Sunday, January 22, 2012

Followup: Accidental Heroism of Golshifteh Farahani

My previous post got plenty of comments; I was surprised. But, from the comments, I got a sense that some were not focusing on the crux of the problem I was trying to address (which was the de-contextualization of an actor's professional choices and attributing them into political activism)

Here's a recap:

Just as the Golden Globe victory of an Iranian Film, "A Separation" by Asghar Farhadi, shifted the 'media' attention from war-mongering attitude towards Iran, into the Iranian Cinema (which after capturing Erupean's attention for the past two decades has finally made its way to the mainstream American film industry) Le Figaro published a photo series called "L'Espoire 2012, Generation Spontanee". The series was back and white body portraits of several young french actors, shot by the famous fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino. One of the photos belonged to an Iranian actress, Golshifteh Farahani, who has been exiled from Iran for a few years, because she had played in a Hollywood film and had not obeyed the dress-code imposed by the IRI on its citizens in her red-carpet appearances.

Farahani, 29, is a young actor, who is raised in an acting family. Because she has been featured in films such as Body of Lies (next to Leo Di Caprio) and in Poulet Aux Prunes, by the Oscar nominated Iranian-French filmmaker Marjan Satrapi (Perspolis, 2007), she may have the attention of the cinema world and serves as an aspiration to many kids of her generation.

Within minutes, her photograph, and another video by the same artist entitled Revelation 2012 (again advertising the future hopes of French Cinema, nominees of Cesar award) showing her dropping her shirt and revealing her breast, generated a massive response in the Iranian cyber-communities.

Within hours, the event polarized the Iranian community. This photo was taken out of its cinematic/aesthetic/French context, and turned into a political/moral phenomeno, at the center of which Farahani was portrayed either as a hero or as a whore. To this individual response was added frustration by the Iranian-Cinema fans who were angered by distraction from the possibility that the global success of A Separation would ease the Iranian independent filmmakers out of recent pressure from fundamentalists.

I have been reacting strongly to the media-naivitee of the Iranian community who had decontextualized this event, and were giving it dimensions grander than it called for. My argument was against those who politicized this gesture as a step towards "democracy"--and I argued that this was first and foremost a personal career choice, a step up on the ladder of show business, nothing more, nothing less.

I argued that just because an Iranian was the subject of the photo, she was not the actor of the art; the designer of the concept, and as such, she deserved no credit for her political savvy--although I admire any persons who are brave to underss themselves before others; it takes self confidence. I argued that if she was a political actor, then she should/could have produced such video independently, with an explicit message tying her act to the cause of "emancipation" or any other case she wanted to promote.

Ever since, I have been reading what people and women have to say. Clearly, the nude body of a cinema star has opened many an infected scars and all sorts of puss is oozing out of the bruised psychology of us Iranians.

I focus on reactions from women. I believe men should have no business supporting/calling for a woman's nudity or 'hijab'. They are qualified to talk about their own sexual emblems [I mean penis], issues and desires--and indeed this is what many have been doing by judging the size of the cup and whether they liked her best covered or revealed. Some have also been 'championing' progressiveness by embracing or standing tall before her naked body (as if she needed men't approval to drop her shirt). So the men's opinions need to be discussed by men; I do not have access to their psych or subjectivity. The female opinions, however, speak of psychological, sociological and political concerns that I, as an Iranian woman am familiar with.

On the one hand, this 'image' has inspired a lot of sentimental romanticist outbursts of females. Some liken Farahani into the Marianne of France (contradicting themselves immediately, because Marianne is a symbol of FRENCH liberty, not of Iranian liberty.), Some others liken her to Tahere Ghorat-ol-Eyn (an educated woman, a poet, who burst into men's assembly, 196 years ago, dropping her veil, and getting herself killed by offending the religious and the patriarchic sensitivity of the men's world). Some liken her to Forough Farokhzad (our taboo-breaking poet, who pulled the curtains from her body as a mother and as a lover through large volumes of poems--her writings focused on what it meant to be a female human.)

On the other hand, this image has dragged a lot of moralist (sexophobes) out of closet. Among the moralists, are those in an 'ethical uproar calling her a whore. Not all of such moralists are Islamists or IRI supporters. Iranians, by culture, are sexually very uptight and hold strange and strict views about "classy" female demeanor.

Another group of these moralists try to be 'apologetic', turning their eyes from the boobs and focus on the "innocent" eyes, chastising those who have been focusing on the breast and blaming them for being 'narrow minded and dirty' to have missed the eyes!

