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In the Basement of the Islamic Revolution and Holy Defense Museum

By Nicholas Rombes.

I ended up apologizing for Argo, but that was later.

A week that had begun with order and control was ending in chaos.

The student assistants from the University of Tehran had been talking with each other, in code it seemed, about this moment all week.

What was “this moment?” I wouldn’t know until it arrived, on the last day of the International Conference on Cinema in the Digital Age at the Iranian National School of Cinema, where I had been invited to speak. It was November 2018, less than two weeks after President Trump announced new, sweeping sanctions against Iran. The State Department had issued a “Do Not Travel” advisory to Iran due to the risk of “kidnapping and the arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens,” as well as the recommendation to draft a will and “discuss funeral wishes” with loved ones. And yet, how could I say no?

Iranian cinema had loomed so large in my imagination for so long and the films of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami — their generously elongated cadences and their attention to the smallest of moments, what I liked to think of as the little remainders of reality that make reality so rich — had strongly influenced the rhythms of my writing and my own little film The Removals.

And so, I said: yes.

There had been a thickening, unspoken tension between the progressive students from several universities in Tehran who were our chaperones and the conference organizers, a tension that gradually came into view and revealed its contours during the conference week. That afternoon, after the final session, we were told we were being taken to visit the Islamic Revolution and Holy Defense Museum, a few miles away.

“You don’t have to go, you know,” Mahsa said. She had been our main student guide from the beginning, a 20-year old literature and translation major at the University of Tehran who was deep into the writer John Barth, and who had recently translated into Farsi his collection Lost in the Funhouse. It was one of many small surprises of the conference: I hadn’t expected the intense interest in those high postmodern writers who, here in the U.S., are slowly blinking out of fashion: Barth, Gaddis, Pynchon, Coover.

For whom is the funhouse fun? Mahsa liked to say to herself, under her breath. Sometimes Mahsa would ask, Who is the secret operator here, do you think?

On this last day, the ranks of the conference organizers had grown and there were men we hadn’t seen before. Mahsa and a few other students had gathered in closer. One of them, Janan, clutched a worn copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel in her hand. She had been the quiet one shadowing us, helping us with the small but important transitional moments during the conference, whispering counsel about etiquette, the proper inflections of Farsi greetings, the invisible customs of who sits where and who eats first. A translation studies major she was at work on the poetry of Plath.

Her fingernails were painted honey yellow.

I love the bee poems, don’t you? Janan had said. I love the line about the dark grid.

I thought about the bees, and the color of bees.

We had talked about Plath’s father, a bee expert who had written a book: Bumblebees and Their Ways. Janan knew from memory some of what Plath had written to her mother from England when the bee boxes arrived, in 1962: “Today, guess what, we became bee keepers!”

“It might get exciting now,” Janan said, smiling.

Something had changed and you could feel that the stakes seemed higher but what, exactly, was at stake? Clusters of students had gathered. As if somehow registering the electric tension, the fluorescent lights in the hallway did that universal flicker which is such a cliché in movies and yet here it was happening at a conference about movies. A hush of silence swept the hall for a moment. For a while it looked as if we wouldn’t be going to the museum after all, and then it did. Amir, a Master’s student in English translation studies and the conference facilitator who had first approached me about the conference and was my main contact, came over to me and said that it was time to go to the Museum now.

Mahsa stepped forward and looked directly at Amir.

“Fascists,” she said.

I heard it as fastists.

The word hung in the air, and even without knowing the full meaning and import of that word in the context of Iranian politics, I sensed that a line had been crossed. A dead man could have felt it.

“Don’t say that,” Amir said.

He had a habit of standing with his sports jacket draped elegantly over his forearm.

The arm was shaking.

“Why don’t you take them to a real museum?” Mahsa said.

Her eyes were wet. She’d removed her glasses. Earlier, she’d taken off her hijab in the privacy and safety of a taxi and I felt that she wanted to do it again here, in front of the men, as a provocation. She turned her back and as she walked away and I felt abandoned and then I felt a hand on my back, gentle but firm.

I let myself be guided out to the white 1990s-era Peugeot, ubiquitous in Tehran, idling with its back door open for me. The driver, his left hand holding a walkie-talkie, his right hand on the worn metal stick shift knob.

The Peugeot lurched forward, then stalled.

The driver restarted the car, which stalled again.

For some reason I thought of the terrible yellow 1986 Dodge Aries K-Car I’d owned.

Another man approached and rapped on the driver’s side window. He motioned for the driver to get out, and he got in.
He started the car. We sped forward to the museum.

