Video nation - Looking at Tazieh
This article is from 2008.
Aiming to debunk some of the cruder myths of Iran and its people, acclaimed director Abbas Kiarostami brings us a filmed account of an ancient drama. Miles Fielder talks to him about universal themes.
While Western governments and a colluding media continue to demonise Iran, artists from the much-maligned country are enjoying significant successes debunking the myths with works that showcase the real people and their histories. Iranian cartoonist Marjane Satrapi recently enjoyed that kind of success on a global scale with the animated film adaptation of her own bestselling graphic novel memoir, Persepolis, and now Iran’s most famous filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, is bringing us a video installation show, Looking at Tazieh, with the same aim of presenting a propaganda-free view of their history and culture.
Tazieh, for the uninitiated, is a traditional Persian theatrical performance that draws on the epic tales of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed. In Iran, the plays, which combine verse dialogue with musical accompaniment, quotations from the Koran and/or the Bible, and elements of Iranian history and Persian literature, are performed by all-male casts in small villages in the open air. Tazieh performances constitute a rare example of popular entertainment in a part of the world where Islamic law bans the dramatic representation of living creatures and, tellingly, regularly drawing huge crowds that become an active part of the performance itself.
Looking at Tazieh is Kiarostami’s attempt to recreate the experience of one of these performances for Western audiences with three video screens showing separate but simultaneous views of a Tazieh performance in rural Iran. Kiarostami, whose artistic drive has long since seen the 68-year-old combine his filmmaking career with photography, poetry and academic teaching, first staged Looking at Tazieh in Rome back in 2001, and subsequently installed in Paris’ Centre Pompidou last September, as part of a multimedia retrospective dedicated to Kiarostami and Spanish filmmaker Víctor Erice.
According to Kiarostami, the version that Edinburgh audiences are going to be treated to was created for both pragmatic and artistic reasons. ‘Roman viewers attended the six live shows and watched the filmed images of the Iranian rural audience. Then, for budget reasons, this new version was created so that it could be shown in many different countries. But whatever form it has appeared in, I think Looking at Tazieh has been received the same way everywhere: people generally find it unusual and original.’
Those familiar with Kiarostami’s films such as Through the Olive Trees and Ten, will be aware of the auteur’s experiments with form. In Ten, Kiarostami fixed two digital cameras to a car and filmed ten conversations between the female driver and various passengers as they drove around Tehran over a 48-hour period. Edited together as ten chapters, the deceptively simple sequences combined to produce a vivid portrait of modern women in Iran. With Looking at Tazieh, Kiarostami uses a relatively straightforward video installation to provide the audience with a deeper appreciation of his homeland.
‘Non-Iranian viewers, even without understanding the cultural background or the language of the show, can share the feelings and emotions created by it, and they can also feel empathy for the filmed Iranian audience they’re looking at participating in the Tazieh. In a way, the faces and expressions of the Iranian audience are like subtitles for Western viewers.’ But even with the aid of Kiarostami’s unorthodox subtitles, will Edinburgh audiences understand the cultural, religious and social significance? ‘Tazieh is both a religious show and not a religious show. There are over 270 versions of Tazieh, and some of them are pure comedies treated with a religious background. It has changed dramatically during the last 50 years, gradually losing its religious aspect to become pure entertainment, almost a kind of carnival.’
Given the increasingly volatile situation in the Middle East, and bearing in mind the climate of fear and suspicion of its people in Europe and in America, does Kiarostami think that cross-cultural engagement is more important now than ever? ‘I think what creates the tensions between people is ignorance and the lack of exchange and communication. It is the governments who create the conflicts and divisions. But it is the people who are able to feel empathy for others, even if they’re from a different background. People who stand in front of each other as enemies often just need to know the other person better. What art can do is help people understand each other’s feelings and make them feel closer and more compassionate.’
Looking at Tazieh, The Hub, Castlehill, 0131 473 2000, 15-18 Aug, 6pm, £8.