"Life Is Color!" Toward a Transnational Feminist Analysis of Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "Gabbeh"
By Negar Mottahedeh
Department of Literature
What can a transnational feminist practice contribute to our understanding of national cinemas? While I am nominally concerned with strategies of representation in Iranian cinema and linkages between depictions of "fictive primitives" and the use of color in the industry's representation of "the local way of life" in this essay, my framing question situates transnational feminist analytical practices in relation to cinematic representations that traveltravel, that is, to international film festivals, art houses, and commercial theaters as representatives of "national" cultures. How does a feminism alert to the materiality of culture and to the power differentials informed by the intervention of colonialism, imperialism, and global capitalism in national cultures reckon with the representations of women on-screen? How does a feminism conscious of the interrelation between modernity and postcoloniality account for the fact that, for many non-Western cultures, becoming modern means returning to or inventing traditional cultural practices that are grounded in the "national"which is nevertheless conditioned in relation to Western modes of modernization and capitalist processes of globalization? How does one move beyond the visual impulse to read representations as signs of "realism" or "authenticity" in the historically sedimented terrain of a global medium such as film? Since it would be insolent to assume that an essay could fully respond to these questions, let me proceed instead by identifying some of the concerns that give rise to these questions.
A transnational feminist approach to film studies must aim to go beyond not only the early feminist analyses of the misrepresentation, stereotyping, and fetishization of "exotic" screen women but also the comparative practices that read films ethnographically so as to study the differing and similar ways in which contrasting national and ethnic perspectives shape the representation of gender. This cautious deflection of a sociological or ethnographically inflected reading of representation may avoid the presumptions that follow on the heels of a relativist valuation of realism or authenticity in dominant and national cinemas, an issue to which I will return shortly.
Rey Chow argues that orientalism, as "the system of signification that represents non-Western cultures to Western recipients in the course of Western imperialism, operates visually as well as narratologically to subject `the Orient' to ideological manipulation" (1998, 171). But, if we are to believe Armand Mattelart on this matter, the other's culture is not only subject to ideological manipulation, it is also a world made and unmade by the technologies of communication (1994, 18). In this process, other cultures, "much like representations of women in classical cinema" (Chow 1998, 171), become both the produced and the fetishized objects of a masculinist Western gaze. This "racist combinatoire," which involves fantasies of racial sexual domination, is only amplified by the fact that, as Mattelart explains, the networks as well as the media of communication are the first materialization of the notions of "progress, civilization, the universal and universalism" (Mattelart 1994, 27). This implicates the invention of cinema in the power dynamics that have sustained the colonial enterprise and imperialism itself.
Recognizing the imperialism of the cinematic gaze does not necessarily mean, however, that a transnational feminist film analysis should mindlessly appropriate the idea that women have an innate ability to judge the authentic representation of women in other national cinemas or in their own. A transnational feminist study of film must instead assume that a native subject is as likely to create "inauthentic" representations of his or her own culture as any other national. Assuming otherwise reifies essentialisms that only feed the impulse to orientalize, feminize, and fetishize other cultures through representation. Representations in foreign-language films, in other words, cannot be relied on as authentic ethnographic specimens to be considered in gender and cultural studies multicultural curricula. This process by which the knowledge of the other is produced at Western universities is just one example of the kind of paradoxical practice that Ranjana Khanna has pointed to as having threatened the breakdown of transnational feminism because of a "fetishization of the local at the expense of coalition" (2001, 103). As Chow argues, "it is when critics attempt to idealize the `other' identities claimed for `other' cinemas that they tend to run the greatest risk of reinscribing the ideologically coercive processes of identification through suturing" (1998, 171). A transnational feminist film practice must proceed in full recognition that "fictive primitives" in foreign films are just that: fictive.
Operating in a global terrain, national film cultures represent neither real identities nor uncoded realities. They create worlds. They screen fictionsfictions that are inextricably linked to dominant codes of representation, whether in opposition to or in tandem with them, while simultaneously developing a grammar of cinema that is as national as a national tongue. On a very basic level, then, my concern is to anticipate a transnational feminist approach to film studies that avoids a comparativism informed by a sanguine multiculturalism, that wards itself against the celebration of authenticity in national representations by native auteurs, and that, finally, averts itself from any investment in the realism of images in national film fictions. My aim is to envision, instead, an approach preoccupied with that cinematic grammar that goes beyond the decipherment of dialogue, plot, or character and the assessment of the image track's approximation to the real. It is with these questions and concerns in mind that I would like to intervene in the debates that rage around the new Iranian cinema and its colorful and brilliant representations of fictive female primitives on the international screen.
Iranian cinema has experienced substantial growth since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and has gained wide popularity in international film festivals over the last two decades. In 1992, the Toronto International Film Festival called Iranian cinema "one of the pre-eminent national cinemas in the world" (1992), a verdict that was echoed by a New York Times reviewer who called it "one of the world's most vital national cinemas" (Miller 1992). In 1998 Iranian cinema ranked tenth in the world in terms of output, surpassing Germany, Brazil, South Korea, Canada, and Australia and far exceeding the high-volume traditional Middle-Eastern film producers, Egypt and Turkey.
