The Representation of Men in the Films of Abdol Reza Kahani, Houman Seyedi and Bahram Tavakoli
By Asal Bagheri.
[Editor’s note: This essay is published here in conjunction with the publication of Film International 69, vol. 12, no. 3/2014, a special issue devoted to Contemporary Independent Iranian Cinema.]
In an interview made in August 2013, Bahram Tavakoli declared that in his opinion, independent cinema does not really exist in Iran except for one or two filmmakers. He added that he is not an independent filmmaker any more than others because they use somehow facilities from the government such as cameras or loans. He also insisted on different authorizations that a filmmaker has to apply for in Iran for his film and that is why a filmmaker cannot be independent in Iran. This argument highlights the question of how one defines independent cinema. Does it mean to make a film apart from the usual financial circuit or can a film be named independent from the moment that its thought is independent compared to the ideology of the State?
In an open letter published in the French newspaper Le Monde in March 2013, the independent filmmakers’ collective ACID (Association du Cinéma Indépendant pour sa Diffusion) complains about the lack of access to the movie theaters in France for independent cinema which they qualify as this:
“For the independent movies with reduced budget, often without known actors and unfunded by television channels, the conditions of distribution and access to the public has considerably degraded. These works, which try new forms of writing, representations, themes, major pool of potential of the cinema of tomorrow, are more and more excluded from screens. Yet, since always, this “margin”, as some people liked qualifying it, mattered. Before their cinema finds the way of a wider public, filmmakers such as Renoir, Tati, Truffaut and so many others of various horizons, Rossellini, Chahine, Almodovar, or more recently Guédiguian, Belvaux, Amalric, to name but a few, invented in this margin. Tomorrow, it will not be any more so.” (Collectif de cinéastes 2013)
This passage clarifies the characteristics of what we can call independent cinema in France; low budget, unknown actors, not produced by television, with creativity and innovation in the form and the content, which includes the first films of many of well-known directors today.
With this definition, it will be difficult to point to a large number of independent films in Iran. Taking the example of Africa (Afrigha, 2011), Houman Seyedi’s first film, one can observe that it has all the characteristics named above except that super star Shahab Hosseini is acting in the film. Referring to my interview with the director, he accepted the project because he is a friend of the director.
If I continue to compare French and Iranian independent cinemas, the main difference is that while in Iran having the support of the State would make a film non-independent, in France the independent filmmaker may have the financial help of the State. So how can one define independent cinema? As Iranian cinema is almost always dependent of the State, at least for its authorizations, one can say that the most important characteristic of Iranian independent cinema is the independence of thinking.
For Yannis Tzioumakis (2006: 284), as a shifting entity, the American independent cinema challenges and advances culture at the same time. Tzioumakis declares that one cannot give a simple definition of an “indie,” as Emanuel Levy can claim: “ideally, an indie is a fresh, low-budget movie with a gritty style and offbeat subject matter that express the filmmaker’s personal vision” (Levy 1999: 2). As Tzioumakis tries to find the different aspects of American independent cinema, one can do the same for Iranian independent cinema by asking the following questions: What is an independent film? What cultural, political, and economic factors shape an independent film and independent film practice? What is independent cinema’s relationship with mainstream cinema?
Abdol Reza Kahani declares about this issue: “The films that I make belong to the private sector. The idea belongs to the private sector, it comes from nowhere else than my mind. […] Though the government interferes in private sector, it makes it hard for us to take authorizations, it does not support us.”
Referring to The American Heritage Dictionary (1997), “independent” means “politically autonomous”, “free from the influence, guidance or control of others,” “self-reliant,” “financially self-sufficient.”
Regarding the cultural politics in Iran and the special issues of censorship and governmental authorizations to make films, I think indie Iranian cinema is, above all, the one which does not belong to the dominant thought of the country’s cultural politics. Thus, it is under control but not under influence. Finally, even if in several cases we can notice the presence of known actors, it stays innovative in form and content.
According to this definition, the three filmmakers, Abdol Reza Kahani, Houman Seyedi and Bahram Tavakoli, that I discuss in this paper are independent. Although their styles are different, with one criticising the society and its institutions with a humoristic style and the others using a darker style for their films, they represent men in the same way: weak, lost, selfish and indecisive.
