In his Letter to a Young Muslim, Tariq Ali recalls a meeting in the late 1990s with another young Muslim, the Iranian filmmaker, Moslem Mansouri. The older man commiserated with his junior who had met with repeated failure in securing network distribution in his adoptive U.S over his latest film, an expose of the harsh existence of prostitutes in Iran. Ali reproduces transcripts from the film that show its general flavour - the film focuses on the hypocrisy of a society that, on the one hand, objectifies the female and binds her reduction to sexual property into its jurisprudence, yet on the other, regards what it might term a freelance (ie. extra-legal) sexual object - the prostitute - as little more than vermin, to be used and disposed as 'right-thinking' males see fit. That of course, is why we covet objects - the fact of owning itself indicates power, and this power is demonstrated through acts of appropriation, allocation and disposal. Like most theatre, it is of course a sham (yet one cherished by more than just Iranian men .), a 'gentlemen's agreement' of property and liberties which, in order to be sustained, requires ever more desperate and actions to keep what is owned in check. Such a crisis is dramatised in Fariborz Kamkari's Black Tape (2003), in which an ever-smiling husband treats his wife in much the same fashion as the expensive ornaments and trophies decorating his flat. The film is a domestic drama that hides a much wider political warning in its bloody denouement.
More recently another documentary, this time by Maziar Bahari entitled And Along Came a Spider, debuted at this year's Edinburgh International Film festival alongside Black Tape. The film covers similar territory as Mansouri's and indeed Kamkari's but viewed under more extreme circumstances; it is the narrative of 'the Spider', serial killer Saeed Hanaei, who murdered 16 women (mostly prostitutes) in the holy city of Mashad. The lurid, horrific excess of this theatrical response to freelance sexual objects by an upstanding Iranian citizen served to throw the whole matter into a sharper- if more sensational relief than Mansouri's treatment. Hanaei was championed by hardline Iranian conservatives for his literalist interpretation of the directive to 'prevent vice' contained in the Qu'ran, for fitting an action directly to the word. A psychotic who was disappointed, rather than relieved when the gruelling Iran-Iraq war ended, Hanaei was happy to take the holy book as his sanitation manual for his holy city. He is also a fantasist, reading divine approval in a change in the weather and believing himself to be striking a path for others to follow. The film really gets interesting when the camera pans out to take in the complexities of political and social dialogue in Iran - namely the interaction between 'reform' and 'tradition'. When this writer interviewed Bahari at the festival, his film had yet to secure a network release - it had however, in being aired, avoided the awful fate of Mansouri's, so there was no need for this writer to commiserate. Mansouri certainly lacked the sensational hook that Bahari's piece had, but this was not why he had failed to gain a distribution deal - the US networks made their decision, not on basis of any of the film's artistic demerits, but those that might be scored against Khatami's reformist government.
Leaving aside Bahari's and Mansouri's relative success and failure in reaching an audience, do we not wonder at the behaviour of American television networks in effectively, spin doctoring on the behalf of the Khatami regime? Perhaps not so much: the nineties and early noughties were times when Iran found much more favour with western powers than at present, Khatami groomed as the Shah whose nakedness could not be noticed. The reformists are in power in the parliament but that institution is only a part of Iran's intricate political system - the post of President is not in any way cognate with 'Supreme Leader'. Thus, while the parliamentarians speak of openness the judiciary do not. Iranian films still meet with crippling restrictions on distribution and dissemination of films and documentaries. Khatami is often left unable to guarantee his own promises or threats; he is arguably, less able to match word to deed than the outlaw Hanaei - something unlikely to have escaped the notice of the general populace.
All of these factors has, historically, made the international scene all the more important to Iranian directors, and Mansouri's experience all the more worrying. Like a post-modern Weimar Diaspora, Iranian directors feed off of distribution in France, Italy and continental Europe, and the wider film festival circuit having realized that if the law does not make room for them, like the Spider and the prostitutes he kills, they have to move outside of it. The problem for these films is the exclusivity of these circles; the U.S. has shown intermittent, often very little interest in disseminating this cinema beyond its own festival circuit. What this can amount to is at worst, a rhetorical discourse that no one answers or listens to, or at best, a literally occasional dialogue of the kind described by Said in Islam as News:
'Academic experts on Islam in the West today tend to know about jurisprudential schools in 10th century Baghdad or 19th century, but never (or almost never) about the whole civilisation of Islam - literature, politics, history and so on. This has not prevented 'experts' from generalising from time to time about the "Islamic mind-set" or the "Shi'a penchant for martyrdom," ... More significantly, the occasions for public discussions of Islam, by experts or by non-experts has always been provided by political crises.'
