Iran's culture at a distance

Visitors who managed to tear themselves away from the Hall of Reptiles at the Museum of Natrual History recently and make it to the museum's auditorium found themselves at an extraordinary event. The Margaret Mead Film Festival offered a showing of Iranian films which turned into an artistic event cumm political discussion, with a bit of consciousness- raising on the side.

The numbers weren't impressive: 700 Americans in a New York auditorium watching some Iranian films and talking about them. But as American-Iranian communication, on any level, goes these days, it was something of a cultural coup.

During World War II anthropologists had to develop a technique they called "studying culture at a distance" in order to say something intelligent about the societies we were fighting. Despite the extensive contact between Iran and the United States over the last couple of decades, it looks as if we're now reduced to employing the same techniques in dealing with that country, analyzing artistic works and the products of popular culture, especially moves.

The Museum of Natrual History program was devised by two anthropologists who have worked in Iran, William Beeman of Brown University and Catherine Bateson (who is Margaret Mead's daughter) of Amherst College. Bahman Magh Soudlou, an Iranian film expert, joined the two anthropologists on the podium.

Of the hundreds of Iranian films in existence, most are now locked away under the precarious guardianship of the new "revolutionary" Iranian TV. Those films that are now outside the country are, like many of their creators, drifting around Europe in search of a home, and American policy is committed to making sure that they do not find one here.

From the extremely limited number of films that have somehow made their way to the US, the anthropologists chose two semi-documentaries directed by Parvis Kimiavi.

It is interesting that Kimiavi's work is now being used to lillustrate the national character of Iran, since he now finds himself at variance with both the regime he worked under and the one that replaced it.

In the early '70s, Kimiavi was able to make the two films chosen for the festival only by slipping them past the whirling bureaucracy of National Iranian Radio and Television. Then, once these films began harvesting all kinds of big awards, it was difficult for the censors and bureaucrats to reimpose their control. Even so, Kimiavi chose to exile himself to Paris in 1978, and there is little doubt that if he returned he would not be able to work.

The first film, "Oh Dear Saviour" (it has a much more poetic title in French: "O Protecteur des Gazelles"), is a study of the Shiite shrine city of Mashhad. It is the kind of film no Westerner could have produced. It deals with a religious occasion neither as a spectacle nor as a freak show, but is intimate and somehow very kind.

In one scene, as the prayer-leader chants he story of the martyrdom of Reza (the eighth Imam whose shrine Mashhad is), the camera focuses on weeping worshipers. There is nothing showy about the tough old men and plumply self- important women breaking down in tears among the crowd. They weep as if expressing a very private sorrow.

Iranians do not have to strain for tradition. For the people is this film at least, the vocabulary of religious life seems personal and full of comfort. Perhaps this accounts for much of the gap between Iran and the US. The language of spritual values embarrasses Westerners, and certainly we would never use it in a diplomatic note. Though Americans refuse to believe it, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calls the US "a great Satan," that is exactly what he means. Lacking any contract with US values beyond the evidence displayed by the junk exported to Iran, he sees Americans as a people standing within a great spiritual void.

At the conclusion of "Oh Dear Savious," about a quarter of the audience simply got up and left. One couldn't be sure whether they were voting with their feet against the film program or they simply had other places to go, but a few wellplaced questions elicited responses like, "Yeah, I learned something, they're even crazier than I thought," and "I feel sorry for those Iranians, all that religious [trash] covering up what life's really about."

Amid the shuffle of departing feet, Beeman and Magh Soudlou introduced the second film, "P Like Pelican." Unfortunately, they described it as a political fable, claiming to see in the alliance between the uncorrupted old outcast who is the hero of the film and the young boy who befriends him a paradigm for the relations between "Khomeini and the kids in the street, skipping the generation corrupted by the oil wells."

The film is, in fact, a delicate tale, and stressing its political implications to heavily is like reading Emily Dickinson as if her poems were abolitionist tracts.

The film's central character actually lived in the ruins outside the desert city of Tabas for 40 years. (It was in the desert around Tabas that the aborted American rescue mission was staged.) Kimiavi shows the old man in his cave amid the ruins reciting his poems and teaching the alphabet to a group of taunting boys.

They begin throwing stones at him and he chases them away, but one small boy remains. The boy tells the old man about a pelican, a creature from another world, which has somehow found its way inland to Tabas. He invites the old man to come along to see the miraculous bird. At first the old man protests.

"I've lived in these ruins for 40 years," he says; "I can wait a little longer for the pelican to come to me."

But the boy finally convinces the old man to take the journey. The encounter of the old man and the pelican is a silent moment of poetry: As he splashes alongside the heaven-sent bird, the young boy clapping his hands in the background, the screen is suddenly filled with the image of dustry ruins collapsing -- a new world is about to be created

It's not difficult to see some parallels to the political mythology here, as the uncorrupted old man and the innocent youth join forces to create a messianic moment, but it is not something one wants to speak of too loudly. Obviously, politics was far from Kimiavi's mind when he created the film nine years ago.

When the lights came up after "P Like Pelican," most of the audience stayed on for the open discussion that had been promised. The first questions ranged from "Why aren't the Iranians Arabs?" to "Where is that pelican now?" But for the most part, the discussion was an earnest and impressive exercise in understanding.

As the questions and answers continued, broadening into some rather sophisticated analyses of Iranian society, the man sitting next to me whispered, "Sure, I could tell you how understandable Hitler was within the context of his soceity, too," and there is little doubt that reservations like these were nagging at many people's minds

But still, the discussion in that shadowy room beneath the Hall of Asian Peoples seemed objective, with perspective and a humanistic focus. One wishes Ayatollah Knomeini could have heard this attitude. As one woman said at the end of the program: "I appreciate learning so much about the Iranians. Now I want to know when they are going to start trying to understand us."

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