To show the similarities of men’s portrayal in my corpus, my methodology is a semiological analysis named Indicial Semiology (Houdebine 2009: 121-126) based on flexible structuring and indefinite objects such as films. It consists in two steps: firstly, I conduct a systematic analysis which enables me to identify a structure, and secondly I focus on analysing the content in terms of meaning effect and significance. The interpretation of the corpus elements is made at the internal level of the object and also at the external level whereby cultural, social, encyclopaedic references are mobilized to analyse the meaning. According to social, cultural and historical rules, I attempt to interpret the previously established categories in the systemic analysis.
Using this methodology, I attempt to analyse the aesthetics of each director. Focusing on the representation of men in their films and based on my interviews with the directors, I attempt to understand why contemporary independent Iranian films represent men in the same way and how this is related to the Iranian society. Starting with this premise, I try to show how in these man-centred films, in opposition to their male counterparts, women are shown in the periphery. I try to establish if these new directors depict men and women in the Iranian society differently from those before them.
The corpus on which I work includes the following movies: Nothing (Hich, Abdol Reza Kahani, 2010), Absolutely Tame Is A Horse (Asb Heyvan Najibist, Abdol Reza Kahani, 2011), By No Reason (Bikhod o Bijahat, Abdol Reza Kahani, 2012), Barefoot In Paradise (Pa Berahneh Dar Behesht, Bahram Tavakoli, 2007), A Walk In The Fog (Parseh Dar Meh, Bahram Tavakoli, 2010), Here Without Me (Inja Bedoun-é Man, Bahram Tavakoli, 2011), Africa (Afrigha, Houman Seyedi, 2011). Except in By No Reason, in which the main characters are two couples, all these movies have a man as central figure.
Referring again to The American Heritage Dictionary (1997), “passive” means “accepting without resistance.” By giving the analysis of some key scenes regarding to my Object which is the representation of masculinity in the work of these three young filmmakers, I try to show how men assume the passive’s roles.
In Africa, three men abduct a girl in order to force her brother to return drugs stolen from their boss. They hang in the house, waiting for other orders. As the girl tries many times in vain to get out of this prison, the three young men who are stuck as well do nothing to get away from this trap. Concentrating on the character of Shahab who except for some few words remains dumb throughout the film, one can detect that every single emotion such as affection, passion or violence is passively dropped off on him. In several scenes he takes the gun, manipulates it and changes its hiding place as if he cannot rely on himself. As regards to his affective emotions, he is also undetermined. He looks out through the window several times to see the neighbour’s girl, whom he does not know. On the other hand, he accepts the scarf of the hostage to bandage his hand and he keeps it till the end of the film. This scarf becomes then the vector of their contact and their emotions. Eventually Shahab takes the matters into his own hands trying to save the girl, but the end of the film stays open and the spectator does not discover if he succeeds.
About the passivity of his men characters, Seyedi declares: “It is the situation that leads them. If they were the decision makers and had the power to recognize good and bad, they would not be in this situation […] they are snatched by this story. But Shahab gets out a little bit from this passivity because he influences others.”
In the manner of Shahab, the main characters of the three films of Tavakoli are stuck in a stranglehold. Ehsan in Here Without Me dreams about another life empty of all the responsibilities that his single mother and his mental defective sister have for him. All along the story, he has a cold, stomach pains and does not feel good. This permanent illness becomes an indicial signifier that one can interpret as meaning effects of a general malaise in his life. In one scene he says to his mother “I would like to write, you know that I can write, but your life doesn’t allow me to move, I’m stunting” (29min: 30sec). In the last scene, he is isolated from the happy family, a close up underlines his loneliness and inertia. A syntagmatic reading of different universes of the film gives us the meaning effect based on a story which alternates between reality and dream. Indeed, the movie is filmed mostly in the tiny poor but sweet house on the roof. Ehsan’s universe resumes in movies and literature. The young girl is living with her little statues of glass and their mother tries to hide from everybody and also from herself that her girl is abnormal. All this indications together create a syntagm which highlights the in-between realm that the movie reactives in the imaginary of the spectator. This universe in which Ehsan is stuck, as well as the ending of the film which gives us different possible readings, keep the spectator hostage of his passivity in which he is comfortably installed.
As in Here Without Me, A Walk In The Fog narrates a story between a wish, an ideal, a dream and the reality. The film begins with a voice over narration of Amin being in a coma and wishing a life that he tells the spectator about. The feminine character is a stage actress. The theatre drama narration comes across the story of the couple and the one in Amin’s mind and creates an atmosphere between reality and non-reality. Several direct cuts from one universe to another maintain this confusion. The name of the feminine character which is Roya, dream in Persian, is another indicial signifier who completes the syntagm. Following the example of Ehsan, Amin is also a prisoner of his mind, he cannot take any responsibilities and he looks at the world from above because he does not fit in. As he says himself “I cannot concentrate on what I have to do, because all day along my time is wasted with nonsenses and ridiculous problems” (20min: 12sec). While he struggles with himself, he cannot compose his music and goes mad, the decision and the action come from the woman deciding to leave him.