Guided by the regulations put into effect in 1982, the postrevolutionary Iranian film industry has been obliged to abide by "the rule of modesty." This rule has necessitated the wearing of scarves, veils, and loose-fitting tunics by women. Women are constrained to portrayals that uphold their dignity, avoiding activities and movements that show the contours of their bodies. However, the rule of modesty is not encoded in the strategies of veiling alone. Partially informed by a sense of unease with the imperialism of the Western gaze in cinema and by an awareness of the medium's involvement in self-representation in the global public sphere, the "commandment of looking" (prescribing the modesty of vision) aims to eradicate the stereotypical visual image of the Islamic world as a barbarous culture, fraught with exotic sexual desire. The "commandment of looking," therefore, dictates that men and women should not look at one another with desire on-screen. As a consequence of the restrictions placed on Iranian films, cinematic desexualization became the rule in the 1980s and early 1990s. Performing new, purified Islamic gender identities, cinematic technologies transformed the bodies they represented. Women's bodies, seen as vehicles of sexual desire (even when fully veiled), were represented as static and sexually undifferentiated. As we shall see later in the criticisms addressed to the film industry, particularly in the work of Shahla Lahiji, these laws had obvious representational effects.
Though the disjuncture between screen representations and quotidian life are interesting to some and, as I have suggested, a dangerous preoccupation for a feminism alert to the power differentials informing the global traversals of national cinemas, the issue I more urgently pursue in this essay is the nonrepresentational consequences of state regulations in Iranian cinema. Recognizing that the formal underwrites the representational, my concern, in other words, is the effect of modesty laws on film form. While laws dictating modesty to the industry addressed the un-Islamic representation of women in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the formal use of the camera that became the decisive focus of censorship. In formal terms Iranian films had to avoid dominant cinema's most time-honored codes and conventions, codes identified in film theory as integral to narrative cinema's system of suture.
As an effect of certain filmic codes, such as shotreverse-shot patterns that establish the point of view of two characters in conversation and eye-line matches that "stitch" the spectator into the film text by positioning the viewer as a film character (or alternately as someone looking at a character from a previously offscreen space), the system of suture is said to give film a sense of seamlessness. In film theory, suture is understood as the use of conventions that produce the film universe as a safe place in which the spectator feels him- or herself comfortably inscribed. Thus narrative, in dominant cinema, becomes a lure that diverts the viewer's attention away from the cinematic enunciation. This process, as Daniel Dayan (1974) argues, renders the film's signifying and production practices invisible, limiting the ability of the spectator to contend with and examine the ideological meanings and messages advanced within the illusionary universe of the film.
In her landmark work, The Subject of Semiotics (1983), Kaja Silverman has demonstrated how suture is virtually synonymous with the operations of classical narrative. Lighting and editing techniques combine with formal narrative compositions to stitch the viewer into the film text. In Silverman's analysis of suture the values of "absence and lack always play a central role. Those values not only activate the viewer's desire and transform one shot into a signifier for the next but serve to deflect attention away from the level of enunciation to that of fiction" (1983, 214). It is in relation to this constitution of lack that the concept of suture, for Stephen Heath (1981), enables an understanding of the image as flawed and as supplemented by the desire of the viewing subject in order to be complete. Considering any notion of the image as complete without considering its ideological interaction with the subject, is, for Heath, illusory and must be taken to task. Thus desire is seen as an ingredient in the drive that moves narrative forward.
In subsequent debates within feminist film theory, cinema itself has been viewed as the scene and setting of desire, constructing the spectator as subject and producing the subject-spectator's desire to look. The proscription of vision in Iranian cinema addresses this desire precisely. The "commandment of looking" assumes that the presence of a nonfamilial man in the audience in interaction with the figure of an unveiled, and thereby sexualized, woman on screen constitutes an immodest, and hence reprehensible, relation of desire between the sexes. Laura Mulvey (1975) and Jacqueline Rose (1986) argue that the system of suture in dominant cinema is inextricably bound to this elemental relation of sexual difference, but differently so. In dominant cinema, in other words, the film narrative is "organized around the demonstration and interrogation of the female character's castrated condition, a demonstration and an interrogation which have as their ultimate aim the recovery of a sense of potency and wholeness of the male character and the male viewer" (Silverman 1983, 222).
In Iranian cinema, the female body stands as the site of heterosexual potency. Thus, close-ups of women and point-of-view shots that, through the gaze of the camera, allow unrelated men (in the theater) and women (onscreen) to look at one another directly violate Islamic modesty. The eye-line matches and shot patterns that are said to constitute the system of suture configure a threat to male piety in relation to a female body in which, in Islamic culture, heterosexual desire itself is said to reside. The "naked" interrogation of a woman's body implies the disintegration of Muslim male identity. In Iranian cinema, then, the viewing subject itself is at risk.
In dominant Hollywood cinema studies, limitations on vision such as modesty laws, which subvert the editorial creation of eye-line matches between characters, and shotreverse-shot patterns that link characters together, are said to unravel spatial and temporal continuities between shots, and hence to unravel the narrative. As narrative continuity depends to a large extent on visual cues, the proscription of vision as it informs Iranian cinema in its global circulation tends to subvert conventionally unquestioned "global" cinematic systems that give a sense of cohesion and meaning to the narrative. The desexualized look, the unfocused gaze, and the long shot, all instances of the inscription of modesty in Iranian cinema, as Hamid Naficy has argued, problematize Western cinematic theories that rely on audience identification and implication achieved through the operations of suture (1994, 13150).
