Friday, March 17, 2023

Kiarostami’s Dah: Ten Snapshots of a Social Movement with the Iranian Society in Motion

Veiled woman with shades at the steering wheel
We often say make the best out of what you got. When it comes to cinema, this comes down to predominantly questions, decisions, and limitations around budget and financing. It may be the budding filmmaker who is full of passion and drive and wants to impress the cinematic world with little resources at hand or the renowned indie filmmaker who is not driven by money and dollar signs and forgoes big budgets to make personal and artful films on a shoestring. And in the case of the acclaimed and world-renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, it was sometimes not enough to limit himself in terms of financing but also intentionally restricting and voluntarily reducing the canvas of filmmaking.

His 2002 film Ten (Dah) is shot entirely in and within the confines of a car with (mostly) stationary cameras and limited angles. This type of personal restriction has been done in cinema with Hitchcock’s brilliant Rope in which he would film in one take (though he did cheat a little), or more recently, the outstanding Locke with Tom Hardy who is for the most part seen driving in a car and talking on the phone or even the French sci-fic movie Oxygen in which the majority of the film is French actress Mélanie Laurent lying down in a cryogenic chamber communicating with her AI assistant and the local police!

The latter movies are in fact action films that somehow despite their apparent limitations in space make the most out of the confinement to create suspense and tension and this underscores not only confidence but also skill and expertise vis-à-vis the art of filmmaking. I still wonder how they managed to pull it off because, by all accounts and purposes, it should have turned out to be as eventful as watching paint dry. Then again, I am also aware of movies shot with massive budgets that are simply a bore and a snooze fest all in one.

Nonetheless, Kiarostami’s film has no action to speak of and his purpose here is not to entertain or dazzle but rather to move and awaken us to social conditions in his country while also pondering about and reevaluating our own lives wherever we may be living and however privileged or unprivileged we may consider ourselves to be. At the same time, the film Ten exposes politics and questionable policies as well as social inequality and injustice in his native country and in many ways, the filmmaker foresaw, if not predicted, the current movement initiated and led by brave women who have suffered (more than enough) from the current system and are now demanding and clamoring for equal rights and a more just and equitable society.

Despite the film’s voluntary restrictions in terms of the scope and canvas of its narrative and filmmaking technique, it provides a wide panorama not merely of Iranian society but also delves into philosophical quandaries around questions on love, marriage, fidelity, and gender differences. In other words, Kiarostami is not solely focused on and does not limit himself to politics, but he wants to spark a light within our consciousness to let us re-think how we live our lives and how we view our relationships as spouses and parents, and what we consider and (mis)take for our priorities in life, for better or for worse.

As mentioned earlier, there is no action to speak of but there is an abundance of colorful and well-drawn characters. It is akin to drawing a detailed vibrant painting with only a few crayons at hand. The whole film is set in a car that is for the most part in motion, an apt symbol for both restlessness as well as a potential for movement and change, and the driver and driving force is an unnamed but fiery and spirited woman. Her pre-adolescent son considers her a bad and selfish mother because she lectures him constantly, does not listen to him, and fails to consider his needs, and, most of all, he resents her getting re-married after the divorce from his biological father.

Later, this same woman gives rides to various other people, ranging from friends and family members to strangers that include an old religious woman as well as a working prostitute. The accusations of her son may be correct as we can see in her interactions, but we can also note a free-spirited curious open-minded woman who accepts everyone and wants to understand others to better understand herself. She is also not afraid of lying in court to get a divorce by falsely accusing her ex-husband of being a junkie. Yet she justifies herself to her son by underscoring the inequalities that exist in the judicial system around rights for women and that she would not have been granted a divorce otherwise.

Daily frustrations and suffering of women are highlighted through various interactions in the car. The old pious selfless woman has very little to her name and she spends all her time constantly praying for others and wishing them well. On the other hand, a young mild-mannered woman who has her hopes up for a man to propose to her only sees that dream shattered to pieces and realizes that her prayers have remained unanswered. As a result, she shaves her head, which can be interpreted as a resignation but at the same time as a sign of revolt. Yet, the driver insists that she looks good and that the new haircut suits her.

The most rebellious and provocative character of them all is the prostitute. She questions the idea of love and even matrimony. She says that married men have sex with her and then receive phone calls from their wives and how these husbands lie to them about being in the office while shamelessly adding that they love them. Why should women restrict themselves to a single man when men do not do so themselves? The prostitute exposes this double standard that exists in various societies around the world and she also deplores and decries the overall lack of female pleasure and stimulation.

