by Anuj Malhotra
One can never be entirely certain but it is best to trust what one hears – even if one cannot always see. In Iran, as in India, one hears a lot of things, but this is true of societies where citizens are perpetually subject to certain cordons (mostly imposed from atop; some are self-wrought) within which their lives must continue to transpire. In circumstances like these – and within a reality that prioritises hearsay over information, spectacle over record, conspiracy over truth, one tends to hear a lot of things. As one leans outside of the giant, open windows in hotels in Iranian cities, one can hear the night as one can hear it in any other part of the world, as ceremonial impressions of a closure. In general, this is a low-din: a steady stream of ‘nothing in particular’; a television broadcast here, a door that opens to let someone in and then closes in on the rest of the world, a shop shutters down, a lone municipal worker walks down the street, but suddenly, and almost out of nowhere, a punctuation: headlights flare up, an engine revs up, a car rumbles in the distant, Iranian night.
Among other critical symptoms, existence under a repressive regime may be marked by a dissolution of clear boundaries between what comes to respectively constitute – in actual, physical space, but also in terms that are metaphysical or interior – the ‘private’ and the ‘public’, which is to say that there is, inevitably, a flattening of the regimented terrain into a single, coherent continuum; no sections, no segregations.
The seeming divisions between the two (doors, fences, walls; but in times more contemporary: usernames, passwords, captchas) will undergo a remarkable collapse, until one pours over into the other, the other into the first. In technocratic societies, this spillage may be marked (and acknowledged) through a matrix of perceptible devices that continuously monitor or survey: close-circuit cameras, biometric sensors, drone imagery, police paraphernalia, or user analytics, but in societies where the mode of repression maybe not merely ‘of the body’, but also ‘of the spirit’, the regime must – in order to retain its potency – manifest as an abstraction, absent and looming; absent, and therefore looming.
In a situation where the ‘private’ is relentlessly subsumed within the ‘public’, the individual becomes, in essence, the actor of a larger, national project (and this status is borne not out of plebiscite or personal choice – one reason why concerns of defection or espionage abound in autocratic regimes). A circumstance such as this can render the various components of an individual’s being – their body, their conscience, their possessions – site(s) for the aforementioned regime – hitherto abstract and limbic – to then manifest itself, with aggression, in emphasis.
In her contemplation of the manner in which the films of Jafar Panahi navigate the dense, urban labyrinth which they tend to billow through, Sarah Niazi laments, ‘…all spaces in Iran are public.’
The 2019 edition of the Khorshid Film Festival featured a roster of sixty-three short, independent and experimental films in total. Most of these were produced by students of major media colleges located in Tehran, or in certain, select cases, in the other, smaller centers around the country, and often began with a text-super that declared deference to a supreme authority; the regime itself (or God Himself). This aside, these titles, almost always produced with an unassuming dexterity, a technical sophistication that belies their status as college productions, seemed to mount in their collective expression a remarkable, reclamation project: that of the individual, from the institution that threatens to reduce them to its own module.
Hossein Eidizadeh states in his essay, ‘Memories of a Revolution: How Iranian Cinema was Shaped After the Islamic Revolution of 1979’ (photogenie #2)1 that, ‘For a few years after 1979, since there were no clear general rules or regulations, Iranian cinema experienced a phase of purgatory. […] only a few do’s and don’ts were announced.’ In general, and as other examples from the history of cinema have demonstrated (consider: the films produced in the Cuba of 1960s, the experimental shorts produced under the aegis of the Films Division in India around the same period, etc.), such an absence of definition can yield for enterprising filmmakers an opportunity to engineer a conscious subterfuge. This is to say, a manner in which to harness cinema’s inherent plasticity to produce films with a glorious façade: that simulate or resemble a certain form, but whose own, fundamental truth exists in its crevices.
One may perhaps view this moment – or indeed, the collection of films that comprise the roster at the festival – as an example. In this, the films exist almost within a parenthesis – within the crevice – and in this, may have bypassed the scrutiny of the ‘authorities’ or the ‘state’ which may have neglected to issue the prescription for the format of these films: student shorts, seemingly harmless.
Hamid Naficy reminisces ‘…we produced science kits, which the students would receive and take home and with which they could conduct a hundred and fifty experiments in their kitchens.’
A similar spirit of casual, but conscious experimentation seems to filter through these films. As such, these exist as a monument of accumulated lament – wherein their filmmakers register through the affectation of a set of motifs: chains, mannequins, loudspeakers, corpses, barb-wire fences, ammunition; locations: a forest, an asylum, a morgue, a graveyard, an abandoned house, the classroom, or events: of an argument, a feud, a murder, a suicide, a disappearance, a war – a topography of remarkable terror. In this, and interestingly, the titles seem to defer not to the canonical Iranian titles that came to establish Iran as one of the foremost producers of arthouse cinema in the 90s, but instead, enlist genre-iconographies (the action film, the war-thriller, the revenge-drama, but chiefly, the horror film) from mainstream Hollywood cinema or the American b-movies to register an undertow of grotesque, relentless despair.
