National Cinema in the 21st Century: Can an Iranian Film Be Made in Japan?

Sans titre - 5

A few weeks ago, Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi wrote a provocative treatise for Al Jazeera on the state of the Iranian cinema, lambasting the Islamic Republic’s continuing campaign of censorship and repression for having created a “brain drain” that’s effectively obliterated the country’s ability to foster a healthy filmmaking practice. Of the many contentious claims made by Dabashi—including his baffling dismissal of the latest films by Jafar Panahi as “self-indulgent vagaries”—perhaps the most challenging is his assertion that Iranian filmmakers living in exile, whether of their volition or by state mandate, are by the nature of their exclusion no longer producing genuine Iranian films. He cites a number of the country’s most acclaimed filmmakers, including Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Bahram Beizai, Sohrab Shahid-Saless, and Bahman Ghobadi, and summarily ejects them from the national cinema to which they once definitively belonged, shrugging off their emigrated efforts as failures to remain culturally relevant.

Abbas Kiarostami, arguably the most important Iranian filmmaker of his generation, has spent the last decade shooting films both at home and abroad, starting with the Spanish-set nonfiction piece “Ten Dedicated to Ozu” in 2003 and culminating in his two latest international efforts, the Tuscan puzzle romance “Certified Copy” and the Japanese drama “Like Someone In Love." “Scarce his compatriots have seen this films," observes Dabashi (whose frequent misuse of the word "scarce" is the subject of another post entirely), “let alone have any affinity with them”. Though these last two films, in particular, represent major efforts in Kiarostami’s long and fruitful career—they’re not only among his most widely acclaimed works, but also far and away the most successful internationally—neither “can hardly be called an Iranian film”. Dabashi’s argument relies not only on a conception of a coherent, knowable Iranian cinema, within which he is free to include whichever films he sees fit, but also on a clear understanding of what exactly constitutes a national cinema to begin with.

This line of thinking raises the question of how we define a given film’s nationality. Dabashi seems to imply, given the thrust of his argument and the films he cites as supporting evidence, that a film is not a product of the nation to which its director originally belongs. That alone requires some unpacking: it’s often taken for granted, for instance, that a film directed by, say, a citizen and resident of France but shot principally in Italy would nevertheless be considered a French film at heart, particularly if the dominant language is French. (Unless, of course, it’s a foreign director who begins producing films in Hollywood. We then describe those productions as “Hollywood films”, though not necessarily “American films”.) On the other hand, those looking for a cleaner, more technically sound method of classification tend to follow the provenance of a film’s funding: if a film by a French director is shot in and funded primarily by a German production company, it is therefore a German film; we see this most often in cases of Canadian directors whose productions find homes elsewhere in the world.

These classifications, whatever form they take—setting, language, financing, the background of the cast and crew—are fundamentally imperfect, and though they are functionally passable for the clearest cases, they fail to account for the kinds of complications that routinely arise. What is one to make, for example, of Jean-Luc Godard’s "Contempt?" The film was shot in Rome, funded by an Italian, directed by a French auteur, co-stars an American actor and a famous German director, and features dialogue from each of those four nations in more or less equal measure. Deciding that "Contempt" is the product of one national cinema over another seems not only infeasible or impractical, but in a sense completely arbitrary, a way to needlessly box-in and pin down a work that exists beyond the strictures of borderlines. Countless films slip through the fingers of any one nation’s grasp—so many that it seems rather odd that we’d need to discuss films through a national lens to begin with. If the system is flawed, we ought to abandon it.

The problem, however, is that speaking of cinema in the context of national identity broadens the scope of our conversation, better accounting for voices and worldviews otherwise eclipsed by the monolithic force of Hollywood. The sense of focus and scrutiny the national approach provides—honing in on one area, exploring its cultural history, thinking about its shared qualities—is a useful tool for understanding particular films, contextualizing them in a manner better-suited to their marginalization. In terms of perception and understanding, a conception of national cinema draws out helpful comparisons, connecting the dots of a loose connection of films and enriching the conversation that surrounds them all. And in terms of making obscure films more available and more widely discussed, thinking about national cinema directs attention in a narrow way to rich traditions that may otherwise be overlooked. Think about, say, Senegalese cinema, and how thinking about its major figures, influences, and history helps expand an understanding of what makes its films important. And think about Iran: it helps us dig deep into a great country’s major and minor films, highlighting their specific cultural elements and illuminating what these artists have to say about their home.

My fiance, Tina Hassannia, is an Iranian film critic living with me in Canada. She responded strongly to Dabashi’s arguments, finding his notion of what constitutes a national cinema reductive and problematic. She attempted to articulate an idea of Iranian cinema that goes beyond the usual definitions: rather than it being a simple matter of financing, language, or the origin of the production, she argues that an Iranian film is one which engages with a cultural conversation shared within the nation, which deal with issues of collectivism and individualism within a harshly dominated regime. And Kiarostami’s "Like Someone in Love," in particular, qualifies on precisely these grounds; it’s Japanese setting, far from distancing the story from Iran, actively speaks to the Iranian situation, drawing on the nation’s history, values, and sensibility. This, ultimately, is what makes the national cinema conversation worth having: it helps us to understand a film in a richer, more informed context. Dabashi’s refutation of Iranian cinema does just the opposite.