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Poetic Pictures: The Feminization of Iranian Cinema

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Poetic Pictures: The Feminization of Iranian Cinema

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Introduction

In a nation where poetry permeates common parlance, is used to justify arguments, offer guidance, honor patrons, condemn adversaries, and confront authority, its influence naturally extends to various art forms, including cinema. The evidence of this connection is tangible, albeit slowly established and sporadic, embracing diverse methods and techniques over time. Iranian films have come in various forms – some are inherently poetic, some are based on poetry, and others merely incorporate poetic elements. Additionally, the growing prominence of poetry in film aligns with women’s rising representation and productivity.

Sometimes, poets have been directly involved in filmmaking. Forough Farrokhzad and Shahrzad were two notable women who actively engaged in both cinema and literature before and around the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the postrevolutionary era, there has been a surge in women’s participation in both fields. Notable figures such as Granaz Moussavi, Marzieh Vafamehr, Andishe Fooladvand, and Azadeh Bizargiti have significantly contributed to both domains. Through the works of these women and a few other filmmakers, this article analyzes the intertwining of cinema and poetry, noticing a common focus on women’s issues. The paper contends that women literary authors, filmmakers, and feminist activists have collectively contributed to a more feminine cinema and feminist cinematic trends in Iran, a dimension absent in the prerevolutionary era.

Furthermore, this paper argues that the prerevolutionary cinematic discourse, primarily a response to modernity and the Shah’s top-down feminism, aimed at protecting masculinity, which was perceived to be under threat. Conversely, the postrevolutionary movement has seen the emergence of a dominant female-friendly cinematic discourse and has sought to safeguard femininity as a response to the state’s systemic misogyny.

Words and Pictures

The connection between cinema and literature is not new or exclusive to Iran. Spanish, French, and American cinema have long been making poetic films, and Italian director and poet Pier Pasolini even conceptualized “The Cinema of Poetry” in 1965. In the case of Iranian cinema, I can add that surrealism and the struggle with the reality of daily life as portrayed in cinema have come close to establishing an affinity with the literary genre. In both genres, a discursive imagination is the outline, and rearranged pieces of reality are the content.

By using the term poetic pictures, I am thus trying to avoid the problematics of the definition of Iranian poetic cinema. A picture does not need to rely solely on straightforward prose or dialogue. Instead, pictures can envision a concept, a dream, a memory, an experience as brief, colorful, urgent, and tumultuous as a poem.

So, why has this meaning, this desire for literariness, become a feature, a fixation, for Iranian cinema? Should we use poetic as a standard attribute of the Iranian film? It might be an unfair characterization or even a stereotypical designation to say that American cinema is entirely fascinated with violence. Equally, it might be half true to characterize French cinema by its obsession with sex or British cinema with history. However, if such reductionism would prove helpful to our understanding, what would be the core characteristic of Iranian cinema? My conservative answer is that Iranian cinema has undergone a few discursive changes, particularly with the changes wrought upon the country due to the dreadful 1979 Revolution. Nevertheless, if pressed to be more specific, I would use poetic as a cautious attribute for th Iranian cinema, at least the postrevolutionary cinema and, more specifically, the cinema since the 1990s, when a reformist movement appeared in politics and religion.1

Other somewhat poetic movies of the pre-revolutionary and postrevolutionary periods include,

سو تفاهم، سارا اقتباس از عروسک ایبسن، پشت پا به زندگ چمدان، کاغذ بی خط ضد ساختار مردسالارنه، باشو غریبه کوچک، خانه پدری عیاری، تهران من حراج، کامپازیو پرتوی کافه ترانزیت، سگ کشی – بهرام بیضایی، گیلانه رخشان بنی اعتماد، من ترانه پانزده سال دارم- رسول صدرعاملی، چای تلخ تقوایی، به همین سادگی – رضا میرکریمی، رگ خواب- حمید نعمت اله، حاج آقا اکتور سینما

From that period onward, films have almost been obsessed with poetry.

