Friday 30 September 2022

Subversive Iranian Documentary at The Cube

Subversive Iranian Documentary at The Cube was a fantastic evening, screening four Iranian experimental (yet largely government commissioned) documentary films from the 1960s, that subtly subvert expectation and/or their brief in order to critique national ideology as set by the establishment, which sought to bring the masses along with them in their narrative of an illustrious and proud history backed by set of fixed moral values. 

The event was curated and presented by Ehsan Khoshbakht, who restored these important films in Bologna—some of which were screened in their fully restored format for the first time this evening—and eloquently provided background to the films, their makers and the history of experimental filmmaking in Iran. The evening was especially poignant in light of the recent death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, after being arrested in Tehran by the morality police for allegedly violating laws on hijab covering. 

The first two films, commissioned by the Iranian government, were The Hills of Marlik (1963) and The Crown Jewels of Iran (1965) directed by self-taught Ebrahim Golestan, who has spent more than the last four decades living in the UK and whose 100th birthday is upcoming next month. Commissioned by the Shah, The Crown Jewels of Iran was largely censored, so that the increasingly critical and sardonic voiceover was removed during public screenings, with only a couple of uncontroversial and contextual sentences retained. 

Next came The Night It Rained (1967), commissioned by the Ministry of Arts and Culture, directed by Kamran Shirdel, which told the story, by way of contradictory narratives, of a village boy from Gorgan who may or may not have heroically stopped a train in a heavy rainstorm after a bridge collapsed. The interviewer speaks to several different people with different professional or community roles that are related (some more tangentially than others) to the mysterious event, including journalists, railway operators, the boy's school teacher, neighbours in the village, the police, etc., each of whom have competing convictions. We never learn what actually happened that night and, of course, the point is that the truth is unreachable as no storyteller can be trusted, each bearing motivations deliberate or unconscious, corrupt or naive. Indeed, the film repeatedly cuts to the hands of an elderly women for a split second, as she fingers prayer beads, spluttering "lies, a pack of lies!". 

The final (brilliant) film, The House is Black (1962), is feminist poet Forough Farrokhzad's only film, as she unfortunately tragically died in 1967 at the age of 32 in a car accident. Farrokhzad takes the viewer to a leprosy colony in Iran, and while she does not shy away from showing the disfigured and misshapen bodies of members in the leprosy community, her treatment of these bodies, indeed people, is saturated with care, compassion and humanity. Farrokhzad's portrayal is far from grotesque and exploitative; her narrative is neither ethnographic, voyeuristic or objectifying. Instead, she brings out the unique beauty of the colony inhabitants, their pleasure in playing ball together, dancing and singing, being treated by attentive and hopeful doctors, or learning in school to express themselves. While there is a dark undertone throughout the film—her voiceover poetically positing thoughts on death, God, darkness, blackness—it isn't quite as bleak as one might think. More than anything, The House is Black is a film about extraordinary beauty, unity and tenderness. 

Sunday 4 September 2022

Guadalupe Nettel, Still Born

I have just finished reading Mexican author, Guadalupe Nettel's novel, Still Born, after having heard her speak at a book event at Standford's this week in Bristol. This book blew me away and brought together so many themes I have been thinking about lately, while also expanding on them in ways I hadn't considered: ambiguous motherhood, motherhood and choice, freedom/independence vs motherhood as consuming/oppressive, violence against women and femicide, and the kinds of communities and sisterhood that sprout from collective trauma.  

Nettel's novel interweaves the stories of various kinds of 'motherhood' throwing into question what counts as a 'mother'? Are you a mother if you baby dies? Are you a mother if you are not biologically related to a child? In the talk on Thursday, further questions arose in this regard: are you a mother if you use a surrogate? are you a mother if you are a surrogate? are you a mother if you give your baby up and don't know them as they grow up? 

The novel aptly points out that while there is a word for a person who has lost their spouse (widow/widower) there is no word for a parent who has lost their child and that in language, some things have been not named, perhaps because they feel unnamable. Nettel pointed out that the first thing we do when a baby is born is name them, giving them presence and substance and acknowledging them as a being in the world. What happens then when we experience something without a name so intense and profound that changes us so that we become in some ways defined by that experience? Do we become unacknowledgeable? 

Recognising the cost to women of raising children and the imbalanced impact on the lives of mothers compared to fathers, even the most present and caring ones, Nettel's novel proposes what is, on the one hand, a radical new form of 'mothering' but, on the other, a nod to past practices of raising children: that is, collective or communal motherhood. In this version of parenting, the nuclear family is not revered and is instead a negative siphoning off others from the family unit, where they could be helpful and reduce stress and strain from the mother, allowing her to care for herself better and us be a better parent. Through her characters, Nettel asks: what would it mean to open families to other 'mothers' or women to assist in child rearing in a manner that is not experienced as a threat to the family unit or the mother-child connection or perceived as a reflection of not good enough mothering? What if instead, allowing others (friends, family, neighbours) into your home to help you raise your child is powerful feminist gesture, one of freeing the mother to be both mother and her own person as a result of this bolster or alternative foundation? 

Some other books on ambivalent motherhood I've read recently include: Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder and Chouette by Claire Oshetsky.