In the 1980s and early 1990s, Mohammad Nourizad, the journalist, activist and filmmaker whose recent video messages I wrote about in my last post, was part of an official cultural-production group in Iran called Ravayat-e Fath (Chronicle of Victory). In that context, Nourizad coproduced a documentary series with the same title. “Chronicle of Victory” was shot
during eight years of war between Iran and Iraq (1980–88). During those years, five episodes were written, directed, edited and narrated by Nourizad’s close friend and colleague, Morteza Avini, and broadcast on Iranian state television.
Without going into detail, I just want to mention that one can observe correspondences in formal approach between Nourizad’s video messages and “Chronicle of Victory.” My reason for pursuing this for Video Vortex 9 lies in aesthetics and forms of production and postproduction. My main focus throughout my contributions here is on the notion of spectatorship. I want to look at a new culture of spectatorship that is coming into being. New cultures of spectatorship emerge through new communications technologies and alternative forms of recording, reporting and narrating events. But I feel that there are some subconscious links between the documentary cinema practices of the past few decades in Iran and contemporary forms of citizen reporting. Therefore I would like to look at Avini’s aesthetic approaches in “Chronicle of Victory” and examine the visual style of that series in order to trace and question these subconscious links between past and present forms of reporting.
So what is the history of “Chronicle of Victory,” and what is the ideological background that caused Avini to make this war documentary series the way he did?
The many truths of the Iran-Iraq war
As soon as the war started, Avini rushed to the front with his small crew, aiming to record what was taking place on the border between Iran and Iraq. As part of their activities with the postrevolutionary development program Jahad-e Sazandegi (Jihad of Construction), Avini and his crew had produced a few documentary films, of which Haghighat (Truth) had emerged as quite popular. Haghighat showed how Iranian soldiers fought against Iraqi occupiers in Khorramshahr and Abadan. At that time, Iranian troops had forced the Iraqis out of the border region and back to Iraq. In Avini’s own words, he and his crew aimed “to capture the Truth of those events, beyond the usual narratives on war.” So what does the notion of “Truth” (with a capital T) mean for Avini? In an interview available on Youtube, of his crew members said that “Avini wanted to show the oppressed Iranian soldiers.”
Here, the word “oppressed” is a translation of the Farsi word mazloomiat. And mazloom (the oppressed) is often used to describe Imam Hussein, the third Shia imam, during the battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Hussein is a symbol of sacrifice and martyrdom, having fought against imperial powers for the path of the prophet Muhammad, his grandfather. So in this case, for Avini, capturing the “Truth” did not mean narrating military success, but rather inhabiting the mental states of the soldiers – in his words, the soul of the Iranian military. These soldiers were willing to sacrifice themselves and become martyrs, fighting in their own way against imperial powers (Iraq was supported by the U.S. at that time) for the path of the prophet Muhammad – just as Hussein had done.
For Avini himself, documenting the war was less an institutional duty than a spiritual one. He argued in many statements and interviews that the same intuition and vision that made ordinary Iranians rush to the front with their guns made the film crew rush to the front with their film equipment. So, in this case, documenting the war and fighting in the war became one and the same. Both were understood as religious practice and are represented as such in all of Avini’s documentaries about the Iran-Iraq war.
From independent film to propaganda machine
The popular success of Haghighat made Avini an official propaganda voice of the Iran-Iraq war machine. It led to commissions from the Ministry of Culture to produce and broadcast further documentaries about the war, which became the “Chronicle of Victory” series. His job was to document the war as he had in Haghighat. This was the momentum through which Avini’s spiritual philosophy and ideologies became institutionalized by the official Iranian TV channel.
Avini’s cinematic and documentary approach was just the right tool for the political system in Iran, enabling it to create a language within its propaganda that would justify the continuation of the war. Even though the occupied cities of Abadan and Khorramshahr had been freed, the Islamic Republic would benefit locally and globally from continuing the war against Iraq. Internally, war would get the population behind the system and strengthen the struggling postrevolutionary government, giving Iranians a reason to remain united and presenting the system as a defender of that unity. Externally, war would help Iran find a way out of its international political crisis, through war-related economic activity and Soviet sympathy. Thus Iran’s highly prized status as “oppressed defender” was instrumentalized, and killings and bombings turned into “holy defense” in Iran’s official language. Avini’s aesthetic and formal approaches in “Chronicle of Victory” contributed extensively to this war machine.