As far as women artists are concerned, the connection between prerevolutionary cinema and poetry can be exemplified in the legacies of Forough Farrokhzad, who, as a poet, made a documentary film and indirectly to Shahrzad, who moved from cinema to poetry. In recent decades, the works of Granaz Moussavi, Marizeh Vafamehr, Azadeh Bizargiti, and Andishe Fooladvand are among the films that demonstrate a poetic quality. These works might have been influenced by Farrokhzad’s work, but are also inspired by the works of male filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Ebrahim Golestan, Sohrab Shahid Sales, and Amir Naderi, who all have strengthen the poetic aspect of Iranian film.2By its conviction and messages, and unlike the commercial movies of the time, which often feature dance, nudity, and a morbid plot, Gav (The Cow) was not concerned with gender, sexuality, and entertainment, and it, thus, not surprisingly, did not do well at the box office. However, its critical and artistic approach paved the way for additional New Wave films. It gave rise to a generation of filmmakers in the 1970s who many see as the masters of Iranian cinema. Some of Iran’s greatest directors, including Sohrab Shahid-Sales (Tabiat-e Bijan [Still life]), Daryush Mehrjui (Gav), Abbas Kiarostami (Khaneh Dust Kojast [Where is Friend’s House]), Amir Naderi (Davandeh [The runner]), and Bahram Bayzai (Bashu, Gharibe Kochak [Bashu, the little stranger]) began their careers in this period and have continued to be active after the revolution. Their works, one may conclude, have provided the context for the success of postrevolutionary cinema. New Wave filmmakers were less interested in featuring women characters and more interested in advocating social change. They adhered to a leftist discourse that sought more than anything else to change the political arrangement by criticizing the unpleasant realities of Iranian life under Mohammad Reza Shah (1941–79). Of those pioneering directors, some continue their poetic works. Two of Kiarostami’s movies’ titles are actually lines of poetry by Sepeheri and Farrokhzad: Where Is the Friend’s Home? and The Wind Will Carry Us. (Cinematic signs and symbols resemble many elements of this poem. However, it is also widely believed that the film is on the short story “Why Ms. Teacher Cried?”  by Behruz Tajvar.) To be clear, these films do not recite the poems. Action and images are joined to create or convey and echo their sentiment. In some of his movies, the protagonists’ attitudes remind them of the classical literary portrayal.  All these indicate that poetic, moving pictures are not produced only when a poet makes a movie or a moviemaker depicts poetry or poetic concepts. In addition to the above example, a few filmmakers attempted to produce movies based on classical romances and tragedies in a distant past, so film makers’ connection to literature are to some extent documented.

Overall, the more profound reason for the poetic quality of Iranian films pertains to the cultural history, social condition, and the necessity of expressing ideas through metaphors, allegories, or shattered stanzas. The rise of the social feminist literary discourse with similar artistic preoccupations in a highly restrictive context also affected the nature of Iranian cinema from the end of the 1980s onward.

Poetry and Cinema Before the Revolution

A vast majority of the prerevolutionary movies tacitly and sometimes boldly questioned or mocked the social bravery required of men and women to achieve a modern life, which also required the exploration of sexuality. They asked women to sacrifice, safeguard gender boundaries, and uphold a tradition so men might protect and cherish their masculinity. Such depictions did not require much poetry and flew in the face of attempts to achieve modernity and helped the revolutionary culture of the late 1970s. The dearth of the portrayal of sexuality and eroticism led me to argue in Modernity, Sexuality, and Ideology in Iran: The Life and Legacy of a Popular Female Artist that modernity never indeed unfolded in that period and that any attempt to promote the discourse of modernity was hampered by numerous obstacles. There, I further argued that the reason for the absence of a successful modernization process and a pervasive discourse of modernity in Iran, particularly in the seventies, was that any public and theoretical discussion of modern ideas and philosophies lacked the necessary academic, intellectual, and national debate over the seminal subjects of gender and sexuality in poetry and film. 3In particular, see chapters one and two in Kamran Talattof, Modernity, Sexuality, and Ideology in Iran: The Life and Legacy of a Popular Female Artist Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011.

Nevertheless, tracing and discussing the evolution of poetic trait within cinema should begin with a few rare movies of that period. Before the revolution, a few films experimented with literature. One was Siyavash in Persepolis (1963) by the poet Feraydun Rahnama. The film script clearly points to a few classical poetry sources such as Nezami’s Layli and Majnun.

4 The list of movies based on literary works includes:

Layli and Majnun 1316 by Sipanta, Layli and Majnun 1335 by Nurbakhsh, Layli and Majnun1349 by Yasami, Shirin o Farhad 1313, by Sipanta, Shirin o Farhad 1349, by Kushan, Ferdowsi 1313, by Sipanta, Yusif o Zulika 1335, by Yasami, Yusif o Zulika 1347, by Rais Firuz, and Siyavosh dar Takht Jamshid 1347, by Rahnama. The following films are based on Sadiq Hidayat’s stories: Dash Akul 1971 and Buf kur 1975. See, http://www.golistan.org/

But this film failed. Tajikistan, then enjoying more advanced Soviet film and musical technologies, produced movies more successful full films based on Rudaki’s life and Ferdowsi’s poetic tragedies.

