News in the Echo Chamber: Comparing Israeli and Iranian Cinema

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The Israel-Iran phoney war took a dramatic turn last week when Transport minister Shaul Mofaz said that if Iran’s nuclear weapons programme continues, Israel will attack. Mofaz is one of three deputy Prime Ministers with pretensions to the current incumbent Ehud Olmert’s position. Though Israel attacked Saddam’s Iraq in 1981 in similar circumstances, the open threat from a minister is astonishing, something that even the Bush administration baulked from doing in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq five years ago. Hizbullah apart, Iran has few allies among Israel’s adversaries but the animosity between the two states has been ratcheted up since the 2005 election of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, a brutish but devilishly clever demagogue who has goaded both Israel and the West with his anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Ahmedinejad, who often seems like an Islamic mirror of his counterpart in Washington, has attracted similar disdain amongst the electorate and the intelligentsia of his own country for his gunboat diplomacy and his party’s mismanagement of the economy. He has a particular fixation on Israel and the Jews, and he seems to be speaking here more to the Arab world, in an attempt to secure major-player status for Iran, than to his own country, where anti-Semitism has little hold on the populace.

Despite their governments’ open hostility to one another, the two nations need not necessarily be the implacable enemies they currently are. Iran has a Jewish population resident in the region for more than three millennia. Though it has been subject to occasional intimidation by the Islamic regime, as in the case of the conviction in 2000 of a number of Iranian Jews of spying for Israel, on trumped-up charges, the country’s remaining Jews are well integrated and enjoy freedom of worship largely denied their coreligionists elsewhere in the Muslim world. The disgraced ex-president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, was born in the central Iranian city of Yazd, as was the former President Mohammed Khatami, and they exchanged a few civil words at the funeral of Pope John-Paul II in April 2005, something that made headlines around the world. There is also an interesting parallel between the two republics, which are both relatively young and both of which have diverged from the leftist impetuses that contributed to their foundation; the original socialist ideals of Zionism have atrophied as the reality of colonial occupation has sunk in while the Persian left-wing activism that brought down the Shah was promptly and brutally repressed by the Ayatollahs. There is also the irony of both countries having large amounts of populations who tend towards secularism, in Israel maintaining an uneasy relationship with the privileged religious minority, in Iran at the mercy of a brutal and fanatical religious establishment. Another thing both countries share is an image problem, for many in Europe Israel is a vicious colonial occupier, little better than Apartheid South Africa, while the West in general has a simplistic view of Iran as a country populated exclusively by misogynistic religious maniacs. It’s not hard to see where these views come from but neither do justice to many Israelis or Iranians.

Both countries are also notable for having film industries that have been remarkably inventive and productive in recent years, Iran more so in the years preceding Ahmedinejad’s election and Israel, more recently, in the years since the start of the second intifada. While the concerns of Israeli and Iranian filmmakers are both quite different what they do have in common is how their work functions in reaction to the stimuli of society and the flow of history. Iranian cinema had already been well established before the fall of the Shah in 1979, its founding text being Dariush Mehrjui’s 1969 film The Cow, (excerpt) and the Ayatollahs saw its use as a propaganda tool, bringing it under the auspices of the Office for Education of Children and Young People, fostering the film careers of the current masters of Iranian cinema Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmahlbaf and Abol-fazl Jalili. It has been said that the sequestration of Iranian society from Western cinema and the exigencies of censorship helped forge the aesthetic of the new Iranian cinema where political suggestiveness and formal innovation go hand in hand. Makhmahlbaf has however himself dismissed the idea that censorship can help any filmmaker (and given the slowdown since Ahmedinejad’s succeeding of Khatami’s more reformist government he is probably right) and he also says that Brechtian distanciation has been part of Persian storytelling since long before the advent of the cinema. Either way, when Iranian cinema burst onto the festival circuit in the mid-1990s, with the discovery of Kiarostami’s ‘Coker trilogy’ the films were like nothing that had been seen before in Western cinema.

Israeli cinema on the other hand is closer to the more traditional narratives of European and American cinema and it has reached an unprecedented level of production and world exposure in recent years thanks to investment from new cable television channels (and enlightened government funding) and the establishment of film schools such as the Don Siegel school in Jerusalem, from which many of the young lights of the current cinema have graduated. Israeli filmmakers also benefit from a greater freedom of expression than their Iranian counterparts, while not always pleasing their fellow citizens with the political intent of their films.

