One Iranian film is worth a thousand intelligence reports. Or, to put it in Middle Eastern terms, two Iranian film festivals are a better bargain than the CIA and State Department.
For years now we've been instructed, on the basis of secret information, how terrible Iranians are. They support terrorism, threaten nuclear devastation, and oppose Arab-Israel peace. A while back, the United States cited Iran as a violator of human rights. That charge was dropped when it became just too embarrassing in the context of standard Middle Eastern behavior.
From Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq through the revolution to President Muhammad Khatami's landslide election last year, US intelligence agencies dealing in secretly acquired information have gotten it wrong in Iran. Not so strange, then, that Europeans and others don't agree with our assessments. Iran deeply hurt the American psyche 20 years ago. While the wound may be healing, residual bitterness, the efforts of special interests, and secret intelligence promote a policy of error.
Happily, there's an alternative to ignorance or despair about a country that is potentially one of the most influential in the Middle East: Take in an Iranian film. Despite the censorship or "guidance" of the Tehran religious authorities, the new wave of films depicts Iran as it truly is. In the past few months, thanks to the Sackler Gallery and FilmFestDC, Washingtonians could see a dozen of the best products of international prize-winning Iranian directors. The films are full of insights and as rich in design and color as Persian carpets.
In a sense, what is happening in Iranian cinema replicates the Italian experience after World War II. Decades of political repression, followed by a destructive war, give way to a period of lighter control permitting creative genius to experiment. Low-budget by necessity, often using amateur actors, the films tell stories that seem to evolve in the making. The grit and tinsel, crumbling plaster and marble facades, dust and dirt, dreams and sorrows of life in Tehran are laid out in Italian-style realism.
What do the films tell us about Iran that intelligence agencies missed? First, the Shah never had a chance of transforming Iran into a "Great Civilization" that would rival Germany. Second, the current rulers have hardly a prayer of forcing the country into a rigid theocracy. Iranian society, the films teach us, is organic, with its own rules and goals.
While there are disparities of wealth, education, ethnicity, and morality, overriding all is the sense of community and respect accorded to each member. Rituals of hospitality and courtesy have real meaning. There is dignity, gentleness, generosity, and a willingness to help or simply to let time pass that ease the burdens of deception, crime, brutality, and poverty.
Possibly there are Iranian terrorists or mad nuclear scientists, but they seem outside the norms of this society depicted in these films. Those who violate the standards of society - the bicycle thief in the bazaar or hard-line clerics after the Revolution - will find themselves pursued by bazaaris, or chased out as in Khatami's election.
To be sure, secular authority, modern institutions, and religion have their place in Iran. But they aren't all-controlling. A cab driver reports the theft of his car to the police and eventually the cops find it. In the meantime, he's relied on his own imagination and network of contacts in an effort to track it down. A father and son turn to modern medicine to save the paralyzed daughter, but they also pursue the solutions of folk remedies, magic, and religion - the latter does the job.
Neither politics nor ideology enters the lives of these characters. They aren't fanatics. They listen, reflect on what they've heard, and act with deliberation or short-lived emotion. A mother, against the objection of the family, insists irrationally that her son take a second wife. She's the only film Iranian I met I wouldn't want to negotiate with.
Religion is shown to exert a powerful force over the lives of these people, as may be expected in films that pass the censor. Yet, it's not the only operative influence. The family is the dominant structure; loyalty and love between its members are stronger than any other form of association. Children are central to the society - central characters in several films. Their perspicacity, unsullied wisdom, and determination to achieve the good point up the failings of the adult world. Bear in mind that children account for half the Iranian population. Their pushing at traditional structures will mean problems for future rulers as they do for the parents in the films.
In "Taste of Cherry," an old man tries to dissuade the hero from suicide by telling him a joke. A foolish Turk, the story goes, complains that he feels pain all over his body. Wherever he probes with his finger, he hurts. The doctor reports his body is fine, but his finger is broken. Perhaps there's a message here for Washington intelligence agencies: Iran may be all right; our probing mechanisms may be broken.
In the old days, Nixon, Kissinger, and company saw Iran as one man - the Shah; he was a good guy. Later we saw the country as another man - Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; he was bad. Recently, policy analysis has improved 100 per cent. We now see Iran as two men - Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is bad and President Khatami who is good.
The undiscovered secret of Iran is that it is in truth a land of 65 million men and women, good and bad. We need to pay attention to them. You could meet some on the screen of your neighborhood theater.
* Henry Precht, a retired diplomat who lives in Maryland, was country director for Iran in the State Department during the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis.