How I get back pain when I watch Mohammad Nourizad’s short films

“Salaam. My name is Mohammad Nourizad. In order to make you aware of the fate of political prisoners in our prisons and courts, after my release from prison I started to write a film script under the title ‘Secret Stories for My Leader.’ 

Then I started to produce the film. I shot for about 80 days. But agents of the Sepah [Iranian Revolutionary Guards] suddenly intervened in my production by stopping the shooting and confiscating my equipment and footage. Their hope was to strangle a movement [the film production]. 

But these days, it is very easy to produce a film. Look, this is a very small camera. When I press the button here, the camera goes on and it starts recording. Now, I will go on to make and distribute a series of short films, which are literal representations of issues of interest to you. I will make the films for you to know about the background stories within Sepah, for you to know what happens within the Ministry of Information, or what happens in our prisons. I will make the films for you to know what happens at Parliament, in our judicial system, within our government and within many other organs that we call the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I hope that you will have patience, and that you will hear and take an interest in my honest and simple words.”1

 

These sentences mark the beginning of a series of short documentary-like films called “Shaboon Bi Mokh-ha,”2 collages of found footage and straight-to-camera monologues by Mohammad Nourizad, an Iranian opposition activist, journalist and filmmaker, addressing one individual, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Until the 2009 mass protests and riots in Iran’s major cities over claims of electoral fraud – considered the starting point of the social and political struggles known as the Green Movement – Mohammad Nourizad was regarded as a loyal follower of Ayatollah Khamenei and the system of the Islamic Republic. Shortly after the arrests of opposition activists and protesters, he changed sides and published open letters to the leader in which he condemned the behavior of the police, the Basij (plainclothes morals police) and the leader himself. He criticizes Ayatollah Khamenei’s instrumentalization of the Basij for his own political benefit, and he states that during the founding period in the 1980s, the ideas behind such organizations were different from now. Therefore, he argues, we can see how the Islamic Republic has moved away from its initial path (nonviolent cultural work spreading the ideology of Islam and Shia globally, forming an alternative to the then-monopolies of power, Western capitalism and Soviet communism) towards a homegrown version of ideological and military-economic dictatorship. Nourizad argues over and over that while the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards were initially created to protect the citizens and the Iranian people, today they are exactly the ones who create fear and chaos in society while claiming to follow the leaders’ wills.

Actually, my interest in Mohammad Nourizad’s work does not have to do with his political position. I have provided this context to create a subtext for his film as well as for my text. My interest lies on a level beyond political grammar, related to the formal and aesthetic tools Nourizad uses. After reviewing some of those, I will come back to the political nature of his film aesthetic to conclude the following thoughts.

 

Aesthetics and politics

All of Mohammad Nourizad’s films to date open and unfold in intimate and sometimes literally private surroundings. Among other sites, Nourizad records his monologues in his car while driving, in his private garden or in his garage. Sometimes he places the camcorder in weird positions, creating unusual camera angles: for example, on the dashboard of his car, behind a pot in the garden, or at the other end of a desk. From time to time he intervenes physically (with his fingers) to create a second frame within the camera frame while the actor – Nourizad himself – remains visible in the middle of the image talking to the camera. Camera positions like this make the viewer aware of the framework in which Nourizad’s speeches take place. They make the viewer aware of the camera itself, but also of the conditions in which these images are being produced.

I would guess that his aim is to make spectators aware that the film they are watching is not purely an artistic or fictional matter, nor is it fully documentary, but that this film lies between aesthetic practice and political activism, where form and content merge into a personal, artistic and political urgency. By “urgency” I mean Nourizad’s open letters to the Supreme Leader, for which he was jailed for 190 days plus 70 days solitary confinement, and his film footage, which was later confiscated by agents of the Revolutionary Guards.

I as Supreme Leader

In Nourizad’s films, viewers also see him talking to them in conventional settings – meaning that in a lot of scenes viewers find themselves on eye level with the filmmaker, as though having a casual conversation. These moments do something very special with the spectator; they create a certain dynamic between the spectator and the expressed content, an important aspect I want to focus on with my contributions to this website.

After the opening credits of the film, a third title card reads, “My interlocutor in this film is the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”3 This conceit also sets up an important metaphorical perspective on the fact that we, not the Supreme Leader, are engaged in dialogue with Nourizad. When Nourizad gazes into the camera and says, “We have educated them (the Basijis) in such a way that besides their commander, the Sepah commander, your very own person, they won’t listen to anybody else’s words. The parliament, the law, the government, no one.”4 At this moment, when I, not the Supreme Leader, watch the film, when I look into Nourizad’s eyes, who is “I” then? And who can be the “you” in Nourizad’s mind?

On a conscious level, I know that Nourizad is addressing Ayatollah Khamenei, but on a subconscious level, I actually feel addressed and asked the questions. In this very moment, I find myself in the position of the Iranian Supreme Leader and I feel the responsibility, on my shoulders, of the whole mess going on in the country. But this back pain is something productive for Iranian society. There is a difference between me and Ayatollah Khamenei; I am more or less emancipated from political power structures, but the leader not so much, I suppose!

Nourizad’s short films take aim at the power structures of the Islamic Republic of Iran and blame them for social and political problems, but I would like to argue that the real audience for his films are actually normal Iranian citizens. Through the juxtaposition of the “I” and the “Supreme Leader” brought about by the aesthetics of these films, I cannot distance myself from the problems of my country. Rather, I question myself about my own responsibility here. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a political system that we, the citizens of Iran, are part of. We have brought it to life, it is born out of the social, cultural and political traditions and consciousness we carry within ourselves. It is not something from above or simply given by God or bad luck! If we feel sick, then we need to take care of our own health and treat the illness within our own bodies.

1. 02:06’ – 03:53’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BkON0Vyj_U

2. “Shaboon Bi Mokh-ha” (Shaboon the Brainless) is a reference to a famous figure from the late 1970s whose name was Shaboon Jafari. He was known as the leader of the Shah’s street thugs in Tehran, a propagandist for the Shah and a rowdy, a scary man who beat protestors against the Shah. He was named a national hero by the Shah’s regime, while society gave him the nickname “Bi Mokh” because of his aggressive public behavior. By naming his film series “Shaboon the Brainless,” Nourizad is comparing Jafari to members of the Basij militia organization to argue that the Islamic Republic of Iran has failed in protecting the path of the 1979 revolution and that Iran has become the same as it was during the monarchy of the Shah: a place where thugs and rowdies are paid by the regime to beat up and strangle protests and to create fear within the public sphere.

To date, Nourizad has produced seven clips of this sort, which he distributes on YouTube, all under the title “Shaboon Bi Mokh-ha.”

3. 01:36’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BkON0Vyj_U

4. 09:12’ – 09:33 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BkON0Vyj_U

About Azin Feizabadi

Azin Feizabadi is an Iranian-born, Berlin-based filmmaker and visual artist. In 2009 he launched “A Collective Memory,” an ongoing project that consists of subjective histories and subconscious facts from past, present and future historical events, concluding in a series of narrative video and film works. Arising as a response to the immediate sociopolitical transformations in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, “A Collective Memory” uses a poetic grammar to combat the three-act-narrative structure of (his)storytelling. The Epic of the Lovers: Mafia, God and the Citizens (2009), The Negotiation (2010), and Conference of the Birds (2011), among others, suggest an associative approach to recording, viewing and narrating history through cinematic and expanded media.

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