Images of a nation finding its voice

Mute Dreams, Blind Owls, and Dispersed Knowledges
July 22, 2005

The history of cinema has been marked by a few periods of extraordinary creativity due to the exceptional talent and vision of certain film-makers from various parts of the world. Iranian cinema, which has gained international fame and prestige in the past two decades, is in the midst of one such period. It stands comparison with the postwar Italian Neo-realism and the French New Wave of the late 1950s and 1960s. The exotic names of Abbas Kiarostami, Samira Makhmalbaf, Dariush Mehrjui and Bahman Ghobadi are now as familiar to film buffs around the world as those of the great innovators of the two previous flowerings of the art in the West, such as De Sica, Rossellini, Fellini, Godard and Truffaut.

Michael Fischer, an eminent anthropologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spent several years in Iran, learnt Persian and lived two years in Yazd, the centre of Zoroastrianism, the better to understand the country and the roots of its culture. The result is this broad survey of Persian culture, examined through "three sets of media - oral, literary, visual - and their ethical resources and resonances" in the post-revolutionary era, of which the cinema is the most immediate expression and the best known in the West.

Fischer has championed this cinema by organising Iranian film festivals in America and bringing the film-making communities together. Considering the murky relations between the two countries, he has been an agent of peace and understanding through the accessible medium of film: "There is something about the minimalism, deliberate pacing, and subjectivities of (Iranian) films that speaks to the world caught in the aftermath of religious tensions and wars," he believes, with "the use of trauma as a metaphor for the current human condition".

Fischer starts by exploring Persian culture from its beginning in pre-Islamic times. The oral tradition, transmitting moral and religious values of Zoroastrianism, continues to this day in religious rituals and performances of the Shahnameh ( The Book of Kings ), Iran's national epic. Persian imagery was adopted by the "cosmopolitan circuit" - in Classical Greece to the West, in India and China to the East - while in Europe the figure of Zoroaster appealed as "a dialectical other to utopian critiques of Europe, from Mozart's Magic Flute to Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra ". More recently, Sadegh Hedayat's Kafkaesque masterpiece The Blind Owl (1939) is claimed by French writers as one of the sources of Le Nouveau Roman. After the revolution of l979, the clerical rulers of the Islamic Republic tried to suppress the pre-Islamic heritage of the people - in vain, as "their own language drew on the metaphors and symbols of that very heritage".

The cinema arrived in Iran in the early 20th century and immediately captured the popular imagination. Films were produced for local consumption, supplemented with imports from Egypt and India. Later, Hollywood and Europe invaded the market and almost monopolised it. The creation of an authentic native film language began in the 1960s, and many of today's celebrated film-makers started their careers with the facilities provided in that period, notably Kiarostami. Film narrative was influenced by the literary innovations of Hedayat and his followers, in particular the surrealist mode of The Blind Owl , which is situated in the time-space of gonge khab dideh - the "mute dreams" of Fischer's title - which expresses "the state of awakening after a dream, when one is still bewildered but beginning to decipher the images".

Fischer gives detailed accounts of important films that mark the evolution of the art in its specifically Iranian expression. After the revolution of l979, cinema flourished and new film-makers came to the fore, first as a result of the early enthusiasm for the revolution and its promise of freedom and equality, and later as a mirror to post-revolutionary reality.

Paradoxically it was the drastic censorship and restrictions imposed by the new regime that gave an impetus to film-making: cinema became "a mode of writing with the camera", "a discourse parallel to the older poetry and epic tradition of ethical and moral reason". The revolution, the eight years of war with Iraq and its aftermath and the condition of women were fertile subjects for original film narrative.

As women could not appear in films without the veil, many of the early post-revolution movies used children as their protagonists, notably two masterpieces that first attracted the attention of the West: Kiarostami's Where Is My Friend's House? (1987) and Ghobadi's The Time for Drunken Horses (2000). But despite obstacles, Iranian women asserted their talents both as film-makers and actresses - the cover of this book shows a female cinematographer in the mandatory head cover and loose overall, holding and looking through a camera. Makhmalbaf, who won the Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001 at the age of l9 for Blackboards , is one among many remarkable female film-makers working in Iran today. It is interesting to note that the budget for even the most lavish of these films is a fraction of one day's filming in Hollywood.

This huge, comprehensive compendium is useful for anyone interested in Persian culture, especially the evolution of Iranian cinema, which in a relatively short time has become one of the most admired in the world.

Readers who can plough through nearly 500 pages of tight, hard-on-the-eyes small print without being put off by the social sciences jargon, the infelicities of language, the overwhelming name-dropping of fashionable thinkers - Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, you name them they are here - will be amply rewarded with the introduction to "a rich cultural heritage to which world civilisation is deeply indebted for its religious imagery, literary stories, and philosophical modes of reflection".

Shusha Guppy's latest book is The Secret of Laughter: Magical Tales from Classical Persia .

Mute Dreams, Blind Owls, and Dispersed Knowledges: Persian Poesis in the Transnational Circuitry

Author - Michael M. J. Fischer
Publisher - Duke University Press
Pages - 474
Price - £74.00 and £18.50
ISBN - 0 8223 3285 X and 3298 1

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