Islamic film-makers have always had to subvert the rules of clerics and censors. It's what makes them some of the world's best directors, says Tariq Ali
Saturday April 23, 2005
It is as difficult to define or classify Islamic cinema as it would be a Christian, Jewish or Buddhist one. The language of cinema has always been universal. Interpretations vary. Censors had different priorities: in 1950s Hollywood a married couple could not share a double bed and had to be clothed. In South Asia, the censor's scissors clipped out kisses from western films. The birth of commercial and art movies did not remain confined in the west for too long.
The Lumière brothers first exhibited moving pictures in Paris in 1896. A year later there was a private showing at the Yildiz palace in Istanbul. The viewers consisted of the Ottoman Sultan/Caliph - the temporal and spiritual leader of Sunni Islam - and a few selected courtiers. In 1898 the Ottoman public was let in on the secret and there was a screening in the beer hall in Galatasaray Square. During the next decade cinema halls sprouted like wild mushrooms, and audiences in Istanbul and Smyrna flocked to see everything. Cultural repression began soon after the first world war in 1919: Ahmet Fehim's films were considered politically provocative and censored by the British occupying authorities.
With the birth of post-Ottoman Turkey, the new industry found a staunch supporter in Latifa Usakligil, the feminist wife of Kemal Ataturk (the marriage lasted two years, from 1923-25). Where Istanbul led, Cairo followed. And Bombay was not far behind. Muslim stars dominated the formative years of Bollywood even though, like Jews in Hollywood, many changed their names to appease the dominant Hindu population. Yusuf Khan became Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari was once Mahajabeen and it was an Afghan woman, Mumtaz Begum, who entranced audiences as Madhubala. Alone among his colleagues in defying convention, the popular comic actor, Badrudin Kazi, mocked the studio bosses by adopting the Christian name of a much-favoured imperial tipple: Johnny Walker.
When Pakistan was carved out of India's rib in 1947 it was assumed by some that Bollywood's Muslim stars would defect to the new state and thus boost the Lahore film industry. But Lollywood did not happen. The Pakistan government decided to help its cinema by banning film imports from India. The result was a disaster. Commercialism stifled creativity. Since nobody could see Indian movies, Pakistani producers shamelessly plagiarised the Bombay original. Nor could Pakistan produce anything that even remotely resembled the work of Satyajit Ray or Mrinal Sen. Then in the late 1950s and 60s, the military rulers sealed off the country from "subversive" influences. Hollywood reigned supreme.
A decade later, when Pakistan had its first secular, elected, civilian government, women were encouraged to study and seek employment, but the cinema remained heavily veiled. It had little to do with Islam as such, since the same postcolonial rules were in operation in neighbouring India. On-screen kisses were forbidden. Bosoms could heave but had to be carefully covered and, even at the beach, actresses had to swim fully clothed. Cinema proprietors in Pakistan decided to spice their shows with a "tota" (strip). In Lahore, touts would parade outside some movie theatres and whisper to bystanders that a "one-minute strip" was being shown at the late-night performance. The prowling males would pack the show and halfway through some boring movie, a minute or two of porno-flicks would appear on the screen. After this the cinema emptied.
That was a long time ago. Pakistani movies are still awful. A new low point was reached in 1990 with International Guerrillas , which glorified jihadi militarism and vilified Salman Rushdie - the equivalent of Hollywood trash depicting Muslims as terrorists. The "plot" centered on a gang of Islamist Pakistanis who raid the secure facility where Rushdie is being kept safe. Much violence follows, but the evil Rushdie is killed through divine intervention. The film was a box-office flop. More popular were the porn DVDs that are easily available. Their procurers do a roaring under-the-counter trade, particularly in Islamist strongholds like Peshawar and Quetta. Unsurprisingly, a fair proportion of the bearded militants who spend the day painting veils on billboard actresses, settle down that same evening to watch some comforting porn.
It's different in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, where only last year the censors passed Arisan . The film's plot revolves around an architect's eventual coming out as a gay man. The censors passed a movie depicting male homosexuality and featuring a gay kiss, without exciting a backlash from local clerics. Likewise in Tajikistan, where Djamshed Usmonov's latest film, Angel on the Right , depicts sexual, social and political frustrations (affairs, drunkenness, corruption) without any problems. The style of his films, strongly influenced by Soviet film schools, reflects the strengths of that tradition.
It is clerical Iran that has produced the most vibrant and remarkable cinema of today. Not since the French New Wave have auteurs from a single country dominated the art-cinema market. Compelled by circumstances (like their Communist bloc counterparts of the 1960s) to rely on symbolism and allegory, Iran's film-makers have produced a varied range of high-quality cinema. One reason for this is the rich intellectual tradition in the country that transcended the kitsch world of the Shah as well as bearded puritanism. The novels of Sedagh Hedayet - especially his masterwork The Blind Owl - had a Kafkaesque quality: his heroes are intense loners, floundering in a sea of anguish, remote from those who rule the country. Ahmed Shamlu's poetry was more optimistic in tone, but staunchly oppositional. These writers influenced many of Iran's film-makers - before and after Khomeini's triumph.
Abbas Kiarostami, the father of the Iranian New Wave, is a graduate of the Teheran University's faculty of fine arts and sees cinema as an art form no different from a painting or a sculpture. Landscape and architecture are as important as the actors. Each viewing uncovers something new. The end is usually enigmatic. Different interpretations are always possible. In Taste of Cherry (1997) a man is trying to commit suicide, but in a calm and dispassionate fashion. When the censors objected, Kiarostami explained that the movie was really about the different choices involved in living out each day. The suicide was incidental. Not exactly my reading of the movie.
The cinematic language and interior destiny of each Iranian film-maker is different, the international influences on them vary from Rossellini to Fellini, Akira Kurosawa to Hou Hsiao-hsien, but there is a strong sense of solidarity. Even the self-contained Makhmalbaf family sees itself as part of a larger community. They view and comment on each other's work, they help each other artistically and politically.
Jafar Panahi latest film, Crimson Gold , illustrates the process. Panahi was on his way to Kiarostami's exhibition of photographs when he heard of a double killing that had taken place that day in an upmarket jewellery store in Teheran. He was so upset that he left the exhibition. Later he and Kiarostami excavated the story behind the incident. Why had a poor, demobilised veteran from the Iran-Iraq war, now turned pizza delivery man, shot a jeweller and then taken his own life? Kiarostami agreed to write the script for Panahi. The result is a neo-realist masterpiece, where fragments taken from a raw reality are seen in relation to the overall class structure of contemporary Iran.
Jafar Panahi is, in some ways, Iran's most fearless film-maker. In The Circle he depicted the oppression of women with a rare sensitivity. The religious police are back in action in Crimson Gold , waiting to pounce on unmarried young women on their way out of a mixed party where we can see them, silhouetted against the window, dancing and enjoying themselves. It is this daily interference in social relations between the sexes that has completely alienated young people from the clerics. Although, as Crimson Gold reveals, underlying all this is a society where the divide between rich and poor increases every month.
Kamal Tabrizi's Marmoulak (The Lizard), released in the UK this week, satirises the mullahs. A convict (known as "the Lizard") escapes from a prison hospital disguised as a mullah. He takes the train to a border town where they are expecting a new mullah. The Lizard has watched enough Iranian television to pick up the clerical style, but he becomes an ultra-humanist cleric, encouraging doubt, analysing Tarantino movies, both surprising and delighting his audience. This film slipped through the censors and played to packed cinemas throughout the country. When mullahs began to be addressed publicly as lizards a panic gripped the cultural establishment and the film was rapidly withdrawn.This independent, critical school of non-conformist Iranian film directors has risen up against falsehood and irrationality, producing a cinema that has no rivals in the west today. And religion? It is visible in many guises in some of these films, but never centre stage and never official.