And then another group who doesn't take moralist position but supposedly feminist ones. I think those who are politicizing and glorifying the courage of Farahani's action are another kind of moralists. To them, naked female body is a sin; a source of sin UNLESS it has "higher" abstract and sacred objectives tied to the nation or collective causes. Ironically, the so called sociological excitement of many of these women stems from a shy acknowledgement of their own oppressed sexuality. Now in Golshifteh, they have a role-model to take pride in and thus she immediately turns into a Pride of Persia and gives these women a cause to fight for. The cause of 'supporting Golshifteh" allows them to express what they themselves have never had the courage to express before. The irony is that while acknowledging their PERSONAL lack of courage, they sill manage to blame the society for limiting them by flightening them of possible judgements.

Sadly, it is this group of self-diagnosed intellectuals who is creating an accidental-hero; carving a totem out of a PERSON, who herself was a PROP (and nothing more) in the mise-en-scene of an advertisement for the French Cinema. And because these people have tribunes and audiences, they run the risk of creating yet another superficial 'cult' without thinking it through.

But what part of this picture is wrong?

For me, the wrong originates from making the nude-female-body the sight of political action. To give power to a nude body is the same as if disempower a covered body. Politics that stem from covering or uncovering female body are both objectifying the female gender, by butting it in a sexual box. What makes it wronger to me is that it takes a cinema-actor's body to trigger courage in this group. Here is why:

Bodies that are aesthetised through lighting, and choreography of a video artist are not REAL bodies; they are actor bodies; and they are selected and put before our eyes because we as humans are 'programed' to respond to beauty in a (re)creational way. This is why sex sells, be it in movies, in computers, in books, or in politics. The artistically refined from of sex is eroticism, but the bottomline is the same, they are both FLESH, one is the big steak grilled on a super BBQ, the other one is a filet mignon prepared to perfection in a little cozy Bistro and served with creamy sauce and blanched greens. They are both nutritious, and have a right to exist and be sold for the consumption of people who choose one or the other based on their refinement and capital. Directors chose the subjects of their photo/cinematography in line with stories they want to tell. Or, if they are confined to a certain set of subjects, then they modify other aspects of photoshoot to create their story.

Advertisement videos are propaganda videos. It is the formalist nature of the production that necessitates loading and condensing a lot of messages within a short time slot. Advertisement videos are supposed to capture our thoughts and imaginations well beyond the time they are before our eyes. This is how successful video artists become successful, by holding us beyond the screen. And this is what the Revelation 2012 video does.

Let's look at it from a Non-Iranian's perspective. We see, in black and white, 31 film actors appear one after the other and talk about how they undress their soul and body before our gaze; some undress out of their top and some don't. The only one whose breasts are exposed to the camera is Farahani; the only one who doesn't speak herself, but whose voiceover suggests her "otherness" (why else would she give an image to your imagination?) is Farahani. The casting of Farahani as the ONLY one who reveals herself, as a muslim from Iran who is already banned from going back to her country for having shown her hair in public, is part of the directors's plot. It is to PROVOKE (as he successfully did, and I admire his work of art--it is clever). And he has chosen a perfect PROP for it. That is what actors are for directors. They are part of the mise-en-scene, and their success depends on how well they fulfill their role within the scenario. Then, if there is credit due for political activism, it is due to Cesar Academie who hired JB Mondino and nominated Farahani as part of the 31, not to Farahani. All the did was to say "yes", and as her body is NOT syndicated by the Iranian cinema community, she didn't necessarily need to give a damn about what her actions would have brought the Iranian cinema. This was an opportunity for her, and it would have been unfortunate if she had let fear stand before her and her chance to stardom.

So, discarding the notion that this was Farahani's political act (and settling for its professional motivation), a valid question to ask is, why the video and photos were released right after Golden Globe? The logical answer is that this is the big-award season, the media is buzzing with cinema's famous and fortunate and there is nothing so big to read from this. Fair! That is what the Cesar did; and in fact they have hidden the video from public access. But, Le Figaro is the one that raises suspicion: why did they select only 7/31 actor's photos for Le Figaro? Why did they remove Farahani's photo immediately? Was this part of her contract? What was the content of her contract? And what was the background of publishing the photos concurrent with the shining of Iranian Cinema, for the first time, in the American industry? A sleptic may ask, do the French, as the first explorers who discovered the Iranian Cinema, own the right to define it? What this a gesture to define the genre of Iranian Cinema that is in bed with France (of which Marjan Satrapi & Farahni are the "future hopes" now?) Irrespective of what the answer may be, none of this is related to Iran as much as it is related to how the French see/romanticize/theorize Iran.

