Mark Cousins on Argo, Iran and formulaic thinking
Writing exclusively for Bella Caledonia Mark Cousins voices some of his concerns over the new Ben Affleck action thriller, Argo
In the early 1990s, I started seeing films from Iran. They startled me with their new ways of storytelling, unexpected intimacies and reach. When I was director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, long before DVD and before many Iranian films were available on VHS, I wrote to an Iranian film agency, asking if they could send me copies of films. A shoebox of treasures arrived.
In 2001, I drove to India, from Edinburgh, in my campervan. I stayed for three weeks in Iran, mostly in villages and in the hills, but in the big cities as well. Though it is often in our news media, I found myself in a terra incognita. Where were the crowds punching the air? Where was the anti-Americanism, the aggression, the feral Iran that I’d seen for years on TV? The Iran I encountered was off-the-scale hospitable and beautiful; taxi drivers refused to take money, villagers insisted on making me dinner, etc. This was just days after 9/11. Several years later (during the somewhat liberal Khatami regime, not the reactionary Ahmadinejad one) I went back to Iran, and I went back again, for much longer, to make a series for Channel 4 on the history and poetics of Iranian film.
On these trips I made friends in Iran, smoked the sheesha, walked the streets, spent hours in Tehran’s traffic, went to the Jewish cafes, saw how ardent and brave many of the young people were, saw how most didn’t identify with their current government, how Iran is not its government or Mullahs, saw how restless and urgent for reform the country is. Mostly, though, I felt the welcome of the people. Once, when we parked our campervan in the wrong place, a policeman asked us to move it but gave us a melon to apologise for doing so.
Two days ago I saw Ben Affleck’s Hollywood film Argo, about the US’s rescue of six of its citizens during the Iranian revolution in 1979. The film gripped me and moved me and I hated it for this. Affleck is talented, liberal and a nice guy – I met him recently. And yet he has made a film which chronically under-imagines, or mis-imagines Iran. I looked into its whirring thriller machine to try to glimpse even moments of truth about Iran, its people, subjectivities, lives and street scenes, but saw none. For decades, foreigners, particularly Americans, have portrayed the country as a chaotic place of jeopardy and inhospitality. Instead of updating or even tweaking this portrait, Affleck and his team have repeated it. Since their storyline is about a rescue against the clock, Iran is, also, in their film, a prison from which white people use their ingenuity and courage to leave. The film it most brought to mind for me was The Great Escape. The most emotional moment in Argo is when, on the flight out of Iran, the air staff announce that since the plane has left Iranian air-space, passengers can now have an alcoholic drink. So even the air has a kind of toxicity.
After I saw it, I did a series of tweets about the stereotyping of Iran in the film. Some people agreed with my comments but many tweeted back to tell me that the film is a thriller, about hostages and, so, it had to tell its story as a thriller, from the victims’ point of view and, since the Iranians were a threat, Argo had to be presented as such. To say this was (a) to misunderstand my point about a history of stereotyped representation and (b) to accept entirely Hollywood’s thought process in deciding to return, again, to a moment in history where Iran was the aggressor. So many people told me that the film is “evenhanded”, in other words it criticises the CIA and mentions the American and UK overthrow of democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953. Yes it does the latter (but doesn’t, for example, mention that the Revolution was originally Marxist and that it was hijacked by Islamists) but my objection was not related to this narrow good-bad paradigm of who did what in 1979. I was objecting to a more general narrowness of visual discourse about Iran, a narrowness which, by dehumanising, makes possible a political discourse in which bombing the country can be talked about, and sanctions are seen as only hurting the government rather than the population of 75m people.
Affleck and his scriptwriters did indeed try to be even handed about the US’s involvement in Iran, about the iniquities of the Shah’s regime, etc (and had Iranian director Rafi Pitts as an advisor) but they use filmic techniques and assumptions which belie their aims. In many of the scenes set in America, for example, the camera is on a tripod or tracking, whereas in Iran, it’s more often hand held, wobbly, fearful. Yes I know they’re trying to show instability and urgency, but set this in a history of representation and your eyes roll. And their Iran is, of course, underscored with thriller music – drones and adrenalin percussion. This is formulaic filmmaking and formulaic thinking about a country. I’d go further and say that because Affleck and his team didn’t intend to stereotype, their national insults, which demean and offend, are almost like parapraxes. Just as the film 300 portrayed Iranians as exotic and effeminate (and, even, at one point, as creatures with flippers!), so Argo seems partially fashioned out of equally unconscious material: an American fear of Iran. This is a parapraxis because it seems to leak out from the film the way a Freudian slip does. To get the full sense of how Hollywood imagines Iran we should ask why this story, this bit of history? Why now? Why in the thriller mode? And if you want to make a thriller, why not do so about Mossadegh, for example?
I think the issue is psychological distance. In the internet age, it’s not the number of miles between people which separates them and makes them distant from each other (Skype, Twitter, Facebook and the like dissolve those miles), it’s the mental distance, the empathy and knowledge gaps. I don’t know if Ben Affleck has been to Iran but, judging by his film, I suspect not. Argo presents a country which is, psychologically, a galaxy far, far away. That’s its problem, that’s why it’s damaging.
All countries (including this one, Scotland) have their psychological distances, of course. And I have, too. But if Ben Affleck would like to see what a great film about the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, with a film within a film, might look like, he should look at Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s brilliant, entertaining A Moment of Innocence.
It should be on the Argo Blu Ray and DVD.
(c) Mark Cousins, 2012