Wednesday night, my room-mate and I went to see "West Side Highway," this year's "New York, New York" short program, and my reaction: what a disappointment! What's happened to short films in NY? The "Falling Man" film about the World Trade Center photograph was self-important, hokey, and borderline offensive to me. The "Orange Bow" movie turned out to be a fictional version of the Timothy Stansberry shooting in Brooklyn that turned kids from the projects into middle-class kids with nothing more to worry about than a birthday present for a crush. I was so irritated when the director of this film, during the Q&A said that "nothing had been done" about this shooting, given the fact that there was a movement around it in Brooklyn, and that this movement had been the subject of a documentary shown in the festival the year before. (I talked to her afterward, and she said that her movie had screened with it in California. It's just too bad that she didn't talk about the other film during the Q&A because it was made in NY by highschool kids who knew Stansberry)
"Shiner" whose maker had brought about 100 friends to the screening was kind of dull. The only stand-out was "King of Central Park," which was a definitive laugh riot, a kind of contemporary light-hearted take on "The Graduate." The guy who played the main character was one of the funniest actors I have seen in a long time, and Henry Winkler, who must be the film-maker's Dad or uncle, plays an excellent therapist. Go see it, go see it, if you ever get a chance.
Last night, I saw a really good movie: Siah Bazi: The Joymakers, an Iranian documentary about a 400 year old traditional theater which is dying out in contemporary Iran. The film-maker, Maryann Khakipour, remmebered Siah Bazi players from her childhood in Iran. Similar to Comedia Dell'Arte, the troop has stock characters, most notably one called "the black" who acts as a kind of Shakespearean fool, commenting on society through comedy. "The Black" in the film is Sadi Afshar, who has been playing this character, who he says represents "the people," for most of his life. Now that the theater of this group, who are according to Khakipour, are the very last Siah Bazi players in Iran, has closed, they are all facing lives as truckdrivers and tea-servers. And the point of the film is ultimately that the Iranian revolution has made tragedy of comedy. I thought, for about a minute after the screening of Foucault's misguided support for the Iranian revolution, and then, of the entire notion of cultural politics and the effort of many modern revolutionary movements to remake culture and fight against tradition. What a crime against history, I thought, to obliterate a 400 year old theatrical tradition, and what a crime against reality, in some way. It's good to see that when regimes try to obliterate realities that they usually fail. Partly as a result of the showing of the film, this Siah Bazi group has gone to France and is quite successful there, according to Khakipour.
The attempt to remake the world according to the terms of ideology is of course not unique to fundamentalist Islamic revolutionary movements, but appears also in certain varieties of Marxism, which treat all nationalist movements and ethnic particularism as if they were just delusions and obstacles in the way of revolutionary action. But are these cultural traditions, this one born as a folkloric expression of the Persian people living under Ottoman rule, really just delusions? When the people in the film began playing and dancing to the music that goes along with Siah Bazi, they lit up because it was a music they had played all their lives, that they had heard when they were young, and that they would pass on to the next generation. There is a delight beyond the music or theater itself in maintaining those kinds of traditions; perhaps it is a recognition of one's contribution to the complex world that we all inhabit. It is the thought: I am saving something that has lasted for hundreds of years from being forgotten by history; I am keeping tradition alive.
Traditionally, Siah Bazi players would perform in people's homes, which, said Khakipour, made it easier for them to be critical of any regime. The group she followed in the film, however, performed in a theater in Teheran, which was part of an old pre-revolutionary entertainment district which used to be full of theaters, bars, music halls, and Jewish garment dealers. In recent times, it's become a center of electronic businesses and the last theater has closed. Such is the modern world; the film represents both contemporary economic and political shifts in Iran, and presents a view of Teheran very different from the one that is most commonly seen in the West.
Siah Bazi was screened along with a shorter documentary about Iranian transsexuals, which also gave a different view of life in contemporary Iran. Somewhat surprisingly, transsexualism is a recognized condition in Iran, and sex-change operations are endorsed by both Muslim clerics and the state. However, homosexuality is illegal, and the government must find that the person requesting a sex-change operation is a transsexual, rather than a homosexual looking for an easier life. In this way, the theory of transsexuality becomes more conservative than radical, for as the Muslim clerics argued, it reaffirms the essentialism of gender identity. Sex-change surgeries exist, they believe, to make a unity of the soul and the body, to correct a disjunction between the two. I have sometimes wondered myself, if the whole notion of the need for a sex-change wasn't some kind of critical gender essentialism. Rather than saying "there are many forms of woman" and I am one, or "there are many forms of man, and I am one," the notion of the biological/psychological transsexual is, "What I am, inside, is a man, or a woman, and I must adjust my body to that in order to be at peace with myself and with the outside world." I don't mean this to judge anyone, or to impugn the trans political activists in the GLBT world. It's just a thought about the increasing historical phenomenon, and it was hard not to think about that given the acceptance of transsexuality by the Iranian religious establishment.