Furthermore, the imposition of veiling on every woman in all circumstances (even in bed) prohibits an implicit sense of realism in the film narrative. Modesty regulations in Iranian cinema have not only problematized the theoretical givens of Western cinema studies, they have effectively forced most filmmakers to turn away from prerevolutionary themes, vexing heterosexual love relations, and issues facing contemporary urban dwellers. Effectively skewing the "authentic" or "realist" representation of women and heterosocial relations onscreen as images of the "local way of life," such regulations have forced filmmakers to develop a new grammar of codes and conventions that have made Iranian cinema look, but more importantly speak, differently than other major film cultures. This has resulted in cinematic opportunities as well as problems of legibility. Here, Mohsen Makhmalbaf is illuminating about the possibilities of speaking to an Iranian audience in a visual language. Elaborating on the difference between Iranian cinema and other world cinemas, Makhmalbaf tells an interviewer:
I see [this] whenever we use montage or a metaphor that denotes a single meaning. Then the [Iranian] spectator is capable of grasping the meaning of the image ... but as soon as the representation carries a plurality of meaning ... the spectator fails to understand. ... Sometimes the language of cinema is spoken by using shadows. ... Sometimes the language of the image rests in the use of the [camera] lens. ... It's the effect of repetition and pedagogy and the becoming cliché [of a technique] that [allows] the majority [of the audience] to get it. ... But when the language of the cinema speaks through framing, by way of broken [sight] lines or direct ones, or by using color or mise-en-scène, or through the relationship between objects within the frame, or by [the use of] light, or [by the use of visual] concept[s], not one person understands. (Makhmalbaf 199697, 13947)
Dominant cinema's preoccupation with "realism" continued its influence on Iranian directors, however. For most directors, shifting the camera away from urban settings allowed a more "believable" depiction of the "new" ideal of Islamic Iran. In making village films set in fictive rural and real village locations, filmmakers could avoid the problem of modesty in dress. In contrast to urban women, who would need to be screened in interior spaces and made to wear large outer garments in conformance to modesty laws but counter to actual contemporary practice, toiling peasants and rural women could be imagined outdoors in rural spaces, wearing head scarves and colorful garments that were nevertheless congruent with the regime's dictates of modesty. The authoritarian language of Islam that was to give shape to the new language of Iranian cinema by resituating vision was thereby displaced to a fantasmatic site on which it could have little ideological effect. New conventions developed as allegorical embodiments of state-imposed regulations. "Village films," which fabulated the life and labor of fictive primitives, were one adaptation of this new embodiment. They provided for the industry's continued will to create reality effects while making a cinema that was more linguistically and scopically diverse, more brilliant and colorful than ever before.
Perhaps the most stereotypical marker of the new Iranian cinema in the West, other than the effects of censorship, is its description as an industry attached to colorthat is, to the abundant use of color in representing sweeping landscapes, peasant life, and nomadic existence. These cinematic representations, promoted by the national industry, occur in such films as Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Gabbeh (1996), The Silence (1998), and Kandahar (2001); Abbas Kiarostami's Rostamabad trilogyWhere Is the Friend's Home? (1987), Life and Nothing More (1992), and Through the Olive Trees (1994)and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999); and Majid Majidi's The Color of Paradise (2000) and Baran (2001). They have come under scrutiny both within the country and in the diaspora. Watching the success of the industry in film festivals around the globe, critics repeatedly argue that the films depict unrealistic representations of Iran and its "way of life."
Central to these critiques, once again, is the Iranian film industry's problematic representation of women. In the Iranian context and increasingly in the West, a particular mode of critique introduced by Iranian feminists articulates the shift from prerevolutionary cinematic depictions of women as "unchaste dolls" to the "chaste dolls" of the postrevolutionary period. Lahiji's work on the representation of women in Iranian films is at the forefront of these critiques, suggesting that "the unchaste dolls" of the prerevolutionary cinema were banished from the cabaret stage and are now chastened and confined within the interior walls of the kitchen and engaged in domestic chores (2002, 21523). While these critiques of the stereotypical representations of women may be seen as progressive in the context of a national industry that is charged by its government with propagating, through film, proper standards for Islamic life to a vastly illiterate population, the films become quite problematic as they make the rounds of international film festivals.
Lahiji's critique of the stereotypical female in the new cinema evokes, albeit negatively, Stephen Neale's discussion of the stereotype in the study of race and ethnicity in film. Neale's (1979) work suggests that the study of stereotypes necessitates an analysis of narrative structure, genre conventions, cinematic styles, and attention to broader practices of filmic production. I want to argue here that a transnational feminist practice of reading films must go beyond questioning whether narrative and filmic representations are authentic and positive images of Iranian women. Rather, we need to attend to the codes, conventions, and effects particular to cinema and to ask what specific filmic conventions are used to construct the Iranian woman in film in the first place. This is because, as Robyn Wiegman has argued, even positive images can be "as pernicious as degrading ones" (1998, 165).
Lahiji claims that, in the postrevolutionary Iranian context, the stereotypical depiction of women onscreen has more recently been challenged by the work of female filmmakers who "chose to object to the unrealistic image of women in Iranian cinema" by presenting women in a more realistic light. She argues that "the international reception of [their] approach [to representation has] finally persuaded their male colleagues to reappraise their own work" (2002, 224) and attributes this realistic portrayal of women and of their role in Iranian society to the widespread positive reception of Iranian films around the globe. In Lahiji's discourse the stereotype is countered by realism, and realism is posited as the condition for the industry's economic success internationally.