Forogh Farrazkhzad best creatively married pictures and poems in this period. Farrokhzad’s The House is Black has been the subject of several studies and presentations. Many of the contributors to an edited volume on the cinematic works of Farrokhzad describe her films as poetic. 5See Nasrin Rahimieh and Dominic Brookshaw, Forugh Farrokhzad, Poet of Modern Iran London: I.B. Tauris, 2010, 35. Of course, the movie at the time seems to have contributed to the consistently negative discourse of the political opposition as it too was perceived as a political commentary. However, it is the poetic quality of the pictures that endures. Her film contains rhythmic, somewhat balanced ‘stanzas’ as regards its dialogue and the sequencing of the scenes. The Black House is a cinematic poem and Farrokhzad’s first experiment in explicitly merging cinema and poetry.” 636 Heydari, Forugh Farrokhzad va Sinema. And 62 Thinking aesthetically or chronologically, Forough Farrokhzad’s work influenced the works of Ebrahim Golestan, Sohrab Shahid Sales, Amir Naderi, and Abbas Kiarostami, all men producing after Farrokhzad. 7See my article in the volume mentioned above. “Personal Rebellion and Social Revolt in the Works of Forugh Farrokhzād: Challenging the Assumptions,” in Nasrin Rahimieh and Dominic Brookshaw, Forugh Farrokhzad, Poet of Modern Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010.

Shahrzad’s Career in Cinema

Kobra Saidi, known as Shahrzad, represents another connection between cinema and poetry in that period. She acted in more than sixteen movies, and although she never had the leading role, her performances were occasionally praised, and she received two awards. She also wrote three volumes of poetry, a book of prose, a screenplay, and several commentaries for film journals. Nevertheless, in all those sixteen movies, men subjugated women and commodified their bodies. Then, the minute the leading lady became the protagonist’s exclusive woman, his property, she needed to leave the public space, the dancing scene, or anywhere other men’s gaze could fall on her. When Shahrzad began to make movies as a poet, the 1979 Islamic Revolution occurred. For women’s sanctity to be wholly redeemed, she had to be confined in a veil and within walls. There was no poetry, and there was nothing poetic at all about the subjugation of women. In the shortest role she ever had (Escape from the Trap, 1969), Shahrazad’s performance can be considered a moving moment merging storytelling, unspoken poetry, and dance. 8In Farar az Taleh, the director Jalal Moqdam decides to simply have Shahrzad lounge around seductively, listening to a conversation between two men. She performs superbly. Shahrzad’s short part is peripheral to the film’s story; she does not utter a word. She does her usual erotic dance, however. Her character is passive and only an accommodation to her man, but she conveys this meaning very well with the movements of her eyes, hands, neck, and head. One can argue that she offers one of her best performances in this movie. She is genuinely confident and in control.

Postrevolutionary Rise of Feminist Cinema and a Cinematic Poesy

The 1979 Revolution brought a sudden shift in the world of cinema, altering its priorities and possibilities, leading to the disappearance of dance and, more broadly, representations of the female body from the big screen. Dance has held a significant historical presence in Iran, dating back to the fifth and sixth millennium BC and in the last century, was often intertwined with popular movies. Despite the repressive and sexist stance of the Islamic government, which resulted in the banning of dance in cinema and public spaces, the art form has persisted within society, thriving in clandestine dance schools and private settings. Even the suppression of dance by arresting dancers and instructors, such as Mohamad Khordadian, who visited Iran in 2002 and raided dance performances, has not deterred its growth. People continue to dance in unconventional spaces—streets, picnic areas, and roads—while being vigilant and dispersing when confronted by the Guidance Patrol Forces. Men have adapted women’s dance styles, some drawing inspiration from Khordadian, aligning them more closely with women’s cause. However, this ancient Iranian art remains absent from post-revolutionary cinematic representations, save for occasional metaphorical depictions, such as symbolizing emotions and desires through the interaction of birds, flowers, or shadows.

Consequently, cinema has been deprived of showcasing this ancient art form and its diverse styles and genres. Occasionally, the absence of physical dance is compensated for by poetic verses that capture the essence of the art form. The cinematic realm, therefore, lacks the vibrant richness and narrative potential that dance could offer, but brings to the fore the rhythm of the words.

