)

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