This reliance on realism as truth presupposes that cross-cultural encounters in film follow a universal protocol. However, orientalist travel discourses and imagery precede and pervade the field of contact. Thus what realism means in the framework of Western cinematic representations signifies differently in the reception of third-world films. Consider, for example, the "new cinemas" as they are constituted on the film festival circuit. In the case of Iranian cinema, the Farabi Cinema Foundation of Iran permits only a particular type of art film to enter international film festivals; thus only those directed by a handful of acclaimed filmmakers and their apprentices get screened. In the context of extreme power differentials, the selection of films in French, Italian, British, and North American festivals, while formally grounded in the argument of "aesthetic brilliance," is as much shaped by the products' relation to known avant-garde and modernist film traditions as by the racist combinatoire's potential for commercial profit. It is within this context that an Iranian auteur such as Kiarostami can be promoted as nothing less than a genius, his primitivism the marker of a difference that, regardless, situates him in a genealogical relation to the metropolis as a direct descendant of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Roberto Rossellini. Put bluntly, the fundamental factors that inform the film festival encounter and the shaping of knowledge in that experience are profitability and festival politics.
While it is undeniable that Iranian cinema has been recently appropriated into the canons of global cinema, the corollary to this reception and recognition must be that this has to do with "the forms of engagement" that these films induce and "make available" to a Western audience (see Ganguly 1996). These engagements, as I have attempted to emphasize, are radically informed by the conflictual histories and the struggles of the cinema on a turf that has as much to do with standardized codes of representation as with the resistant practices of a national industry in its encounters with dominant cinemas around the globe. But whether these cross-cultural encounters situate Iranian cinema in stereotypical orientalist terms that tend to appreciate the industry's products for their abundant use of color, sweeping landscapes, and peasant women toiling outdoors, or fetishistically look to the screen's "realistic" representation of assertive, engaged, and self-sufficient Iranian female characters, what needs to be carefully attended to are the ways in which both approaches promote the conception of a "universal" knowledge derived from differentially situated conceptions of truth.
Ellen Strain's 1996 article on the prehistory of cinema and its appropriation of the posture of distance and objectivity in relation to cultural differencea posture that Strain argues was adopted from the popularization of the touristic experience as well as the professionalization of such fields as anthropologyis instructive in this regard and bears quoting at length. Looking at the history of cinema, Strain writes that "the notion of touristic viewing as an historically-specific phenomenon which developed in the decades immediately preceding cinema's inception" (1996, 72) was imported into cinema in its formative years: "While fascination with imagined beasts and fantastic human oddities inhabiting the globe's furthest corners stretches back over centuries, touristic experiencewhether simulated or actualbrings the Western subject face to face with the spectacle of difference, the exotic landscape dotted with wondrously `alien' human and animal faces" (72). Situating this distanced and indirect relation to difference in a worldview that was to mature by the turn of the century, Strain continues:
This capitalist view of the world as a reservoir of products, raw materials, and experiential pleasures melded with scientific understandings of the universe and a technological confidence on the part of the West. One outcome was the learned pleasures of the touristic as defined by the visual objectification or the conversion of the cultural Other into spectacle; the separation of the tourist from the toured; and the identification of the tourist with a figure of mastery such as the explorer, colonialist soldier, or anthropologist. ... The marketing of touristic pleasures in the pre-cinematic era helped popularize ... a set of strategies which can only be analyzed in the context of a culturally-shared world view and late nineteenth-century developments, including the professionalization and popularization of anthropology, improved transportation, the consolidation of capitalism, and the cultural ascendancy of the mechanically-produced image. (1996, 7172)
By genealogically positioning the ethnographic posture within strategies that situate difference in relation to both academic knowledge production and mechanically produced images of the other, Strain implicates not only feminist film ethnographies but also feminist practices in multicultural curricula. At risk are not only the constitutive problematics of objectification and fetishization in relation to the otherthe very assumption of representation as truth also hangs in the balance.
To me, the critical issue at the heart of our understanding of cross-cultural readings of representations as truth is the reliance on the category of realisma realism deeply embedded in the narrative and representational logic of dominant cinema and in the history of Western perceptions of the technologized image of the other. David Desser's reading of Japanese fiction films shows, for example, how dominant conventions of realism (which are often determined by continuity editing, spatial arrangements, and the use of color) are rejected by Japanese cinema, a cinema that, he argues, finds its roots in traditional nonrealist art forms (1994, 308). Japanese cinema is only one of many examples in which a resistance to realism signals a rejection of the imperialist power of dominant cinema and an attempt to root cinematic traditions or innovations in extant national art forms. If we come to understand the conventions of realism as a historical imprint of an imperial logic on nondominant cinemas, can "realism" still stand as the measure of transnational feminist film analyses?
In the context of Hollywood's imperial domination of what constitutes value in film, namely narrative realism, a transnational feminist critique of Iranian cinema cannot be forwarded by merely suggesting that stereotypical representations be replaced and thus undercut by realist representations. It is by recognizing, rather, that in the global circulation of colorful, fictive primitives on screen, what Iranian films offer up to knowledge is not an access to the knowledge of the real beyond representation but "a negative return on an absolute investment" in representation as truth (Ganguly 1996). While a simplistic articulation of this formula would have it that if there is a camera there, what you see onscreen cannot possibly be real, its corollary in a transnational feminist analytics of third-world cinema is the recognition that "realism" stands as a discursive alibi for an authentic encounter with difference.