*

I’d been invited to speak at the Tehran conference, I think, because of a book I’d written, Cinema in the Digital Age. It explored how a handful of directors had seen the potential for the revolutionary uses to which the small, handheld video cameras, like the Sony Handycams that could be bought at retail outlets, could be put. Emerging in the mid-1990s, they were initially imagined as simply the next generation of home-movie cameras that followed in the wake of VHS camcorders, used primarily to record events like birthday parties, family vacations — the stuff of America’s Funniest Home Videos, which debuted in 1989, and movies like Jackass.

But several directors and cinematographers from several countries saw something different in the dirty, banal, low culture associated with cheap digital video. Lars von Trier (Denmark), Harmony Korine (US), Danny Boyle and Anthony Dod Mantle (UK), Alexander Sokurov (Russia), Abbas Kiarostami (Iran) and others saw the potential for a more severe kind of jagged beauty, a sort of dirty realism. If the mantra in Blade Runner is “more human than human,” the mantra in Hollywood was “more real than real.” But in films like Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997), The Idiots (Lars von Trier, 1998) The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999), Timecode (Mike Figgis, 2000), 28 Days Later (2002), and, significantly, two films by Kiarostami: ABC Africa (2001) and Ten (2002), the cameras were used not to perfect the quality of cinema — to make it more real — but to disrupt it.

The subject of my book was how these small, cheap cameras opened spaces not only for experimentation and the sneaking-in of avant-garde techniques to mainstream movies — in the form of extraordinarily long takes, fractured editing often unmotivated by plot, and improvisation — but also for manifesto-like proclamations from invigorated directors who saw the potential for a cinematic rebirth on the horizon. As Kiarostami — who had spent his life in northern Tehran — said regarding his choice of cameras for ABC Africa: “I felt that a 35mm camera would limit both us and the people there, whereas the video camera displayed truth from every angle, and not a forged truth. To me this camera was a discovery.”

I’d written about Kiarostami’s Ten in the book as an example of a new style of film really only possible with the small, consumer, digital video cameras that Kiarostami used, cameras attached inside one woman’s car as she ran errands and went about her day in Tehran. A film like Ten was “undirected” as Kiarostami was absent, sending the camera out into the world with the actress and no formal script, allowing for unrestricted shots of the city and its people which would have been otherwise impossible in the absence of official filming permits, and even then. The small camera, Kiarostami said, “gives you the possibility of expanding the dimensions of cinema, and getting rid of the clichés, traditions, imposed forms and pretentious aesthetics.” This camera, he said, “frees cinema from the clutches of the tools of production, capital and censorship.”

And yet the conference had begun, a week earlier, with a completely different tone, a celebration of the latest and most high-tech special digital effects. Something like a welcoming movie trailer had been made for us. The enormous screen was lowered, the audience rose to its feet, and, after a long silence, the National Anthem of the Islamic Republic of Iran played accompanied by a sweeping video. “Upwards on the horizon / Rises the Eastern sun” it began to a blast of brass and drums. And then, immediately after, the
conference trailer. There, under the gaze of the Ayatollah Khomeini, a three-minute love letter to American cinema, with clips from The Terminator, Back to the Future, Avatar, Dirty Harry, Iron Man. There, staring back at me, were the emblems of my own empire, what I had understood since graduate school as insidious products of Hollywood’s culture industry. With the enormous portrait of Khomeini just a few meters away, the post-Fordist products of the Great Satan were being celebrated.

This, then, was the reason I was given for the museum excursion: to show off its special effects. If Iranian cinema had not produced a digital spectacle, its museum had. And so, from the Peugeot and the damp afternoon through the museum’s thick glass doors down a long yellow marble hallway and then through another set of doors and again into a longer, narrower hallway lit by elaborate gilt swan sconces. Then to an elevator to a lower level, and then down a set of stairs.

I was taken to the basement for lunch.

When I say basement I mean it felt like a basement, the ceilings a little bit lower, the lights dimmer, the lack of windows. It reminded me of the church basement from my childhood with the smell of steam from the industrial dishwasher and the painted cinder block walls. I was with the Officer of Publicity for the Museum, Behnam, who wore, on the
lapel of his suit jacket, two small buttons: the Iranian flag and Henry, from Eraserhead, with his stand-up hair. As he escorted me into the room we talked about Eraserhead and those beautiful dissolves and slow fades in Blue Velvet, and that Shostakovich-inspired music by Angelo Badalamenti.

The room where lunch was to be served was the size of a small gymnasium with glossy white walls and three round wooden tables near the center. Along the far wall was a wooden bench where two men with cameras sat, rising when we entered and taking pictures immediately. I wanted to say stop, don’t.

“They’re for the museum,” Behnam said, maybe sensing my discomfort.

