Americans, who are protective or even prickly about the meaning of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, may find filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi's view disconcerting: "You can be 100 percent sure that if these Hollywood films were not being disseminated throughout the rest of the world in such a way that everyone can see these special effects . . . that September 11 probably wouldn't even have happened, it would not have become part of the imagination of the people."
This is not an "America's to blame" argument, or echoing certain televangelists, a "decadent America got what it deserved" argument. It's an argument about the power of images, made by a Kurdish Iranian film director for whom images are sacred. Ghobadi, whose "Marooned in Iraq" opens in Washington today, comes from a society in which images are constrained because of censorship, difficult to produce because of poverty, and rich in meaning because of scarcity. In an interview in Washington last month, on the same day that U.S. troops seized Saddam International Airport in Baghdad, Ghobadi looked at America from the outside, as a colossus of visual production yet naive about the consequences of how it shows itself to the world.
Ghobadi's new movie, set in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, among a Kurdish people traumatized by Saddam Hussein, never shows the viewer Hussein himself. But the Iraqi leader is a presence, as are warplanes, heard but unseen overhead. The film follows the trek of Mirza, a famous musician, as he and his two sons search for Mirza's ex-wife, lost among refugees. Everyday life -- brutal, bracing and filled with crime and misadventure -- is in the foreground; the political background is implied and limned with the barest strokes.
"It's more impactful to see a child who has lost his limbs because of a land mine or a bomb, or a woman who doesn't have a voice because of chemical war, than to see the action of war," says Ghobadi. He also had difficulty getting permission to use military equipment or explosive effects. But as a filmmaker, he makes a virtue of necessity: One of the most haunting scenes in the new film shows dozens of paper airplanes gliding through the air as planes roar overhead. He has a strong distaste for American special effects and the sheer density of violence in American films, and he warns: "The films coming out now are probably the worst advertisement of and PR for the American people."
Ghobadi, born in 1969, belongs to a young generation of Iranian filmmakers who are bringing new grittiness to the poetic austerities of Iranian cinema pioneered by older masters such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (with both of whom Ghobadi has worked). Ghobadi's first feature, "A Time for Drunken Horses" (2000), fell into the subgenus of Iranian films about children, a convenient form in which directors could bypass strict censorship rules about how women can be depicted and society criticized.
American movies about children are often about infantilized adults, children as proxies for adult desires and ambitions. Iranian films about children tend to be about children as children, but bearing the burdens of the world and responsible beyond their years. There was a Dickensian sadness about "A Time for Drunken Horses," which follows the efforts of brother and sister to care for each other and their severely ill brother. They don't ape the adult world, but are thrust into it by the hard necessities of life.
"Marooned in Iraq," a film about adults who are often more ridiculous than children, is an abrupt departure from that world. The tone is disturbingly unsettled. It opens with suggestions of the Three Stooges, men engaged in a manic but hard-edged interplay that borders on slapstick; yet these are stooges stuck in a landscape scarred by genocidal mayhem. Much of the film happens in blindingly white snowscapes, chilly, barren and isolated. The border that divides Iran and Iraq, the setting for both the new film and "A Time for Drunken Horses," is a silent, terrifying, abstract line in the snow.
"The biggest enemy to the Middle East, to that region of the world, to the world itself, is boundaries," says Ghobadi. "These are not boundaries that we laid down for ourselves, they were imposed by powers that we do not even see, that are far away from us. They espouse this idea of the global village, yet in our region of the world, they are laying down more and more boundaries, shifting them, changing them so that it benefits their own self-interest."
Ghobadi is a short, compact man, with neatly trimmed hair, and he is dressed in functional, drab clothes. There's more fatigue than rancor in his discussion of what it's like to be a Kurd, to be a pawn in an endless historical chess game. Ghobadi is against the war, and against Saddam Hussein; he wants only to see Hussein finished. Borrowing an analogy from Hollywood, he says it's time this trilogy ended, a trilogy that began with United States support of Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, continued with an inconclusive Empire Strikes Back in the Gulf War, and is now, finally, reaching a denouement.
"The Kurds have become the football that is tossed around between Iraq, America, Europe, Syria, Turkey," he says. Being at the mercy of someone else's spectacle is an idea that brings together two facts central to him: the Kurdish sense of being out of the game, and the preciousness and power of imagemaking.
"In Kurdistan the families will go up on a hilltop and the blue sky becomes their screen," he says. "They watch planes fly overhead and the bombings occur and characters like Saddam and Bush and Tony Blair -- they all come and go -- and [they] sit there with their version of popcorn. This is their movie theater, this is their version of reality."
He could be describing a scene from "Marooned in Iraq" in which school is held on a hilltop, a class watching a jet's contrail faint against the blue sky.
In "A Time for Drunken Horses," a terminally ill teenage boy (stunted in size and emotional maturity) receives a hard-won gift: a picture of a celebrity bodybuilder, grotesquely oversize with veins bulging under the skin. His brother, who purchased the image, earns money by carrying mysterious bundles across the snowy border. The image is tacked to the wall of their hut, a window (or screen) onto a world that must otherwise be imagined and inferred from the faintest evidence.
"For me, television and cinema are holy, they should be revered, treated with a great deal of respect," Ghobadi says. Thus, he finds it odd that American television can't stop showing Saddam Hussein on his balcony, firing his rifle into the sky. For Ghobadi, Hussein is a substantial enemy, to be effaced; repeatedly showing his image only legitimizes him.
"In most mainstream media, the superstars are the Saddam Husseins, the Tony Blairs, the George Bushes . . . and the Kurds become the extras, the anonymous people, the villagers," says Ghobadi. "But they are the ones being affected the most. In my films the Kurdish people are the superstars, and the rest of the people who don't deserve the attention, they are relegated to the background."
The contrast between a Kurdish boy drinking in a single image, and Western children who live saturated in images, functions like a warning to the viewer: Nothing in Ghobadi's films can be easily read. Kurdish society and American society stand across a chasm from each other. Even the sense of slapstick at the opening of "Marooned in Iraq" may be a misreading.
"Kurdistan, because of all the problems it has had, has been held back one or two generations," Ghobadi says. "Perhaps for you it hearkens back to something from 60, 70, 80 years ago. For us, this is very much the reality of today, the behaviors, the actions, the motives."
"Foreign film," warn some critics, is in danger of becoming not so foreign, as directors outside of Hollywood cater to a Western appetite for heartwarming tales of colorful country life. Ghobadi's films, however, remain resolutely, uncompromisingly foreign. The behaviors, the actions, the motives, are not always easy to interpret. Even the color palette, a vital part of other Iranian films, is kept strictly muted.
With the success of Iranian film at Western film festivals (Ghobadi's first feature took the Golden Camera at Cannes), new offshoots have developed. Some Iranian films have become slicker. Ghobadi's represent a kind of dissent, a flinty, hard-nosed, realist view of a cruel world, with no comforting mysticism. They are so detached that they carry no residue of sadness or horror. They leave one empty. They are, like a mute victim of chemical weapons that figures in this feature, mere evidence, rather than dramatic enactments, of what is wrong in the Kurdish homeland.
Marooned in Iraq (97 minutes, in Farsi and Kurdish with subtitles, at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row) is not rated and includes war imagery.