Archive for February, 2011

Standing In The Way Of Control: Jafar Panahi, David Wojnarowicz, and Cultural Strategy

Jafar Panahi, 2010

The Berlinale opened this week and the film festival posted on the front page of its website a powerful and poignant letter from jailed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, whom the Iranian government recently sentenced to six years in prison and banned for twenty years from making films, for supposedly plotting against the regime. In his letter Panahi states, “The reality is they have deprived me of thinking and writing for twenty years, but they can not keep me from dreaming that in twenty years inquisition and intimidation will be replaced by freedom and free thinking.”

It’s heartbreaking to think that an artist as talented as Panahi and as outspoken in his support of human rights might be muzzled for two decades. I’ve only seen his three most recent films but each of them are both innovative and imaginatively made movies as well as clear, uncompromising critiques of social inequities in Iran and beyond. The Circle (2003) savagely exposes the gender inequities in the lives of Iranian women. Crimson Gold (2003), written by fellow Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, concerns an everyday pizza delivery man whose daily humiliations by the ruling class eventually push him over the edge. Offside (2006) also takes on gender roles in modern-day Iran, framing its story against the runup to the World Cup.

The international film community, as evidenced by the Berlinale’s decision to leave a symbolically empty chair for Panahi on its jury panel, has been vocal in its opposition to his sentence, but it remains to be seen if the Iranian government will bow to public pressure to release Panahi or reduce his sentence.

Panahi has been eloquent in his own defense, noting in an interview in August, ““When a filmmaker does not make films it is as if he is jailed. Even when he is freed from the small jail, he finds himself wandering in a larger jail. The main question is: why should it be a crime to make a movie? A finished film, well, it can get banned but not the director.”

David Wojnarowicz, still from "A Fire In My Belly," 1987

Though Panahi’s sentence may seem shockingly excessive, we here in the U.S. shouldn’t forget that culture wars are still being fought in this country as well. In October 2010, conservative Reps. John Boehner, R-Ohio (now Speaker of the House) and Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) targeted the inclusion of the late artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz’s short experimental film A Fire in My Belly in the show Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Citing a brief passage from the film in which ants are seen crawling over a wooden crucifix, Boehner called the exhibit “an outrageous use of taxpayer money and obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” Skittish Smithsonian curators quickly pulled the film from the show, to the outrage of much of the art world (the Warhol Foundation threatened to withdraw its funding from the museum). As with early 1990s attacks on NEA-funded artists by Sen. Jesse Helms, another far-right stalwart, the current assault attempts to silence what the right considers a dangerously subversive perspective, that of a gay man who dared to include religious iconography in his work. It’s one more volley in the ongoing attempt by the right to control the cultural discourse of the U.S.

Perhaps more so that the left, the right wing keenly understands the ability of art and culture to sway public opinion. As Jeff Chang and Brian Komar so astutely note in Vision: How We Can Beat Conservatives With Progressive Culture, their excellent essay on alternet.org about what they term “cultural strategy,”  “When artists tell new stories, they can shift the culture and make new politics possible.” There’s a reason why conservatives are once again agitating to de-fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and it’s not because they don’t like the tote bag they got with their membership pledge. It’s because the right understands that by controlling arts, culture and media outlets, and by extension controlling the master narrative, it can control the social and political landscape as well. As Mao Zedong famously stated, “[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapon for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy.” (Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, May 1942) Change “revolutionary” to “conservative” and “enemy” to “Democrats” and this quote could be straight from the latest installment of Fox News.

Poster, Cultural Revolution, ca. 1971

Mao had a good reason to fear the millions of artists and intellectuals that he exiled to hard labor in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. He understood the power of art to shape popular thought and sway political opinion, as does the Republican brain trust that has been fighting for control of the arts and culture of this country for decades, and as does the ruling party in Iran that has chosen to silence Jafar Panahi.

So while we wring our hands over the fate of Panahi, we should keep in mind that we’ve immersed in a culture war here in our own backyard as well. Rush, Sean, and Bill aren’t just harmless kooks mouthing off on cable tv, but are significant bully pulpits of the right-wing thought-control machine. It’s no accident that in the dire hours of the Egyptian revolution this past month, then-President Mubarak immediately moved to shut down Internet access, repress independent media outlets, and harass journalists. The power to define and shape the cultural narrative, whether through art, media, or information exchange, is the new high ground in the battle for ideological and political power.

UPDATE: Jafar Panahi has just been awarded the Carrosse d’Or (Golden Coach) at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, which is awarded for “innovative qualities, courage and independent-mindedness.” Cannes will screen Offside on May 12 and will keep an symbolically empty chair in the theater for Panahi.

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February 13, 2011 at 7:04 am 2 comments


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