by Maria Paradinas
As a result of the revolution of 1979 and the advent of Khomeini’s rule, stringent regulations were introduced that dictated what could appear on-screen in Iran. Women were not to be shown uncovered; physical touch was prohibited and verbal expressions of love between men and women were restricted. Many domestic and international films already in circulation within Iran were banned, had sections cut from them, or were physically inked with bare heads, arms and legs being blacked out with Magic Markers. Images of uncovered women and scenes of physical intimacy that had shown on screens during the Pahlavi era were denounced, and a campaign of sanitisation ensued that culminated in the destruction of a third of the country’s movie houses.
Filmmakers working on new productions that dealt with intimacy and desire were tasked with circumventing direct reference to sexuality if they were to avoid censorship. A device used in a number of films produced after 1982 was the mediating object: actors are seen to pass or both hold an object, pulling or pressing it to accent their quasi-physical connection. The object sanctions their touch, granting them necessary separation so as to remain within intimacy regulations. The use of the handbag in this way is the subject of Maryam Tafakory’s 2020 work Irani Bag.
Nazarbazi (2022) builds upon this research, presenting an essayistic study into the poetics of eroticism, and how it emerges in the absence of direct reference. It is a collage of 87 archival films released between 1982 and 2010 threaded with textual fragments from poetry, philosophy and literature. Playing with a film history fraught with codes and tensions, Tafakory presents techniques that both conceal and illuminate, prohibit and point towards the forbidden in the same gesture. It is within this strange tension that the erotic emerges.
In A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 4 – The Globalizing Era 1984–2010, Hamid Nacify argues that veils are permeable and therefore erotically charged:
“Walls and veils segregate people, but they are not hermetic in this […] although the dualities […] are structured psychically and socially, they are not only porous but also invite transgressive pleasures.
Veiling also tends to turn the objects of the look into erotic objects; thus women become charged with sexuality because of modesty rules and the desire these rules suppress.”
For Nacify, the practice of veiling is caught between eroticising and de-eroticising by referencing desirability in the act of concealing.
Tafakory’s film collects scenes that demonstrate different types of cinematic veiling. Thick fog-like smoke hangs in courtyards and lace curtains flutter by open windows. These porous borders indicate a desire to obscure vision, but abstain from completely obstructing it. Billowing sheets, thick walls and barred windows continue to appear in Nazarbazi. Images of concealment, seclusion and partition. These are contradicted by the fluid agility of the camera’s movement; the lens traverses bordered and open environments lithely, passing through borders with ease.
Tafakory also engages with formal veiling: semi-transparent shots are presented on top of each other in a way that transforms the films into veils themselves. This haptic intervention is sensual by definition, foregrounding texture and tacility.
With the soundtrack also, boundaries are rendered porous: the sound of silvery laughter or the sharp strum of strings from one film bleeds freely into another. Heavily beaded skirts dragging coarsely against wooden floors are heard in the following scene looking down at hands clasping coffee at a table.
Nacify argues that the frame becomes a type of veil:
“The strategy of extreme close-up cinematography acts as a kind of veil that brackets the body parts […] It also highly sexualizes them as the tight shots, acting like veils, kindle viewers’ imagination about what lies beyond the frame, increasing voyeuristic scopophilia.”
Could it then be argued that the collage form is also a type of veil? By slicing and reorganising scenes from a range of sources Tafakory brackets particular shots and scenes that ‘conceal’ their original context. Nazarbazi places in conversation characters from distinct cinematic worlds. An aching look from one actor is cut to follow a yearning gaze from another.
The audio track’s crackle makes silence heard and textured. Coarse tones punctuate this silence: lightbulbs burst; a pot of milk shatters, and a rusty swing set creaks. Silence is not the absence of sound but an acoustic device that generates tension, and such stripped down quality is part of the work’s erotic machinations.
Moving inwards from the level of narrative, Tafakory invites her viewer to be governed by the sensual. Here, affect is the compass to the work, and sensitivity to the direct impact of sound and image becomes concentrated and heightened. Throughout Nazarbazi we must feel our way.
Perhaps due to the collage form, Nazarbazi invites a series of visual and auditory associations to take place. The sharp winces of pain conjure the twitches of pleasure, as do acute twists of small fish and the sound of wind howling. Violent explosions and the clatter of thick bracelets stand in for pleasure’s exclamation mark. There are no direct routes, no shorthands to carry the weight of desire. Nazarbazi presents a sexuality that can’t rely on forthright reference, but travels the wily route of non-articulation and sideways signification.
It is at this point that I am brought back to the film’s opening image. A vast, blue-grey sea. Fine ripples on the surface of the water suddenly seared through by rugged flames. Erotic force smouldering fiercely under conditions that sought to douse it out. Which in fact, just restricted the boundaries of its expression and then brought it to its trembling apex.
- Amir Ganjavie, ‘Utopia and Censorship: Iranian Cinema at the Crossroads of Love, Sex and Tradition, Asian Cinema, Volume 27 Number 2, 2016, pp.113-126
- Shahla Haeri, ‘Sacred Canopy: Love and Sex under the Veil’, Iranian Studies, Volume 42 Number 1, 2009, pp. 113-126
- Hamid Naficy, ‘A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 4 – The Globalizing Era 1984–2010’, Duke University Press, 2012.
Maria Paradinas is an archive researcher and film programmer from London. She is interested in the politics of archival practice as it relates to histories that have been destroyed, mis-recorded or obscured.
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