Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Window in Iran

After spending a few months in the 1960s I rented out H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and popped back to the present, to have a look around.  How old fashioned it all seemed!   I had left the space age and returned to the kitchen sink dramas of the previous decade – had I set the controls right…  No, no, the dates are correct; and the costumes look contemporary; and the mobile phones are a new idea; are the humans themselves wired to the ground... 

So I sit and watch as the camera follows the characters around, like dog on its lead, her owner walking down the High Street on a Saturday afternoon; everywhere so crowded, so busy, there is scarcely time to stop; so much to look at.  Shop! Shop! Shop!  Hardly a moment to see what you are buying…

Everything in this film is subordinated to the storyline.  There are no Godard slogans.  No mucking around with the narrative.  The dialogue is not complex; there is little irony...  And for long patches of the movie there appears no structure at all; with no main theme, just one mundane thing after another.  This is not art we are watching but life; it all its contingent messiness.  And so it reads like fictionalised biography, with its attendant problems of formlessness and lack of insight; pages overwhelmed by detail and superfluous facts.  As I sat watching this film I thought we had climbed down from the great peaks of cinema where I had recently stayed; for here was a retreat from art, and the particular kinds of knowledge that it can impart,[i] to the realism of the 1930s (and their progeny of the 1950s; those depoliticised sons and daughters), where the aim is to record life, not shape it.

In the 1960s and 70s directors and their collaborators were interested in turning movies into a pure art form, and influenced by developments elsewhere became obsessed with the texture of film itself.  For around two decades we saw an immense body of concentrated work, and which covered the globe, that led very rapidly to the creation of new techniques and new imagery; and new narrative devices.   These years were cinema’s equivalent of the first decades of the 20th century, when all the art forms were revolutionised.  To watch the films of this period is to walk out of a staid provincial museum, full of academic and weak impressionist paintings, and into a private gallery showing Der Brucke and Die Blaue Reiter; seen for the first time with all their dislocating exuberance. Our images of film had changed.

All art movements come to end, and when they do there is often a return to the conventions of a previous period.  Slowly in the generations that follow what looked like the natural, and inevitable, though revolutionary, culmination of forces within in a tradition seems like something odd and unique, almost an artistic cul-de-sac; like a bohemian living in Chelmsford.  And suddenly how strange and out of place all it appears; his silk caftan and velvet top hat amongst the tinned food in Morrisons.

As I watched this film I didn’t think I would write about it.  It would be like retailing a family holiday: we went to Cardiff; and we watched the match; and then we sat in the garden, where we had an argument about Neil Kinnock; Rosie picked wild primroses; the bread pudding was lovely, although she refused to eat very much…  You can’t do a lot with that; although some people try: the reason why most biographies and autobiographies are so disappointing – little more than a collection of anecdotes and facts; with no form and poor imagery.  We want more than this!  We want facts and events to mean something!

As the film develops something odd happens.  A structure starts to appear out of this jumble of activity, and meanings do slowly emerge; like sandwich boards through the weekend crowds.  Suddenly we are reading their words…

Nader’s father lives with the family and has Alzheimer’s disease.  Nader knows this but at the same time seems to deny it, or at least he pretends to be more aware than he actually is: living amongst the wreckage of a human being he needs to keep a few illusions alive.  His wife leaves him, and he has no one to look after his father during the day.  He hires a poor woman.  She seems a good person, but one day she leaves his father alone, tied to the bed, and goes out; and for a long time.  He almost dies, only saved by Nader when he returns to the flat with his young daughter.  He is almost insane with anger, especially when he finds some money missing.  When Razieh returns he shouts at her, eventually pushing her out of the flat, where she falls.  We later learn that she has lost her baby.  The film shifts from a family drama, the separation between wife and husband, Simin and Nader, to a legal one, now between Nader and Razieh.  For causing a miscarriage is murder under Iranian law.  Suddenly there is a strong narrative, which pulls in many different meanings; and causes us to rethink the opening scene.

They are in a courtroom and the judge says that Simin’s reason for wanting a divorce is trivial: it is not enough that Nader will not leave the country; even though they have now obtained a visa; after many months of struggling to get one.   Nader does not want to leave his father.  There is an argument about his father’s condition: Simin says that he doesn’t know who Nader is (later scenes confirm this – the only word he utters is Simin’s); and this reason is an excuse.  Nader will not agree, and to obtain a divorce without good reason she needs her husband’s consent.  He won’t give it, so they separate instead.  Simin going to her mother’s; her daughter, Termeh, staying with her father.  Because they get on really well?  It looks that way, though later we learn that the reason she stays is that she believes it will force her mother to return home.