Significantly, the state broadcaster in Iran includes a number of Hollywood films in its late-night programming. These telecasts are, however, debris-laden: the contextual or the expository sequences have all been removed; only the set pieces remain. The result registers as an odd, sutured object; entirely random, illogical and very exciting.
A little later in the night, across the street from the hotel, a black sedan comes to a halt in front of a house. This is not unusual still, because cars – well, cars are common on the streets of Iran. They strut around, unbound, unbridled, an expression of individual will in a country that professes a disallowance of it. But this night seems unusual, in general, and who’s to say what may happen. It is nearly three in the night, and apart from the migrant family (a father, his wife, their son) who are seated on the pavement, there is a promise that there will be no other witnesses to the spectacle that will follow. After a few minutes, the passenger door of the sedan opens and a lady emerges – she is dressed in a black mini, her head uncovered, hair tied in a bun. She backs up to a wall and conducts a seductive dance for – one may suppose – the driver of the car. This is a remarkable sight and who knew you could see this in Iran, of all the places. But our minds are often made up and what we think of as illusions are actually our biases in collision with our experience. Suddenly, she disappears. I bring the instance up with the hosts the next morning and they all laugh in unison. Then one of them turns to me and proclaims with great gravity, ‘That wasn’t real. You saw a hoor.’
Ahmadreza Mousavi’s Happy (2018) foregrounds and then intensifies this diffusion between ‘public’ and ‘private’ (which manifest within the film as exterior and interior spaces) through the employment of a single, unbroken shot that simulates the cartographic aspect present in most open-world, first-person shooter video games. In this, it traverses a diverse set of locations: a narrow alley, a bylane, a compound courtyard, a porch, the staircase, its landing, an open window, the room upstairs, and also, the room downstairs. The absence of an editorial cut imbues the film with a process of a continuous becoming – a beam that will curdle into a spectrum. This helps it attain therefore a sophistication rare in titles that mount a discourse on gender, but which may resort to a rhetorical or a verbal articulation of its chief nuances, and which Happy (whose title-card administers the word a false meaning; it reads, ‘Happy, adj: don’t touch me’) arrives at through an engagement of cinema’s resident tools: complex choreography, movement, the passage of time, and within it, necessary transformation.
Eidizadeh’s piece mentions, ‘The Islamic Revolution of Iran took place in 1979, and in the next decade, foundations of a new, ‘pure’ cinema were laid’…and includes, as one of the essential guidelines issued by the erstwhile Control Council in order for a film to secure public exhibition, ‘[the film should not feature] any female objectification against Islamic Rules…’ It is, after all, not difficult to conclude that one of the chief sites of expression of the regime’s doctrine in Iran has been the female body. The insistence upon the hejab or the chador as items of clothing that are necessary for any female above the age of nine to adopt is well-known – and so are the various gatherings that have spurted in different parts of the country to protest this imposition.
As the camera travels through different sections of the porous layout within which Happy transpires (and this, as a curious simulation of the subjective gaze that constitutes the iconic opening shot of John Carpenter’s slasher-classic, Halloween (1978) – one of the various allusions included in the eight-minute short), it intrudes into a second-floor bedroom, inside of which a figure – through cosmetic deception, a female – rests upon the bed. The hand (presumably, of the cameraperson – and therefore, our own) extends from behind the camera to awaken the individual, at which point it is revealed to be a male with a wig on. This transgression fills the film’s proceedings with rapid hysteria: the cameraperson, suddenly aware of their own voyeurism, rushes down the staircase in order to escape the house, but not before they spot, through the open window on the landing, an intruder enter the compound, much like they themselves did a minute ago, a character in an eternal loop (here, because of this, and the open window that looks into the compound below, Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) undergoes a resurrection). Later in the film, as the cameraperson gathers courage to enter the house anew, they spot the individual from before, inside the bathroom, donning the wig – in this, the film establishes ‘identity’ too as a notion in a state of continuous, relentless flux; malleable, mysterious.
An intrusion composes the nucleus also of Parsa Bazorgani’s Howling (2019) – a film that employs a combination of techniques (rotoscoping, motion-capture, 2D animation, digital painting) – to exact a gross vandalism upon the figure of its chief antagonist, a freelance municipal worker in Tehran, hired by the state authorities to catch and then kill stray dogs through electrocution. Here, much like in Happy, the filmmaker inhabits a position that emerges as a proxy for the spectator of the film themselves, and employs it to mount a steady inquisition upon the central figure of the piece.
