Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Independent Films on Iran: Religion and Politics at a Nonreligious and Nonpolitical Event

Bahman Maghsooudlou welcomed a whole crowed to the Asia Society-sponsored International Short Film Festival: Independent Films on Iran. The Ziba Foundation’s Nina Ghavami, the organizer, emphasized the festival’s non-religious and non-political character.

I’m sure that the amount of work involved in organizing this festival could not have left any time for the organizers to contemplate what would be considered religious or political. The spheres of religion and politics has become such a frightening realm that every organization runs from them. This is so widespread that not only is their meaning lost, but their effect as well.

The first program, “Art and Culture,” was indeed more religious than one might have expected. Five films in this section had a heavy religious tone, even if we call it culture. This was sufficient enough to puzzle at least our non-Iranian audience as to what it meant for the festival to be non-religious, and this aside from the emblem of the festival being a pair of farahvashi wings!

However, religious sentiment was not celebrated, but mourned with a grim, nostalgic eulogy for the death of religion. Almost all of the films either concerned pre-Islamic arts or Zoroastrianism’s tenets, with the exception of one Safavid Mosque. In all these films, religious sentiment was tied with the life and history as inseparable. The most noticeable in this category was The Persian Tree, the saga of Zarathustra. At the opening scene, a bird is bathing in the river with flowers floating over, when we hear a hymn from that Gathas on Vahoumana’s appearing to the prophet to lead him into Ahura Mazda’s presence to receive his mission. The seed of life which is sown in our land and has sprouted has gone through a lot, resisted much, and has spread far and wide is nothing other than our age-old Zoroastrian culture manifested in the form of large palm trees in Kashmar, reputed to be thousands of years old. The film maker had not written a hymn of celebration but a dirge; and the closing scene of the dead body of a bird in the polluted dirty river was an undignified funeral for what is not needed any more. Our Good Religion, as well as its God, was presented as dead; its livelihood, which is the function of practicing both its meaning and its rituals, was replaced only with a sense of nostalgia. It is indeed true, and could be said very safely, that what is left of that wonderful religion is the same several thousand years old tree of Iran every shred of which we now hang onto, even if it means tying a tiny piece of cloth to its withered branches.

The second day’s films were highly political indeed, though some films deliberately declared that they were “not political.” Well, “A rose by any name smells as sweet.”

Two films in this section very well illustrate the blend of politics with life. Alireza Darvish’s Foot Steps of Water, echoing Forugh Farrokhzad’s poem of the same title. The film was a very personal experience of Darvish, who left the country as a political refugee, and in his transmigration he notices that he had to change his symbolism from the dry land language to that of the seashore. He learns the universal medium of the books and words and, in his case, the brushes and paints he depicts the life with. His messages are nothing if not political; it is about the freedom and expressing it, freedom and sharing it, freedom and treasuring it, freedom and spreading it, freedom and guarding it, all through the single medium of animated paintings. Darvish, while very consciously portraying his innermost world, his thoughts, and his experiences, describes an undeniable universal message which transcends the borders of time and locality. While trying to avoid politics, his message is nothing but political; secular as he is, he is like a monk piously worshipping while his wife and three children stand by his side smiling.

The other film in this series was Underneath My Father’s House. Two years after the Islamic Revolution, a leftist intellectual, who does not have the heart to burn his books and newspapers, buries them underground in his father’s old house. After twenty years, in 2001, he returns to find that what he did not have the heart to do, nature and time had done for him. The books were corroded underground and had turned into a mound of rubbish. While the camera was showing the salvaged pieces of newspaper and pamphlets, I could see it was all leftist pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers; all standard of what we call “political” has turned into rubbish. Oddly enough, the professor goes to the post office and receives bundles of books shipped to him from Iran, all of them classical Iranian literature newly published in fancy hardcover editions, the mystical poets Hafez and Rumi among them. While the standard obvious “politics” disappear, true politics persists and carries on indeed.

On the opening night, I talked to Hafez Nazeri about their next performance in the Carnegie Hall. “Next year,” he said, as if it were tomorrow. “Of course it is tomorrow because he is so passionate about his work,” I thought. While talking about peace, politics, and art, and their interconnections, he said, to my surprise, “I’m not political, but Rumi is political. One cannot sing his poetry without feeling political.” Hearing a young artist who is trying to mix traditional music, something which he has inherited from a master-father, with modern western music, talk about “Rumi and politics” and “feeling political” was a testimony sent to me from heaven; yes we can, yes we do, yes we will, and yes we will succeed in bringing life to a unified circle. The statement, had it come from an authority, could not have excited me as much as an unpremeditated and spontaneous expression of an artists who is no authority and has no claim over a giant like Rumi. It was just coming from him which made it a testimony to the truth which I appeal to.

I would not be surprised if the director or the screen writer of The Persian Tree wanted to celebrate the persistence of the Good Religion in our present life. I have no doubt that Darvish may not have wanted to sound so pious, nor do I doubt that the director of Underneath My Father’s House wanted to arouse the audience’s sympathy. However, they had the opposite effect on me. While they all focused on their points of view, some of us peeked through different windows to observe their intended objects. Thus is the world according to our prism-shape looking glass.

Religion as an act of devotion could manifest itself in art or in human services. Politics as a governing skill could be applied to small organization, even one consisting of a single person. Picking up a piece of garbage from the street could be done with one of the above or both intentions. Similarly, holding an arts festival could be motivated by either one of these intentions. (I personally categorize true artists, literary writers, clerics, and journalists as holy people who devote their lives without gaining any material reward.) While religion and politics, in their narrow sense, can be mutually exclusive, their broader meaning does not allow such restrictions. By emphasizing this kind of exclusion, we are either saying something trivial (that the film festival is not a new sect of religion or political party) or we are saying something which is not true. In either case, it is no less hypocritical than the Islamic Republic’s piety.

Let us be done with this non-religious, non-political labeling. Let us be religious, since we all are, and let us be political, since we all are, let us be truthful to ourselves and more important to each other, since many of us are not.

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