The most illustrious of the directors of the new Iranian cinema is Abbas Kiarostami, who shared the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997 with the late Shohei Imamura for his film Taste of Cherry(trailer), the minimalist tale of a suicidal middle-aged architect driving around Teheran trying to find someone to bury him after his death. His Coker trilogy, comprising the films And Life Goes On, Where is the Friend’s House? and Through the Olive Trees were filmed with non-professionals in the village of Coker before and after an earthquake which devastated the surrounding area in the early 1990s. This interaction with real-life events is emblematic of the cinema as a whole, as was his earlier film Close Up, which filmed the real-life trial of a young man who was charged with impersonating Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The story has shades of the man who went around London in the 1990s passing himself off as Stanley Kubrick but Kiarostami is more interested in the nature of truth and its perception than celebrity and he engineers a meeting with Makhmalbaf and his impersonator, who is ultimately acquitted by the court.

Makhmalbaf, a more popular and politically more radical director than Kiarostami, has mined the same seam of an investigation into truth, a matter of even greater urgency for people living under the Islamic regime than us in the West. His last film to get wide distribution in the West, Kandahar, the Heart of Darkness-style tale of an Afghan-Canadian woman’s voyage back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, was reportedly screened by George W. Bush at the White House in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Kabul (though I personally find this very unlikely).

Earlier films by Makhmalbaf include The Cyclist, where a young boy, inspired by Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, competes in a marathon cycling competition to try to raise money for his seriously ill father’s operation. The film is hampered by low production values but the talent of the young director shines through. Later films in the 1990s which became popular both at home and on the festival circuit include Gabbeh (a tale of an eponymous pictorial Persian rug told through an itinerant schoolteacher), The Silence and Salaam Cinema!, a film that was originally meant to be Iran’s celebration of the centenary of cinema but later turned into a faux documentary when Makhmalbaf became fascinated with his open casting, which attracted thousands of people. His 1995 film A Moment of Innocence probably represents the high point of his career. It is the re-enactment of an incident from Makhmalbaf’s youth, when he stabbed one of the Shah’s policemen, for which he was imprisoned until the Revolution. Makhmalbaf’s stroke of genius is to find the policeman twenty years on and work with him to find actors to play their younger selves and re-enact the incident. The film is typical of both the lucidity and humanism of the new Iranian cinema but not without humour either – as a friend of mine pointed out, the man chosen by the policeman to play himself is the spitting image of the Shah.

Makhmalbaf has been strangely absent from international screens in recent years despite the fact that he has been as productive as ever. His family have carried on however, his two daughters Samira and Hana in particular, but also his second wife Marzieh Meshkini, whose film The Day I Became a Woman is a moving triptych of stories about young girls adopting the chador on their eleventh birthday. Samira’s films also offer a unique perspective on the education and mistreatment of children, particularly girls. Her first film The Apple, made when she was only 17, characteristically takes a true story, of a father who is convicted of keeping his two young daughters from school, made with the actual protagonists. She followed this with Blackboards, a Grand Jury prizewinner at Cannes, the bleak tale of itinerant teachers in Kurdistan, and At Five in the Afternoon, a conflation of the two themes, treating of the education of young girls in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

There is also Jafar Panahi, a former assistant to Kiarostami, who wrote to the older director to ask for a job after reading in John Baxter’s biography of Buñuel that the Spaniard got his start the same way. Panahi has won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes for his first film The White Balloon, a deceptively simple story of a young girl trying to retrieve her balloon in time for the Iranian New Year celebration. The film was so simple as to be condemned by Simon Louvish in Sight & Sound as being complaisant in the face of the Islamic regime (a very easy criticism to make from the safety of London). However, there are subtle hints of black-market trading and irregular labour and the final frame is a shot of an Afghan refugee, abandoned by the young girl and her brother once they have found their balloon, providing a swipe at the marginalisation of Iran’s large refugee population.

Panahi has got progressively audacious in his later films, to such an extent that he is surely the most courageous filmmaker alive anywhere in the world, considering the risks he runs in tackling the subjects he does. His third film, The Circle, which carried off the Golden Lion at Venice in 2000, is a tour de force thriller from the point of view of young women who are being pursued by the police. Though it is never made explicit, it is likely that the women are prostitutes, another reality of Iranian society that is hypocritically denied but facilitated through the existence of temporary marriage licences, as seen in the documentary ­ Prostitution Behind the Veil.

