Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Cinephilia Translated, Part 2

Last week I wrote about the phenomenon of translating film literature in Iran, a practice that covers anything from film criticism to academic books and papers. I tried to explain how readers in Iran are accustomed to reading the critique of a well-known Iranian writer, next to those of New York Times', Sight & Sound's or Film Comment's. I argued that the tradition has roots in an particularly Iranian pluralism and unlike the government of countries in which the original pieces have been produced, the juxtaposition of the translated and the original stages a dialogue, even if the authors really haven't planned as such.

Here I like to point to paradoxes (or even ironies) of translating film culture in Iran which I always have associated with the culture of opposition.

For an Iranian cinephile this trend basically means reading about a cinema which is not seen, cannot be seen (or at least, cannot easily be seen or accessed), hence the text substitutes the image. One reads about good or great films in which the text describes significant shots, the summary tells you about the story, the interviews tell you how these films are made, but the actual piece of work is largely absent from the picture. Hereby, the reader/cinephile's role begins: she/he has to re-imagine the film and mentally construct it and the film literature serves as the means of such reconstruction. Consequently, first comes the context and sub-text and then (if you're lucky enough) the Text. Mostly, the access to Text remains impossible and the context becomes the Text itself. Thus the people who portray films in written text, i.e. film writers and critics, become as significant as filmmaker. Under these circumstances, the role of a film critic is elevated to the second author of the film, an intermediary who, in a written text, recreates the filmic pleasures for the reader. In Iran, spectator is the reader. The image is read.

However, in a conversation with Lidia Merás, a film historian from Spain, I learned that from a historical point of view, understanding the cinema or art in the Iran of 20th and 21th centuries is resembling the mid-19th century Europe, when the readers of art reviews were in most cases unable to attend the exhibitions they were reading about. It is true that even in the pre-Home Video days, the access to film history was, by and large, impossible for a great number of people, still some kind of cinema, the contemporary one at least, was in reach. And of course, the TV was another source of revisiting old films which hardly existed in Iran. However, for various reasons, the 19th century art world is closer to my understanding of Iranian cinephilia rather than the 1960s film scene. Lidia wrote to me:

"Due to the costs of reproduction, images of the artworks were rarely published, thus art critics tended to be very descriptive. The apparent movement of the figures, the background architecture, weather conditions, textures of clothes, or the way one character looked at the other, along with other small details, were carefully described. Also, the critic used to analyze the interaction between the figures and interpret the feelings involved for those who would never be able to see the actual picture. They even judged the acts or behavior of the characters represented, according to the moral values of the period. These practices were for Baudelaire and his contemporaries part of their daily job. The French poet and art critic, who famously argued that criticism should be "partial, passionate, political"  (although in this statement he was far from referring to political commitment to art) was the first art critic who defended the idea that criticism was a form of art itself."

Furthermore, and in regard to the often repeated question of "who needs the critic?", one must look at Iran. The question arose in the west when the internet, mercilessly, blurred the lines between the professional and the amateur writer. But in Iran, the answer to that is relatively straight and optimistic, mostly because the need for critic is equivalent of the need for art.

In recent years, a combination of technological, economical and political factors have transformed the scene, mostly for better. By and large, it is true that the internet has provided a rich source for film lovers everywhere and in the case of Iran has brought an up-to-date-ness to publications and translations. Films are more accessible in illegal ways (and occasionally see the light of the screen, as it was the case with The Tree of Life or The Kid With a Bike) and these factors have provided the strength for a new generation of writers to express their ideas, in such a way that was impossible to imagine even eight years ago, when I entered the university as an architecture student. It's quite fascinating that in spite of these new advances, the tradition of translating film literature hasn't lost its place among film lovers, and in some respects, like the considerable increase in the number of new film publications, one can say it has reached a new level of interest.

Throughout the history of translated film literature there have been many obstacles, a combination of internal (censorship) and external factors. Here is a recent example of an external factor affecting the cultural dynamism: the Sanctions. Many of the self-produced cultural plans were partially fizzled out after enforcing the last round of sanctions against Iran which, first and most, affected the ordinary people, among them publishers. The price of raw material in publishing doubled or tripled within the course of a single night. Many film people, directly or indirectly, suffered from that.

Still, I'm amazed to see new journals pop up frequently, most recently Filmkhane [above picture], which in its 2nd issue one can find a dossier of Jacques Tati with translations from the works of Jonathan Rosenbaum, Michel Chion, Andre Bazin, Jonathan Romney and Roger Ebert. On the same issue, Amy Raphael, Trevor Johnston, Geoffrey O'Brien and Peter von Bagh have been translated for the regular criticism section of the journal and Catherine Lupton's long essay celebrates Chris Marker's cinema for Farsi readers.

Whereas critics such as Andre Bazin, Jean-Luc Godard (the critic) or Andrew Sarris have been essential figures in the natural evolution of almost any cinephile around the world, in my case, they have been something more: In their writing, they drew an accurate, essential picture of every film, therefore gave life to films I could not see.

To be continued.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks Ehsan for these posts,

    To me, translation in Iranian current cinephilia could be seen in two different contexts:

    First, this is an act of passeurs (as Serge Daney would describe it) who try to 'transfer' some of the western critical voices into Iranian cinephilic conscience.

    Second (and this is the negative side), it is another symptome of Iranian current consumerist culture in which people lazily tend to 'consume' anything from west without bothering to produce something meaningful.

    I have some more to say in the topic, and will come back here after your next posts.


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