Did this matter to me, that the pictures being taken were for the museum? For the museum for what? I wanted to ask.

Benham walked me to one of the tables.

Three chairs and three settings.

Each chair was of a different size and I thought of Goldilocks.

Two large plates of steamed rice were brought out of the kitchen, Morgh Polow, with fat beautiful parboiled tomatoes the perfect size of tennis balls. A large spoon and fork. A glass of water. A third plate came and was placed in front of the empty chair. The largest chair.

“M. Mahid, the Museum’s Director, will be joining us. I’ll translate.”

Then he either said, “He’s a Major General” or “He’s a major General.”

As he spoke a man whom I think of as the general appeared, took his seat, and nodded. A big man who exuded what felt like, at the time, a sort of nervous strength.

His booted heel tapped the floor rapidly.

He was missing a pinky finger.

He spoke in Farsi, while eating, looking at neither me nor Behnam, who translated for me between bites.

“He welcomes you to Iran and hopes you enjoy our museum.”

Then, “the general says that peace is difficult when a leader is bellicose.”

I think I said something clumsy about how in many countries there’s a disconnect between those in power and those governed.

The general nodded, finished and spoke.

“He says that what you say is true,” said Behnam.

My other conference colleagues arrived and were seated at another table, away from us. As he finished his meal the general said something else, in a more animated way, clasping his hands together, but still speaking to the dead space in front of him as if there was no one there.

“He says that he would like to collaborate on a film.”

I asked him what kind of film.

“A war film,” Behnam translated, “because he believes that war films tell the story of a nation better than other types.”

Did I understand what he meant? Maybe. One of the first genres of American film was the western, valorizing the exploits of an empire expanding through violence and genocide ever westward? The early films of D.W. Griffith, hundreds of them in the years before The Birth of a Nation in 1915. I’d grown up watching John Wayne movies on Chanel 11’s “The Big Show” in northwest Ohio and for the longest time thought of him as the unapproachable hero in John Ford’s The Searchers, even as he coldly shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche.

Although I can’t remember exactly how I responded to the general, I remember the feeling of my response, the feeling of wanting to please him, of wanting to be generous rather than dismissive in what I said. I do remember glancing at Behnam for a bit of guidance, a hint even. Was the general’s offer to collaborate on a film literal, a gesture of goodwill, or something else? Was there any chance he’d seen The Removals, with its offscreen hints of a war, a war that deformed the psychology of the main characters? Or was the general just thinking aloud, making an offhand comment?

I understood, of course, that the general and I would never make a war film together, and as the lunch ended he made eye contact for the first time and shook my hand.

In another world, at another time, I would have loved to talk with him about which war movies he loved and why.

*

The night before, another film had come up in conversation. It was a warm evening and the students had taken us to an outdoor café near the Tabiat Bridge. The tea came slowly, and we drank it slowly. There were some new faces.

“This is my younger sister Khorsheed,” Mahsa said. “She’d like to ask you about Argo if that’s all right.”

“I’m sorry about Argo.” It was the first thing that came to my head. It turns out Khorsheed didn’t want to talk to me about Argo at all.

She handed me a small bouquet of pink and red flowers, one of the many kind gestures that I would experience time and again in Iran. There was a small mole on the underside of her wrist, I remember. I knew about taarof, the elaborate form of ritual deference and politeness, so I politely declined the flowers, and after two or three thank you but I couldn’t possiblys I accepted.

The moon was coming out and there was a warm breeze.

“You know Argo is banned here but not really?” Khorseed asked. “It doesn’t matter now with VPN,” she said, smiling. Although Instagram was permitted, VPNs were used to access Facebook and Twitter, which had been banned after the Green Movement.

“I don’t have a question about Argo. I don’t care about Argo. We refuse to see it and there’s nothing to talk about.”

Later, at the restaurant beside the stream the women removed their head scarves.

“It’s safe here to do this. The owner supports us. There are many places like this in Tehran,” Mahsa said.

She spoke about the so-called “White Wednesdays” sparked by Masih Alinejad, where women post Instagrams of themselves in public places without head scarves, and how things had moved beyond that now so that in certain public parks and even bazaars this is tolerated, not just on Wednesdays.

Then she said: “I would normally remove mine here in this restaurant but I’m not going to because you’re here and I don’t want to be some stereotype for you.”

*

As the conference was about digital technologies and cinema and spectacle it made some curious if unsettling sense that we would be guided, trailed by two photographers, through the various interactive dioramas that illustrated the heroism of the Iranian fighters. We were given plastic shoe coverings before entering a sealed metal chamber designed as a bunker, complete with four life-sized mannequin soldiers, their faces painted in uncannily realistic detail, one sitting at a desk speaking on an old, phone-like contraption, the others readying themselves for battle. One of them was hunched over lacing his boot and I remember the detail of his fingernails and the hair on the back of his hand. The walls were a polyurethane version of mud but the floors really were mud.