At this point, let me turn to a discussion of the function of color in film and its relation to the particular aura attached to Iranian cinema in its circulation around the globe. I would like to work through the specifics of the argument by considering one of Iranian cinema's most lauded commercial art films, Gabbeh, directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf in 1996. Originally conceived as a documentary on the Qashqa'i nomads and their practice of weaving gabbeh rugs, the fiction film, Gabbeh, revolves around the courtship of a young nomad named Gabbeh and her horseback-riding lover who are prevented by a domineering tribal father from forming a union. While the lover is only seen in long shot, there are insistent close-ups of the female protagonist, Gabbehcertainly a "fictive primitive" (her dubbed voice-over narration reminds us that the character is played by an actress with a distinct Tehrani accent).
The central obstacle to the union between Gabbeh and her horseback rider is the arrival of Gabbeh's older uncle. An urban schoolteacher whom we first encounter in a nomadic school tent giving a lesson on color, Gabbeh's uncle comes to the tribe to visit his mother after many years of absence and to find a suitable bride. The uncle's arrival coincides with the death of his mother, Gabbeh's grandmother. The tribe proceeds to mourn her death by weaving a rug that narrates the day of the event and the day of the uncle's arrival. His mother lost, the uncle goes in search of a wife, and since he is Gabbeh's elder, Gabbeh's courtship with the distant horseback rider is, by rite, delayed. Gabbeh's mother gives birth. A kid goat disappears in the mountains, and Gabbeh's younger sister dies in search of it. It rains, and the rugs must be collected and protected. Each of these events delays Gabbeh's union. Furthermore, the events are not represented in chronological order. Rather, seen in terms of the "past" or "future," each is intercut with sequences staged in a seemingly timeless "present" that takes place on a riverfront where an elderly couple engages Gabbeh in a conversation about her life. Asked about her kin, Gabbeh launches on the story that becomes the film narrative.
Gabbeh, then, is an atemporal narrative that is structured formally by the storytelling practices of the gabbeh weavers themselves. The film forms constellations among the past, present, and future by adopting the processes of weaving, cutting, and dyeing the color threads, associated in the film image and intercut throughout with the work and storytelling practices of the nomadic tribal women. As the women and children weave the gabbeh rugs, they intermittently turn to the camera with a sometimes celebratory cry: "Life is color!" "Woman is color!" "Man is color!" In Makhmalbaf's remarks to Hamid Dabashi about Gabbeha film that marks, for the director, the beginning of the fourth phase in his filmmakingthe director states that it is with the film Gabbeh that "light begins to enter" (Dabashi 2001). Light, perhaps, but it is more specifically color that enters. But what does it mean to say that color enters?
In the history of cinema, the use of color was seen as a "problem for realism" because, as Neale notes, "colour could distract and disturb the eye" (2002). As Neale explains, because of its capacity to disrupt, color eventually had to be submitted to "rules and conventions governing the relative balance between narrative, on the one hand, and spectacle on the other, since what colour tended to provide, above all else, was spectacle" (2002, 87). Color as spectacle was thought to distract the eye from the elements that bring unity to the narrative: acting, facial expression, and the film's action (Neale 2002, 85). With the introduction of color and its excessive use, narrative was thought to come to a halt and spectacle to take over. The containment of color ensured narrative continuity. Its proper governance became a convention of classical narrative film practice.
While Gabbeh is anything but a classical narrative in form, it attempts to produce a national narrative form in film. It does so by attaching the continuity of its own narrative practice and closure to the processes involved in the making of the gabbeh rugs, the spinning, dyeing, piling, weaving, and cutting of color threads by young tribal women. Thus color filmmaking in Gabbeh is self-reflexively tied to the process involved in the piling and cutting of color threads, a historical association with women's labor that recalls the fiction film pioneer Georges Méliès's practice of employing an army of young women to hand paint each of his film frames (Desser 1994, 304). Thus, although Gabbeh is a lesson on the construction of a film form emergent from national narrative forms, one could also say that, in its use of a formal practice primarily associated with women's labor (the application of color to construct stories in both celluloid and rug), the film anachronistically suggests itself as the enunciative site of color film production. Furthermore, if, as Gabbeh suggests formally, color film is produced according to the same processes as color application in rugs, then the nature of color's cinematic representations (like that of the gabbeh rugs) must be understood as metaphorical or allegorical rather than as ethnographically "realistic." While color is recognized as an integral part of both the matter being represented on-screen and of the rug itself, and thus implicated as a narrative element, color is also disclosed as a process that requires application and labor. As spectacle in Gabbeh, color is a consciously applied element that disrupts narrative realism and its implied indexical relation to the real world outside the film. This said, let me turn directly to the narrative and the sites in which color and its relation to "weaving" are represented as metaphor and allegory, not only in the processes of rug making but also for the processes of storytelling and life itself.
Set by the side of a stream, the scene that is perhaps most consequential for both Gabbeh's narrative continuity and its closure is one in which the daughter of Alladad accepts Gabbeh's uncle's marriage proposal. This scene is also structurally significant. When the uncle approaches his future bride, she sings a poem that she has written the night before. Here, in the Turkish lyrics of the song written by Alladad's daughter (the "singing canary by a stream" that Gabbeh's uncle has seen in his dreams), we find an intimation of the way that characters are constructed in the film. At the uncle's request, she recites the lyrics anew, translating them from the Turkish dialect to Persian in the following words: "I am the beginning of the stream / And its end too / I am amongst the pebbles of the stream itself / My beloved passed by and / I was the sparrow in that lover's hand / I was divided in three." At this moment of romantic union, the future bride reveals a split subjectivity that extends into the entire film and far beyond the singularity of her specific character.