In all these depictions, Kiarostami not only draws his characters very well and life-like, but he has enormous sympathy and empathy for them. These people feel real because they are not flawless themselves. Ten begins with the son and ends with him and even though it is about women, the film is essentially framed around this sad and confused boy. I believe that the boy’s view is an important one to consider here but it is also a plight that is often underrepresented and ignored in societies around the world, namely the effects and consequences that adult actions and decisions have on children and more specifically one’s own sons and daughters.

Many considerations come into play, and happiness alongside love is a many-splendored thing with many necessary building blocks, and it is not merely a black-or-white issue nor is it a simple process. Kiarostami understands this, has empathy for all these struggling and yearning characters, and gives us glimpses into human nature with their universal pain, suffering, and frustrations regardless of social class and position. The prostitute herself had been jilted in her younger years, and she has given up any hope for a family and for children and lets the driver know that she has undergone various abortions. Although she plays the role of a strong independent woman, deep down she is also looking for love and affection like all the other women in this film.

It is impressive and often overlooked or downplayed how these women manage and work around the number of limitations and restrictions within their lives that are deeply embedded in the codes of conduct and the discriminating laws of their society. Despite it all, they not only make ends meet but they make the best and most out of it all through their creativity, spirit, inventiveness, and resourcefulness. And they have done so for various decades, if not longer.

However, that should not be and should not remain the status quo. For these questions to be dealt with and addressed, they need a society that is just and fair to all its citizens and that does not discriminate against them. Here we can see the failings of a society that not only overlooks the needs and desires of large swaths of its denizens but actually squashes and tramples them and in the words of the early feminist Sarah Moore Grimké that they ought to take their feet from off women's necks. We see this social movement asking for change, and it is not merely about veils and dress codes around hiding hair but goes much deeper and further than that.

In fact, and perhaps more than ever in today’s world, medieval as well as authoritarian systems will have to face resistance as they do not respect or represent the rights and will of their people. And in this case, it is not merely about making the best out of what you got but asking for immediate and much-needed changes in the fabric of repressive and oppressive societies and political systems everywhere across the world. 

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Putting all the Cards on the Table: My Journey into Tarot and Cartomancy

Card on the wet street
It all started at the age of sweet sixteen for me. Ironically enough, it occurred at my German high school where my French teacher of all people happened to read my Tarot cards as part of an afternoon show and show-your-talent spectacle on the school premises. Incidentally, the very first card I picked was the Death card though as you may know or guess the reading itself turned out to be not that gloomy after all because every ending, symbolic or not, signals and ushers in a new beginning.

At the time, the topic and question at hand in those days of youth were most likely linked to and associated with a girl, while the wished-for relationship did not materialize – it very rarely did - the fact that there and then I became acquainted with the beautiful and astounding world of Tarot was a spectacle and an unforgettable event in and of itself. This passion and boundless love of mine for cartomancy continues to this day and beyond. In fact, I could not and cannot imagine a life without cards – and no, rest assured, gambling has never been my thing, at least not yet.

My French teacher had struck a chord and lit a match, which sparked a torch with the burning light of wonder and curiosity, and he even told me to which bookstore to go to buy my very own guidebook and deck of cards. To this day, I proudly possess the same book, and this is the reason why my readings since then have involved some translating and juxtaposing from German into the preferred language of choice, be it Farsi, Spanish, or English.

Immediately, I put the Tarot cards to the test, and from the age of sixteen onwards, I have been doing off-and-on readings for myself and for a select group of others, family, and close friends. With each reading, my faith in it has grown exponentially although I must confess that I do not always follow its advice (though I know I should). The readings are all not as fatalistic as many assume them to be they rarely tell me point-blank what will happen but rather give me an overall picture of trends, circumstances, and potential outcomes.

The secret ingredient that glues it all together is my self and my own actions. If I take this particular course of action, the following path will unfold, and I would get from here to there. And if I do not, I will get somewhere else. It is like a wise friend or parent who gives you heartfelt advice, but it is up to you to heed it or not. In fact, in various cases, friends have chosen not to divulge the topic or wish in question and halfway through I already knew not only the question but also the best possible answer to their issue or dilemma.