Some Iranian intellectuals have gotten all excited that we are, by the evidence of an Iranian-Boob-on screen, one step closer to "westernization" and thus the inevitable liberation from our oriental limitations, shyness and gender hierachies that make us concede to patriarchic dictatorships! However, these 'progressive' views are disregarding that the female body, in the liberal democracies, more than being the site of politics, is the sight of economics. If anything, the "democratization" of female body has generated women who are suffering all sorts of stress-related disorders because they are forced to compete on equal grounds with men, while being fulltime women as well. The Iranian intellectuals, many of which are ardent women-right activists write florally about the flower (Gol) of the Sifteh (enchanted), generating a "political" role model from a cinematic BEAUTY, in a society whose women are increasingly vain (If you don't believe me watch an interesting documentary by Mehrdad Oskoui, Nose, Iranian Style, illustrating the cultural vanity of a generation whose young men and women subject themselves to expensive and painful plastic surgery in order to get "western" noses.) I wish these intellectuals, instead of taking pride and identifying themselves with Farahani, took their own shirts off, before a normal lens, and a non-professional, and allowed their bodies speak with all their perfections and imperfections, sending clear messages, like the Ghoratoleyn of Persia, or Aalia of Egypt, and not the Marianne of France, giving an image to their imagination, thanks to the vision of French Cinema.

A POLITICAL act by an actor (one drawing attention to a cause) could take the form of:
- taking clothes off to protest war, and explicitly saying so
- taking clothes off to protest Iranian regime preventing the imprisoned lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh see her family because she refused to wear the prison's coverall veil, and explicitly saying so
- taking clothes off to protest the lashing of the women who are in line to be stoned for adultery, and explicitly saying so
- taking off clothes and staring to the camera and addressing, in PERSIAN, Iranian men who meddle in what their women wear
- taking off clothes and instead of hiding behind the 'cause' of "breaking taboos", stare directly into a Journalist's camera and saying: THIS IS MY BODY, and I have the right to sell it as an actor, as a surrogate mother, as a prostitute, as someone who nourishes dreams and desires. It is none of anyone's concern what a woman or man does to her/his body. (Now that WILL break several taboos simultaneously... a revolutionary act that would deserve respect.)

I still don't know what taboo Farahani has broken. What is so special about an Iranian-boob showing off to a French cinema? It is not like she has shown off her breasts in a Paris-produced film by Makhmalbaf or Kiarostami. It is not like she has acted in the role of an Iranian woman in a story told by a master narrator like Farhadi. There is NOTHING Iranian in the video Revelation, other than the passport and the genetic pool of the actress.

Ms Farahani has not exhibited ANY political wisdom ... she has been an actor, just a simple actor, not even taking a risk, au contraire taking the safe and logical step towards her career development. The RISK would have been to shoot these photos on her own, independent of the French-Cinema institutions ... She is just an actress, not a political leader--until she starts running for some kind of Iranian office/vote. And this is her personal business to appear before any camera she wants, it is not my national one.


nunya said...

Dude. That's a lotta commentary for one boob flash, lol. Nice to know you haven't disappeared though, :)

Id it is said...

Art cannot judged. It is the creative outpouring of an artist in the throes of passion unique to the art form he/she chooses, be it painting, dance, sculpture, and /or acting. What the artist chooses to do in order to express is sacrosanct and out of bounds for politicking or judging.

Naj said...


nice to see you buddy!

I totally agree; I think that Mondino is a very good artist!

I do critique, however, those people who politicized an individual artist's expression to create something which was not based on any facts.

Sahand Sahebdivani said...

Honestly, man can't comment on Hejab and female nudity?

Naj said...

hi Sahand, sorry it took me a while to respond, I just saw this actually.

Can men comment on women nudity or Hijab? Yes of course! Can they encourage/prohibit either act, no!

I talk about "act", as a political manifestation. I personally believe that we must NOT decide for the flesh of our fellow humans; we can come up with supportive acts, but not with theoretical punditry. For instance, when the egyptian Aalia posted her nude pictures, there were some Iranian men, who in support of her right to pose nude, did that. They did not comment on her right as a "woman" to do so; their ACT was a comment on the freedom of a HUMAN to (un)dress himself according to his/her personal circumstances.