In his first film, Barefoot In Paradise, Tavakoli also depicts a man struggling with the meaning of life. The main character is an apprentice clergyman who does not wear the traditional clothes and does not preach. As the filmmaker’s two other movies, the voice over can give the meaning effect of someone who is not in the story, who is above it. This quarantine where the story goes on is not located, and the multitude of blurry scenes highlights the in between universes of Yahya. Indeed, reality, memory and nightmare run into each other. He does not know why he is there and what his mission is. At the end, he decides to stay in the quarantine and do the cleaning, which is much more purifying for his own soul than for patients’ mercy.
“My characters are in an observation phase. They are in a period of their life which is new for them. They are in a pre-moment of action. […] Passivity means that they are in a situation that they did not decide for and others are deciding for them. But my characters have the will to do something. Ehsan really wants to write, Amin wants to compose an extraordinary music and Yahya decides to go to this place but the situation becomes bigger than their mind and so they are in a trance not in a passive situation.”
A semiologist takes a film as a closed text. Although this is a moment of the characters’ life, one can say that as the director decides to show us this particular moment, the reading of it, regarding all the textual elements is as followed: they are indeed observing the situation whilst they do nothing. At the end of each film, what they want to do is much more individual. As they want to go away, die or hide themselves by cleaning the patients, they are all thinking selfishly and not about the people around them.
However, Kahani’s characters are all in odd situations and give the impression that everything slips through their fingers, men’s passivity is highlighted in opposition to women who are more active in handling their lives as one can detect as well in Seyedi’s and Tavakoli’s movies. Linguistically the negative which exist in titles of Nothing and By No Reason strengthens the meaning of passivity. In Nothing, the mother is the only character who is shown at her work. We also see in one scene one of the daughter in law making sandwiches for a living. Women in Nothing decide what they want or do not want in their relationships. In one of the couples, the wife repairs a hole in the wall as the man is siting and looking at her. The meaning effect which is highlighted here is that while the woman tries to fix her life and their relationship, the male character remains static. In another couple the young lady breaks up with her fiancé who is nice but cannot even pass his exams for the third time. The other daughter in law of the family kills herself at the end.
“I’m stuck, everything fall on me from everywhere, like a spider in a cobweb” (19min: 20sec). This is a sentence announced by Mohsen in By No Reason which shows the universe in which he is captive. His trouser crotch which is torn all along the film is an additional indicial signified for us to interpret the malaise in his life. He wants to change his trousers but each time something happens and he cannot do it as in his life he tries to change and fix things but it does not work. While the two wives try to find solutions, the two men cannot decide what to do with the problem that they have, which is where to stock Mojgan and Mohsen’s belongings.
A prisoner on leave and disguised as a member of the Revolutionary Guard, that we discover at the end of Absolutely Tame Is A Horse, is hanging around in Tehran’s streets to search for people having made offences and claim money from them. An absurd situation is constructed as the story moves forward. A drunk man walks in the streets, incapable of paying his rent since it was increased. He is stopped by the main character. The drunk does not have money to give him and leads him to a musician’s house who refuses to collaborate with the studios of popular music and who consequently does not manage to make ends meet. Another character abandoned his addicted wife, in spite of their love and lives secretly with his secretary, a girl whose father murdered her mother and who tries to cling to him. Finally, a homosexual who leaves a wedding party is forced to join the team. All these characters become a chain which tries to find money to give to the guard of the Revolution. Mostly masculine, the characters are stuck in their problematic life and cannot make it. “You know why you cannot make it from the beginning of the night? You keep going here and there with no clear purpose, get yourself together, think together to see what you can do” (1hr: 11min: 46sec). This verbatim in the mouth of the only girl of the band, is addressed to Masoud, the drunk character and resumes perfectly the universes of these men.
Kahani declares that “If our men, with all their pretentions, claiming to be the head of the family were not like that, the situation would have been otherwise. […] In my movies women are undecided that’s why they make more efforts, they have to do something but the destiny of my male characters is clear and so they do nothing.”
Kahani continues in this interview saying that gender issues are not central in his films: “I depict an atmosphere, a situation which is sometimes parodical, sometimes realistic but my objective is not focused on women or men issues.”