Through the veiling code and other restrictions on social interactions, the Islamic regime tried to control every aspect of social behavior, but especially women. They banned the showing of the female body and hair, female singing, and because of socio-political changes, they suppressed Iranian cinema entirely for a few years. Most new filming guidelines were designed to restrict female participation in film activities. Islamic Republic dress codes require women to cover their hair in public places (and the screen is considered a public space) while in the presence of a man who is not related by marriage or blood. Women are required to wear loose-fitting outer garments to cover their curves. The word veil thus signifies more than the veil as a head covering (hijab). It suggests that women’s bodies and voices are also the subjects of ideological control and that women’s social conduct and even eye contact must be regulated in their relations with men. And such regulations even apply to the fictional world of films. This often results in the production of very artificial scenes where, for instance, a woman must wear a veil even in bed. Film directors must remember that the actors who play couples are not allowed to touch each other, get too close, or exchange words of deep intimacy.

What do Iranians do in desperate times? They write or recite poetry. The number of postrevolutionary movies that employed poetic techniques to produce moving pictures is significant. The dominance of gender issues can be further exemplified in the works of Dariush Mehrjui, who, before the revolution, made the political and psychological film The Cow (1969). In the postrevolutionary period, he made many movies that focused on gender issues, featuring women prominently. 9The Lodgers (1987), Hamoun (1990), The Lady (1991), Sara (1993), Pari (1995), Leila (1996), Mum’s Guest (2004), Santouri (2007). Several of his films bear female names as titles. In Leila (1997), the young barren Leila and her husband are going through difficult times trying to start a family. Their lives are turned upside down when the man marries another woman to bear offspring. Leila’s inner feelings, internal conflicts, and degradation are portrayed through nothing but what can be conceptualized as poetic pictures focusing on the mundane items in one kitchen or the row of cypresses on the street.

Hemlock (2000), by Behruz Afkhami, is a movie about a high-level manager’s affair with a nurse, ending in a tragedy. In this film, like in Leila, pictorial melodies help portray feelings, love, and even some aspects of sexuality that cannot be depicted straightforwardly.

In numerous movies, the characters use mild body language that is suggestive and completes the task of conveying a sense of a sexual relationship without words. The directors use symbolic language to portray physical intimacy. Sometimes, the characters’ shadows, dresses, or words overlap to indicate physical intimacy, for example.

In other cases, the protagonist’s emotions are expressed through highly metaphorical or symbolic discourse. For example, actors use suggestive language to discuss something related to their beloved, faith, or personal situations. Boutique (2003), which portrays the problematic relationship between a bored boutique worker and a defiant and beautiful teenage student, provides such a technique. The young female character, played by Golshifteh Farahani, shows much excitement about her male friend’s car and sunglasses, which, under any ordinary situation, away from the camera or watching eyes, would have been expressed about aspects of the male character himself. 10For a discussion of this topic and more examples of the treatment of hejab in the movies, see Norma Claire Moruzzi, “Women’s Space/Cinema Space: Representations of Public and Private in Iranian Films,” Middle East Report, No. 212 (Autumn, 1999), 52–55.

Other actions, particularly during the car ride, are suggestive in the same manner, similar to Farahani’s later movie, Santuri (The Music Man, 2007). The female and male characters touch each other frequently using objects like their scarves. In one scene, the woman asks a Mollah who is marrying them to kiss the groom for her, a statement that may make sense in the context of the film but also becomes a social statement outside the cinematic text.

The newest generation of female film directors, too, focuses on the presentation of the female. Women must, of course, abide by a few more codes of conduct in the production of their films, but they have found unique ways to address serious sexual, social, and cultural issues.

As the presentation of sexuality in Iranian film became more challenging, subtle, and honest, directors found creative ways to present some of its aspects without making things look too ridiculous and suggestive. There is a precedent for that technique. As we know, the 12th-century Persian poet Nezami Ganjavi saw sexual drive in its natural sense and frequently portrays it in his story of Seven Beautiful Girls and the legend of King Khosrow and Queen Shirin to the extent that some parts of these books might be referred to as the book of lust, but in a classic style. 11See Kamran Talattof Nezami Ganjavi and Classical Persian Poetry: Demystifying the Mystic, London, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.