This encounter between the uncle and his future bride is intercut with another scene of primary importance to the comprehension of the narrative and, particularly, to its use of color and its emphasis on the allegorical process of rug weaving. Paradoxically, this scene both introduces and recalls the primary love story of the film. A young blue-veiled girl sits with the old man and woman whom we have seen at the film's beginning fighting over who is to wash the gabbeh rug that represents in its pattern a man and woman fleeing on horseback. The blue-veiled girl calls herself Gabbeh and tells the couple that her mother and father are the warp and weft out of which she has been woven. She is, we realize, not only the young woman in love with a wild horseback rider but also the rug, her life story woven into its sky-blue background. But, as the film progresses, we grasp that she is the old woman too. We come to understand that the old man, who at once rejects his old wife and adores the young girl, Gabbeh, is the handsome, howling horse rider who follows the young girl's tribe and finally elopes with Gabbeh against her father's wishes. In this scene by the stream, the past, present, and future form an allegorical constellation through the colored threads of the gabbeh rug. The old man, his wife, and Gabbeh are in an ambiguous present that looks at once toward the past and also toward the future bickering of the eloped couple. And, paralleling the lover's song sung by Alladad's daughter, they are also divided in three.
Set by a stream and in an ambiguous "present," their exchange is gradually intercut with the scene of the uncle's marriage proposal to Alladad's daughter. Time and space are woven together by desire. Enchanted by the young blue-veiled Gabbeh, the old man sometimes doubles the uncle's actions. The young girl, Gabbeh, impatient to have her turn in marriage, does everything in her power within the "present" frame to move the "past" marriage proposal along. She extends a bouquet of yellow flowers out of the frameflowers that the camera has shown the uncle bring into the frame during the school lesson he has taught on color in a previous sequence. The past of the film itself intercuts the filmic present as the narrative present intervenes in the future-past. We come to recognize, in the midst of the courting sequence, that the present is capable of influencing the past. Tearful, the young Gabbeh announces that it is time for the uncle's wedding and begs the old man to let go of the sparrow he holds in his hand so that it can become the singing canary in the uncle's framethe yellow canary that will, in his dream, lead him to his future wife. The uncle's happiness in the future-past has an impact on Gabbeh's quest for union with her beloved horseman in the present-past.
The Turkish poem that attracts the uncle to the stream captures the tripartite division of identities in the film: Gabbeh is simultaneously the young blue-veiled girl on one side of the stream, the old woman on the other, and the soaking rug that reflects their collective narrative history. She is no less a memory of a love that still flutters before the old man as his hands shake and his voice trembles in singing his desires. Gabbeh's life is the film's translation of the rug's narrative and its colorfully interwoven and multiple temporalities. These formal moves in the construction of the narrative have implications for the ways in which we understand the use of "unrealistic stereotypes" in the representational strategies of this film. Although the film's setting in rural Iran aims to produce reality effects, what the representational strategies of the film seem to undo is the very notion of representational realism as the language of Iranian cinema. The film unsettles the codes of dominant cinema while simultaneously positing the film narrative itself as having roots in the very narrative forms it foregrounds. These forms are continuously associated with women's cultural productions and their use of color as they poetically weave their collective narrative histories into gabbeh rugs.
Realism in dominant cinema, we should recall, is not only about representational strategies embedded in specified notions of indexicality, iconicity, and realism, and their relation to "truth." Realism in film rests on narrative continuity. As Heath has argued, for narrative to maintain its unity and its spatialand, by implication, temporal continuity in film, there must be rigid attention paid to specific codes and conventions and, indeed, to the processes of suture (1976). In Gabbeh, these standard conventions of narrative continuity and their spatial and temporal constituents are interrupted by processes associated with the use and production of color in weaving, as if the film narrative its progression from frame to frame, shot to shot is constituted like the patterns of gabbeh rug out of piles of color.
In the key sequences discussed in this essay, in which the narrative attempts a forward movement toward the consummation of at least two heterosexual relationships, what interrupts the narrative telos is color. Here, a school lesson in color stalls the uncle's marriage proposal. Girls carrying bouquets, responsible for the processes of color extraction from prairie plants, interrupt Gabbeh's impassioned attempt to run away with her courting horseback rider. The color dyeing processes undertaken by Gabbeh and her tribe's younger women halt Gabbeh's marriage by deferring the scene of the uncle's union. The processes of spinning and weaving the colored threads to produce narrative patterns on the gabbeh rug cinematically suspend the consummation of the uncle's marriage to Alladad's daughter and its final celebration against the backdrop of the tent and the blackboard on which the uncle's lesson in color takes place earlier in the film. The production and spectacle of color disrupt narrative continuity in the film, and in doing so they fracture the film's reliance on the habitual touchstone of realism in cinematic discourse. The embodied materiality of color continuously defers time in the film narrative, reminding us that what we are seeing is, in fact, fiction.
