Monday, March 12, 2007

NYTimes Q&A with Abbas Kiarostami

Read it here. I think it's really bad. The interviewer, Deborah Solomon, seems to have one guiding theme--hit home that "over there," in Iran, those people, those Islamofascist tyrants who presumably control every facet of every citizen's life, are ... well, bad. And how crazy is it that Kiarostami is able to make his beautiful masterpieces in the midst of all that crazy oppressive fanaticism over there? ... Nevermind, of course, that Kiarostami is allowed to live and leave his evil and repressive country, to make his films and show them (elsewhere), and that last time he tried to come to the States, it was the government of our freedom-loving society that wouldn't let him in. (Nevermind, also, that a decade ago, Roger Ebert and most everyone else were happy to boo-hiss-and-shout that Kiarostami was just a case of the Emperor's New Clothes, because the man's film shared the Palme D'Or in 1997, god forbid. It took the patient effort of critics like Chesire and Rosenbaum, among others, to get him into the place he occupies in American film culture today, which is still marginal, but now an "admired" & "respectable" middle-highbrow marginality. Though even that seems to be relegated to his 1987-1999 work.) And it's not my intention to stick up for the policies of Iran's government, but this interview--and all the unexamined assumptions it trafficks in--is just ridiculous.

Solomon's questions include:

"New York’s Museum of Modern Art is screening 32 of your films this month and touting your accomplishments as one of the great film directors of our time. I imagine you are less celebrated back home in Tehran." ... "As an independent filmmaker living in a repressive Islamic theocracy, are you harassed by the government?" ... "Unlike some other Iranian artists who have fled the country, why have you decided to stay put?" ... "Seriously, how do artists in Iran deal with the restrictions imposed on them by the government?" ... "What do you think of President Ahmadinejad? Do you agree with his policies?" (If Iran were really as outwardly horrible and repressive a state as these questions would lead one to believe, would Kiarostami really be able to sit and talk to a Times reporter able to candidly answer that question?) "As a Shiite Muslim, are you religious?" (Kiarostami indicates the private nature of the question, which, again--in a horrible awful evil Islamic theocracy, a frank answer to the negative might cause him great trouble, no?) "Many of us in the West are confounded by the intensity of the violence between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis, since they belong to the same faith." (Here's where I just roll my eyes. But AK, patient as with all of Solomon's questions, has a fine answer.)

Admittedly, Solomon's last three questions, non-political ones, are pretty good. In a completely insubstantial way, of course.

Once more, I am not trying to stick up for Iran. I mean, I very much "disagree" with strict religious societies, Islamic or otherwise. But really this is a question about agendas, and about the repeated propagation of certain commonplaces about a country that happens to be on the United States' shitlist, about the way a debate is framed, what assumptions are made and insisted upon by the interlocutor in power. (A pop culture example that springs to mind: I recall watching the MTV music awards a few years ago, and my friend and I were joking about how baldly the VJs had to "push" their own ceremony. "Aren't these awards just so crazy and unpredictable?" Almost verbatim. "What was your favorite ceremony moment of the past?" they'd ask a guest. "Was it when all those Eminem clones came out?" Honestly, how transparent does it have to get before people express their disgust en masse?)

It's not that Iran is good and pure and wonderful--it's that we, culturally, our journalists or critics or pundits, keep insisting that it's like the Realm of Mordor, even in seemingly innocuous bits like the one discussed here. And I understand Solomon's bit is a quick Q&A, rigidly guided & structured, not an extended feature interview. This isn't about her personal guilt or responsibility as though she's some bad, xenophobic anti-Iranian. But, if one wants to ask those Big Questions about cinema, censorship, and theocracy in Iran, would it have hurt to simply ask Abbas Kiarostami what he thought of cinema, censorship, and theocracy in Iran, instead of framing the questions along the lines of, 'Given how awful is it there, and how unappreciated your films are there, how do you go on with life at all'? Well, yes, it would have hurt to do so--it would have made for an open dialogue when a cross-examination was more pertinent to the aims of the "liberal" Times and the "liberal" media establishment.