Unlike Nezami’s work, sometimes the cinematic methods border on the ridiculous and impede the rise of a discourse of modernity. Or the filmmakers may portray what they consider to be the symbols of modernity (such as a boutique, a brand-new car, loud music produced by a sound system, or colorful subway trains) in a grim manner to convey or challenge the idea that society is indeed changing. Today, Iranian films may not show flesh and dancing, but the topics of sexuality, gender roles, and women’s place in contemporary society are sometimes depicted as bleak and sometimes hopeful in mind of many filmmakers, very much the same way that these tensions run through the social fabric of the society. A significant part of this new cinematic interest in gender issues is rooted in and assisted by the rise of feminist discourse since the late 1980s and poetic depictions in cinema. 12As has been the case with literary movements, cinematic communities have also always shaped the way their consumers interpret their cinema products. The dominant mode of film reception in Iran has also changed every time a new movement or a new mode of expression appears. Each movement encourages its own way of reception. The elements that constitute this discursive relationship between the filmmakers and their audience include cinematic techniques, sarcastic language, symbolism, and metaphor, all being worked into the context of the relationship between the regime’s dominant ideological discourse, censorship, and the country’s desire for change, progress, and simple functionality. By encouraging an understanding of the nuances of the plots, filmmakers also promote a subjective reception. Through all this, they shape the viewers’ tastes and teach them to place the importance of political or sexual meaning over any symbolic, cinematic, entertaining scene. The response to a successful movie is sometimes long lines at the box office, praise and positive reviews in cinematic weblogs, or the banning and punishment of the filmmakers.

New Postrevolutionary Poetic Expression by Iranian Women Filmmakers

Granaz Mousavi’s award-winning My Tehran for Sale (2009) best exemplifies the connection of cinema, poetry, and feminism. It was groundbreaking in portraying sexuality in the postrevolutionary period. Before this debut, Mousavi was already established as a poet. 13Granaz Mousavi’s My Tehran for Sale best represents the connection between cinema, poetry, and feminism. A poet, Grana Moussavi, indeed made this movie. Moussavi is considered a filmmaker and an avant-garde poet with a few published collections, including the noticeable Sketching on Night. Her My Tehran for Sale, banned for a while after being screened, is interconnected with poetry in several ways. In 2015, she published a bilingual (Persian and French) poetry collection entitled Les rescapés de la patience.  The movie challenges the traditional restrictions in Iranian society and the cinema industry. It is a bit creative in storytelling and quite Western in its cinematic techniques. Moussavi and some of her friends from her original country, Iran, and her new home, Australia, succeed in telling an empathetic and intensely personal story familiar to middle-class Iranian intellectuals. Marzieh, played by Marizieh Vafamehr, is a tough woman who nevertheless seems unable to resolve the contradictions between her lifestyle and her family, between her love for theatrical performance and the cultural restrictions, between leaving the country for Australia and staying in Iran. The more she tries, the more she stumbles into predicaments. It has been criticized for being low-budget, being fractured scenes, and uneven editing; however, one can see these flaws as representative of an underground culture that no perfect camera can see. But it has not been praised for its daring portrayal of couples in bed or kissing in public. And no matter what, this movie is an excellent example of how poetry and pictures interact. Let us look at the diverse ways this has been done.

Names, Reciting, and Signing Poetry

Early in the movie, the female protagonist, Marzieh, shows Tehran to her friend, starting with the outside of the cemetery where several poets are buried. The scene above where Marzieh recites/sings a couple of lines of a song by Qamar in honor of Iraj Mirza refers to a more historical connection between performance and poetry, past and present.

Furthermore, a poet, played by the poet/director, Mousavi herself, reads her work in two other scenes. The verses explicitly reference the story of the film, particularly the story of Marzieh. A passage reads,

Yeah, search my purse

But for what?

My lament, which has heard you constantly yelling ‘halt.’

is hidden in the depths of my pocket.

Leave me alone!

Frankly, I sleep with the raspberry bushes

And I will not be outstared.

Why do you always target a woman who

has not done anything but give up the walls

or attaching a heart to her clothes?

There is nothing in my suitcase except

My hair who has not committed a sin

Leave me alone!

کیفم را بگردید

چه فایده؟

ته جیبم آهی پنهان است که مدام شنیده: ایست

ولم کنید!

اصلا با بوته ی تمشک میخوابم و از رو نمی روم

چرا همیشه زنی را نشانه می گیرید

که دل از دیوار می کند

قلبی به پیراهنش سنجاق کند؟

در چمدانم چیزی نیست

جز گیسوانی که گناهی نکرده اند

ولم کنید!.

14Granaz Mousavi

The poet is also the director of the movie, Granaz Mousavi, who has published a few books of poetry, including a French-Persian bilingual collection. As you can see, the poem is as daring as the movie itself. In another scene, one can hear a performance of “My whole being is a dark verse. 15

Timeline starts at 1:05:28,

همه هستی من آیه تاریکیست…..

One more example is a poem recitation that starts when Marzieh is in the back of a truck to be smuggled out of the country. There is a flashback to when she was with her friend in the Tehran foothills, and then this memory triggers a performance of a poem by Hafez.

O Wild Deer, where are you today?

So much like each other, we have come all this way.

Lonely and wandering, we two cannot last;

we are both prey stalked by our future and past.

So let us into one another inquire

and discover therein our deepest desire.

Why cannot these depths of our wild desert land

offer safety and joy sometimes in its sand?

الا ای آهوی وحشی کجایی

مرا با توست چندین آشنایی

دو تنها و دو سرگردان دو بی‌کس

دد و دامت کمین از پیش و از پس

بیا تا حال یکدیگر بدانیم

مراد هم بجوییم ار توانیم

که می‌بینم که این دشت مشوش

چراگاهی ندارد خرم و خوش

 

16Feb. 3, 2013 · 9:21 PM “Wild Deer” by Hafez, Seawrack’s Song at: https://momentoftime.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/wild-deer-hafez/
17

See,

مثنوی “الا ای آهوی وحشی” در دیوان حافظ


The recitation of Hafez’s lines is followed by a sound of the call to prayers coming from down below and a few of Marzieh’s primal screams.

The poems used for My Tehran for Sale become even more specific to the story. At one point, we hear melancholically murmuring two lines of a Sa’di’s lyric in the back of the truck and after the scene in which her mother seems unable to talk to her for being a disgrace to his father.

O you have a wealth of antidote,

Come to the beaten ones in despair

You have the remedy, but you leave us wounded

We need another lifetime after our death

We need another lifetime after our death

Because we lived this life

Because we lived this life

All in hopes and wishes

All in hopes and wishes

ای گنج نوشدارو بر خستگان گذر کن

مرهم بدست و ما را مجروح می‌گذاری

عمری دگر بباید بعد از وفات ما را

عمری دگر بباید بعد از وفات ما را

کاین عمر طی نمودیم…

کاین عمر طی نمودیم…

اندر امیدواری، اندر امیدواری،

اندر امیدواری، اندر امیدواری

 

Songs and Music

Of course, there are a few songs in these films, which generally come from poetry and tend to enrich the mood and the action. It is possible that both the music and the lyrics are radical in form and content, as has been the case most recently with the underground mélange of rock, blues, and traditional Persian music, using new or classical poetry. Of note is the song sung by Babak Mirzakhani starting with the line “امشب زنی که خنده غریبه ای را دید تا صبح بیدار ماند” (Tonight, a woman who saw a stranger’s smile stayed awake till morning). 18The lyric of the song by Babak Mirzakhani Music Group. There is also a song based on another Sa’di poem.19

It starts with,

بگذار تا بگرییم چون ابر در بهاران / کز سنگ گریه خیزد روز وداع یاران

Signs and Poetry

My Tehran for Sale is also replete with other poetic significations. When Marzieh is in a refugee camp in Australia awaiting the hearing her case, she is depicted in her bed reading the translation of a collection of poetry by Sylvia Platt. After selling her furniture and other belongings to pay the smuggler to take her out of Iran, she gave away two books of poetry, which she refused to sell to her friend. The movie is filmed in Iran, but it is unclear why and how she took Sylvia Platt to the camp in Adelaide.

Yet, in another scene, Marzieh is sitting on a staircase, very depressed. Above her, a portrait of Forough Farrokhzad is hanging against the faded color of a wall. The picture, taken by Naser Taqva’i, was published in the 1960s in a journal called Arts and Literature of the Sout, edited by Mansour Khaksar. In the background, we hear a song by the underground group of Babak Mirzakhani. Finally, even the movie trailer features mostly poetry or singing, further enforcing connections between the genres rather uniquely.

But why does a movie that features underground art scenes and communities of Tehran by focusing on the life and predicaments of a young actress who has been banned from performing in theater, rejected by her family, and abandoned by her boyfriend have to be so closely connected to poetry? Why can a highly modern woman’s struggle to remain relevant in her pursuit of her passion in a context conducive to her lifestyle be considered a poetic subject? Isn’t leading a secret lifestyle under a religious state a social dilemma? Can her constant difficulty with decision-making and with her identity be written in poetry? The answers to these questions require an interdisciplinary study of film and poetry as these two media have joined to help express the state of being in a strange moment in the contemporary history of Iran.