Here the plot, which in classical narrative cinema is driven by the chronologically bound development and consummation of heterosexual love, is interrupted as well. Jane Gaines maintains that classical cinematic form works on the principle of heterosexual realism, "producing visual norm and sexual norm simultaneously through reassuring repetition of scene and frame, as well as through `seamless' editing and other illusionistic techniques" (1995, 404). Appropriating the structural form of the poem written by Alladad's daughter and its tripartite constitution of the subject, Gabbeh resists the visual norm. The film's rejection of seamless temporal and spatial editing techniques, and implicitly of the spatial and temporal boundaries of the worlds it narrates, undoes the work that aims to constitute unified projections of identity in dominant cinema. The film develops its own narrative codes and conventions, informed, on the one hand, by the dictates of modesty that allegorize themselves in the displacement of the obviously urban, Tehrani-accented actress who plays the role of the nomadic fictive primitive, and, on the other, by a formal "return" to fictively national as well as extant local narratological traditions associated with the poetics of color.
The technology of film immerses itself in the world of weaving, taking the formal structures of the rug's storytelling as its own. Appropriating the repetitious processes of spinning, dyeing, cutting, and weaving colored threads as the very form of narrative construction, the cinematic narrative splits and folds onto itself, repeating shots, cutting spaces and strands of film together irrespective of the spatial or temporal continuities and unified narrative identities that are implicated by the system of suture. Past, present, and future, the here and the there, the I, you, and she, form constellations. The shifting multitemporal narrative threads of the rugs become the constitutive elements of the cinematic narrative in Gabbeh, replacing the markers that typically communicate cinematic fictions between the suppressed producer of the fiction itself and an embodied spectator produced by the fiction through the seamless rather than obviously woven conventions of suture.
Thus color functions to escape, subvert, and disrupt the conventional "symbolic organization to which it is subject" (Kristeva 1980, 221; see also Kristeva 1998b). As an instance of Julia Kristeva's "paragrammatic," the use of color becomes the site in which "the prohibition foresees and gives rise to its own immediate transgression" (1980, 221). In this sense, as Kristeva has argued, "colour achieves the momentary dialectic of law the laying down of One Meaning so that it might at once be pulverized, multiplied into plural meanings. Colour is the shattering of unity" (1980, 221). But let me emphasize that what occurs in Gabbeh is the shattering of particular kinds of unity: the unity of identity, spatiality, and temporality on which the convention of narrative realism in film relies. The shattering of the image is not the shattering of false illusions or of the stereotypic representation of tribal primitives. Nor is it an attempt to represent the nomad in her true from. Rather, color is used to unsettle the ways in which the fictive primitive is positioned, commodified, and fetishized as a coherent, unified identity accessible beyond the fiction and the spatiotemporal limits of the film. The use of color addresses itself to the codes and conventions that drive the plot forward and that attempt through the system of suture to create realism by way of temporal and spatial continuities.
The deliberate association of the representational film frame, its opening onto the looms that form the warp and weft of the rugs, organically suggests the nonindexical nature of representation in the film. While admittedly the film's color is photographically achieved, its reflexive association with the application processes involved in producing the narrative histories represented by the rug weavers suggests its own use of color as nonindexical and "purely sensual." The film's color process is thus historically matched to processes of hand painting, stencil coloring, and combinations of tinting and toning in film "whose role," Tom Gunning observes, "is less realistic than spectacular and metaphorical" (1994). Thus color as the result of a technologically achieved process is paradoxically articulated by the film form as a narrative element that is materially integral to the bodies and labor of its fictive primitives. But the association of the film's production process with the labor involved in the extraction and application of color also situates its colorful representations as visually autonomous and nonidentical to the real, which is always narratively constructed and colored by history, culture, and desire. The fictive primitives are thus lifted from the realm of the real to the paragrammatic arena of color an arena that defies and decenters logic and law while simultaneously inviting the lure of spectacle and investments in commodity fetishism.
Gabbeh breaks with the dominant system of suture, articulating a different approach to the narrative order altogether. As Silverman argues, "Suture functions not only constantly to interpellate the viewing subject into the same discursive positions, thereby giving that subject the illusion of a stable and continuous identity, but to rearticulate the existing symbolic order in ideologically orthodox ways" (1983, 228). Born out of color, Gabbeh's narrative is not a "lure" constructed through the interlocking of point-of-view shots and first-person narration to entrap the viewer and to erase the marks of enunciation in the film. Filmic enunciation, ripped from its fictive attachment to the gaze of a unitary subject, is attached instead to a panorama of dislocating perspectives associated alternately with individual, collective, and inanimate systems of production. It is exposed and categorically immersed in the productive and colorful labor of tribal women. This insistence on the foregrounding of color, despite the threat of narrative disintegration posed by its spectacle, fixes the celluloid and the narrative in the weave of color just as the rug's colorful patterns that serve as the film's own loom are fixed by water. Color in Gabbeh, then, would seem to be an organic response to dominant and standardized codes of narrative realism regulatory cinematic codes that the inscription of socially regulatory modesty laws in post revolutionary cinema have ironically transgressed and subverted.
Depending on new grammar that can adequately speak the national condition for Iranian cinema, Gabbeh intimates simultaneity in the face of the demands for narrative chronology and continuity editing in dominant cinema. Representing to Makhmalbaf the national potential for the development of a new film language in Iranian cinema, Gabbeh cuts spaces, times, and selves together, synthetically producing a film that subverts rigid and reified hegemonic notions of identity and culture produced under the capitalist mode of production, a mode of production of which the standardized codes for realism in cinema are an integral part. In this gesture of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, the film embraces the disruptive potential of color, thus shaping its address ambivalently somewhere in the cracks of incommensurable national narrative forms poetry, weaving, singing, and teaching that, precisely for their incommensurability with dominant realist codes, become constitutive elements of a film celebrated as spectacle in its global reception at film festivals, art houses, and retrospectives.