What one can analyse here is that, although the filmmaker does not bother about gender issues, these concerns bring to light implicit meaning effects while a situation is depicted.
The difference between the films of my corpus and films of filmmakers like Rakhshan Bani Etemad or Tahmineh Milani, the two most famous filmmakers depicting women issues, in spite of their fundamental different styles, is that Bani Etemad and Milani assume that they actually depict female problems and the incapacity and/or the violence of a patriarchal and a macho society towards female issues. But in my corpus, these implicit meaning effects come out from many indicial signified somehow beyond the will of the directors.
Barthes (1957: 14) gives an objective to his semiology: to do a critical praxis. Indeed, he analyzes the collective representations of signs’ system in order to demonstrate in details the mystification which transforms the petty bourgeois culture in a universal nature. This semiology is an instrument to analyze social objects and a meaning study which empowers it, giving it a political impact, thus it becomes a fundamental method for the ideological critics. He targets the symbolic and semantic system of our civilization. Thus the objective of his semiology is to highlight a social and historical responsibility of the sign, underlining the way that people make meaning and also the way that they are abused by the meaning.
In that case, if these filmmakers do not consciously think about women/men issues and as we understand from their discourses they are not in a feminist position, following Barthes’ theories, can one say that this is the dominant ideology of the new generation of Iranian society? Does being a “modern macho” in today’s Iran consist in being above everything, doing nothing and letting women struggle with problems? Comparing my man-centred corpus with woman-centred films, one can observe a big difference: as our society still today needs to be reminded of difficulties of being a woman in a patriarchal society, the woman-centred cinema, even if it does not want to, remains involved and activist in women’s rights. Whereas the man-centred cinema does not need to be involved, but although it shows the reality of a moment and a time, it shows however the reality of a situation in which men passively and selfishly empty the battlefield and let women struggle alone.
Lise Shapiro Sanders explains the difference between the third and the previous theories of feminism as follows:
“This sense of a feminism that is constructed by – indeed animated through – contradiction and difference is fundamental to many conceptions of third wave and contemporary feminisms. None of these writers and activists imagines feminism as a monolithic, universalized entity […]. Drawing upon the critiques of universalism and essentialism from within and outside of the movement, third wave feminists have come to emphasize the diversity of women’s experience over the similarities amongst women, often to such a degree that feminism’s present and future can seem irretrievably fractured.” (Shapiro Sanders 2004: 52)
Under the light of theories of third wave feminism, one can say that the women in my corpus are not actually the same as men but they are recognizable by their differences. They are not as powerful and strong as Bani Etemad’s or Milani’s female characters, which can be analysed by the previous theories of feminism depicting women as the same as men. Indeed, women of this new independent man-centred Iranian cinema can be weak, can cry, be hysterical but meanwhile as the directors try to centre the film on the male characters, women neither in the centre neither in the margin make their way.
Asal Bagheri teaches at Sorbonne Nouvelle University and Sorbonne Paris Descartes University.
American Heritage Dictionary, The: Third Edition (1997), New York: Dell.
Barthes, Roland (1957), Mythologie, Paris: Seuil.
__ (1985), L’aventure sémiologique, Paris: Seuil.
Collectif de cinéastes (membres de l’Association du Cinéma Indépendant pour sa Diffusion [ACID]), (2013), “Ne laissons pas la loi du plus fort priver d’écrans le cinéma indépendant”, Le Monde, 6 March. Accessed 12 September 2013.
Houdebine, Anne-Marie (2009), “Sémiologie des indices” in Driss Ablali and Dominique Ducard (eds.), Vocabulaire des études sémiotiques et sémiologiques, Paris : Honoré Champion and Besançon : Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, pp. 121-126.
Levy, Emanuel (1999), Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film, New York and London: New York University Press.
Shapiro Sanders, Lise (2004), “Feminists Love a Utopia: Collaboration, Conflict, and the Futures of Feminism,” in Stacy Gillis, Gillian Howie and Rebecca Munford (eds.), Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 49-59.
Tzioumakis, Yannis (2006), American Independent Cinema: An Introduction, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
 Interview in Persian with the author, August 2013, Tehran.
 All translations from Persian and French into English are by the author.
 Interview in Persian with the author, August 2013, Tehran.
 Interview in Persian with the author, October 2013, Paris.
 Interview in Persian with the author, August 2013, Tehran.
 Interview in Persian with the author, October 2013, Paris.