Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Cinema of Discontent [2013]

MPAA (Unrated would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
Boston Globe (L. King) review
CinemaWithoutBorders (B. Tehrani) interview with director

A Cinema of Discontent [2013] (written and directed by Iranian-American filmmaker Jamsheed Akrami) is a documentary about the "Hollywood Production Code (Shiite)-Islamic Style" censorship existent in the contemporary Islamic Republic of Iran played recently at the 24th Annual Festival of Films from Iran hosted by the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago. 

I do believe that it is an important film for those who, like myself, have wished to see (and comment on) films coming out of contemporary Iran, because it helps tell the story of some of the restrictions that Iranian film-makers face when they seek to make their films.

Indeed, I've approached the films that I've seen from Iran with both my Czech and Catholic background.  Czech-and-Slovak cinema endured decades of political censorship during the Communist Era even as Czech-and-Slovak film-makers, especially during the Czech-and-Slovak "new wave" of the 1960s, relished in pushing the envelope of what was deemed acceptable expression by the Communist authorities of the time (until of course the Soviet tanks rolled-in in late-1968 to crush the "Prague Spring"). 

On the other side of the coin, as a Catholic (and a Catholic priest to boot), I do believe that Religion (Church, Mosque, Synagogue, Temple, etc) does have a RIGHT and even a DUTY TO COMMENT on the Arts (film-making included).  (And similarly in a free society, the Arts have a RIGHT to comment on Religion, even when the Authorities, religious or otherwise, don't particularly like what they say). 

Here in the United States, the Hollywood Production Code that existed from 1930 to 1968 was largely the Catholic Church's "baby," having been created in response to pressure by the largely and by the 1960s almost exclusively Catholic National Legion of Decency.  When the Code was abandoned, many Catholics in the United States took this rather personally and I know Catholics both lay and clerical/religious who haven't gone to the movies SINCE the abandonment of the Code in 1968 (To some extent, one has to admire such principled stubbornness/stamina ;-).  Further, the rating system used by National Legion of Decency in its day continues to be the basis of the one used by the USCCB/Catholic News Service whose reviews, as available, I make a point of citing on this blog.

I do have to say that I do prefer the post-Production Code approach to cinema to the censorship that existed beforehand.  As long as the Church retains the right (it does) or critics (people) in general have the right (we do) to call a film morally offensive or otherwise stupid (and explain why), even the Catechism of the Catholic Church defends the freedom of adult human beings to make mistakes as both sin and virtue are impossible without freedom (CCC 1730ff).

So then, recognizing then that the United States and indeed THE ENTIRE WESTERN (CATHOLIC/CHRISTIAN) WORLD went through a previous period of movie censorship (an excellent and beautiful film about the evolution of cinema through this period of previous censorship in Italy was the Oscar winning film Nuovo Cinema Paradiso [1988]) what then does this film have to say about the travails of Iranian film-makers in contemporary Shiite-Islam dominated Iran? 

Well there are some very cumbersome restrictions that Iranian film-makers face.  These include that women have to wear headscarfs (hijab) _at all times_ in Iranian films and _no physical contact_ between men and women is allowed in Iranian films.  (Actually, there's an interesting/telling exception to the latter restriction, which both the film and I'll get to later).

Regarding the headscarfs (hijab).  As the film notes, even in Islam there is no restriction requiring women to wear headscarfs (hijab) at home.  So why do Iran's religious authorities _require_ that women in Iranian films wear headscarfs (hijab) _at all times_ in films?  Well, Iran's religious authorities make that point that women don't have to wear headscarfs (hijab) at home because they are around family.  YET IN A FILM (OR ON STAGE) even though actors/actresses _could be playing_ the roles of husband and wife (and kids) at home, THEY ARE GENERALLY NOT ACTUALLY HUSBAND/WIFE/THEIR KIDS.  Further, there's an crew filming them (and later an innumerable audience watching them) that are DEFINITELY NOT FAMILY, ergo ... women in films (and presumably on stage) must dress as if they were in public.

