The Quest for National Cinema
by Massoud Mehrabi
“National,” “national cinema,” and “national cinema of Iran” have been common terms in discussions among cinema theorists, writers and critics of Iran during the past few years and have sometimes led to hot and challenging debates. Their viewpoints can be put in three categories. Some maintain that “national cinema of Iran” is basically not extant while another group believes that it may come into being in a matter of years. A third, smaller group maintains that this cinema has been already established in view of many films produced around totally local and national themes and should be supported. The average of those viewpoints can be analyzed in this way.
The issue of localization and linking modern concepts to Iranian components has been tried in different fields during the past few years and has been more so in cultural and artistic areas. Western technologies are adapted to the Iranian culture in order to become more usable to Iranian producers and audience after adopting their new identity. Meanwhile, due to its multifaceted identity as an industry, a medium, and an art, cinema is facing a more paradoxical problem in this regard. In fact, the main difficulty with having a “national cinema” is to elucidate concepts and remove ambiguities that surround this term. In general, such hybrid concepts as national cinema, religious cinema, and spiritual cinema have been focus of many debates and have not been clarified yet. In other words, most critics and film buffs have not agreed on applying “national cinema” to a single genre and there is no common criterion to describe its identity.
Although such debates have not reached a conclusive result yet, they have proved that national cinema is a difficult term and the path to achieving it is not an easy one. As said before, there are three viewpoints as to the national cinema. One group maintains that national cinema is a cinema based on culture, ideology, customs and traditions as well as local history of a specific country. It means that human and social relations depicted in stories and films are reflection of national culture and manners based on the national sociology. In this approach, the main problem is with the concept of nationality which is sometimes so abstract and broad in meaning that no clear index for being national can be extracted from it. Thus, any film produced in Iran or speaking Persian can be considered to belong to the national cinema. In fact, being national means to take advantage of Iranian elements such as land and language. In other words, nationality is related to human factors of a work of art, which also give birth to national identity. The main problem with this viewpoint is measurability of nationality; that is, do we have an accurate measure to use when judging about national identity of an artistic work?
According to the second viewpoint, national cinema is one which works on the basis of screenplays and stories adapted from historical events of a nation. Therefore, some television series and films, like the works of Ali Hatami, can be considered national cinema. In this approach, being national has nothing to do with cinema form and technique, nor with sociological and anthropological aspects of a work, but is related to its historical identity. The main problem with this viewpoint, however, is inappropriate mingling of historical and national concepts. In fact, one may ask what is the difference between historical and national cinema and what is the relationship between them? If was assumed that national cinema was the same as historical cinema, we would have reduced the concept of national cinema to a single cinema genre. They also talk about a folkloric cinema which is based on the local customs and traditions of a specific nation. Here again, the concept of nationality is reduced to a single ethnicity and there can be nothing national about it.
There is also another approach to the national cinema which underlines ideological and political issues. In this approach, national cinema is considered as conforming to values and causes of a single political faction or group. According to this viewpoint, cinema is a cultural tool to confront foreign cinema which tries by highlighting political ideas and values of a country, to give a different identity to domestic cinema as opposed to its foreign counterpart and is ready to resist foreign cinema in a full-fledged cultural confrontation; an example to the point was the Soviet Union’s cinema under the rule of the Communist Party. According to this viewpoint, cinema is more of a medium which is trying to withstand the onslaught of foreign values by promoting domestic political values and identity. The main disadvantage of this viewpoint is that it deprives cinema of its artistic nature and reduces it to a propaganda machine. The increasing domination of the American cinema, which led to emergence of a national cinema in Europe, was a result of this viewpoint. In this sense, the national cinema tries to avail of technical attractions combined with local cultural values and norms to maintain its independent identity and strengthen its historical and cultural identity.
The viewpoints which were briefly discussed here only account for a small part of existing controversies on national cinema. The range of norms and indexes considered for national cinema, especially in view of cultural, political and ethnic diversities in Iran, is wide enough to make achieving a single definition for this concept much of a difficulty. On the other hand, issues like globalization, cultural interactions, fragmented identity of contemporary human societies and the vast network of human relations has further made definition of national identity difficult, thus adding to controversies and challenges on the concept of national cinema.
The main development which can help the Iranian cinema in this regard is increased number of films produced annually and continued discussions about them. Discussions on national elements in the Iranian cinema should go on in order to first resolve paradoxes and controversies about the concept of the Iranian cinema and to provide a necessary ground to achieve a single definition for the national cinema by shedding more light on its dark angles. Anyway, Iran’s paradoxical historical position between tradition and modernism, which is challenging not only the cinema, but also many other national symbols, calls for more scientific research and dialogue. We must admit that due to existence of various and sometimes contradictory attitudes and interpretations of this concept, it will be very difficult, though not impossible, to achieve an inclusive and complete definition for the national cinema.
The interview with Aydin Aghdashlou in this issue of Film International will offer a brighter and broader outlook on this issue.
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