This opening scene is never revisited.  We accept the reason for the separation – he won’t leave the country; loyal to an old man that does not recognise him, and to an illusion that keeps himself sane.

Nader’s reaction to the murder charge slowly changes this view.  The divorce, we begin to surmise, was really for other reasons, the refusal to leave the country a symbol of them.  There is his anger, this aggression towards a vulnerable woman.  Then there is his obstinacy.  He is so stubborn!  Thus even when he has a chance of settling the case – by paying blood money – he won’t because he must prove his innocence.  Which sounds commendable, a martyr for truth and honour, until we realise that he is telling lies; revealed by the simple questioning of his clever daughter; primed by his wife: clearly she is manipulating things behind the scenes.  Thus he denies he knew Razieh was pregnant.  But he did know, only he forgot in the headrush of emotion in which he pushed her out of the door.  For in court you cannot tell the whole story, for the law doesn’t recognise the complexity of truth; and the other side is out to catch any weakness.   Not only obstinate he is obsessed, this is not surprising, given that he could go to jail, but he goes too far and tries to discredit Razieh’s story by contacting her doctor.  It gives him away.  It shows he must have known she was pregnant.  Although this seems a minor point, for we have just witnessed a major revelation: he would destroy another person, no matter how vulnerable, in order to win his case.  Even though Razieh is ill he will show no mercy, and will do almost anything to save himself – he makes a counter charge against her.   He is both a bully and a weak man.

Although the film is now a murder trial it is actually about the reasons why Simin has separated from Nader: it echoes that initial court case; though in this one we see, or at least we believe we see, the kinds of arguments and scenarios that led up to it.  We also witness his real character.  Each attempt to prove himself innocent highlights his shortcomings; on one occasion we see his pathetic nature.   We watch as Termeh’s ideas about him change.  Her friends are turning against her – they believe the accusations – and she is embarrassed when he picks her up from school; not listening to her requests that he park the car away from the gates so that people won’t see him.  Inevitably she herself becomes involved in the murder trial and has to steer that complex path between family ties and honesty.

This is a modern society.  Their large, and obviously prosperous, apartment could be in London or New York.  I believe it is in Tehran.  There is only one difference to show it is not set in the West, and it pervades the film: it is the centrality of religion, its most obvious symbol the headscarves the women wear.  Razieh wears the burqa, and that suggests something else...  Her husband alludes to it later in court; when he scoffs at the idea of Nader swearing an oath on the Koran – people like him!  We think he means the middle classes.  Religion, it seems, is closely attached to class; Iran little different from Europe and America.  Razieh is very devout, which eventually is her undoing.  Reading between the lines we believe she only went to court because her husband (a hothead) wanted to revenge his unborn baby’s death; and because Nader refused to apologise to her for calling her a thief.  Although once started the legal process follows its own logic, which shapes people’s thoughts and actions; and determines, to a significant extent, their behaviours.   However, as the court’s decision approaches Razieh cannot live with the tension’s her faith produces: she doubts Nader caused the miscarriage.  The child may already have been dead.  For during the previous day his father had escaped from the flat.  She had gone after him and had been hit by a car.  This was the reason she had gone to the doctor.  Now, because she has these uncertainties she doesn’t want to take the blood money, because she thinks it will be a sin; although her husband desperately needs it for his creditors (and he doesn’t care about her religious scruples).  Unable to deal with this tension she tells Simin but asks her not speak about it to anyone; pleads with her not to do so.

The climatic scene is in Razieh’s home.  Nader and Simin are there, together with Razieh’s husband, and his creditors.  Nader is going to write a cheque for the blood money.  Before he does he asks Razieh to swear on the Koran that she is certain that he caused her miscarriage.

She can’t.