Probably more so than any other Iranian director, the films of Panahi fizz with the sense of transgression, of testing the limits of dissent. His fourth film Crimson Gold tells the story of an ungainly veteran of the Iran-Iraq war who struggles as a pizza-deliveryman but who concocts a ham-fisted plan to rob a jewellers’. The film follows him on his delivery routes throughout Tehran where he encounters mainly wealthier customers, many of whom are enjoying illegal parties that are constantly at risk of being raided by the Religious Police. And the police duly arrive in the course of the film, carrying the revellers away in a Black Mariah in scenes that have also been documented by Marjane Satrapi in both her comic book and film versions of Persepolis. The portrayal of the religious police caused Panahi trouble with the censors but it seems to have only further emboldened him as his next film openly mocks the absurdity of moral laws, particularly their application to women. Offside is inspired by a true story where female Iranian football fans attempted to get access to a World Cup qualifying match. They were banned from the stadium by a decree aiming to ‘protect them from the vulgar behaviour and language of male supporters’. The absurdity of the situation increases when the women, who are now penned into an area beneath the stand while the match proceeds without them, need to go to the toilets. A young on-duty soldier accompanies them and he gallantly tries to shield their sensibilities from the shocking graffiti on the stadium walls.

The joke – and also the very serious point – is that the women, who are for the most part, from working-class backgrounds – are far more worldly than the authorities suspect, symptomatic of the treatment of women in the country as a whole. Though the Islamic regime is undeniably misogynistic it realises that it can only go so far in the repression of women given the long tradition of secularism and a tendency towards modernity in urban Iran. Unlike in other hard-line states such as Saudi Arabia, women are allowed to vote, attend university and be members of parliament while all the time being trammelled by restrictive laws that are bizarrely at odds with the consciousness of many Iranian women. The fact that Iranians – both men and women – are known for enjoying a good time – alcohol included – underscores the lethal absurdity of the moral strictures imposed by the Islamists. The late communist poet Ahmad Shâmlu put it thus in his poem ‘In This Dead End’ which tells of the brutal disillusion with the 1979 revolution:

‘They smell your mouth

To find out if you have told someone:

I love you!

They smell your heart!

Such a strange time it is, my dear;

And they punish Love

At thoroughfares

By flogging.

We must hide our Love in dark closets1


The threats faced by Iranian filmmakers are frightening, of the sort that would make the transgressions of Western filmmakers such as Michael Moore or Ken Loach frivolous. The female director Tahmineh Milani was arrested and charged with counter-revolutionary behaviour for her film The Hidden Half which told the story of a woman with a left-wing revolutionary past (the title also refers to the Communists and secular nationalists who were liquidized by the Ayatollahs in the aftermath of the Revolution). An international outcry and the intervention of the reformist then President Khatami secured her release though the charges were never formally dropped. Though the lessening international exposure of Iranian cinema in recent years may have more to with fashion than censorship, life for filmmakers under the philistine Ahmedinejad is surely harder than under his relatively enlightened predecessor (though ultimate authority resides as ever in the clerical-run Revolutionary Council).

Filmmakers in Israel don’t need to worry so much about censorship but many of the films made in the past few years are unlikely to please those in the political establishment. Like Iranian directors, many Israeli filmmakers swing to the left and thus one might wonder how representative they are of opinion in the country as a whole. But to wonder that is to misunderstand the complexity – not to mention the inherent paradoxes – of Israeli society. The state was founded on principles of quasi-Utopian socialism brought to Palestine by liberal Askenazim, and the European founders have more or less ruled Israel since then, both through their ‘natural’ party, Labor, and later Likud and Kadima, its Sharon-founded offshoot. Of course there was a deficit in the equation that led to the foundation of the state and that was the naqba or the displacement of the Palestinian nation in 1948. The motives and causes of this troubling ‘downside’ have been contested ever since and many right-wing Israelis and Zionists have cloven to the myth of a Palestine nation never having existed as a desperate means of discrediting even the most benign form of self-determination.

