A review of Unthinking the National Imaginary: The Singular Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, by Hossein Khosrowjah.
In recent years, Iranian cinema has attained much success and recognition in various international film festivals. By being exposed to greater international acknowledgment, Iranian films are now accessible to a global audience on an unprecedented scale and this variegated audience has resulted in a multitude of diverse receptions. Consequently, the cinema of Iran has become the subject of much academic and non-academic scrutiny both inside and outside Iran. Hossein Khosrowjah’s dissertation, Unthinking the National Imaginary: The Singular Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, is a valuable example of such literature that attends to the diverse responses of Iranians living in Iran, and to those in the diaspora towards the international success of Iranian films. Khosrowjah’s dissertation is an important project that considers Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema as an ambiguous space, close to national affinities, and yet impossible to categorize into national and/or generic terms.
In his first chapter, “Film as National Allegory: How the Cinematic Nation is Imagined Within and Without National Borders,” Khosrowjah attends to the ways in which Iranian films have been utilized in the imaginary construction of a unified Iranian nation and identity both inside and outside Iran. The author draws upon and criticizes theories of nationhood and national imaginary as put forth by Benedict Anderson. In this section, he rightfully problematizes Orientalist American film critics, such as Harlan Kennedy (p. 19), and theorists such as Fredric Jameson, for relying on “Third World” cultural products (p. 27), namely foreign narrative fiction films, as provisional ethnographies of cultures, without taking into account the multiple readings of a film, as well as its representational qualities in depicting a socio-political and/or historical event. Khosrowjah likewise criticizes readers of Iranian cinema, such as Susan Hayward (p. 29), for conflating a handful of Iranian films — mostly prominent in international film festivals — into a “single reality” of Iran as a nation (p. 28). In other words, the author takes issue with the culturalists that define certain cultural particularities in cross-cultural encounters as homogeneous and static cultural universals for a nation. In this section, the author also touches upon the contested reception of post-revolutionary films by audiences inside and outside of Iran, based on the films’ representations of a “homeland.”
Moving beyond Abbas Kiarostami, Khosrowjah then analyses a myriad of films from the post-revolutionary era. The author, for example, brings a valuable reading into Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film, Once Upon a Time, Cinema (1992), where the categories of time and space are constantly broken and rearranged (p. 56). The author further touches upon the manners in which the pre-revolutionary archival contents included in Makhmalbaf’s film disclose a cinematic amnesia — in regard to the existence of a thriving cinematic culture before the revolution — in the history of Iranian cinema in post-revolutionary era.
In his second chapter, “Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry and Global Film Culture: Authentically Native or Accommodating the International Festival circuit Tastes?” Khosrowjah further discusses how the heterogeneous reception of films across transnational borders (i.e. a multiplicity of reception locations) shatters the idea of nation into a fragmented paradigm. In other words, a multi-sited investigation of reception, reveals that national cinema occupies several cultural spaces simultaneously, namely spaces of homogenization, and spaces of resistance (p. 87). Following George Marcus’s notion of multi-sited ethnography (p. 83), Khosrowjah argues that in Kiarostami’s The Taste of Cherry, the unifying idea of nation is radically rejected, especially when the protagonist’s decision of life and death is left unresolved at the end of the film in order to convey a plethora of possibilities for the audiences. Again, the author contends that the films of Kiarostami, while portraying an image of Iran different from the stereotypes projected by the Western media, are received differently by audiences inside and outside Iran.
Chapter 3, “Framing the Question of Repression in Iranian Cinema,” explores both the repressive and liberating potentials of censorship in Iran, and the ways in which censorship shapes the international reception of Iranian films. This chapter pertains to one of the unintended outcomes of censorship on films: a counter-hegemonic reading of films, and identification of subversive elements that may be illegible to the censor. In this chapter, Khosrowjah includes a brief history of censorship codes and laws in Iran (p. 129), and explores the paradox of existing censorship laws, in addition to an investigation of the notion of “Islamic Censorship” in that country (p. 141). Problematizing historians of Iranian cinema, such as Hamid Naficy, Ali Shahabi, Hamid Dabashi, and Jamsheed Akrami, for disregarding the role of film reception, Khosrowjah examines the role of multi-faceted audience reception in the construction of film meaning in censorship processes. Drawing on Laura Mulvey, Joan Copjec, Patricia White, and Judith Butler, Khosrowjah delves into the various readings related to the lack of representation of women in Kiarostami’s films prior to Ten — a Lacanian understanding of his films that considers “presence made of absence” (p. 163). Surveying various filmmakers’ statements (e.g. Abbas Kiarostami), theoretical writings (e.g. Stuart Hall, and Frederick Schauer), and critical assessments, the author further attends to the mobilization of and resistance to censorship laws in Iranian national cinema, as well as the productive and generative potentials of censorship codes in that industry.
In Chapter 4 of his dissertation, “Tale of an Auto-Ethnographer or Unraveling of an Ethnography in Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us,” Khosrowjah challenges Hamid Dabashi’s reading of the aforementioned film which takes into account the gaze of a “First World” ethnographer upon a “Third World” (p. 198). While questioning Iranian/exilic critics’ unfavorable evaluation of Kiarostamis films for exoticizing Iranian landscape and indigenous countryside, Khosrowjah draws upon some new definitions of ethnography and ethnographic cinema, by people such as Bill Nichols, that challenge the First World/Third World ethnographic understanding (p. 204). In this section, the author examines Kiarostami’s preoccupation with transcultural contact and the issues of representation, especially in what he believes to be a film about the unraveling of ethnography, rather than an ethnographic film. He specifically believes the film to be about the coming into contact of different cultures, and thus an accumulation of the problems of encounter, rather than an ethnographic film about specific cultural types.
Khosrowjah’s dissertation works to deconstruct the unified conception of nationhood in cinema, as conveyed by many historians of Iranian cinema and film critics such as Hamid Dabashi and Azadeh Farahmand. Through a study of Abbas Kiarostami’s oeuvre, Khosrowjah attempts to identify the ways in which this filmmaker’s cinema unthinks and/or proliferates the national imaginary, and shatters the myth of a coherent and homogenous Iranian unity. Hossein Khosrowjah’s dissertation will be of value to the fields of Film, Transnational Cinema, and Iranian Studies. His research will greatly contribute to new theorizations of national and transnational cinemas.
Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations
University of Toronto
The Wind Will Carry Us (Bād Mā Rā Khāhad Bord). Dir. Abbas Kiarostami (1999)
Ten (Dah). Dir. Abbas Kiarostami (2002)
Taste of Cherry (Taam-eh Geelass). Dir. Abbas Kiarostami (1997)
Through the Olive Trees (Zeereh Derakhtāneh Zeytoon). Dir. Abbas Kiarostami (1994)
Once upon a Time, Cinema (Nāsser-eddin Shāh Actor-eh Cinema). Dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1992)
University of Rochester. 2011. 307 pp. Primary Advisor: Sharon Willis.
Image: Screenshot from Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (Dah, 2002). From The Lumière Reader.