“The temperature at night now for our brave soldiers,” our guide said. She wore a black chador whose hem brushed against the floor, one of the few women I’d seen wearing one in Tehran. In the bunker, she turned a large knob on the wall to the left. The lights dimmed, the air conditioners came on, the temperature plunged to make us feel what the soldiers felt at night. And then the heat lamps kicked in, bathing the room in an orange glow. We stood there in silence in the rising heat.

I leaned against the prop bunker desk, my leg touching the soldier’s and I wondered how could I know the life of the man this Iranian soldier represented? Or the life of the artists who shaped, made, and painted this model, his eyes almost wet and alive, the delicate detail of his black eyelashes astonishing.

We moved through other dioramas, from the literal ones like the foggy marshes, where the Iranians sprang an elaborate ambush, or the land mine desert we walked across, in bare feet so that we could feel the suffering between our toes, to the more abstract ones like the machine guns pointing outward from a glass case, their barrels chest high. We ended in the back of a cave, watching through its entrance where, upon a massive movie screen, on the horizon of a peaceful day on a dusty street in an Iranian village Iraqi fighter jets slowly approach, their low-frequency hum almost musical. We see them before the villagers do, the men, women and children going about their daily lives and I thought of Hitchcock’s famous distinction between suspense and surprise, suspense being preferable as it allows the audience to see the danger before the protagonists. As the jets screamed
overhead, destroying the street and all the people on it, scattered into flying limbs and bits of flesh, the floor beneath our feet began to shake and shift. A few of us steadied ourselves against the cave walls. A few of us dropped to our haunches, our palms to floor.

“It is almost an accident that filmmaking is permitted here at all,” Janan said. We were approaching the final display in a long, fluorescent green-lit hall where, along the
walls, hundreds of personal objects from dead soldiers were displayed: a silver locket with a partially burned photograph of a young woman. A brass belt buckle. A melted pair of
glasses. Tattered yellow prayer beads. A shoe with a stunted bullet still lodged in the sole.

As we made our way down the hall, Janan described for me what I’d only known the general contours of: how the Ayatollah Khomeini was an admirer of Mehrjui’s 1969 film The Cow, and how it was only because of his arbitrary tastes that cinema was permitted after the revolution. She told me how the Iranian New Wave Cinema that had flourished
under the Shah during the 60s and 70s was crushed during the revolution for hewing too closely to Western styles and aesthetics, only to be reborn, in a different and evolved form, after the Ayatollah granted it officially sanctioned space in the Islamic Republic.

“And there was Cinema Rex too, you know,” she said, referring to the terrible fire that killed over 400 people in 1978 who had been locked inside while watching the Iranian film The Deer. “Some say it helped spark the revolution, so you could say our system was born in the flames of cinema.”

And then, in another gear switch: “They fired Mahsa you know.”

“They did?”

“Yes. Immediately after she said that about the fascists.”

“Is she upset?”

“No.” Janan smiled. We were approaching the end of the display where the others were gathered. Janan readjusted her hijab. “We think it’s funny. We’re just students volunteering so they can’t really fire us. Mahsa will still be able to come the final banquet tonight. She just can’t wear her conference badge.”

*

Afterwards, outside the museum, I said no to being interviewed on video by a woman from the museum whom I’d not seen before. In response she texted someone, and a small digital voice recorder was brought to her by a man driving green golf cart. Audio only, I said, as if I knew what I was talking about. It was that strange confidence that wells up at the most unlikely of times.

“Why was the museum impressive?” she asked.

“What will you say about the museum?”

“How will you remember the museum?”

“What will you write about the museum?”

I thought of Mahsa’s question: For whom is the funhouse fun?

But that wasn’t right.

The museum wasn’t a funhouse. Then why did I think it?

Because I hadn’t been thinking about the museum at all.

Because I was thinking about Janan. I was thinking about her future. She told me she loved her country, but not what it had become. Her act of leaving — she lives in Germany now — had been in the works for years, and I happened to meet her in the months before her departure.

“Of course we’d all seen Argo,” she texted me recently. “We were teasing you. We think it’s a comedy.”

What will you write about the museum?

This.

 

 

Nicholas Rombes

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio) and the 33 1/3 book Ramones (Bloomsbury), as well as the director of the feature film The RemovalsHis work has appeared in The BelieverThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and Filmmaker Magazine. He is a professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy, at the corner of Six Mile and Livernois, in Detroit, Michigan.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 25th, 2020.