It is a devastating scene.  Razieh screaming at Simin, asking why she came to this flat when she knew what Nader was going to do.  For now her life is ruined.  She cannot live here.  It is a moment where we see the exercise of supreme power, and reflects the divide between the different classes, a theme that we can now realise has dominated the film.  The poor and inarticulate husband and wife are unable to compete with the well-educated and prosperous Nader and Simin.  Nader talks himself out of tight corners with fine phrases and tricksy sentences; Hodjat tries to punch is way out with his fists and invective.  Polite society naturally prefers the less threatening behaviour.  The prejudices are reflexive: Simin’s friends and colleagues automatically siding with Nader against his accusers.  Although later her teacher friend reverses her testimony.  The will to truth, especially when accused directly by the victim’s husband of class prejudice, is too strong to be overcome.  Religion sides with class, and the rich use it against the poor.  How often have we seen this!  Although, as with the teacher, its effects can be complex; creating sensitive moral antennae, which in turn complicates and sometimes overturns these disparities in wealth and power.

The teacher yields, like her friend Simin in that opening scene.  Nader does not.  This is the difference between them.  How hard it must be to live with such stubbornness.  They have plenty of money; their life is full of meaningful activity, Nader seems sensitive and generous, he is clearly intelligent, but Simin must yield, and keep yielding...  How hard that must become as the old man loses his humanity in that bedroom…  Simin, if she were to stay, would lose her freedom; it is a sacrifice Nader expects; and perhaps cannot see; there is something of the unconscious patriarch about him.

The film is about a man and a woman, and their different characters, silk against stone, soft breasts against a hard chest.  But it is also about class: the power of the rich against the poor.  It is the power of education, and the institutional sympathy that the middle classes can expect from the authorities – someone who talks nice, is reasonable, who never seems to lose control, must be ok; mustn’t they?  After all, look at his clothes; the way his wife dresses… One of us, clearly. 

It is Simin who exercises this sort of authority most of all.  She works in the background, analysing Nader’s words and telling her daughter of her views; and which gradually change Termeh’s image of her father.  The proud and honest man is slowly reduced to a lying schemer, a man who would destroy another person to save himself.  Nevertheless, it is Simin who actually destroys Razieh.  Did she tell Nader the truth about the accident?  I guess she did not.  Instead she probably told Nader to ask Razieh to do one thing, to swear on the Koran that he didn’t cause the miscarriage; knowing that because of her religion she wouldn’t tell a lie.  She destroys her life – for money.  Yet she knows Razieh lost her baby because she ran after Nader’s father, to protect him from an accident.  This is the injustice.  Here is a family without honour.

The last scene is a good one.  Simin and Nader are sitting on opposite sides of a corridor waiting for Termeh to tell the judge her decision.  Who will she choose…  The film ends, and we will never know.  Both are as bad as one another.[ii]




[i] Years ago someone I knew told me off for talking about art as knowledge. (It was during a job I once had where a stream of highly intelligent temps would work as admin assistants for a few months.  Mostly women they turned that little corner in which I “worked” into an ever-changing seminar; mostly about art and politics).  Art is not knowledge, she insisted; disgusted with my words.
To reduce art to knowledge, she believed, was to falsify it.  I disagree.  Art is a different kind of knowledge from that which you read in a textbook.  It is not history or sociology dressed up in period costume.  It is the kind that exists in our emotions and senses, the source of all insight.  Of course it has its own special rules, using its own techniques to acquire that understanding – reproducing the often hidden reality through images and dialogue; and through the structure of its whole design.  The artwork is an analogue to that sense of an atmosphere the artist has inside his mind; and which they attempt to capture and put on the screen; on the page, on keys of a grand piano.  When I spoke of knowledge, I was, I think, being misunderstood (how often this happens!); the phrase interpreted in the all too conventional sense of imparting information; which is to the aesthetic understanding what captions are to the paintings they describe.  Sometimes useful, but hopeless for experiencing, thus knowing, the artwork itself (see my Uncertainty of the Poet for more comment).
Although this misunderstanding may relate to an all too common aspect of film appreciation: the train spotter mentality it seems to engender; where a consideration of the art is ditched for the acquisition of facts about it - the names of all the employees, the technical details; a catalogue of influences and cinematic quotations….  All useful, but relatively minor, details – did the great directors produce films in order for us to classify them?
[ii] Politics is probably in there somewhere: the senile rule of a clerical orthodoxy, that protects the prosperous, but which the population finds constrictive, especially the middle classes; although they find it useful for subjugating the poor.  However, I know too little about Iran to say more than this; and such metaphorical reading can be a little too easy.  It is something to leave for the professors to think about when they do their film crit.

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