The Political Dialectics of Contemporary Iranian Cinema

Iranian culture and society holds a rich history tracing all the way back to 550 B.C. and the beginning of the once-mighty Persian Empire, one of the largest in human history. Its vast rule expanded from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to India in the east, a dynasty that promoted revolutionary social reform and the first declaration of human rights of its kind. The cultural landscape of ancient Iran was profound in its artistic endeavors, serving as a cornerstone for poetry, philosophy, literature, painting, calligraphy, music, craftwork, and architecture.

However, Iranian culture has endured transformative influences from a violent history of conquering powers that aimed to influence and distort existing values and beliefs. Language and tradition was inevitably infused with these external influences, but internal resistance remained at the core of Iranian consciousness. This mentality of resistance has taken root in the people of Iran, and has manifested itself throughout multiple periods of political turmoil and regime change, most notably during Iran’s 20th century revolutionary conflicts against U.S. imperialism.

In 1953, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, in collaboration with British intelligence, conducted a military coup d’etat that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq after he declared that he would nationalize Iranian oil. This would have severely threatened Western economic interests due to the global reliance on Middle Eastern oil exports, thus prompting the U.S. to intervene and install a pro-Western monarchy that would rule until a major revolution just two decades later.

The Iranian monarchy did what it was intended to do, protect Western interests and quell nationalist uprisings that would threaten the existing power dynamic, until popular unrest again aided by U.S. forces led to the collapse of the monarchy in 1979 and the establishment of an Islamic republic. As a dialectic pushback to this new oppressive regime, resistance began to take shape as a recurring motif throughout Iranian art, particularly in the cinematic realm.

Zara Knox of REORIENT Magazine illuminates, “Iranian cinema has long served as a mirror, reflecting a nation that has absorbed foreign influences, defied restrictions, and expressed hope for its future, all the while proudly drawing upon its own ideologies and deeply-rooted tradition of storytelling”. Contemporary Iranian film has gained prestigious acclaim by film critics worldwide, boasting over a dozen Academy Award nominations in various categories and two Best Foreign Language Film victories, with even greater praise achieved in international festivals. Directors such as Massoud Kimiai, Asghar Farhadi, and Jafar Panahi helped foster the Iranian New Wave, emphasizing a new way of thinking that diverged from the bourgeois consumerist culture surrounding film entertainment before it embarked on its revolutionary twist.

Iranian films explored more provocative themes that challenged the political status quo and portrayed brutally realistic depictions of everyday life in the outskirts of the main capital city where people often lived differently. In Kamran Shirdel’s 1963 film Tehran Payetakht-e Iran Ast (Tehran is the Capital of Iran), he aims to “reveal the disparity between Iran’s celebrated wealth and its deprived reality”. The narrative strings throughout Iranian post-revolutionary cinema reflected economic hardships and massive inequality, the dichotomy of religion doctrine being used as a political tool, the longstanding spiritual and physical turmoil of war, breaking conformity with historical gender norms, and fighting government censorship that permeated every aspect of society. There was a renewed focus on social realism, contextualizing the lives of ordinary Iranians under the regime and expanding the ideological boundaries of an often misunderstood and misrepresented nation through the lens of Western mass media.

“For Americans who want to look beyond the reductive image of Iran presented by the US media, Iran’s cinema offers an alternative that is fascinating, even astonishing, for its artistic sophistication and passionate humanism.”

– Godfrey Chesire, In Search of Cinema: Writings on International Film Art

Political turmoil is often able to cultivate revolutionary artistic movements. Out of hardships and struggle, a creative movement toward freedom of expression and dissent is birthed. With Iran as a case study, years of imperialist Western intervention and oppression triggered a cinematic spring that swelled to groundbreaking proportions. Farhadi, an Iranian director who won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film twice for A Separation (2011) and The Salesman (2016), exemplifies precisely the subdued social tensions and ideological struggles in the face of a fundamentalist regime that continues to shy away from the realities of its time.