Given that the U.S. has rediscovered Iran as a stage for grand political drama, this time over enriched uranium, Mansouri might do well to dig out his reels and resubmit to the networks, and see what happens. Joking aside, Said wrote this piece in 1980, as events in Iran played themselves out. It is hard to say that much has changed now - yes, Islam is a frequent feature of news and current affairs programmes, but then after all, we are all engaged in a long, protracted crisis described to us as 'the war on terror.' Life during wartime however, as anyone of the generation that survived the Second World War knows, tends to be ruled by disinformation.
It is not, therefore, a question of whether television Strangeloves really do sit in a War Room with a Big Board planning which regime to stabilise or destabilise next - they basically are. The briefest scan of current debate on Islam shows few differences with those examples of almost subconscious 'orientalism' that Said describes; in fact, everyone is an expert on Islam nowadays, and the more reductionist and simplistic the rhetoric, the more column inches you get. Take for example, New Hampshire's western fundamentalist Mark Steyn, the Peter the Hermit of the Bush-Blair crusade, or Scotland's own Reverend John MacLeod, a remarkable man if, for nothing else his capacity to let his own Kirk's bygones be bygones while sticking his self-righteous boot into the towel-heads:
The difference is that Christianity is spread by evangelism (normally in the teeth of persecution). Islam has been spread mainly by the sword.
Is it MacLeod's Protestantism that he thinks he can get away with such an anti-historical generalisation? Examples could easily be marshalled against the glib Reverend, but he is not interested in facts; he must know this is a gross simplification. What he is interested in, is setting his reader up for is a vague cluster of references to some latter-day suffering at the hand of Islamic lions:
In Pakistan . the country's blasphemy laws target Christians; some acquitted by the courts have been lynched, and in 1998 one high court judge was himself lynched after an acquittal.
Some? How many? What had they done? We are surely meant to assume they did very little, or even nothing at all to merit this treatment, and were simply waiting for a cohort of Islamic legionnaires to kick down their door as they sit peaceably reciting their catechism. They may well be have been the victims of a vindictive judiciary - we know they exist in countries where Islam is the state religion - but MacLeod wants us to assume that is the case. In contrast to this brutality, MacLeod (again) implies that Berlusconi calls 'our system' (does he mean Christianity, the West or his government coalition?) not only leaves the front doors of Muslims alone (although there is evidence quite to the contrary from the files of Blunkett's anti-terrorist manoeuvres) but blithely allows them to spout a hateful and evil doctrine in their mosques, on 'our' soil:
'... an awful fate [is] gleefully forecast for unbelievers - "for them garments of fire shall be cut, and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatsoever is in their bellies and their skins shall be melted; for them await hooked iron rod".' (Sura 22: 20).
One presumes that in the nastier passages of the Bible that so warm the cockles of our own fundamentalist's hearts, God was 'just having a laugh' with us. However, his most astounding piece of rhetoric is yet to come:
'There is no credible Muslim democracy. Democracy flowers only in Judaeo-Christian soil.'
Well, yes, and then again, perhaps not. Pages could be spent on the matter of Muslim democracy, even more on Christian, and exactly what events have led to its arrested development and the proliferation of autocracies in the Middle East (a wag might say, that the crowning event in most has been that moment when an oilman shouts 'thar she blows!') but what is of interest here is both the occasion of MacLeod's outburst and the style of invective. This was a column from the Sunday Herald of 1 October 2001, when, admittedly almost everyone was writing in shrill tones and the body count from the twin towers was estimated in the most frightening quantities. The point here is that already, it fits Said's occasional model of 'western' engagement with 'Islam' with MacLeod as a classic orientalist. The 'Judaeo-Christian soil' is professional fudge that allows MacLeod to be a particularly smug Christian without upsetting the Jews too much. Perhaps he is just a good post-modernist in making an assertion without too much recourse to notions of truth - but more likely, he is deliberately employing that notion of the 'west' (secular, inclusive) against 'Islam' (monolithic, exclusive) to get at the latter, and yet is claiming this tradition, by a particularly claw-handed sleight, exclusively for Christianity! The hubris, lack of self-awareness and downright folly of such an argument is obvious - yet we cannot just dismiss the Rev. MacLeod, because he is hardly unique. The level of debate is no more encouraging on the 'other' side either3 - think of Martin Amis' response to the twin towers 'the worldflash of a coming future' and expressed 'species shame.' Specious shame, maybe.
This last quote was gleaned from a survey of 'lefty gibberish' by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in an edition of Prospect. The article neatly skewers the fatuity of much writing on 9/11 by the celebrity left - only for Wheatcroft to slip up when himself describing the hijackers posturing, naturally, at the opposite extreme:
'They were bloodthirsty religious maniacs, who wanted to rule the whole world in the spirit of the Taleban.'
So perhaps we should not bet on the success of our Iranians yet, for the detail, clarification and complexity they can provide will, surely only disrupt a debate held at this level. This is unfortunate, as it is precisely this bullishness by standard bearers for 'the west' (whatever that is) and the limpness of the intellectual left that makes Iranian cinema (alongside other national cinemas from the 'Islamic world') of vital importance.