Iranian cinema, launched on an unsuspecting world in the late 1980s, promised - and largely achieved - a rupture from the increasingly bereft cinemas of other nations, especially those of the West. But as Hamid Dabashi writes, until Dariush Mehrju'i made his now classic film, The Cow , in 1969 it suffered from the dominance of the literary - especially poetry, which is still a major element of contemporary culture - and faced both extreme Muslim opposition and the inhibiting effects of colonisation and a brutal monarchy.
In the 1970s, a new generation began a transformation. Amir Naderi, Sohrab Shahid Sales and Bahram Beiza'i took up Dariush Mehrju'i's gauntlet, and international festival audiences and art-house patrons began seeing their work. The 1979 revolution brought Ayotollah Khomeini's Islamic theocracy to power, which meant that, for a period, film-making was suspended. But then a nation that had hardly registered on the international cinema scene, and that was now isolated by a hard-line anti-western government, created, in less than a decade, a cinema that surprised and engaged audiences and critics, although leaving many perplexed because of its extraordinary "otherness".
This book is aimed at people in higher education and the informed film-goer. One of its strengths is its single approach, as opposed to the increasing norm in academic publishing of diverse pieces that, while providing useful examples and analysis, often lack the narrative that illuminates a subject. Dabashi's thesis rests on questions of Iranian subjectivity, historical agency and, most important, modernity. But his discussions seem a little unconvincing. His use of the term modernity, for example, seems to slide from its original meaning of contemporary to that of western industrial democracies at any given time. This slippage became increasingly prevalent among post-September 11 writers using it to denote an ideal paradigm of nationhood and governance with which to beat Arab Muslim countries, and Dabashi's argument similarly relies on context rather than the word itself.
Despite the problems I discern in his theoretical explanation of historical processes, it does provide a key to his readings of the films of Iran's major film-makers - Abbas Kiarostami, Beiza'i, Bahman Farmanara and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. These readings display a substantive understanding of such works, but to provide only an interview with Mohsen Makhmalbaf and no reading of his films is a major omission. They are the equal of Kiarostami's and, unlike his, exhibit a consistent intellectual development. For Dabashi, Kiarostami's "pellucid reading of reality-as-fantasy begins to replace the opaque metaphysics of objectivity at the roots of all violent claims to truth" so that he "focuses on the factual evidence of the world with such a persistent gaze that every ounce of metaphysical energy is sapped out of it", whereas Beiza'i "challenges the metaphysical elements by plunging deep into them, colliding head on, and there in the realm of mythos, he engages its angelic and demonic forces, fights and wrestles with them in the hope that the echoes of his mythic battles will be reflected onto our contemporary realities".
Dabashi's discussion of Bani-Etemad, Iran's major female director, "In the speculum of the Other: the feminine figure of modernity", provides a fascinating overview of the role of women writers and activists as forerunners to her "not trying to tease any virtuality out of reality. She wants to emphasise its actuality " and reconstitute "the very nature and disposition of sexuality". Described by Dabashi as the "de-Oedipalization of the nuclear family and the culture it reflects" it is this latter preoccupation, specific to Iran but universal in its resonance, as shown in the films Nargess (1991), The Blue Veiled (1994) and The May Lady (1998), that demonstrates Bani-Etemad's undoubted stature.
Dabashi's analyses are illuminating and thought-provoking, and I have no doubt that any reader would find them so even without access to the films, since, sadly, most of those he discusses are not available in the UK. The surprise of this book is the manner in which, after substantial and positive readings of Kiarostami and Beiza'i, and equally positive references to Mehrju'i, he proceeds, in an astonishingly critical chapter, "The perils and promises of globalization", to attack their later work:
"Turned into nativist sites of creative resistance, they have become globally blinded."
For Dabashi, the future is global and lies with the new generation, which he identifies as Samira Makhmalbaf, Bahman Qobadi and Hasan Yektapanah. Any nation's cinema relies on the new, young generation to take it forward, but his rejection of this earlier generation, particularly of Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), is violent, although I would not necessarily disagree with much of what he says. Equally passionate but illuminating and rewarding are his analyses of Samira's Makhmalbaf's The Apple (1998) and Blackboards (2000), which ably reinforce his arguments for what he identifies as the necessary future of Iranian cinema.
This cinema is the new kid on the block and, outside specialist studies, Iran is little known in the West. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, in his interview, says: "There is a wonderful fable that the truth is a mirror that shattered as it fell from the hand of God. Everyone picked up a piece of it, and each decided that the truth was what he saw reflected in his fragment rather than realising that truth had become fragmented among them all."
Dabashi's book is a commendable, readable and pioneering volume that informs and critiques. Despite my reservations, including his tendency to repetition, the use of esoteric words where more usual ones would serve, and the lack of an index, it is a valuable attempt to gather fragments of the truth of a cinema that seems to defy the usual critical categories.
Sheila Whitaker is co-editor of Life and Art : The New Iranian Cinema (1999), and a former director, London Film Festival.
Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present and Future
Author - Hamid Dabashi
ISBN - 1 85984 626 2 and 332 8
Publisher - Verso
Price - £45.00 and £15.00
Pages - 302