Today, with the onslaught of sanctions imposed on Iranian trade by the U.S. to the executive order that once established an unconstitutional travel ban on cherry-picked Muslim-majority countries, juxtaposed against our dangerous alliances with Iranian adversaries Saudi Arabia and Israel, the Iranian economy is in major turmoil. The ordinary people, citizens living about their daily lives, are the ones suffering the most from U.S. foreign policy. One can only expect to see a hyper-energized field of creative expression from here on out, magnified in its streak of revolutionary persistence, rooted in a deep anger towards a government that silences dissent and punishes nonconformity.

As an Iranian-born immigrant to these United States, my heart will always be with my ancestral homeland and the unrelenting hope for a better future for the Iranian people.

Op-Ed: By the Dawn’s Early Light

Tiffany Hunts Along belongs to the Three Affiliated Tribes, a community of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations now living on North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. She knew the mountainside well, the beautiful hilltops and expansive fields surrounding her cherrywood mobile home where she lives with her husband and children.

However, when she was asked about her official address, she was at a loss.  It wasn’t until she took out her newly issued tribal identification card that she was able to name her address, a street called Medicine Otter Loop where she had been living for over a year. Unfortunately, many others in North Dakota’s indigenous communities struggled to obtain the appropriate documentation in time to cast a ballot for this past Tuesday’s midterm elections. This inequitable treatment is all thanks to a state law passed by the Republican state legislature only one month prior that rejected tribal IDs without accurate street addresses as accepted voter identification at the polls.

Not only are indigenous communities bearing witness to wide-scale voter suppression, but they are also at the mercy of a continuum of attempts at perpetuating a violent colonial history of cultural erasure and assimilation.

About 60% of Native Americans in North Dakota live on reservations lacking official street addresses and direct mail services, a design of the hierarchical powers responsible for inflicting a mass genocide and ethnic cleansing upon the indigenous inhabitants of these lands during their initial phases of settler encroachment.

State officials claimed that the measure was meant to protect against voter fraud, but without being able to provide any evidence of past trends in voter fraud, it is glaringly evident that such a widespread disenfranchisement of Native Americans is intentional in its oppression of historically marginalized communities and culturally destructive in its implementation.

The timing of this law came right at the denouement of a competitive campaign cycle for the state’s U.S. Senate race between incumbent Heidi Heitkamp and Republican challenger Kevin Cramer. Heitkamp won her seat back in 2012 by only about 3,000 votes but was unable to squeeze through this time around, losing her race by about 9 percentage points in a state that Trump carried by 36. Political ramifications aside, this issue extends far beyond mere voter suppression.

The history of indigenous peoples of this nation is one of ultimate importance. Colonial exploitation and elitism helped set the foundation for this country, influencing its evolving values and so-called democratic structures that continue to oppress marginalized communities today to an irrevocable extent. It was simply not enough to have banished Native American tribes from their own lands, and after having seized their livelihood and inflicted disease and starvation, forcing them to migrate to federal reservations on foot during one of the darkest shadows cast on our history known as the Trail of Tears.

Institutionalized racism and cultural erasure manifest itself differently today, yet they are still at the hands of an elite class wishing to control the status quo over minorities that may present a challenge to that structural power, with North Dakota’s voter ID law being a prime example of this process. As Chief Diversity Officer of USC’s Undergraduate Student Government, I am able to analyze the subtlety with which bureaucratic administrations perpetuate the disempowerment of such groups, most notably the lack of institutionalization for cultural student organizations that are not able to amass an arbitrary conception of a sufficient level of community engagement. How can we expect these groups, bearing the weight of multiple layers of forced oppression, to build up an organized community to advocate for their interests when they are denied those opportunities at every turn?

In a manner that echoes our brutal Jim Crow past, modern voter ID laws serve to invalidate indigenous and minority identities, to further remove them as secondary or even extraneous to the American political process. In doing so, the political establishment weakens their voices and deems their identities to be inconsequential or even invisible in the eyes of the mainstream, taking a crucial step in enforcing a cultural hegemony. It wasn’t enough for this early establishment to construct American schools on Native reservations, mandating children to adapt to the Western traditions of their colonizers as memories of their own customs, languages, and stories began to fade away.