More on Kiarostami in the near future ...

9 comments:

Noel Vera said...

Not to mention the US practically created present-day Iran with its support of the Shah.

Zach Campbell said...

It sounds like you might be dangerously close to 'Blame America Firstism,' Noel. Don't you know that everything the US and its European allies do promotes liberty & stability, and when things go wrong in other parts of the world, it is the result of brown people's incompetence and/or fanatacism?

[/sarcasm]

Seriously though ... Yes, indeed! That's a specter haunting the whole of my post. I didn't mention it though, did I--I guess I felt I was being verbose enough just trying to stay on topic.

Campaspe said...

Very, very well done. Her interviews frequently irritate the bejesus out of me, and I don't even LIKE Chomsky. Most of her questions just reinforce conventional wisdom, they aren't designed to challenge it. Thus, Chomsky=anti-American; Kiarostami=oppressed artist. I think she has confused the role of provocateur and smart alec.

gabe klinger said...

Kiarostami's deflections are very insightful.

gabe klinger said...

P.S. The most amazing revelation in the interview is that Kiarostami's mother is 105 years-old. With those genes, Kiarostami could be making films for the next forty years.
Anyway, thank you for posting on Solomon's very irritating interview.
Why they would pick her to do it over, say, Dave Kehr is mind-boggling.

jim emerson said...

Those "10 Questions for..." pages in the Times Magazine are always frivolous, and this is no exception.

In the 1980s, when Poland was still under Soviet control, Krzysztof Zanussi told me: "I know how to get my films made [with government financing] and get them past the government censors. I don't know if my films could survive the tyranny of the marketplace." Zanussi, a vocal Solidarity supporter, was no fan of Soviet Communism. He was just making an observation about how artists create under different systems.

P.S. I'm still on the fence about Kiarostami; I admit I haven't seen very many of his films. I thought "Let the Wind Carry Us" was very beautiful and funny (until that sledgehammer final image). I have friends who love him and friends who hate him, but I admit it was the relentless Kiarostami HYPE (from Film Comment to Entertainment Weekly) that made me skeptical about him after "Taste of Cherry." I hadn't seen a filmmaker get this much publicity since Tarantino (or Wong Kar-Wai) -- and the naysayers only made the zealots more vocal. Once he was "discovered" by the West, I don't think Kiarostami was ever in danger of quietly disappearing into anonymity. After all, not many filmmakers get a full page (with a full-length fashionable photo of them in sunglasses) in the New York Times Magazine....

Alex said...

The hilarious thing is that mainstream American films have highly constricted political freedom, while Iranian directors have shown themselves both far more capable and seemingly more able to confront political issues than generally Americans have. Moreover, the American film industry spent decades under tight censorship (as well as having multiple purges of political dissidents) - censorship often directly done under religious authorities.

Zach Campbell said...

Jim, though I didn't see Taste of Cherry until 2000, it came out around the time, just before maybe, that I was starting to get "serious" about cinema. In the late 1990s, I knew very, very well who Tarantino was; I believe I knew a bit about Wong Kar-Wai; but Kiarostami was just a name to me. Actually by the end of 1998 I think I might have even read more about Gabbeh than Taste of Cherry in whatever websites and magazines I was checking at the time, so it wasn't even the recent Iranian film that I was most aware of being "out there."

That's just my experience. I was hardly much of an insider (not that I am now either!), and I certainly didn't know trends. But whatever Kiarostami hype there was, was just the tiniest blip on the radar in comparison to Tarantino, as I experienced it. (Or Spielberg & Saving Private Ryan in '98.)

jim emerson said...

Zach: Yes, what I meant to say was that, on the film festival circuit (and amongst critics) Kiarostami made the kind of splash that Tarantino did in the mainstream press. I still want to catch up with more of his films -- and you have provided an excellent guide, above!