Now, westerners can laugh at this (and perhaps on multiple levels).  However, let one consider the following.  A hundred and fifty years ago, women across the whole of the Catholic/Christian world had their heads covered as per St. Paul's admonition to women in 1 Corinthians 11:6: "If a woman does not have her head veiled, she may as well have her hair cut off. But if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should wear a veil," and until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (in mid-1960s) Catholic women coming to Mass were expected to have their heads covered.  As in the case of the hijab, this was NOT seen by CATHOLIC/CHRISTIAN WOMEN OF THE TIME to be UNDULY RESTRICTIVE.  Indeed, as in the case of the hijab, hat/veil wearing BY CATHOLIC/CHRISTIAN WOMEN OF THE TIME was seen as both simply "the way things are" and "given that this was simply the way things are" an opportunity to make a fashion statement.  (Think of Jackie Kennedy, think of the hats worn by prominent women of the Victorian Era, including Queen Victoria herself).  And to this day in the African American community, hat wearing to Church/Mass remains a popular, colorful and fashionable thing to do.

Then the Shiite Islamic censors in Iran noting that actors/actresses _playing_ husband and wife are usually _not_ actually husband and wife (and in any case performing before innumerable strangers) -- forming the basis of both requiring women in Iranian films to wear the hijab even "at home" and not allowing physical contact between male and female actors in Iranian films -- is actually quite interesting.  Consider simply how many marriages in Hollywood have failed over the decades after one or the other of the spouses found themselves playing a rather intimate role in a film with someone other than one's spouse.  In our time, the marriage between Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt famously collapsed after Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie played together in a film.  And there had been many other cases (think of the various marriages of Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor during the course of their careers). 

So while most Westerners would find the Shiite Islamic censorship in film in Iran almost incomprehensibly prudish, these censors themselves are approaching the matter with their own logic and they are not without a point: the actors/actresses in a play or film _playing_ husband and wife aren't necessarily (and usually _aren't_) _actually_ husband and wife and THIS _can_ get confusing both to audiences and to the actors/actresses themselves  

Then consider that through the Production Code era in the United States, husband and wife were also portrayed in rather unrealistic ways.  It has been famously noted that on American television in the 1950s though to the mid-1960s the ONLY married couple ever portrayed in bed together were The Munsters [1964-66], while the most modern, most popular married couple on American TV at the time, Rob and Laura Petrie of the Dick Van Dyke Show [1961-66]), were _consistently shown_ in the show as sleeping in separate beds.  Again this is a reminder that the challenges faced by Iranian film-makers today are not altogether foreign to previous (and even relatively recent) Western Experience.

Finally, the documentary notes that _quite strangely_ one kind of contact between men and women in Iranian film that _is_ allowed (even when the actors/actresses play husband and wife):  They are allowed to hit each other in the film.  And the point is made that actors/actresses are not allowed to hold hands or to kiss BUT they are allowed to hit each other in moments of anger.  And the Westerner would certainly ask WHY??

Well Sigmund Freud would certainly give an answer -- violence is often repressed sexuality.  If people are not allowed to express themselves with kindness, they will eventually lash-out at each other with anger.  But here I would note that even in the West, and I follow most closely the ratings systems of both the MPAA and then of the Catholic News Service (the latter still using an adapted rating system from the Legion of Decency / Production Code days), SEXUALITY IN OUR FILMS IS STILL GENERALLY JUDGED MORE HARSHLY THAN VIOLENCE.  

In any case, this documentary is very interesting ... and without a doubt it would not be easy to be an Iranian film maker these days (with censors looking over their shoulders).  Yet, let us be clear that their experience is not altogether foreign to even fairly recent Western experience, and also (perhaps surprisingly to Westerners) the Iranian morality censors are _not_ completely without their point. 

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