The oppression of marginalized groups drastically affects the vitality of our American democracy, placing an impetus for reform on all of our shoulders. Neither major political party is in the clear. While anyone is able to easily regurgitate the same abysmally progressive rhetoric we’ve been hearing on campaign trails nationwide, the entirety of this nation will be held accountable until our government is truly reflective of diversity and equity in its composition and its legislative actions.

Disenfranchisement does not solely render a citizen unable to vote for their interests to be represented in governmental affairs. The evolution of voter suppression stems from our historic narrative of colonialist brutality, and our continued self-prescribed ignorance is leading us further towards the urgency of a renewed civil rights movement. The work is never complete.

None of us are free until all of us are free.

The Toxic Relationship Between Political Campaigns and Corporate PACs

In case you’ve completely detached from the cultural zeitgeist these past few months, at long last, states across the nation are about to hold midterm elections this Tuesday, November 6. Early voting has already commenced, as mail-in ballots are being counted and polling places are preparing for an election that has become nationalized as a midterm report on the Trump administration thus far.

What’s up for grabs this Tuesday? There are a slurry of swing congressional seats, senate spots, governorships, and statewide ballot measures that American voters must consider. However, amidst the punditry that we’ve been hearing for months on end regarding predictions, candidate performances, and policy issue platforms, there is one aspect that often does not garner nearly enough attention given the severity of its influence in influencing our electoral process: campaign contributions made in large part by corporate PACs and wealthy donors.

Image result for democratic candidates 2018 corporate pacDemocratic candidates across the country are shattering records as they head towards a hopeful blue wave, flipping swing districts in a fight to take back the House of Representatives from Republican control. Many of these candidates have pledged to reject campaign donations from corporate PACs, or political action committees created exclusively for fundraising money to donate to campaigns or spend on behalf of them, and in turn rejecting the corporate interests that come along with the donations.

Corporate PACs are not to be confused with super PACs, which serve as separate independent expenditure committees that may raise and spend an unlimited amount of money for or against political candidates without giving money directly to campaigns. Corporate PACs typically involve members of a company collecting funds for a candidate, therefore rejecting these funds signifies a rejection of personal investments from the business class. From New York’s congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to California’s Senator Kamala Harris, nearly 200 Democrats have promised to place the interests of communities and constituents before corporate interests.

Image result for corporate pac contributions 2018While this trend reflects a growing progressive shift in the way we view the influence of big money in politics, this is but a single step towards equalizing the playing field and pushing for major federal campaign finance reform. The unrestricted influx of dark money flowing into campaign politics is inherently dangerous and threatening to our values of equality, fairness, and transparency. The concept of “one person, one vote” fades into the abyss as a small group of wealthy elites are ultimately granted major influence in policy decisions that seriously affect us all.

There are factions who argue that campaign contributions are an exercise of free speech, protected by the First Amendment, and just another function of our democracy where those who have the wealth can do with it whatever they’d like. The toxicity and volatility of this ideology cannot be emphasized enough. The same corporate donors in the vein of the Koch brothers and company wishing to influence policy outcomes in America made their money off the backs of exploited labor, poor working conditions, and historical discrimination towards marginalized communities.

If the Democratic party platform truly wishes to emphasize social justice, then the party must also commit to securing economic justice as the two go hand in hand, both extremely vital in ensuring the sanctity of the other. The amount of Democrats we’ve seen speak out against the acceptance of corporate PAC money is wonderful but it is not enough, and time is a precious resource that we are drastically running low on.

Unrestricted campaign contributions should not be considered free speech when it is done at the expense of the communities that have suffered immensely as a result of unbridled corporate mistreatment and exploitation. Doing so only contributes to a growing disparity between the class of interests that are being represented at the highest levels of government. That cannot be a standard of democracy that we soon come to normalize in this nation. At what point do we break away from the wheel of oppressive political hegemony and institutionalized class inequities?