‘Can’t you do another job?’ asks the filmmaker
The worker responds, ‘This is a job, just like the one you do.
If they paid us twenty-five tomans to deliver fallen peaches, I would.’
Hannah Arendt establishes in Eichmann in Jerusalem that it is possible for a regime to exact its terror through fundamental, reliable channels of bureaucratic ‘implementation’ (and which she surmises is the larger, ‘banality of evil’). Howling, however, compounds this thesis by including within it an ethical conundrum: at one point, the municipal worker interjects, ‘You are a guest in my house, but your questions seem very suspicious’, an act of marking his territory (canine-metaphors abound in the film) that allows him to reclaim some of the ‘humanity’ the filmmakers aim to deny him by rendering him – quite literally – a specimen. This latter ambition is manifest even in the filmmakers’ curious decision to ‘paint over’ the figure of the worker, as if a mode by which to obscure his identity – but this intention is suspect too, since at a crucial juncture in the film, as his counter-questions begin to raise the heat in the room, they choose to reveal his countenance; full and entire.
Late in the evening of the next day, seated in the backseat of a car driven by a female friend who teaches English to those in the city who aspire to migrate to places outside of Iran, and also serves as a translator for local festivals, I wonder aloud if we could play the stereo in the car – the silence inside of it had begun to become discomfiting. She offers, ‘The stereo, why? Let me sing for you.’ And she does – a rendition accompanied by liner notes; she mentions: ‘it is important that you know that the dialects in Northern and Southern Iran are very different. You may notice certain words too, since words from Persian are used commonly in North India, isn’t it?’ I nod, as she continues to sing.
In Pooya Razi’s Not Being (2019), the filmmaker evokes a motif-based essentialism present in the films of Abbas Kiarostami (the used can that tumbles down the street in Close-Up (1990), but even more significantly, Dinner for One (1995) but imbues it with a maximalist, baroque approach that elevates the film to its remarkable exhibitionism.
The image of a kitchen sink filmed from atop (which literalises, through a reference which it then transcends, the ‘kitchen-sink realism’ that critics often use to define canonical Iranian cinema) alternates with underwater imagery from inside the aquatic archive that continues to form inside the clogged sink. Over this fluctuation, a conversation between what one may presume is a married couple is laid over: the woman has an impending departure to pack for, the man continues to patronize her, their marriage may not survive this physical separation. Inside of the water that fills up the sink, we see relics from their relationship – the debris of a relationship that once was – afloat: quotidian objects, gifts, perfumes, a bag, a passport (the male voiceover, who seems in fact to be the chief observer of the film, asks, ‘Do objects have a memory? Do they remember touch?’).
As the journey towards the airport – and therefore, towards the woman’s departure begins – the film is suddenly possessed by an expressionism that reveals the true scale of the ambition of its thesis: the kitchen sink, hitherto a fixture inside of the home, is suddenly in exile. It seems to float, disembodied from its original abode, in the middle of the busy, Tehranian rush-hour; its form and appearance altered by the headlights, traffic signals and the horns that now ambush it – here, again, a remarkable violation of the sanctity of an object of the interior by effects that belong outside, in the ‘public’. The voiceover registers a transformation that serves as a useful accompaniment; suddenly, a ‘third voice’ enters the soundtrack, and this exists in judgment, and then, in mockery. It is laid forth thus, ‘I am happy for you for two reasons: first, you’re leaving for good, and second, you’re not taking him with you.’
A minute or so later, I decide to record her performance on a camera in my possession. She seems to not notice, lost in her song. Later in the evening, as I get off the car to get into the hotel, she remarks, ‘Be careful the recording stays with you. If the video gets out, people will know we sing songs in public.’
About the Author
Anuj Malhotra is a critic, curator, and a cultural activist based out of New Delhi, India. In his decade-long career, he has endeavoured to forge a media culture which is characterised by qualities of open-source access, conceptual density, and an active contemplation of the relationship shared by a curator and their
In 2012, he founded Lightcube, an acclaimed film collective, regularly touted as one of the leading resources for pioneering research and presentation of image-forms in the country. He also helped conceive the theoretical model for The Dhenuki Cinema Project, a multifaceted and versatile project that mobilises populations in rural and semi-urban areas of the country through the medium of film. Anuj also publishes Umbra, the country’s only newspaper devoted to the study of the topographies of alternative film in India, alongwith handling the curatorial duties for The Garga Archives, a digital museum dedicated to the life and work of B.D. Garga, one of the foremost authorities on the history of film in the world.
He has also worked as an educator, as the convener of a set of workshops that further new modes of conversation around the moving image art form.