On the alleged decline of Iranian cinema, and why Like Someone in Love is an Iranian film

Hamid Dabashi has written up a confusingly condescending article about the state of Iranian cinema on Al-Jazeera, in which he describes the majority of Iranian film artists no longer being in tune with some holy, magical, Dabashi-imagined space in which they can make truly innovative Iranian works. He does raise some valuable points about the dearth of recognition and room for development of Iranian cinema in a new era, but he does so by lambasting current masters. Dabashi blames the “brain drain” on the Islamic Republic, which throughout its history of harsh censorship has silenced Iranian artists and caused many of them to go into exile. But the people Dabashi is actually blaming here are the artists themselves, for falling into one of several traps. For Dabashi, only Abbas Kiarostami, who has avoided explicit political subject matter in his works, has remained creative in the face of repression. The two latest works by Jafar Panahi, made under house arrest, on the other hand:

… are self-indulgent vagaries farthest removed from the masterpieces like Offside (2006), Crimson Gold (2003) or Circle (2000) that have made Panahi a global celebrity. He should have heeded the vicious sentence and stayed away from his camera for a while and not indulge, for precisely the selfsame social punch that have made his best films knife-sharp precise has now dulled the wit of the filmmaker that was once able to put it to such magnificent use.

Not only physically but also mentally and emotively, Panahi is not in a position to think and film in his habitual engagement with his homeland. He is angry, and rightly so – and anger should never be the paramount sentiment when one stands behind a camera or in front of a keyboard. Given the political sentiments that film festival authorities around the globe have for Panahi, they indulge him in a political solidarity that dulls the wit of his cinematic judgment. These consolation prizes are a curse in disguise.

 Dabashi never comes out and says that any artist under Panahi’s circumstances—house arrest, and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, leaving the country and talking to media—should not make art, but he does essentially imply that any Iranian artist faced with Panahi’s situation would be equally angry about the limitations, and that that particular emotional and physical state is not a legitimate one in which an artist can create truly innovative art. It’s reasonable and quite common for artists to take time off from a traumatic event in order to register their feelings on a subject before committing thoughts/ideas to paper/celluloid. (Kiarostami once said he was thankful he waited after the Manjil-Rudban earthquake before making Life, and Nothing More…, though his initial knee-jerk reaction was to start filming the immediate aftermath of the earthquake). Yet Dabashi’s strict wording makes it sound like a self-fulfilling prophecy: Panahi knew what he was doing by not following Kiarostami’s footsteps and instead making explicitly political critiques. He was predictably sentenced a harsh punishment, and now he’s in a position where he can no longer comment on Iranian society in the same subversive manner.

Furthermore, This Is Not A Film does not read to me as an angry film so much as a frustrated one, and plenty of critics have weighed in on how the film’s focus on filmmaking is its most fascinating and revelatory element. Dabashi’s logic is that an artist under Panahi’s degree of pressure is unsuited for artistic creation, but the film’s best strength is that Panahi’s house arrest and inability to make films—the artistic equivalent of a sensory deprivement cell—is exactly the condition necessary to produce astute reflections of the ontology of filmmaking, its process, and the existence of necessary criteria for filmmaking in its sheer absence.

The second biggest problem with Dabashi’s piece is conflating an Iranian artist’s exile with a loss of Iranian identity within their work. The “Iranian-ness” of a film made outside of Iran is not by any stretch an original conundrum; the definition and criteria of national cinema has been an ongoing debate among film scholars for decades. But for all intents and purposes Dabashi is not concerned with the status-quo industrial definition of a film’s “nationality”—that is, the idea that a film belongs to the country or countries that produced it.

This particular definition becomes problematic with certain films. Say, one made in multiple countries, with dialogue spoken in multiple languages, and by a filmmaker from another country. I’m referring to Certified Copy, which is a French-Italian co-production, shot in Tuscany, features dialogue in French, Italian and English, and is made by an Iranian filmmaker. While I don’t disagree with Dabashi’s classification of Certified Copy as being non-Iranian, I can’t help but wonder if he’s (again) being too strict with his generalizations, this time about films made by artists belonging to the Iranian diaspora.

I’d consider Persepolis—a French production—quite the Iranian film because of its strong thematic and narrative identification with the author’s homeland. I’d also make the argument that Like Someone In Love—a French-Japanese co-production with Japanese dialogue—contains an element of Iranian-ness that is a reflection of Kiarostami’s own upbringing.

The film invites the viewer to contemplate the heterogeneous quality of seemingly static relationships and identities. Noriaki’s assumption that Takashi’s relationship with Akiko is that of grandfather/granddaughter, not client/escort, is extremely important not just for the film’s narrative, but its larger ideas about personal relationships and the privacy implicit within them. Like Someone in Love plays off the supposed importance or relevance of projected ideas about identities and relationships to underscore the oppression of their prescribed meanings, as well as the ways in which relationship labels shape our expectations when communicating with others.

Given Noriaki’s violent temperament, it’s obvious that he would not be anywhere near as kind or hospitable towards Takashi if he did not think he was talking to Akiko’s elder family member, whom he has been taught to impress and treat with utmost respect. This is a social script found in many cultures, Iran and Japan included. But the underlying tension within the dynamic between the older gentleman and younger not-so-gentleman is of course, that Takashi is not actually Akiko’s grandfather but rather her client, with whom she spent the previous evening entertaining. Yet through the devoted care Takashi provides Akiko the day after her escort call—protecting her from Noriaki, nursing her wound whilst using the kind of language expected from a parent, picking her up and dropping her off at school—he does in turn, become like a grandfather figure to Akiko. Like Someone in Love may be about sublimated love (in the filmmaker’s own paraphrased words, every character operates like someone in love), but the film is pointing out the many different types of love possible even within a single relationship, and their natural development and dissolution into one another. A relationship is privately never as defined, rigid or containable as the arbitrary language deployed by society and people outside of it.

These polymorphous relations between people are simply a normal part of life, yet in extremely patriarchal societies in which male/female relationships are under heavy scrutiny and surveillance—say, Iran—this organic relationship-building is treated as nonexistent, with discrepancies, or hints of them, treated as damning and requiring of punishment. In equal measure, the desperation that the Islamic regime has instilled in people has eroded the communal thoughtfulness fostered in Iranian culture. Abundant hospitality,taarof and kindness among strangers—centuries-old gestures of geniality—are still present in Iran, but they are easily overturned by paranoia and witch-hunt-like accusations. Films like A Separation explore this idea as well as the collision in fractured families torn by conflicting priorities (Nader’s Alzheimer’s afflicted father versus the freedom of Nader and Simin’s daughter). Many well-known Iranian films explore the issues of personal boundaries and expectations within the context of Iranian social norms, and that’s because Iranian society has been undergoing great turmoil in its traditional and modernist ideas about family relationships. Iran is a culture torn between collectivism and individualism, much like the Japanese culture portrayed in Like Someone in Love, and the film is very much about the futility and uselessness of society’s definitions of an intensely private, unstoppable emotion that blooms into many different kinds of love.