If color is what Iranian films are celebrated for, then so be it. For this very strategic use of color undermines the formal structures and cinematic conventions that have repeatedly lodged the stereotypical primitive in a specifically Western cinematic discourse by relying on the conventions of realism as a coefficient of cultural truth. Escaping "the lure of narrative," Gabbeh boldly ties itself to an unruly practice that is disruptive not only in its production of a differing chronos but also in its "paragrammatization," which "points to the dislocation into fragments" (Kristeva 1998a, 151) of realist codes and indexical expectations that are doubly inscribed in relation to representations in third-world films.
The burden of the colorful fictive primitive as she encircles the globe is not, it would seem, to represent a real beyond representation but to self-consciously question the standardized narrative forms and conventions that have structured her representation as mimetic and indexical in dominant cinema. Her global circuit performs a discursive disclosure, no less comparable to the analytical practice of film feminisms than to the nomadic projects of their transnational counterparts. Recognizing the complex ways in which representations are constituted by dominant conventions of cinematic realism and encouraging practices that may teach us ways to unlearn them are tasks to which a transnational feminist discourse on the global track of national cinemas should more carefully attend.
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I want to express my gratitude to Elena Glasberg, Michelle Lach, Clare Hemmings, Mazyar Lotfalian, Amit Rai, Susan Willis, and Naghmeh Sohrabi, without whose passionate engagements and timely insights I would still be thinking through Gabbeh. My thanks also to the editors of this issue of Signs for their suggestive and very helpful comments.
- My understanding of transnationalism draws in part on the work of Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, who use the term to "problematize a purely locational politics of global-local or center-periphery in favor of ... the lines cutting across them" (1994, 13). In their Introduction to Women's Studies: Gender in a Transnational World they suggest that "a transnational approach ... emphasizes the world of connections of all kinds that do not necessarily create similarities" between national cultures (2002, xix).
- Rey Chow uses the term fictive primitive in relation to fantasies that are "played out through a generic realm of associations, typically having to do with the animal, the savage, the countryside, the indigenous, the people, and so forth, which stand in for the `original' something that has been lost" (1995, 22). The formulation also emphasizes that the primitive is a fictive construct, located at the site of the "phantasmagoric" and "exotic."
- I borrow this term from Ella Shohat and Robert Stam's discussion of sexual power dynamics between the peoples of the first and the third worlds (1994, 157).
- Poonam Arora's (1994) critique of first-world consumptions of such foreign films as Salaam Bombay and Parama is an attempt to rectify the use of fiction films by native filmmakers as ethnographic specimens of third-world cultures in gender and cultural studies classrooms in the first world. Though helpful in understanding the necessary sociohistorical background to the narratives portrayed in these films, her argument is confounded by the parameters of realism.
- Literally meaning to stitch up (a wound), suture, according to Jacques-Alain Miller's initial (197778) formulation, suggests the moment when the subject inserts itself into the symbolic order as a signifier in the chain of discourse; Jean-Pierre Oudart (1977) introduced the psychoanalytically informed concept of "suture" in film studies to refer to the ways in which the spectator is "stitched" into the filmic text.
- Kristin Thompson suggests something to this effect when she writes that alternative cinemas gain their significance and force "partly because they seek to undermine the common equation of `the movies' with `Hollywood'" (1985, 170).
- Makhmalbaf attributes this lack of understanding to the fact that "the language of cinema arrives by way of, and is borrowed from, [Western traditions of] painting." And, he continues, "Iranian film audiences are not familiar with painting. This is why Iranian filmmakers must be answerable to the fact that a whole people are uneducated in the history of Western visual arts" (199697, 13947).
- The year of publication, 199697 in the Gregorian calendar, corresponds to 1375 in the Islamic calendar.
- See Chaudhuri and Finn 2003, 48, regarding this reading of Iranian films as allegories informed by the conditions of the film industry. I would also like to thank the graduate students Arnal Dilantha Dayaratna, Abigail Lauren Salerno, and Shilyh Warren in my contemporary Iranian cinema class in the literature program at Duke University (spring 2003), for their insights on the film industry and for giving shape to this remarkable reading of allegory.
- See, e.g., Farahmand 2002.
- The Farabi Cinema Foundation was established in 1983, and its activities cover all aspects of cinema and the film industry. Farabi produces films, gives low-rate loans, supplies raw materials, lends camera equipment, provides postproduction facilities, publishes various cinematic literature, and sponsors film festivals. Farabi is also responsible for promoting and marketing Iranian cinema all over the world. Its international activities include introducing Iranian films to festivals, the screening of these films in different countries, participating at film markets, and world sales of Iranian motion pictures. Farabi enters coproduction projects with foreign producers as well and is the exclusive importer of movies for theatrical and video release in Iran. Through years of productive activity the Farabi Cinema Foundation has established itself as the major organization involved in domestic film industry and the main representative of Iranian cinema abroad. Regarding which Iranian films actually get screened in the West, see Naficy 2001, 162, 17592, and Farahmand 2002.
- As Shohini Chaudhuri and Howard Finn argue, "The appeal of New Iranian Cinema in the West may have less to do with `sympathy' for an exoticized `other' under conditions of repression than with self-recognition" (2003, 57).
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