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Revolutionary Memory: Bahman Ghobadi’s Rhino Season and Mohammadreza Farzad’s Falgoosh

[Rhino Season: Image from Mij Film] [Rhino Season: Image from Mij Film]

Fasl-e Karkadan [Rhino Season]. Directed by Bahman Ghobadi. Iraq/Turkey, 2012.

Falgoosh. Directed by Mohammadreza Farzad. Iran, 2012.

Post-revolutionary nations, in particular those with strong state-sponsored cultural organs, very frequently have done much to advance the commemoration of revolutionary moments central to their national narratives. In Egypt, the post-1952 state invested in the cultural memory of not only Free Officers movement, but also that of the 1919 revolution—numerous novels, films and other cultural productions appeared in the 1950s and 60s that revisited these historical moments and cast them as central to the constitution of a post-revolutionary national identity. These memories were cast into political projects, reworking the memories themselves into socially productive narratives of significant power and duration.

Given this, then, it is somewhat puzzling to find that in Iran, where the post-revolutionary government has also adopted a posture of active involvement in the field of cultural production, very few post-revolutionary works of literature or cinema have even touched upon the 1979 revolution. This absence of interest in the revolution is in stark contrast to cultural policies around the Iran-Iraq war, where memory discourse around the war shows a sophisticated awareness of the social power of commemorative narratives in establishing political legitimacy and social cohesion. While dozens if not hundreds of films explore various aspects of the war and post-war period, the revolution itself largely lies hidden behind a heavy cloak. The exceptions to this rule are telling—for example, Tahmineh Milani’s Nimeh-ye Penhan (The Hidden Half, 2001), is partially set during the 1979 revolution. The film’s treatment of the revolution, and its focus on a leftist student activist who is imprisoned after the revolution, was controversial enough to lead to Milani’s brief imprisonment shortly after its release. With examples such as this, it is not surprising to find few cultural producers willing to engage directly with the memories of the revolution.

This sensitivity about representing the revolution has several root causes, but largely bespeaks the lack of consensus among Iranians about how to define and remember the events of 1978-79, even inside Iran, and even perhaps among the post-revolutionary regime’s dedicated cadres. The split between leftist and Islamist currents, the internal struggle between these and the eventual brutal repression of leftists, including widespread imprisonment and executions, produced a raw sensitivity where the representation of the revolution is concerned. Where in a revolutionary state such as Cuba one finds small and large museums and memorials to the revolution of 1952 in every town and city, in Iran no such effort has been made beyond the application of the term “Enqelab” (revolution) to a number of streets or squares, and some references to the events in wall murals in urban areas—largely now peeling and faded. By contrast, the revolution is treated in many works by Iranian diaspora writers and filmmakers. Perhaps the most popular of these would be Marjan Satrapi’s illustrated memoir, Persepolis, Vols I & II (2000) which she adapted as a film with her collaborator Vincent Paronnaud (2007). Her works continue to be banned in Iran, in part due to their insistence upon exploring the traumas of the revolution.

In this landscape of troubled memories regarding the 1979 revolution, two films have recently been released that address the time of the revolution in fairly direct terms. One, the film Fasl-e Karkadan (Rhino Season) by the seasoned Iranian (-Kurdish) director Bahman Ghobadi, does so in the form of a narrative feature film produced outside Iran. The second, Mohammadreza Farzad’s documentary titled Falgoosh (released with the English title “Falgoosh: Blames and Flames” 2012), examines the burning of movie theaters during the revolution, a phenomenon that still remains unexplained and is attributed both to pro-revolutionary or pro-Shah actors, as a way by which to gently probe the troubled and unresolved memories of those events.

In the aftermath of the 2008 crackdown on the Iranian Green Movement, and due to problems that arose as a consequence of the release of his film Nobody Knows About Persian Cats—a film shot without authorization about the Iranian underground music scene—Ghobadi is now in exile from Iran. Rhino Season is his first work produced outside Iran, and marks a fairly significant change in cinematic language for him as well. Starring Behrouz Vosoughi, Iran’s most popular pre-revolutionary actor who has since 1979 lived quietly and out of the public eye in the US, the film moves between two time registers—between the current day and the years immediately after revolution.

In Rhino Season, Vosoughi plays Sahel, a Kurdish-Iranian poet who emerges from a prison in Iran after three decades. He travels to Istanbul, following reports from comrades who tell her his former wife, Mina (played by Monica Bellucci), has been living in that city for some time. He drives obsessively around the city, eventually locating the house in which she lives.

Intercut with this action are flashbacks to 1979 that follow their courtship and marriage. Mina’s father is a wealthy colonel who is denounced by his own chauffeur, Akbar (played by Yilmaz Erdogan) who joins the revolutionary forces during the revolution. Akbar has secretly loved Mina, and so with his newfound power as a revolutionary figure, he has Sahel and Mina imprisoned. Eventually, upon Mina’s release, he convinces her that Sahel is dead and coerces her to marry him. So she has no idea that Sahel is in fact alive and is now searching for her.

