National Film Traditions Lend Universal Meaning

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Allison Quady Arts Editor

The second keynote address was, “From Kiarostami to Panahi: Master-Disciple in Iranian Cinema,” presented by Hamid Dabashi, associate professor of Persian literature and sociology of cultures in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. Dabashi began by referring to the events of Sept. 11, stating that, “the dichotomy between how to understand us and them has finally collapsed.” Furthermore, in the wake of such events, “national films have assumed global significance,” beyond the original intentions of the director. Dabashi discussed Iranian movies on the wider sphere of human culture because “by being deeply rooted in one culture, they assume universal significance.”

Dabashi’s emphasis on the historical significance of the world’s interest in Iranian art dated back to the German poet Goethe’s interest in Iranian poetry in the 19th century and included the Iranian influences in the roots of European romanticism and American transcendentalism. His reference to history served to elevate the works of today, taking the position that the brilliance of Iranian cinema is more than a periodic rise in national film, that there has been a succession of film masters, each one distinct in style and content, working in different genres and different generations. Included in this mastery are films shot by Iranians outside of Iran and the emerging global consciousness these filmmakers represent.

As an art form, cinema is only 100 years old, coinciding with the rise of modernity and the height of colonialism. Visual culture is not a major form of Iranian culture and until 1960 the major forms of expression were poetry and literature in Iran. Cinema has only existed in Iran for the past 30 years. The alternative form of subjectivity found in cinema is easier to relate to because it is visual.

Dabashi reiterated his former theme of “the possibility of a historical agency articulated within art,” emphasizing that “a universal art is only universal so long as it is rooted in a historical case.” The historical case in this context being Iran, the Middle East and our unforeseen situation linking us, the United States, to the contemporary issues expressed in Iranian cinema.

Dabashi related the historical agency of art to questions of identity and the consciousness or lack of consciousness of identity in certain countries in the Middle East. Singling out Afghanistan, Dabashi stated that because of the many strong ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, an Afghani becomes conscious of being an Afghani only when he or she is made a refugee. The first formation of national identity, tied to historical agency, is the refugee card. An Afghani refugee, absorbed largely by Iran, only sees himself as such when he is told this by the world outside of his country and is forced to leap out of his consciousness and into that of the world’s.

However, identity expressed in art is an alternative form of national identity, expressing the greater cultural identity of humanity unbounded by country.

Pointing to his program to articulate his argument, Dabashi explained the intimations of the cultivation of tradition and culture in a universal art, saying, “If Iranian Cinema is “A Glimpse Behind the Veil,” then we are all behind the veil.”

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National Film Traditions Lend Universal Meaning