All this increased my curiosity about its close cousins, such as the I Ching, Eastern philosophy, and mysticism. And then, some years later, as an undergraduate student in Canada, I saw a movie that impressed me. It was the Jules-Verne-inspired The Green Ray (Le rayon vert) by the wonderful master filmmaker Eric Rohmer whom I continue to hold very close to my heart ever since I saw my first film of his L’ami de mon amie, awkwardly translated as Boyfriends and Girlfriends. Although The Green Ray is not my favorite film of his, there was a certain scene that caught my eye and once again lit the torch of curiosity deep inside of me.

The main protagonist would occasionally find seemingly random playing cards on the street. And yet, these cards would always serve as soothsayers especially to her who knew the hidden meaning and the personal message that they transmitted to her. What others would see as a mere coincidence or happenstance, she knew to be a spiritual whisper and echo of truth; based on the specific meaning of the card, she would know what the near future would have in store for her and what her best action would be. All of this leads to a flash of blissful insight at the end of the film brightening not only the horizon but enlightening the recesses of her troubled soul.

My immediate thoughts after seeing the movie? Would it not be grand if I could also find cards on the street? I was aware of the connection and correlation between the regular playing cards and the cards of the Tarot and would be able to interpret them accordingly. And to my surprise and wonder, my wish was granted and ever since that day I have found literally hundreds of cards even across different cities, countries, and continents! And not only myself, but friends and family members have had the great fortune to do so as well and to call me up about specific meanings and interpretations.

Is it magic? Of course, it is! Is it crazy and insane? You bet! Out-of-your-mind crazy and bonkers to boot!

At times, I would be hesitant to mention this to people as they would either think that I was raving mad or that I was lying and either one of those choices did not sit too well with me. That may be part of the reason why I would pick up the cards whenever possible and take them home with me; as a result, I have now a stack of random cards that I tend to use as bookmarks. But if people find it hard to believe, I understand and sympathize but whether we see or believe it or not, there is indeed more to the world than is apparent to the eye.

Over more than thirty years, they have given me the heads up, the thumbs up, or the lowdown of what was to come in my future - near and far - and that has helped me to be better prepared for everything and anything coming my way. The best thing would be that it would occur sporadically and spontaneously. There would be a period of time when I would find different cards one following upon the other and sometimes even half a deck. Then, it would be quiet, and I would ask myself “I wonder when I will find another one.” And at other times, I would seek guidance and wish and hope to find something to tell me where I was at and what would be coming my way. I find finding cards to be more organic in nature as opposed to doing an intentional reading for myself. Sometimes I would have to be patient and wait for a while until I found another one.

Countless decisions have been made and supported by a lucky card found at crucial and sometimes life-changing moments in my life. For instance, when I first met my wife, I found a very fortunate and uplifting card on the streets of Mexico (the wonderful nine of coins!) giving me the proverbial green light or ray. I knew then that she would be the right choice, my life partner and hopefully partner for life.

It is not always clear and smooth sailing in life, relationships, and cartomancy. On the contrary, when they are warning me of coming misfortune and impending doom, I have accepted it with a heavy but grateful heart. At least it would not come to me as a complete surprise. And that way, I would be better prepared and equipped to deal with the given issue or misfortune.

The most baffling cards I found on the street were actual Tarot cards. A few years back, I found The World card. Now this is doubly awesome and astounding. First, the card came in French, a nod to three French-inspired instances in my life: one, my German French teacher; second, the wonderful aforementioned French filmmaker, and third, my main livelihood is teaching French, the field I have intensely and intensively studied for years at school and at university.

The final “coincidence”? If you don’t already know – you arrived on a random click, got here by accident, or were just curious about cards and cartomancy - then take a quick peek at the title of this blog. I found the cards years after this blog’s creation and my blog has been my heart and soul for all these years and has even become and turned into a podcast since the pandemic. This is my world, which I like to share with you and with your world. May it also light a torch deep within you at best, and at the very least, may it be a source of entertainment and some food or snack for thought.