The treatment of the 1979 revolution and its aftermath push against the sensitivities that make representations of this period so rare. Akbar, the revolutionary, is initially not entirely unsympathetic—sullen and browbeaten, he elicits compassion as the indigent chauffeur who quietly longs for the daughter of his master. Yet his desire, by virtue of its comparison with that of Sahel, grows into a perverse and dangerous fixation. His actions in the aftermath of the revolution—orchestrating the imprisonment of Sahel, and a horrific scene in the prison when he rapes Mina after her meeting with Sahel for a conjugal visit in a cell.

The uncertain question of paternity then has reflections for later events, when Sahel drinks himself into a stupor and then beds his own possible daughter who he as met in Istanbul—without either of them realizing the possible relationship between them. In these sexual allegories Ghobadi transgresses the norms of Iranian cinema as a way to explore the traumas of the revolution and their visitation not only on its direct victims, but also those from the next generation.

While some of the red lines that Rhino Season crosses are those of mimetic representation—the court scenes mocking the arbitrary nature of post-revolutionary justice; the brutality of the prisons; the abject violence of some of the new revolutionaries—more significant perhaps are the ways by which, in the film, this past comes to infect the present and future. Memory here is not simply a recollection of the past, but also a burden or indeed a wound that remains unhealed. This association of the revolution with unsettled or contested memory remains too controversial for the post-revolutionary regime to abide. Better to leave those memories as empty vessels, filled, however insufficiently, by the annual celebratory public spectacles held on the anniversary of the revolution.

Ghobadi is now an exilic figure, and it is significant that he chose to explore the experiences of the revolution in this, his first film made outside Iran. It bespeaks the urgency that still underlies the memories of 1979 and the immediate aftermath of the revolution, which are subject to displacement in Iran by the demands of the state-driven project to memorialize the Iran-Iraq war. The traumas that many Iranian families felt in the widespread repression of leftist groups in the years after the revolution—culminating in the mass executions of 1988, when perhaps 10,000 political prisoners were killed—remain unresolved.

Despite these sensitivities, the revolution’s memories are still alive, and it is worthwhile to note a beautiful recent documentary work from Iran that cleverly explores these memories in a way that appears “non-political,” but which is in fact deeply so. Mohamadreza Farzad’s Falgoosh, consisting entirely of found footage from news and other sources from 1978-79 and of footage from Iranian films released just before the revolution. Through a compelling montage from these sources, and with a gentle essayistic voice-over, Farzad presents a probing investigation of why, in the course of the revolution, over 130 cinemas were burned across the country. The confusion over the intention and purpose of these burnings—and the most traumatic of these being the Cinema Rex fire, which killed over 400 spectators trapped inside the theater—led to the eventual closing of nearly all theaters as the revolution took shape.

                                                                                                      [Fagloosh: Image from Berlinale.]

Moving from the painful memories of the cinema fires, Farzad then looks to the rise of amateur film footage shot by Iranians on the streets, looking for echoes drawn from the recent history of Iranian cinema in the images produced in demonstrations and protests. Drawing from a wide range of Iranian films such as Dariyush Mehrjui’s Gav (The Cow 1967) Amir Naderi’s Tangsir (Tangsir 1974), Parviz Kimia’i’s Gavaznha (The Deer, 1978), Reza Motori (Reza the Biker, 1970), and Khosorw Haritash’s Seraydar (The Custodian, 1976), Farzad charts the rise of a new relationship between cinematic representation and historical subject—through the flames of the cinema fires, he intimates, a new Iranian subject emerges, one whose presentiment is discernible within these earlier films.

Both Falgoosh and Rhino Season revisit contested memories of the revolution, albeit for fairly different aims. The former film returns to the unresolved terrain of the cinema fires, seeing through this tragedy the formation of a new Iranian subject—no longer simply a spectator, but rather both as subject and as director of their own living representations. The painful memories are resolved in a humanistic celebration of the claiming of Iranians of their own history—but ends before any reflections may be drawn of the later consequences of the revolution; these would still be too difficult a topic for a filmmaker in Iran to explore. Rhino Season continues this thread, however, and examines the difficult memories of the aftermath of the revolution, dwelling bitterly on those who paid a dear price in the struggle between the Islamist and leftist factions of the revolution. Its end—a surreal possible suicide pact between Sahel, the leftist poet imprisoned for 30 years, and Akbar, the chauffeur-cum-revolutionary who replaces Sahel as Mina’s spouse, both men find themselves together in a car underwater at the bottom of the Bosphorous. An after image has Sahel once again alive, in the middle of a desert, following a distant figure—as if even in death, his quest continues. This irresolution speaks to the lack of a meaningful social consensus on how to understand this history. As with Sahel, Ghobadi intimates, those who experienced loss through the aftermath of the revolution are destined to keep searching for an illusory resolution or closure.

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