Outsider Art

The options have never been pretty for Iranian filmmakers critical of their government. They can choose artistic death by the censor's thousand cuts, films flash-screened in one theater, or "distribution" through pirated DVDs on the streets of Tehran. Or they can stick to their creative vision and face exile or jail time.

Bahman Ghobadi chose exile -- although "chose" scarcely seems like the appropriate word. The Iranian authorities had suggested that the Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker leave the country numerous times over the years, and turned up the pressure two days before the June 2009 presidential elections that sparked the Green Revolution protest of the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ghobadi's crimes? Making films in Kurdish, granting interviews to foreign media, and making movies about sensitive matters, the director told Filmmaker magazine. But according to the doyen of Iranian cinema, Abbas Kiarostami, Ghobadi's real sin was leaving Iran -- and making a film that encouraged others to leave as well.

"If Bahman Ghobadi thinks there are better circumstances for creating movies outside of Iran, I congratulate him," Kiarostami, Iran's most internationally celebrated filmmaker, told local media -- even though his latest film was shot in Italy and stars Juliette Binoche. "But for me, personally, I don't believe in leaving Iran. The place I can sleep comfortably is my home."

For Ghobadi, who was once Kiarostami's assistant director, the criticism stung. "My dear and respected Master! I, and all film-lovers, respect your opinion on cinema," Ghobadi wrote in a public letter. "But that does not mean that we can allow you, in the manner of dictators, to tell everybody in the art world what to do. ... How can you allow yourself, with nasty words, to mock filmmakers who try to support the oppressed people, and worse, to state, in the language of religious dictators, what is forbidden?"

The filmmakers' exchange reflects the tensions arising from an orchestrated campaign to attack Western cultural influences and establish a new government office to oversee Iranian cinema. "Today we see that the enemy is ambushing us culturally and increasing the intensity of its attacks," Javad Shamaghdari of the Ministry of Culture and Guidance said last December. "Our cinema must find its place, and this is the responsibility of filmmakers to take on this role."

So far, the campaign seems to consist of "convincing" filmmakers of this responsibility by jailing them. Outspoken director Jafar Panahi was imprisoned for nearly three months this spring for his support of the Green Movement and for filming without a permit. At the Cannes Film Festival this year, fellow filmmakers left a chair empty to protest Panahi's absence from the jury.

Other Iranian filmmakers have suffered similar fates. Mohammad Ali Shirzadi was arrested in January; his family believes his detention is connected to an interview the director filmed between human-rights activist Emadeddin Baghi and the late Islamic theologian Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri. In April, filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad was sentenced to 50 lashes and three and a half years in prison for "insulting" the country's leadership after last year's elections. And in a telling turn of events, Narges Kalhor, the daughter of Ahmadinejad's media and cultural adviser, screened her short film based on Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" at a human-rights film festival in Germany -- and then applied for political asylum in order to avoid detention in Iran.

The debate between Ghobadi and his former mentor raises the big questions about artists who are, by the nature of their work, dissidents. Have artists who are not hassled by their repressive governments been rendered toothless by self-censorship? Does overtly political art even stand on its artistic merits, or is its value mainly ideological? And perhaps the hardest question of all: In a perilous environment like Iran, should an artist stay or go?


The ruckus was started by Ghobadi's 2009 film called No One Knows About Persian Cats. Screening across the United States this summer, it focuses on Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), two musicians playing lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. In this documentary-feature hybrid, the two young people attempt to form a band and smuggle themselves out of Iran for a gig in Europe. It's a clever, loose-limbed premise that allows Ghobadi to introduce Tehran's underground musicians, who play everything from emo indie ballads to hard-hitting rap. Whether for its fascinating Iranian-Western mash-up qualities, its reliance on female vocalists (women are prohibited from public singing in Iran), or its defiant attitude, the music is banned by authorities and therefore practiced and played in secret, often literally underground in basements and hidden crawl spaces. In one case, a stable serves as a practice space for a nu-metal band, whose music has traumatized the cows, according to one farmworker.

Even as it revels in the musicians' persistence and bravery, the film hints that this is no way to lead a life -- an understandable sentiment considering the difficulties Ghobadi has faced. He scripted the film with his fiancee Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist who was accused of spying in 2009, imprisoned, and only released after months of international protest. Persian Cats was born out of frustration after the director had worked for two years to prepare a project called 60 Seconds About Us but was denied permission to begin shooting. Because the Iranian authorities own all 35-millimeter equipment and require directors to obtain shooting authorization to rent it, Ghobadi bought a smaller, digital camera in order to circumvent the policy and decided to test out his camera by filming Tehran's sprawling underground music scene. During the course of the 17-day shoot, he was arrested twice.

Ghobadi has always been something of an outsider -- as a Kurd with no recognized homeland; as a Kurdish speaker censured by Iranian authorities for making films in his native language; and as a Sunni Muslim, a religious minority in Shiite Iran. His films have reflected this outsider status in their border-zone settings, and in the ways his protagonists -- children selling foraged live mines (Turtles Can Fly), an irascible old man searching for his ex-wife in the bleak, bombed-out mountains of Kurdistan (Marooned in Iraq) -- scratch out their survival despite the authorities' abandonment or overt antagonism.

Gifted with this outsider's eye, it's little surprise that Ghobadi has turned to guerilla-esque digital-camera tactics, in just the way that Iranian and Burmese citizens in a media blackout used their cell phones to capture images of brutality and resistance in widespread protests in 2007 in Rangoon and last year in Tehran. And with his latest quasi-documentary, politically critical film, Ghobadi shares a common sensibility with China's young "Sixth Generation" filmmakers who have also taken up smaller digital cameras to make films about migrants, the poor, and the marginalized.

Kiarostami is a very different filmmaker, but an outsider as well -- although Western critics consider him the key figure in the "Iranian New Wave," within Iran, Kiarostami is often accused of being estranged from or irrelevant in his homeland. His films are marked by long, pastoral shots; a fondness for meta-narrative framing; and a spare sensibility in which narrative elements are less important than metaphysical ambiguity (did that character die or what?). Also an esteemed photographer, Kiarostami has recently started creating films with fixed-camera perspectives that seem more like art installations than anything resembling Ghobadi's latest exercise in wild kineticism. But even more than the filmmakers' respective "looks," they espouse different philosophies -- Ghobadi's art as testimony or evidence, and Kiarostami's art as ... artifice. As Kiarostami once wrote, "We can never get close to the truth except through lying."

Despite his emblematic art-house style, Kiarostami's work is not without its own critique. Watch an ornery child ranting against his single mother (Ten), or a pizza-delivery man lumbering through the parties, palaces, and poverty of Tehran (Crimson Gold, which Kiarostami wrote but did not direct), and what emerges are portraits of everyday people attempting to cope with what they can't control, not so different from the theme of Ghobadi's latest film.

The toxicity of Iran's artistic environment -- and Westerners' tendency to search for themes of trouble and repression in Iranian cinema -- has created a forced dynamic between Kiarostami and Ghobadi camps. But even those directors do not fit cleanly into two categories. Their feud -- and the fight-or-flight question faced by all artists in repressive regimes -- sets up a false choice and a false dichotomy. Filmmakers need both the ability to realize their internal, ambiguous artistic vision and the ability to present clear protest -- and the freedom to move fluidly between those two motivations. The quiet in Kiarostami's films and the songs of Ghobadi's speak to the same point -- in the face of imposed silence, it's better to have more voices, whispering in poetry, shouting in song, testifying and lying, rather than fewer.

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