And now that you have read this, keep your eyes peeled on the road. Just recently, my son has found his own first couple of cards (one of them is depicted here as a photo!). I find it a blessing. I cannot explain it, nor do I understand who would “lose” or put all these cards on the ground but they have been both meaningful and very helpful and always reassuring. Next time you find a card and believe me you will, then drop me line to tell me about it, and if you need guidance in terms of meaning and interpretation, do not hesitate to ask, and I would most gladly oblige. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Midsommar: Excessive Collectivism and the Death of the Individual

Still from the movie with white-clad men and women in a field
Ari Aster’s Midsommar not only estranged many viewers due to its unsettling tone and uncomfortable and disconcerting content and themes, but it also provided a wide-open blank canvas for different potential interpretations. As a movie, it has a mishmash of various elements and possible influences ranging from the exploitative horror flick and subsequent franchise Hostel to the classic The Wicker Man (including its awful 2006 remake in which - if memory serves me right - a disoriented and utterly confused Nicholas Cage in a bear costume was being chased by various maidens) to an additional whiff of Shyamalan’s rather unjustly maligned The Village.

And, of course, we cannot talk about Swedish cinema without recurring to and being reminded of Ingmar Bergman, in a similar way, that Fellini has shaped our general concept and conception of Italy. But this post is not so much about filmmaking but rather what on Earth filmmaker Ari Aster is trying to say with his piece (if he indeed has anything to say at all).

Nowadays, since the wound is still afresh and a-beating, we cannot ignore the elephant in the cinematic room, the pandemic, and its psychological, social, and political repercussions. For instance, the depressing downer The Banshees of Inisherin is somewhat justified under the circumstances, that is, if seen under the banner of the collective madness that has held the whole world in its wild grip leading to irrational actions and often shocking unexpected behaviors from our neighbors and fellow beings.

Not to mention many a star has fallen from the domes of the sky and been dropped or pushed from the pedestal due to their (apparently?) inappropriate words or actions. Relationships have broken apart, families have gone astray, and friendships have abruptly ended, sometimes inexplicably and sometimes justifiably so. The pandemic has been a punch to the gut for many on all possible levels and it has managed to expose many failings and weaknesses both on a macroscopic (globally, nationally, socially) as well as microscopic (local, personal, psychological, and individual) level.

Midsommar starts right in the midst of a cracked and cracking romantic relationship and loads it with an extra heaping of angst, dread, and lingering anxiety. Dani, the female protagonist, and future May Queen (though neither she nor we know this yet) is confronted with emotional trauma from her bipolar sister while encountering a general lack of support and understanding from her boyfriend underscored by her own personal demons that she is not able to shake off or get rid of and which end up taking over.

Some have read and interpreted the movie as our need for social support and belonging, which is only increased due to a lack of community. There is also an undercurrent of emotional dependency and neediness on Dani’s part as she relies rather too heavily on others instead of taking a personal stand and facing and confronting her trauma upfront and in a direct manner.

All of this is certainly true but what struck me was how cults tend to thrive under these specific circumstances. It is as if we all had that ceremonial tea that manages to break down our defenses making us vulnerable to harmful and toxic substances and viruses (not only the ones that affect our bodies but also - and perhaps more pronouncedly - the mental, emotional, and spiritual ones). 

Dani is vulnerable, and since she lacks will, independence, and determination, it comes as no surprise that she falls for the cult. But the same can be said about her macho friends who play it tough and claim to be in control of the situation but are also eaten up by unacknowledged anxiety and insecurities. Neither one of them manages to escape, but what’s even worse, no one even tries to stop these atrocities from being committed in front of their eyes, let alone attempt to change sickening and stomach-turning actions undertaken under the name of religion, culture, and tradition – have your pick.

This is where the movie has much to show and teach us as it shoves a mirror right in front of our faces and under our noses. As we speak, we have become a place where we are afraid of speaking up because we are afraid of being seen as “disrespectful” toward other people’s cultures and ethnicities.

Ethnocentrism is held up as the original sin and no matter how depraved other cultures may act, we are currently wary of criticizing them so as not to potentially appear racist. The ancient Nordic tradition presented here is disregarding and disrespectful of basic human rights and decency but at one point the American visitors are brushing off suicide rituals as simply and irrevocably part of ancient idiosyncratic culture and tradition and believe that it is they who must “acclimate” to this. An awkward and unwarranted comparison or “justification” was made to our own brand of ageism in which we merely send off our elders to retirement homes.

In a textbook example of cognitive dissonance, they do not want to see or accept that the apparently idyllic world around them is absolutely insane and batshit crazy; in fact, in the eyes of the guests and visitors, it gradually becomes normalized and even accepted! In fear of hurting the feelings of the community while also being dragged and bogged down by their own doubts, insecurities, and lack of confidence – and most likely also for the purposes of self-preservation and protection - they go along and say nothing even when the lines have been crossed, and then some.