Since its contested reintegration into Israel in 1967, Jerusalem has resumed its position as the spiritual and political centre of the country, yet it is in Tel-Aviv and Haifa to the north – strongholds of secularism and socialism respectively – that remain the cultural centres. Until recent years Israeli cinema had been represented abroad almost single-handedly by Amos Gitaï, who, ironically appears to have gone off the boil just as his countrymen are enjoying greater exposure on the international scene. Gitaï first came to prominence with a number of probing documentaries in the 1980s and he reached his peak in the late 1990s with films on subjects as diverse as spousal abuse in an Orthodox Jewish family (Kadosh), the Yom Kippur war, in which a young Gitaï served as a stretcher-bearer (Kippur) and the post-war settlement of Palestine (Kedma). Gitaï employs a spare yet ethereal style with static takes of challenging length; there is a scene towards the end of Kippur where a team of stretcher-bearers mired in the mud of the Golan Heights battlefield take what seems forever to load an injured comrade onto a helicopter. It is a difficult scene to watch, if only from a physical point of view – like trying to co-ordinate one’s body movements under the influence of a severe hangover – and it functions as a perfect metaphor for the trauma of the war itself, ‘the one we lost’, as Gitaï himself recalled it.

In more recent years Gitaï has brought his style to an irritating apotheosis – the human trafficking drama Promised Land was drearily laden with over-obvious Biblical symbolism and the acting was mannered to the point of parody. He has also sought international funding and markets by introducing international stars such as Hanna Schygulla, Nathalie Portman and Juliette Binoche but his films lack the freshness or dynamism of either his earlier work or those of the younger generation.

A Franco-Israeli friend of mine, whose politics are left-wing and sympathetic to the Palestinians, bemoans the prevalence of films about the conflict in Israel, which is a familiar complaint to Irish people, who one presumes have long since wearied of historical films about the Troubles. I can’t share his enthusiasm for the films of Dover Kosashvili, an Israeli of Georgian origin, whose films Late Marriage and Gift from Above were huge hits in Israel despite being filmed mostly in Georgian. The films are broad, crude and crowd-pleasing but a little too fond of caricature for my liking. Still there is no denying how closely they reflect the make-up of Israel since the break-up of the Soviet Union, which has caused an influx, alongside many ordinary Jews, of oligarchs, organised criminals and even anti-semitic gangs. There are other filmmakers who are dealing with issues that don’t involve the more newsworthy issues of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Religion is treated in almost forensic detail in the films of the French-born Raphael Nedjari (Avanim and Tehilim) and David Volach’s recent My Father, My Lord (trailer with French subtitles). The brother-and-sister team of Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz’s 2004 film To Take a Wife, was a disturbing portrayal of domestic violence (something which in Kosashvili’s films is dealt with with troubling lightness). Ronit Elkabetz is herself a superb actress, a sort of Marlene Dietrich as she might have appeared in a Mike Leigh film, cynical, worn-down by life, but whose tough beauty shines through. She will be best known to international audiences for her lead role as the secretly romantic café owner in the arthouse hit The Band’s Visit (trailer). Eran Korilin’s film about the allegedly true story of the Cairo Police Band’s night in an Israeli desert village after taking the wrong bus is an intelligent crowd-pleaser, which resists fuzzy sentimentalism while leaving room for optimism. It also boldly depicts Israelis as gruff and uncouth next to their more charming Arab neighbours.

But The Band’s Visit, for all its political astuteness still has a lacuna at its core: the Palestinians, for whom the Egyptians, at uneasy peace with their hosts, function as both a proxy and a dry run for any eventual rapprochement. One is reminded of Bernard McLaverty’s comment about the Troubles being for people in Northern Ireland, ‘the elephant in the sitting room that you choose to ignore’, which in turn provided the title for Alan Clarke’s film Elephant, and less directly, Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or winner. One of the most underrated Israeli films of recent years was Vardit Bilu and Dalia Hager’s Close to Home (trailer), about a group of unwilling female conscripts’ military service served on patrol in West Jerusalem. The film takes no explicit political viewpoint (and I suspect the directors are not in real life overly critical of Tsahal) but its combination of boredom, cack-handedly mundane acts of rebellion and pettiness in the spot-checking of Palestinians presents a persuasive image of a generation of Israelis beset by both apathy and terror.

