The need for freedom and for authentic relationships is sometimes crushed by legal systems which seem to get further away from it and indeed even at times betray it or deny it

This article was published in Oasis 15. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:40:46

The Oscars ceremony of 2012 was a sign of the times. And the result is so clear as to engender fear: Iran beat Israel 1:0. The Iranian A Separation directed by Asghar Farhadi won the Oscar for the best foreign film and the Israeli Footnote directed by Joseph Cedar remained empty handed, despite the fact that it is a film that tells the interesting story of a conflict between a father and his son who contend earthly glory while they address themselves to the Talmud. A fine clash, and honours to the victor who, amidst the sequins of Hollywood, wanted to remember the “moments of intimidation and aggression that the Iranian people is going through”. These two films have in common not only the tiredness of an everlasting war, fought or proclaimed. There is a new tendency to narrate the demand for identity through news and no longer, and not only, through the shouted-out language of political conflicts. A choice that have long rewarded Israeli cinema and which the best of Iran shares, placing at the centre of things that feeling of uncertainty about the present, about the roots of one’s past, and even more justifiably about the future, which the Oscar ceremony read as a return to reality.

Troubled Societies

This is the strong meaning of the statuette. A recognition of the debate that is growing within Muslim societies, before the beginning of the Arab Spring and very topical today when one is beginning to glimpse what has come afterwards. From the film of Farhadi arrives the tale of a confused world where whole families break up, fleeing from a country that has little to offer or forced to remain. So many questions about the future of democracy, pronounced with a light and surreal language, or so it appears to us Westerners. An example: how can one live in a country where a nurse, Razieh, before changing the underwear of an incontinent old man who has Alzheimer’s disease, is forced to telephone the office ‘responsible for behaviour in conformity with religion’? It is worthwhile reporting some striking jokes in the film in order to realise the scale of the battle that is underway. “I am working in a home where there is an old man whom I should look after”, the girl says on the telephone. “I wanted to ask a question because he wet himself. I wanted to know: if I change him, is that a sin? He is seventy or eighty and his head is not quite right”. On the other end of the line somebody is asking for explanations. Her voice lowers, becomes beseeching: “Urgency? Poor man, he’s been like that for half an hour. Can I do it?” There it is: the separation. It comes before the form of government chosen by the citizens or imposed by the authorities, it dwells in young democracies and old autocracies. It is the radical distance between natural law and the law of the State. An illuminating example of this is the declaration made in February 2012 by the Iranian Vice-Minister for Culture during his visit to Rome. After communicating that the Islamic Republic had acquired the film of the Taviani brothers which had won at Berlin, Caesar Must Die, he announced the intention to review the veto imposed on the film by Farhadi in Iran. The Vice-Minister also dwelt upon the case of the director Jafar Panahi, sentenced for his ideas to six years of prison and prohibited from directing films for twenty years. A ban, he says, that will be cancelled. As regards prison, however, “the judge will decide”.

The Heaviness of the Law

It is the law that establishes whether visas to leave the country are given or not, an urgency that is borne out by the queues of young people in front of the Western consulates of Teheran. The law decides whether to confiscate satellite discs to see foreign television channels, whether to reject a divorce if the reason for the request is ‘futile’, and whether to allow or otherwise an artist to put his own creativity on show. The law can do anything. And the separation between life and rules grows larger, as is narrated in the fine film On the Path by the Bosnian, Jasmila Zbanic. This is the story of love and falling out of love which is set in Sarajevo, in the heart of Europe: she is Luna, a hostess; he is Amar, an airport controller. A couple like so many others, until the man, sacked for drunkenness, converts to Wahabite Islam. “Music is sin, alcohol is sin, the voices of women are sin”, she shouts at him, exasperated during a quarrel in a discotheque. A problem of identity for him, who looks for peace and purity in forms that are incompatible with a normal life; a problem of choice for her, who is expecting a child and no longer recognises the companion by whom she conceived it.

Tunisian Fighting Women

In Tunisia things are even worse, if we want to believe the documentaries made during the Arab Spring. There are national and world women boxing champions who are seen as heroines and sinners at the same time, and who in Boxing with Her by Doghiri and Trabelsi express their fears about the rights of women after the victory of the Islamic party an-Nahda. And there is, to confirm that their fears have a foundation, the ugly story of the trial of the Tunisian television director, Nesma, guilty of having broadcast Persepolis, the cartoon film by the Iranian Marjane Satrapi on the Islamic revolution of 1979. The declaration by an-Nahda on the question belongs to an anthology: first of all he upheld the importance of “freedom of expression, indivisible from human rights”. Then he upheld the need to “answer the questions and issues connected with the identity of our people and its attachment to the sacred, on the one hand, and to freedom of speech, on the other”. In the meanwhile, let the tribunals, the demonstrations of fundamentalists, the threats in Facebook, get on with it. Just to let you know, the incriminated scene is a cartoon of thirty minutes in length where God, an old man with a white beard, appears to a girl and talks to her. This is not the only case of a film criticised with the support of the distant but very near Iranian religious authorities. A few months have passed since when, in a cinema in the centre of Tunis, a protest of four thousand people interrupted the screening of the documentary Neither Allah nor Master by the Tunisian woman director, Nadia El Fani. The investigation goes to the heart of a very much felt problem. Shot during the days of the revolution, during the month of Ramadan, it puts ordinary people in front of questions about democracy and the relationship between the State and religion. An unforgiving portrait emerges from it: public and formal adherence to Islam and its rules; totally secular private practice. Amongst the questions about the old Constitution which decreed that Islam was the religion of the State and the embarrassing answers, what emerges is great confusion between secularity and atheism.

The Honey of the West

And as regards confusion, the West is no better off. Strong controversies besieged Angelina Jolie and her first film as a director, In the Land of Blood and Honey, a story of love and of war set in the atrocious conflict of what was once Yugoslavia. Accused of having wedded the Islamic case unconditionally, she answered that she had been motivated by her role as a peace ambassador. Filmed in Serbian, with actors taken locally, the film narrates the sufferings of the Serbian policeman Danijel and the Muslim painter Anja when the war of 1992 finds them on opposing sides. ‘Love can change what we want’ is the slogan, ‘war can change what we are’. And perhaps one is dealing with love in the case of the son of the American director, Oliver Stone, now Sean Ali, who at the age of twenty-seven decided to convert to Islam. There is nothing strange about this, were it not for the fact that he did it in the mosque of Isfahan, in the centre of Iran: “Now I consider myself at the same time a Jew, like my grandfather, a Christian and a Muslim”, he declared. Is this also a sign of the times? Who knows what Ahmadinejad thinks about this.