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Iran, Cinema of Fear, and TFF

New York Dispatches 1

By Omid M. Sarabi (Special to Payvand Arts)
Note: The following is a modified version of an article that first appeared in the July issue of Decamp Art

What have New York's famed Tribeca Film Festival and the horror genre got to do with Iran?

Apparently very many things. First, TFF in lower Manhattan annually showcases a new crop of films made in Iran or made about Iran. Second, the festival has in an unusual step this year given its top prize to a Swedish horror film, Let the Right One In, one of my own personal favorites. Third, Iran from all indications seems ripe for a major surge of talent and productivity in endogenous screen gore.

Football Under Cover

This year's TFF had one new film from Iran, Angels Die in the Soil; one by an expatriate Iranian, Donkey in Lahore; a wonderful German documentary on the travails of women's soccer in Iran, Football Under Cover; and a marvelous Turkish road movie that partly takes place in northwestern Iran, My Marlon and Brando.

Part 2 of this article will deal with these films and the festival itself.

Give Us More Gore Please:

Dismissed by many critics with contempt, the horror genre is one of the most disreputable of genres. The chief complaint often heard is that it is intellectually vacuous and shamelessly plays on the viewer's insecurities and raw emotions. The first academic film study of the cinema of fear was not undertaken until well into the late 1970's. This is astonishing considering how popular the horror genre remains with the public. Apparently there are some deep psycho-social dynamics that escape the experts' scrutiny.

Whenever discussing it, the industry people claim it is aimed at the "youth market" and "those adolescents of whatever age". That must be partly the reason why so many social conservatives routinely rail against these films. Their argument is a variation on the old discredited Platonic idea that art is dangerous because it can corrupt the young. For these pseudo-mavens, movie monsters and ghouls suffer from bad cases of pituitary conditions while the genre itself can incite young people into committing acts of mayhem and atrocity.

The fact is that death, both natural and violent, as well as human savagery and cruelty are all facts of life. So is the dread and the anxiety that naturally flow from them. For young people, the horror film-- it used to be the horror text, but that's another story-- provides an excellent mechanism to deal with these existential challenges. By enacting their latent desire to confront their own primal fears-- counter-phobically as psychologists put it-- they can hope to have healthier and more coherent psyches. Cinema of fear can be comfortingly cathartic.

In Iran the genre is extremely popular-- perhaps more so than in other countries; it is well up there in terms of popularity with weepies, melodramas and action flicks. This is partly explained by the state's active support for a horror sub-genre called Cinema of the Super-Natural (Cinema-ye Mavara) and by what a phenomenologist would call an Iranian's unique structures of consciousness at present.

For example, in 2006, during the holy month of Ramadan, the IRIB-- the state national radio and TV-- put out a made-for-TV super-natural thriller series called She Was an Angel (Oo Yek Fereshteh Bood). The show became an instant hit with the audiences-- more precisely, it turned out to be among the most popular TV series ever. Every evening for 27 nights, countless millions-- by one count 20 million of them-- sat transfixed in front of their TV sets  following the machinations of Satan and allied dark forces battling it out against the true and the good. The series was well-made and had good cast. The special effects in particular were done by technically-savvy professionals. 

Angel was about a seductress who nearly leads a pious and virtuous man of family into perdition. Well into the second installment, we learn that this chic is no ordinary femme fatale at all and in fact harbors some unsavory necromantic purpose or other. Whenever she is shown alone, abnormalities abound: people do things they normally don't, a toxic-color halo envelopes her body periodically and  an eerily ominous music plays in the background. She also seems to have bad breath.

Angel was the most visible outward sign of a nonpareil national phenomenon. As anybody who has lived in Iran can attest, two decades after the end of the war with Iraq, the country still remains traumatized by that whole experience. Eight years of bloody carnage has inevitably left deep marks on the Iranian psyche. Clearly, prosthetic parts make for prosthetic cinematic effects and the public can't get enough of it.

The official government film board actively boosts this market in the form of hundreds of imports from abroad that neatly fall under the category of the Super-Natural Horror genre. They are shown both on TV and on the screen-- including during the annual Fajr International Film Festival. They include both the highbrow variety and the schlock gore fest with the gore part heavily censored. What they all have in common are strong moral or religious themes where malevolent dark forces are either vanquished in the end or shown to be inferior to the healthy spiritual ones. Absent are the kind of pure horror that is normally associated with pleasurable fright or scopophilic desires. Films with formal inventiveness are also out; so are those with nihilistic messages.

A New Wave of Scare:

Film historians have traced the big waves of creativity in horror to pivotal psycho-social moments in history. For example, the plethora of 1950's horror films with their alien invaders and body-snatching zombies as subject matter, are easily traceable to the US anti-communist hysteria and the threat of an atomic war. Japan's most famous monster, Godzila-- who we learn is a creation of an atomic test in the Pacific gone awry-- is easily attributed to the Japanese scarred psyche in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The post-Watergate kitchy exploitative gore of the 70's can be directly linked with the hippie counter-culture, the daily TV broadcasts of napalm bombings and other Vietnam vintages, as well as the shake-up of political and moral certainties in society.

It is reasonable to expect a major outpouring of new screen horror from Hollywood in a very short order. Both 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a great deal of psychic distress in the America. Adding to this mix is the uncertain state of the economy. The result is a great sense of spiritual disquiet and unease.

The movie Objective shown at the TFF this year, yet to be released, may be the harbinger of this new kind of film. It is a combat-horror hybrid about an elite group of Special Op's men who are airlifted to an inhospitable area of Afghanistan to take on a Mojahed leader there. The men are accompanied by a CIA operative, Ben Keynes, who has been secretly tasked to record some of the strange goings-on in that part of the world. The setting is full of sublime landscapes and breath-taking vistas which add to the sense of uncanny in the film. In their mission to find the Mojahed leader, they run into a variety of obstacles including land mines, hostile natives and what at first appears to be marauding bands of Taliban fighters. The soldiers mistakenly kill a holy man. Soon, after a narrow escape from an ambush, the viewer has the dawning suspicion that may be the soldiers are stalked by something far more sinister than regular Taliban fighters. Sometimes, the soldiers are attacked by shape-shifting creatures who eviscerate their victim, leaving his entrails behind. Sometimes their newly filled water canisters are filled with sand. The enemy dead vanish. A gigantic black triangle appears over the troop's head ... They are clearly out of their depth in the face of such a mysterious force.

Ben Keynes, the lone survivor in the group, is lucky enough to see this enemy as he lays wounded and enervated in an open oasis. In a moment of stark terror and revelation, he sees this extra-natural enemy force. Yes, you guessed it right: "the enemy", an indistinct and chimeral figure, has the look and shape of a classic Islamic warrior. He has a turban on his head and a crescent-shaped sword in his right hand. Our hero loses consciousness only to come around in a top-secret CIA debriefing center. The metaphors can not be less subtle.

About the author: Omid M. Sarabi writes about music and the arts for the Iranian media from Tehran and New York City (

... Payvand News - 07/21/08 ... --

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