In a sense and various ways, it reminded me of the Zimbardo prison experiment, which to my knowledge is the closest we have in terms of studies demonstrating and exposing the underlying psychological dynamics and dimensions of a growing cult. Every participant in the study, including staff and the researcher himself, gradually but quite quickly became so entrenched in a cult-like mentality that if left alone, it could have had even more dire and devastating consequences for everyone involved.

All the supposed prisoners become “acclimated” to the growing abuse perpetrated by the “prison guards” just like the analogy of the frog in boiling water. And yet, this was a supervised experiment that was undertaken not out of malice but out of scientific curiosity. So much worse are the circumstances when people are blindly following a tradition or are willfully misleading and manipulating fragile and vulnerable people as narcissistic leaders are wont to do.

Today, as we tend to view and re-evaluate the many exploits of capitalism while also being at the same time envious of and deaf and blind to its various successes, traditional Western cultures and their worldviews are under constant attack. Not all of it is unjustified of course but, in their eagerness and zealousness, people are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Individualism and property rights, part and parcel of the capitalist outlook, are not necessarily evil, vicious, or harmful, but rather it comes down to how it is used and manifested. Freedom of expression is of course essential, but it has its limits and constraints since individual freedom and social responsibility need to go hand in hand or be the two sides of the same coin to work effectively and for the benefit of all, and not just become an expression and supposed justification and mask of self-indulgence.

Yet the real nightmare is a world that is run by extreme collectivism, which is akin to and a close cousin of fascism. Stalin and Hitler were dictators who had no regard for human life, and yet they stood on polar opposites in terms of their political beliefs and ideologies. When we assign more blame to one or the other side of the political spectrum, we are ignoring the millions of innocent people who have lost their lives because of these two unscrupulous totalitarian beings.

In the imaginary world of Harga, the elders seem to be the ones that are running the show, at least at first glance. But then, we realize that there is an age limit stipulated to their lives and after which they must ceremoniously jump off a cliff and unceremoniously die in front of everyone else, sometimes even with a “little help” from their “friendly” community.

Moreover, they refer to the scriptures passed on from their ancestors, but it is said that these are not complete yet and shall be completed by those with physical and mental challenges, or to use the more commonly accepted and familiar jargon of today, one that is neurodiverse in nature. These individuals - purposely and intentionally brought into the world via inbreeding as a deliberate product and measure - are allegedly untainted, unencumbered, unclouded, and free from “normal cognition”! In other words, they are deemed superior in their thinking and their understanding of the world and of life in general. It is one thing to treat people with specific incapacities and perceived limitations with respect and dignity, it is yet another to see them as role models to follow.

But what is the most frightening thing is the killing off of the individual. In a collectivistic society, the individual not only loses their rights but also their idiosyncratic essence. Everyone is treated the same and is expected to think and act alike and in unison. No dissent or breaking of written and unwritten rules or regulations will be tolerated. If they did so, they would be banned from the commune, today’s equivalent of being dropped from social platforms, losing their jobs, or being shunned by the local and global community. Anything or anyone that does not fit these limited norms is seen as a potential threat and is hence canceled or eliminated. 

Yet in this awful society of Harga, even the most intimate aspects of life are taken away and are engulfed and swallowed whole by the community. There is no privacy to speak of as everything is done in, with, and within the community. The sexual act becomes a showpiece and is ritualistically and vicariously performed in front of the naked community. Even expressions of grief and sorrow, the most personal space within us that we have the option of either holding onto or sharing with others becomes commonplace and a shared commodity and this negates all personal feelings and dimensions. Everyone starts shouting in delight and/or pain, which in turn denigrates the authentic individual feeling and dilutes it with a monstrous, brutal, and sterile takeover of the entire community.

Everything is shared and nothing whatsoever belongs to the individual anymore. In such a world, it takes a community to raise a family, while property (including people, children, and spouses) is shared by each and every one. And such a world is horrendous and atrocious in many aspects. We ought to be aware, mindful, and cautious not to become victims or trapped in such a place, a living hell that squashes human rights, dignity, and individual freedom and liberty in the name of a so-called rural and traditional community or religious doctrines and traditions.