Life is perhaps lighting up a cigarette
in the narcotic repose between two love-makings
or the absent gaze of a passerby
who takes off his hat to another passerby
with a meaningless smile and a good morning.
Life is perhaps that enclosed moment
when my gaze destroys itself in the pupil of your eyes
and it is in the feeling
which I will put into the Moon’s impression
and the Night’s perception.
“Another Birth,” Forough Farrokhzad
The theme of spectatorship, of the gaze of members of one social or cultural group upon another, takes on multiple meanings in the context of Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). First, there is the fact that we, as the Western audience of an Iranian film, are participating in an almost voyeuristic look into a world previously inaccessible. For the West, Iranian films in the nineties became a window through which to gaze at Iranian life, with all the third-world mystique and exoticism. Simultaneously, our own spectatorship becomes personified through the film’s protagonist. The “Engineer”, a misnomer cloaked in respect, personifies this very gaze — that of a higher-status outsider, looking upon the lives of the exotic other in a way that slips into exploitation.
In Theorizing “Third-World” Film Spectatorship: The Case of Iran and Iranian Cinema, film and cultural studies scholar Hamid Naficy describes the moviehouse as the primary sight of what he called “Third World film spectatorship.” This spectatorship, the collective consumption of film on part of Iranian audiences, rendered moviegoers more than mere observers of cinematic products. Rather, this transformative viewing experience, often flavored by a complex combination of cultural influences, linguistic difficulties, and wafts of hot sheep tripe and lamb meat sold in early Tehran theaters, made moviegoers “no longer just their consumers but also the producers of their meanings” (Naficy, 377). The transformative nature of this communal cinematic experience, which Roland Barthes called a “single signifying practice,” lies at the heart of the power, virtue, and danger of film, particularly in an Iranian context.
On the one hand, it was this capacity of film to tinker with the inner workings of what it means to be Iranian, or Muslim, or a human being, that made moviehouses places of political activism, and of resistance against the repressive Iranian state. The refusal of Iranian audiences to stand during the mandatory national anthem that theater managers were compelled by the government to play before every show (following Reza Shah’s rise in the early 1920s after Persia’s 1921 coup d’état), as well as the role of the moviehouse as a refuge where political activists could meet safely, are testament to the position of film in Iranian society throughout much of the twentieth century. Movie houses were a place where people came together to share dreams and consciousness on an almost cellular level; this gathering place naturally morphed into a space of questioning, political examination, critique of the state, radical thought.
On the other hand, film also posed a danger to reigning systems of belief and power, as made evident by Iran’s extensive and restrictive censorship laws. Despite attempts on the part of the Iranian government to eliminate excessive foreign/Western influences, the gaze of one culture upon another took root in the Iranian people themselves. There was a hunger, regardless of restrictions, to consume the films of the “other.” “Many reputed films have failed in the domestic market,” Richard Tapper wrote in The New Iranian Cinema. “As before the revolution, the public does not go to see Iranian films, but continues to prefer foreign films, despite the restrictions. The film industry is in severe financial crisis, and produces ever fewer films per head of population. Ghazian considers the role of government in alleviating this crisis, and suggests that state aid disrupts the supply-demand relationship.” This desire to stray from Iranian films in favor of the foreign and Western rendered the international success of Iranian film all the more important — some theorizing that “Iranian cinema could not survive without its international market” (Tapper, 10). The rise to success of Iranian cinema in the 90s, with films gaining more and more attention in the European market and festival circuit (with Taste of Cherry winning the Palme d’Or in 1997), meant that this spectatorship — the gaze of Western audiences upon this strange, unfamiliar but strangely universal Iranian terrain — was essential.
The Wind Will Carry Us, a film so deeply entrenched in a sense of place, is set in a Kurdish village. A group of journalists, led by a middle-class Tehrani “engineer”, descend upon the village to document the ways of the villagers and the death of an ancient woman. The fact that the men are quite literally waiting for an inhabitant of the village to die further emphasizes the exploitative nature of their quest. The “engineer,” especially, is there for no other reason than to be a spectator — to wring as much material out of the village as possible. His constant insistence on taking photos of villagers without their permission, as if they were trees or monuments, as well as his repetitive sprints to higher altitudes in order to connect cellularly back to Tehran, show his disconnection from village life. Even, though he is living in the village, he is still in Tehran — still a mere spectator, not part of the whole.
This spectatorship, like so many parts of life in Iran, is best explained with poetry. Through a number of moments in the film, Abbas Kiarostami clearly establishes the integral role of poetry in everyday Iranian life. The words of the old masters, the spiritual verses of Rumi, are baked into the stuff of life for so many Iranians, from the time they memorize poetry in school to the many times Kiarostami’s characters recite lengthy quotes. Forough Farrokhzad’s masterful wording in “Another Birth” can be applied to The Wind Will Carry Us — particularly the line, “when my gaze destroys itself in the pupil of your eyes”. The Wind Will Carry Us is a film about spectatorship, about the gaze — the gaze of the middle-class Tehrani upon the Kurdish villagers, the gaze of Kiarostami himself upon his subjects. Further, it is a film which is both about and deeply dependent upon our own gaze as Western viewers upon Iranian culture, life, and national identity.