Some stories simply cannot be written or have not been written yet. These are tragedies of the stories of unfulfilled dreams, shattered hope, detention, and death. They are stories of suffocation that leave no breath for their narrators to tell them. Only metaphorical constructs, allegorical ambiguity, and symbolic signification can narrate them. Restrictions on the freedom of expression paradoxically contribute to how the plots are treated implicitly, mythically, and poetically.

Poetics of Vafamehr’s Films

Some filmmakers tap into more than a millennium of poetic tradition that some of them might have, by and large, internalized to shed light on the source of pain or provide a remedy for the pain born of restrictions and disrespect.

The lead actress of My Tehran For Sale, Marzieh Vafamehr, has to tap into her memory to provide a poetic explanation for her pain. Marzieh Vafamehr was praised and imprisoned for her role in that movie. My Tehran for Sale was also highly acclaimed. The character she played in My Tehran For Sale (Tehran-e Man, Haraj, 2009) seemed to have been affected by the plagues of war as she explained it to her boyfriend.

Besides acting, she writes and directs. Her film Wind, Ten-Year-Old (Bad, Dah Saleh, 2006) exemplifies the Iranian poetic pictures in its sense of elusiveness and urgency. In this short film, she ponders the roots of some psychological programs conducted during the 1980s war, that seen as affected young elementary students. I found Ten-Year-Old Wind an exceptional work (It can be an attempt at Fellini’s style or reminiscent of the 1978 documentary Le Vent des Amoureux by Albert Lamorisse.).

Because the movie is unavailable for public viewing, I limit my analysis and only comment on its pertinence to our subject at hand. By featuring a day in the life of a 10-year-old girl, the film emphasizes the Iran-Iraq war, its effects on children’s lives, and how the related cultural propaganda installed turmoil, fear, and doubt in the minds of a generation.

Like many Iranian films made about children, it entails complexity and nested layers of meaning. Each scene consists of metaphors and allusions with double meanings (if not more). Directing and managing a children’s play is admirable and poetic. The voice of the wartime leader portrayed in numerous ways before gains a new meaning here, an absurd nostalgia, striking the viewers before they are taken to another stanza stage. Instead of a plausible prose dialogue, an invisible catapult (or black and white wind) sequences the scenes in no particular order. In a scene, an older woman works on her sewing machine in a Basij Troop Station. She has some direct, disheartening words, but her utterance is soon eclipsed by the heartbreaking complexity of the background, where the sewing machine sounds and feels like a gigantic machine, a tank. The sound of the wheels no longer feels like the soothing whisper that used to come from the mother’s five-door room into the courtyard: its sound now pierces the ear and challenges consciousness. If you watch the scenes closely, you might remember Forough Farrokhzad’s lines,

 

Dear stars,

Dear Paper Stars,

How can we take shelter in the verses of disgraced prophets?

When lies blow like a wind in the skies?

ستاره‌های عزیز

ستاره‌های مقوایی عزیز

وقتی در آسمان، دروغ وزیدن می‌گیرد

دیگر چگونه می‌شود به سوره‌های رسولان سر شکسته پناه آورد؟

20Forough Farrokhzad, Iman Biavarim beh Aghaz-e Fasl-e Sard (Tehran, Iran 1974).

 

In the end, the film connects us so very honestly with our recent historical experience, using memory, nostalgia, and a choice to create a eulogy for the lost logical stability of time and space, which could not be best defined in an ordinary prose dialogue.

Conclusion

Despite all odds, women poets continue to be astonishingly active in Iranian cinema. The movie Vaqt-e Chigh-e Anar (When Pomegranates Howl, 2020), written and directed by Garnaz Mousavi and was produced by Marizeh Vafamehr, renders another wartime story. It was selected for Tokyo’s 2021 Film Festival. 21See, https://2021.tiff-jp.net/en/lineup/list.html?departments=4

Andisheh Fouladvand has played in several movies and TV series and has published two collections of poetry.22

Including her Portentous Sneezes and Comrade, Shoot

عطسه‌های نحس، ۱۳۸۷

مجموعه شعر: شلیک کن رفیق ، ۱۳۹۳

Azadeh Bizargiti, an actor and documentary filmmaker, comes to the cinema with deep expertise in literature and literary studies. 23

She published:

گریلی، حدیث بی‌قراری لیلی

We have now reached a point where a field of study that can be named Iranian poetic cinema is in the making. For example, in her book, The Poetics of Iranian Cinema: Aesthetics, Modernity, and Film after the Revolution, Khatereh Sheibani believes that Iranian film has replaced Persian poetry as the dominant form of cultural expression in that country. 24Khatereh Sheibani, The Poetics of Iranian Cinema: Aesthetics, Modernity, and Film after the Revolution (London: I. B. Tauris & Company, Limited, 2011).  In Allegory in Iranian Cinema: The Aesthetics of Poetry and Resistance, Michelle Langford sees trauma as a formative factor in both Iranian poetry and Iranian cinema.” 25Michelle Langford, Allegory in Iranian Cinema: The Aesthetics of Poetry and Resistance (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). Similarly, in her dissertation, “Poetic Cinema: Trauma and Memory in Iranian Films,” Proshot Kalami ponders the problematics of the representation of the reality of those who have been victimized and traumatized in the postrevolutionary period. 26Proshot Kalami, Poetic Cinema: Trauma and Memory in Iranian Films (a dissertation at the University of California, Davis, 2008). A few works have analyzed her poetry and writing. 27These include, L’univers symbolique et son écriture chez Granaz Moussavi.

While none of these works have focused on My Tehran for Sale, in 2011, two years after screening her movie, Granaz Mousavi, the director, completed a doctoral dissertation entitled “My Tehran for Sale: a reflection on the aesthetics of Iranian poetic cinema.” According to its abstract, “The thesis is an exploration of the relationship between Persian poetry and the internationally celebrated and inspiring Iranian art-house cinema; and an experimentation of applying such poetic aesthetics in My Tehran For Sale as a reflection on a native poetics.” 28Granaz Mousavi, “My Tehran for Sale: A Reflection on the Aesthetics of Iranian Poetic Cinema.” (University of Western Sydney, 2011).

Despite this trend, Iranian cinema has not fully explored its poetic potential. The rich reservoir of literary gems provided by Ferdowsi, Gorgani, and no doubt Nezami Ganjavi have yet to be artistically explored. Shirin by Kiarostami does not succeed in portraying what this triangle love story can offer cinematically.

With the increasing number of women and women poets entering cinematic fields, with the postrevolutionary focus on women resulting in the feminization of film, the genres of poetry and film become more entangled with one another. Today, we can distinguish a poetic dimension in a film, which is more rooted in the much-revered Persian poetic tradition than in the influence of Italian Neorealism or the French New Wave, as was the case in the prerevolutionary Iranian New Wave cinema. Look for:

  1. The use of metaphors and symbols
  2. The actual use or echoes of poetic lines or expressions
  3. The use of rhymes and refrains (as pictorial patterns) within the films
  4. The use of movement in the form of go/stop, forcing views to pause, ponder, wonder
  5. The use of minimalism directing viewers to imagine beyond the frame
  6. A more global language of images that seeks emotional impact
  7. Sophistication and ability to contain and covey multi-level meanings (intended or not)
  8. Minimum control over the flow of the textual or cinematic narratives

Both poetry and cinema have also gained a new epistemic aspect. They have become more concise and craftier at the concealment of personal aspiration and pain in social uncertainty, linguistic ambiguity, gender discrimination, and the double meaning of life itself. These features have shifted the focal motifs from the social to the individual, to survival, and even escapism. A similar process has occurred in cinema; it is no longer a medium for entertaining the masses or advocating for their cause. It has become a symbolic, metaphorical tool to break the silence and society’s chains. Thus, cinematic production and the representation of fundamental themes regarding gender issues, children, nature, and cultural problems using poetic styles became and continues to be a dominant mode.

Cite this article

Cinema Iranica (May 27, 2024) Poetic Pictures: The Feminization of Iranian Cinema. Retrieved from https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/poetic-pictures-the-feminization-of-iranian-cinema/.
"Poetic Pictures: The Feminization of Iranian Cinema." Cinema Iranica - May 27, 2024, https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/poetic-pictures-the-feminization-of-iranian-cinema/
Cinema Iranica April 15, 2024 Poetic Pictures: The Feminization of Iranian Cinema., viewed May 27, 2024,<https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/poetic-pictures-the-feminization-of-iranian-cinema/>
"Poetic Pictures: The Feminization of Iranian Cinema." Cinema Iranica - Accessed May 27, 2024. https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/poetic-pictures-the-feminization-of-iranian-cinema/