Practicing war and religion through cinematic light
“We were responsible for narrating the victory, but how, through what language and which form of expression, could we guarantee our ability to tell what was actually taking place there?” asks the voice-over, Avini’s voice, at the beginning of the third chapter of the third episode of “Chronicle of Victory” (00:20 in the video posted above). We see him sitting behind the editing desk as he writes this question on a sheet of paper. Then the film starts as usual with credits. As we proceed through the film, content and form meld; we are immersed in the film-form realm through which we experience the content.
The film continues with the voice of Gholamali Koveitipoor singing “Hey, the army of the Hidden Imam, be ready, be ready” while we hear the sound of ritual breast-beating and see moving snapshots of soldiers, helicopters, the army getting ready for a fight – shots edited in time with the breast-beating as the singing continues. Then the fight scenes start, and Avini goes on in his narcotic voice to provide details on the event – telling us only the “Truth”!
“Monday night, January 22. If Shabe Ghadr (Final Night) is the moment of the universe’s destiny, then every night on the battlefield is Shabe Ghadr, the moment in which Earth’s fate will be written. These are nights in which God’s angels appear and take with them the holy fighters, on a carpet of light, back to heaven. That night might also be the final night for Reza, the very night in which martyrdom becomes his destiny. Only God knows.” (03:06)
These apocalyptic lines are supported by apocalyptic visual elements: lights floating up and down in the air like the angels Avini mentioned, flying down over the earth, as if choreographed, to take Iranian soldiers back up to heaven. Among these lights – actually gunshots and tanks firing – we see one of the soldiers silhouetted by a light shining into the camera. This soldier, supposedly Reza waiting for the moment of his martyrdom, prays his night prayer; we see him only as a shadow, a beautiful graphic form between our eyes and the source of light. In this picture, but also in many others throughout the film, whether during interviews or in the middle of heavy fighting, light sources such as the moon, the sun and artificial lights shine into the camera lens; Avini seeks them out and emphasizes the element of light in the visual narrative of the film. I would like to suggest that we look at the recurring element of light from another perspective, giving us an insight into Avini’s aesthetic-ideological standpoint as well as the political aim of the system.
Light, as we all know, is the main requirement for any photographic image, analog or digital, to exist. In any form of photographic image, still or moving, it is light that shines on an object and is recorded by the camera. In more specific physical detail, the light that shines on the object is then reflected onto the film, where it leaves a trace (or is transformed into numbers and codes, in digital photography and video). In the case of analog photography, what is projected on the screen is the same light, the same source, the same trace that shined on the object, that was reflected and recorded on the film. One might say that this source of light travels through time and space and appears in the present, where it is witnessed by us, by the spectator. We are seeing the same light that was reflected from the object at some time in the past, in some other place. By using and emphasizing the element of light and the materiality of analog film, Avini succeeds in going beyond an illustration of political, religious and spiritual rhetoric. Rather, he creates – even if subconsciously – a super-reflective state of mind in the spectator. Avini emphasizes that while the film we are watching, “Chronicle of Victory,” may not be holy defense itself, it is definitely its spirit, meaning the truth of the war. For Avini, both making the film and watching the film are equivalent to participating in the war, and thus spiritual and religious acts.
From a material and earthly standpoint, it was actually the system, the institution of the Islamic Republic, that succeeded in its political aim of shifting the front into the cities and into the daily lives of the people. By doing so, it created a state of emergency in everyday life. Through firsthand experience of the war, any suspicion about the urgency of holy defense disappears, and the continuation of the war is legitimized.
The appearance of the subjective and its disappearance into the whole
As described earlier, for Avini, creating a film on holy defense is the same as fighting in it. The fragment posted here is dedicated in part to a protagonist named Reza, who is in fact Avini’s sound man. In the beginning of the film, Avini foreshadows Reza’s death, and at the end, the main drama of the film turns into a chronicle of Reza’s martyrdom.