More political, and firmly on the left, is this year’s Oscar nominee Beaufort (trailer), directed by Joseph Cedar, an appropriate name seeing as it is about a besieged military unit in a Crusader fort in Southern Lebanon in 2000. The film was condemned as ‘communist’ propaganda in Israel but was also a big success at the box office, no doubt striking a chord with the hundreds of thousands of young Israelis who have done military service. As with many war films the enemy – in this case, Hizbullah – remains invisible while the unit prepares for an evacuation and back home, a grieving father openly questions the point of the eight-year occupation of the country’s northern neighbour, a point that, one imagines was intended to resonate with its more recent bombing of Lebanon.

Though Beaufort is technically accomplished and intelligent I found it a bit worthy and dull. More interesting, both polemically and dramatically, were two popular dramas, Eran Riklis’ Lemon Tree (trailer) and Eytan Fox’s The Bubble (trailer), both of which had Palestinian actors in the lead role. Lemon Tree treats a dispute so analogous to Israeli-Palestinian relations as to be almost schematic: a Palestinian widow who owns a lemon grove is ordered to destroy the grove when the Security Services deem it to be a security threat for the Israeli Minister of Defence, who has just moved in next door. It sounds silly but the film is most notable for the dramatic unfolding of the widow’s struggle and for the performance of Hiam Abbass, a Palestinian who acts in Arabic, Hebrew, English and French, as the defiant woman.

The Bubble is even less nuanced and downright bad in parts but the final third of this gay Romeo-and-Juliet story is startling and so radical as to make you suspect that it was conceived by accident, given the conventional nature of the film before that. As it stands at the end, it is like a teen film directed by Fassbinder, needling and disturbing for all its earlier plodding.

If some of those films, in spite of the best intentions, have trouble dealing with Palestinians, Avi Mograbi is possessed of more certitude. A left-wing activist who did time in prison for refusing to serve in Lebanon in the 1980s, his films combine Michael Moore-style doorstepping and provocation with more reflective non-narrated sequences reminiscent of Chris Marker and Claude Lanzmann. His last film Avenge Just One of my Two Eyes (trailers 1 and 2) juxtaposed the Palestinian struggle with the valorisation of Jewish suicide cults such as Massada and Samson currently popular in Israel. The film is a dizzying journey into the weird world of the Israeli far-right and also a stirring account of the arbitrariness of Israeli checkpoints in the occupied territories, which, Mograbi, knowing the military code inside out, outwits at every opportunity. Mograbi is also disarmingly self-deprecating as his 1997 documentary How I Learned to Conquer My Fear and Love Ariel Sharon illustrates. The film starts with him shadowing Sharon on the 1996 election campaign trail and he ends up sympathising with the man he openly refers to as a war criminal. The identification was so strong that Mograbi’s wife left him, disgusted at his equivocation. It is to Mograbi’s credit that he brings his convictions back into line at the end and fails to be swayed by Sharon’s undeniable charm. What is most remarkable about the film is the way it shows the bizarre twin faces of Israeli society: an aggressive and almost juvenile sense of paranoia alongside an openness and a sense of civic obligation. It might be argued that this obligation is only felt towards the state’s Jewish citizens, but it is still far in excess of that practised by some more self-righteous European countries.

Mograbi is currently working on a documentary about Israeli serviceman that have spoken out about the treatment of Palestinians and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (trailer), an animated film about the Sabra and Chatila massacres, for which many would like to see Sharon tried as a war criminal, has had good reviews at Cannes. One wonders though how much purchase these largely liberal films have on the populace as a whole, which has become hardened as a result of more than a decade of suicide attacks. But the effect is probably no less than such films anywhere else in the world, if any films are to be truly seminal in a political sense, it will be more as the canary in the mine than as a result of any perceived seismic jolt. The international fashion for Israeli films will probably pass too, just as the fashion for Iranian cinema has passed but what links the two cinemas, in many ways quite clearly different, is the thrilling sense of the films being a filmic version of news, forged in an echo chamber of history. Cinema is a notoriously slow art form to mount and its reaction to even contemporary history is often too tardy to really have an effect. In the films of both Iran and Israel however the pulse of history is palpable; the films seem to inhabit an echo chamber in which their intentions, their meanings and their very form are buffeted and warped by external events. Both Iranian and Israeli people might be cursed to live in interesting times but one pleasing by-product of that is interesting cinema. Very interesting cinema.


Notes:


1 Translated by Mahmud Kianush in Modern Persian Poetry (The Rockingham Press, 1996) (italics in original)

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