The western or Eurocentric art of documentary filmmaking is inextricably linked to its historical colonial and global narrative. Its earliest forms existed for the purpose of informing the global markets about the wealth of produce in the colonies, designed to stimulate interest and trade with the colonies. John Grierson created the film unit that worked for the “Empire Marketing Board” between 1926-1933, funded by the British Government, up to the point the ‘Empire’ started to collapse. (1) Similarly, early American documentaries included films such as Date growing in Iraq, made by their ‘Agricultural department, observing how the ‘natives’ transport the dates they’d sold. It tells you very little of their life outside growing and packing dates, just the briefest glimpse of a traditional dance while they are moving the harvest, there is no critical narrative, no sense of the people filmed having a point of view, apart the practical need to harvest and trade their dates and even that is prescribed by the Colonial trader. (2)
As the treaties following the first and second world war removed Britain’s and much of Western Europe’ control over their “colonies”, the nature of the relationship and understanding of viewer and subject and audience has been shifting across all art forms. What could also be considered the hidden dialogue, coined as the “Marco Polo Syndrome”. Marco Polo was considered a pioneer in understanding the other, but did not succeed in bridging two cultures due to suspicion from both sides, especially his own, in the sense that it was perceived that whatever is different as the carrier of life threatening viruses, rather than nutritional elements and its effect brought a lot of death to culture. (3)
Hamid Naficy makes a distinction between film makers in the Post colonial world, where he identifies the creators of the Hollywood genre of film making, as being mix of post colonial émigrés of largely Jewish and Italian immigrants, who identify and have created a narrative that is now the definitive of American culture, not one of their ethnic or racial back ground. Arguably this profitable export to the rest of the world and reinforces a cultural message of supremacy, and who’s ‘mis en scene’ nurtures the Marco Polo Syndrome. The Post Colonial film maker is one with a distinct ethic background who may be in exile or part of an economic diaspora and who is seeking to examine their cultural racial background.(4)
I have decided to examine the work of Bahman Gohbadi in this context. An ethnic Iranian Kurd, now living in exile. His body of film making spans two decades, he studied film making in Iran, before eventually leaving for Los Angeles, in an interview with Film maker magazine he explains he was forced to leave as his films and ideas had been blocked by the authorities over a three year period. (5)
Gohbadi’s work is extra ordinary in that it reflects real life and experience of ordinary people and children inside Iran and achieves consistent distribution success in America and the Western world. Gohbadi it could be argued successfully bridges the culture. His ability is to structure the narrative story through the eyes of children and the ‘other’ society, that is constantly the point of political news agenda and argument in the West society.
In “A Time for Drunken Horses” he immerses the audience deep into the experience of children living their lives in an Iranian Kurdish town bordering Iraq, during the period of sanctions, following their journey and struggle to survive as smugglers themselves and following the traditions of the culture, where girls are expected to be given to other tribal families in exchange for goods or services. The Guardian reviewed it at the time as “This is a very remarkable film: a blazingly passionate, spiritual bulletin from a contemporary front-line of almost unimaginable hardship.” (6) Gohbadi explains all his work closely reflects his own experience in life and there is a strong documentary feel in his work. He is using ordinary people as actors to convey these stories of war, displacement, refugees and many more, the locations he chooses are real refugee camps and real environments.
As a Kurd, Gohbadi’s work represents the Kurds, who in reality have no identifiable country, yet their culture and languages and the land they inhabit is clearly distinct from its immediate neighbours. It could be argued as a nation state, they had not been represented at the negotiating table, when the Treaties of Serves and Lausagne divided the region in the 1920s. He reflects the ‘other’ even within Iran and brings the issue to people in Tehran, who may have no other means of understanding the difference, other than that which the state media would choose to release. Gohbadi states “It’s not a matter of nationalism. Firstly, [I make] films for Kurds, because I’m Kurdish, films in Kurdish language because I know the language well. Where I can, I make films in Farsi so that both Kurds and Iranians might enjoy them, as well as an international audience. “ (7) At times his work loses the subtle, implicit message of cultural identity and makes direct political comment, as in “Marooned in Iraq” where the characters repeat “Damm Saddam”, so that it becomes almost propagandistic, as defined by John Berger in 2004, “Propaganda requires a permanent network of communication so that it can systematically stifle reflection with emotive or utopian slogans. Its pace is usually fast. Propaganda invariably serves the long-term interests of some elite.” (8)yet it also reflects the nature of the political view of the Kurdish people in Iraq, Turkey and Iraq and their political perspective and culture.
In his most recent film “no one knows about Persian Cats” made about the underground music scene in Tehran he explains the film was inspired by people who take that risk to keep the music scene, illegal in Iran alive. The film is incredibly spontaneous, Gohbadi explains he doesn’t even have a script, just two or three written pages of an idea, the dialogue is prepared, may be half an hour before the shoot, deliberately to keep the feel as natural and spontaneous as possible. Gohbadi sees his work speaking of political and sociological resistance in Iran, one who reflects the reality in Iran and arguably to the Iranian audience and the western world. Yet as Naficy explored in the Accented cinema, to achieve the success that Gohbadi experienced, his work is still shown in the context of the diasporic cinema, distributors exploit the difference to attract an audience and continues to fuel the notion of the other.
Gobahdi’s films themselves draw the audience into the experience as if it could be their own. (9) Michael Atkinson writes on Gohbadi in the Village Voice “his ‘films’ bristle with appalling realism and grim truth from one of the world’s most troubled landscapes. Among film artists of state-less nations—now there’s an idea for a retrospective—Ghobadi may be preeminent because his films are both accessible and uncompromising.” This view may also be critically examined in the context of untranslatability as explored by Sarat Maharah, the acknowledgement that there is a space, between cultures that is not translatable or transparent, (11) within this context Gohbadhi’s work maybe seen as a Global ‘hybrid’ It is cinematic experience, translates as pleasure for the global audience. Yet the true experience of the other is far from any notion of pleasure considered by a Western audience.
(1) Aitken, Ian, Film and Reform, John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement, 1990 Routledge Chapter 4 pp90-126
(3) Mosquera, Gerardo The Marco Polo Syndrome, some problems around Art and Eurocentrism, 1992 Third text, 21, pp 35-41
(4) Naficy, Hamid, “An Accented Cinema”, 2001 Princeton University Press chapter 1, pp15.
(5) Macaulay, Scott, Film Maker magazine, April 15th 2010 http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/news/2010/04/bahman-ghobadi-on-improvisation-persian-cats-and-kiarostami/
(6) Bradshaw, Peter, The Gaurdian, 17th August, 2001 http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2001/aug/17/culture.peterbradshaw
(7) Boffa, Gilda, Honarmand Zoya, Off Screen, 31st January 2009
(8) Berger, John, The Guardian, 2004 http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2004/aug/24/uselections2004.usa
(9) Jigsawnovich, Julie, 12 December 2009 Iranian.com http://www.iranian.com/main/blog/jigsawnovich/interview-bahman-ghobadi-eludes-censors
(10) Atkinson, Michael 13th April 2010, The Village Voice http://www.villagevoice.com/2010-04-13/film/bearing-witness-the-films-of-bahman-ghobadi-at-walter-reade/
(11) Maharaj, Sarat, ‘Perfidious Fidelity’ The Untranslatability of the ‘Other”