“Every moment Reza comes closer to his final destination, that very destination God and Reza declared to each other. … Reza had desired to go to Bovarian Island; he was born 23 years ago in order to sacrifice his life, as he has promised God. On the west side of Bovarian Island there is a spot at which Reza has an appointment with Imam Hussein. That spot is Reza’s Karbala. It is that very spot from which Reza travels back 1,350 years and appears in the month of Ashura, 680 AD, and dies in the arms of Imam Hussein. All martyrs experience the same.” (21:56)
This story is told in voice-over; we hear gunshots and see the battlefield, the hand-held camera giving the spectator a firsthand experience of the battle (22:30). Then comes a hard cut, and while drums play military rhythms, a series of stills show Reza as child, progressing until he is grown up, with some of the last images showing him holding sound equipment on the front of the Iran-Iraq war.
Here, the duty of living is assigned the same value as the duty of documenting – or fighting in – the war. Life itself becomes war, into which one goes to become a martyr. Death itself is life, as Avini makes manifest.
We jump back to the front, to the west side of Bovarian Island. A title appears – “The Battle of Badr, January 1981” – and Avini continues: “Reza was a sound recorder and was present during all the battles. Had he not wanted to come to the front, he would have had a legitimate reason, because he had been physically disabled since childhood. The doctors did not allow him to come to the front. Intellect forbade him, but love has allowed him. His health, which could have allowed him to be free [from going to the front], turned into a jail and kept him from flying. But Reza could not accept it; he destroyed the jail.” (23:08)
Moments later (24:09), the film shows and narrates how Reza gets shot and dies on Bovarian Island. And his mother’s voice tells how excited Reza had been to go to the front, despite everyone’s advice to the contrary.
Unlike conventional war coverage – in which soldiers are essentially extras, tokens without subjectivity, and in which, besides the voice of the commentator or a few interviewees, mostly commanders, personal stories are not used to narrate events – in “Chronicle of Victory” Avini approaches the subjective as a crucial element for his documentary. That is a major shift. The soldier appears primarily as an individual seeking immaterial goals, seeking to die, to become a martyr and be taken away to heaven by “angels on a carpet of light.” Here, using the example of Reza’s story, Avini seeks to illustrate that “life receives its true meaning when death comes into play.” The Islamic Republic, with Avini’s help, proclaims that “the highest form of life is to become a martyr in holy defense.” That means to become one with God, losing subjectivity and earthly individuality.
Individuality’s disappearance into a godly whole is visualized, in “Chronicle of Victory,” through soldiers merging with their natural surroundings: for example, when they dissolve into the sun and become shadows. They become ornaments, belonging to the whole of God. In some mythological narratives, shadows are considered representations of God. From the psychological point of view, the shadow can be considered a phenomenon that is desired. In “Chronicle of Victory,” the shadow – God – is an unknown entity desired, from the spectator’s perspective, as an other self. This visual form, this spiritual propaganda, greatly aided the government’s efforts to advertise holy defense and attract young men to the front.
So why is it necessary to go back in time and look at Morteza Avini’s “Chronicle of Victory” again when many Iranians, of my generation and of older ones, deny any relationship to that holy defense propaganda?
Again, my reason for analyzing Avini’s work is related to a challenge, a thought experiment I want to undertake to connect the emergence in 2009 of the Green Movement’s citizen recordings to “Chronicle of Victory.” Moreover, I believe that the same thoughts, languages and analyses of Avini’s work can be applied to the aesthetic forms of some of those mobile-phone recordings. But before getting into this experiment in my next post, I must identify one major difference between 2009’s citizen reporting and “Chronicle of Victory”: The generation after Avini denies and breaks through some of the ideologies propagated through his aesthetic approach; this generation – despite having internalized Avini’s aesthetic and (sub)consciously made use of his methods – fights not for the institutionalized experience of a state of emergency, but rather for an emancipatory culture of spectatorship.
To be continued …