Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The 3 faces of Shirin (Irianian Film Blogathon)

Shirin is a 12th-century poem of the Persian people, telling of the great love of King Khosrow for the Armenian princess Shirin. Some see it as a tale of her sacrifice, as she agrees to marry Khosrow despite her love for Farhad, an artist. As the king has banished him, one could also see it as her submission, or alternatively perhaps his genuine success at wooing her through valiant acts. The great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's unusual 2008 film of Shirin does not show actors enacting the characters and plot of the poem, it rather collects the great actresses of Iran (plus Juiliette Binoche) in a movie theatre to watch one of the many film adaptations of Shirin. The film is a series of lingering and luxurious close-ups on the actresses, reacting to the film as we hear its sound track. We see them watch, many of them with an exquisite relaxed privacy, as they concentrate quietly on the well-known story, then gasp, then smile, then weep. One feels, at times, that we are getting demonstrations of that rare commodity in acting referred to as 'being private in public,' as each woman seems to experience the story for herself in the darkened theatre.

When I watched the film this summer, I thought first that I was seeing an experimental film about women whose individual experiences of Persian pride or romantic longing are subdued by a repressive regime, only to be let out in the dark of the theatre. This was an homage to the artistic roots of the Persian people and the freedom woman once had to be themselves. But is that really what I was seeing? Then I watched a documentary on the making of Shirin and learned that the actresses were each shot alone in a couple of theatre seats watching some ideal movie in their mind's eyes as Kiarostami whispered directions to them between takes. He spliced their individual sessions together later. At first I felt had. Kiarostami first manipulated his actresses. Whipped them into whatever state he wanted through private means, and then he sicced them on me, with a film that has no meaning for me playing in the background, to make me believe they happened together. However, I directed actors for years, using whatever means I wanted to end up with behavior or relationships that created an experience for the audience. In the end, it was hard to get too resentful of Kiarostami for using whatever means he had to make the art he wanted. So what, then, was I watching?

Shirin then became for me the ultimate exercise in artifice. I was allowed to see the results of each actress's very private story, not knowing what it was, but experiencing it used in the context of this national story. One could say this was each artist's own private Persia (Iran). In this film I watched many actresses I didn't know have private fantasies. The lingering concentration on their secret inner stories had a certain beauty, but it was ultimately a little precious. Despite my love for acting and for individual narratives, I was not interested in watching it again. But then Sheila created the Iranian Film Blogathon and I was forced to think about the film again, this time in light of film director Jafar Panashi's 6-year prison sentence and the repression of his voice for the next 20 years. In this context, Shirin again became something else.

Now Shirin became a meditation on individualism. Each woman's face was a voice. Each voice was silent outside, but in the darkened theatre they were free to sing their private songs. Now I loved knowing of their manipulation because I was aware how private their inner content really was. It could, in fact, have nothing to do with Shirin. And in light of that it was unrepressable. Kiarostami himself could tell them whatever he wanted, but Juliette Binoche or Hedye Tehrani were free to remember their first kiss or think of what they would have for dinner that evening. This was more like going to a gallery than a film, I became more aware of what I was bringing to the story (although I had brought something before - I had brought along my slightly judgmental artist-self - but I wasn't aware of that context, nor did I get absorbed enough in the film to shed it). Now, half in touch with my own life the whole time, I looked deeply into a face sometimes, drifted off at others. I looked at one face while remembering another. Then I dipped into my own private memory. It's the way I look at paintings or photographs. This time I came to the film with a mission to speak out on behalf of the silenced voice of a fellow artist. I'd like to think, perhaps, that that motivated state is a little closer to what it it's like to watch the film as an Iranian (although I am surely exaggerating the similarity as my circumstances are far safer and more comfortable). Now the layers of narrative - the epic poem's, Kiarostami's, the actress's, my own personal and political - interacted: the historical facts of the poem, the mundane tangible realities of making and attending an art film, the psychological reality of the woman as actress, and then as the character of "audience member," the psychological reality of myself as another audience member, the private thoughts and fantasies I brought to viewing the film. No wonder dictatorships fear artists - religious dictatorships even more so - they would like to dictate each citizen's inner content: their morals, their symbols. The complexity of the contributions meeting in this film is uncontrollable. And this film of women's faces is a powerful protest in a culture in which so many women are silenced by the wearing of the veil. Shirin now became a protest film because its about the kind of speaking-out that it much harder to stop. Granted, imprisonment is stopping Panashi's film output, but it is not necessarily stopping his thoughts, nor is it stopping the many other like-minded souls giving their individual thoughts a voice, even if they are currently just thinking those thoughts to themselves in the darkness of a theatre.


Unknown said...

This is a powerful piece. Thank you. I'll look for this film.

Here's hoping the revolutionary spirit will travel to Iran soon.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Ted - I am moved almost beyond speech. But I'll give it a shot. What I love, here, is that you talk about your different phases with the film- your own process in understanding it - and how you brought different things to it. I so appreciate that perspective.

Iran is rumbling right now. Protests are rocking the streets. This has been going on for a decade now, in a series of protests and then crackdowns - these people cannot be held back forever - and Panahi is a giant symbol.

I am so thankful that you added your voice to this small gesture of appreciation and celebration to the artists in this country - and I LOVED how, in light of Panahi (and others') arrests - you saw Shirin as a protest film, because people's thoughts/dreams/fantasies cannot be policed. Beautiful.

Thank you SO much.

Ted said...

CB - Glad I can get someone interested in his films. I'm really a newcomer to Iranian film myself so I have many films yet to see.

Ted said...

Sheila -
Thank you for that and also for hosting this blogathon. It provides not just an opportunity to express appreciation for some of the artistic voices of Iran, but it also creates a meeting place for individual responses to them, which is where awareness or action begins - inside the individual audience member. I think too that learning about the films of a country that is supposedly so unlike our own, is a way to get a little closer to understanding what makes its people both different from and also the same as all of us.

I can't wait to read the other entries and make my long list of Iranian films I have to see. I am definitely going to check out one of the evenings at The Asia Society. The White Meadows looks really interesting. And isn't The Circle the one that's impossible to get a hold of?

Sheila O'Malley said...

The Circle is actually rent-able on Netflix. Powerful angry movie. White Meadows is the one that is basically not found anywhere - Panahi edited it - it's done by his colleague, Mohammad Rousolof - who got the same sentence as Panahi. He's not as famous, but he is being punished just the same.

I love the responses of those not intimately familiar with Iranian film. It really shows that these are films like any other - for ANYONE - you may have to seek them out, but, you know, they're movies. You don't need a PhD to understand them. That's always been one of my goals - to encourage people to check out these movies, famous or non-famous movies.

They also have a panel discussion at Asia Society - wanna try to go to that?