Monthly Archives: March 2010

Kiarostami speaks

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

I know that by now it seems that my only contribution to this blog is every second month or so when I write something about Iranian filmmakers and their political views. Again, I apologize and assure the readers that I will return with more stuff when I’m finished with my PhD thesis (which is, thank you for asking, still pulling out my teeth on a regular basis but nonetheless progressing)!

As you may recall, I’ve mentioned Bahman Ghobadi’s scathing criticism of Abbas Kiarostami, whom Ghobadi accused of not taking a stand vis-à-vis the political turmoil that erupted in Iran last summer. I followed up with a speculative comment when Kiarostami rejected an invitation to the Fajr Film Festival. Now, Kiarostami speaks :

“I don’t quite know to whom I am addressing this letter, but I do know why I’m writing it and I believe that under the circumstances it is both critical and inevitable because two Iranian filmmakers, both of whom are vital to the Iranian wave of independent cinema, have been incarcerated.

As a filmmaker of the same independent cinema, it has been years since I lost hope of ever screening my films in my country. By making my own low-budget and personal films, it has also been years since I lost all hope of receiving any kind of aid or assistance from the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic culture, the custodian of Iranian cinema.

In order to make a living, I have turned to photography and use that income to make short and low-budget films. I don’t even object to their illegal reproduction and distribution because that is my only means of communicating with my own people. For years now I have not even objected to this lack of attention from the ministry and cinema‫tic authorities‬.

Even if we choose to disregard the fact that for years now, the cinematic administrators of the country, who constitute the main cultural body of the government, have differentiated between their own filmmakers (insiders) and independent filmmakers (outsiders), I am still of the opinion that they are oblivious of Iranian independent cinema. Filmmaking is not a crime. It is our sole means of making a living and thus not a choice, but a vital necessity.

I have found my own solutions to the problem. Independent of the conventional and customary support granted to the cinematic community at large, I make my own short and independent films with hopes of gaining some credit for the people I love and a name for the country I come from. Sometimes the necessity to work calls for the making of films beyond the borders of my country, which is ultimately not out of personal choice or taste.

However, others, like Jafar Panahi, have for years tried to summon official government support, exploring the same frustrating path, only to be confronted with the same closed doors. He too has for years held hopes of obtaining public screenings for his films and receiving official aid and assistance from the relevant governmental bodies. He still believes that based on the merits of his films and the acclaim they have brought the country, he can seek legal solutions to the problem. The Ministry of Guidance and Islamic culture is directly responsible for what is happening to Jafar Panahi and his like. Any wrongdoing on his part, if there is any at all, is a direct result of the mismanagement of officials at the cinematic department of the Ministry of Guidance and it’s inadequate policies which in no way leave any choice for the filmmaker other than to resort to means that jeopardize his situation as a filmmaker. He too makes a living through cinema.

For him too, filmmaking is a vital necessity. He needs to make himself heard and has the right to expect cinematic officials to facilitate the process, rather than become the major obstacles themselves. Perhaps the officials at the ministry can not at present be of help in solving Jafar Panahi’s dilemma, but they need to know that they are and have been responsible all these years, for the dreadful consequences and unpleasant and anti-cultural reflections of such policies in the world media.

I may not be an advocate of Jafar Panahi’s radical and sensational methods but I do know that the cause for his plight is not a result of choice but an inevitable [compulsion].

He is paying for the conduct of officials who have for years closed all doors on him, leaving open small passages and dead end paths.

Jafar Panahi’s problem will eventually be solved but there are numerous young people who have chosen the art of cinema as their means of expression and careers.

This is where the duty of the government and the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic Culture, as the government’s main cultural body, becomes even more critical, for they face a large group of Iranian youth who aim to work independently and away from complicated official procedures and existing prejudices.

Jafar Panahi and Mahmoud Rasoulof are two filmmakers of the Iranian independent cinema, a cinema that for the past quarter of a century has served as an essential cultural element in expanding the name of this country across the globe. They belong to an expanded world culture, and are a part of international cinematic culture. I wish for their immediate release from prison knowing that the impossible is possible. My heartfelt wish is that artists no longer be imprisoned in this country because of their art and that the independent and young Iranian cinema no longer faces obstacles, lack of support, attention and prejudice.

This is your responsibility and the ultimate definition of your existence.

Abbas Kiarostami / 1388.12.18 [March 9, 2010] / Tehran.”

National Dialogue and Hizbollah’s Weapons

by Sune Haugbolle.

Here is my take on the National Dialogue discussions that began today in Beirut.

The National Dialogue was launched in 2006, prior to Israel’s July-August 2006 war against Lebanon, as an ambitious attempt to tackle the fundamental differences between the country’s ‘March 8′ and ‘March 14′ coalitions. The last round was held in June 2009, ahead of parliamentary elections. Today’s resumption of talks signals a thaw in internal relations that was highlighted by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s state visit to Damascus in December 2009. Yet it also reflects rising tensions in the region.

The topic that will overshadow all others is a new defence strategy, and (although Hizbollah won’t like it to be mentioned) the role of Hizbollah’s weapons. The weapons topic has been shelved since the government recognised the group’s right to resistance against Israel in December. A revival of the discussion was inevitable, given its highly controversial nature.

President Michel Suleiman’s call to resume dialogue followed a February 28 report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 summer war with Israel. In the report, Ban urged Suleiman to push Lebanon’s parties towards consensus on a defence strategy.

Suleiman’s decision to hold meetings may also have been the result of US pressure.

Israeli threats

National Dialogue discussions coincide with heightened tensions caused by an exchange of threats between Israel on the one hand and Hizbollah, Syria and Iran on the other. The tensions have put renewed international spotlight on Hizbollah’s weapons.

The Shia party is believed to have increased its arsenal of rockets from 15,000 before the 2006 war to 40,000 today, some of which may be able to reach Tel Aviv. During a February 16 speech, Hizbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah offered a new vision of strategic parity with Israel — an uneasy ‘balance of terror’ — stressing Hizbollah’s ability to strike Israel’s interior.

Nasrallah’s decision to raise the stakes has provoked fears that Israel will feel forced into pre-emptive action against Lebanon, even if no conflict breaks out over Iran.

Israeli leaders have vowed to fight ‘all’ of Lebanon in the event of an outbreak of conflict (as opposed to targeting Hizbollah alone), as a result of the movement’s participation in government.

Nasrallah in Damascus

Nasrallah answered Israeli threats by closing ranks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad when they met last month in Damascus . The meeting conveyed two main messages:

First, that Washington has failed to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, and is unlikely to see more success in the near future. This was highlighted by the timing of the meeting, which occurred immediately after the US decision to reopen its embassy in Damascus, illustrating Syria’s newfound confidence and willing defiance.

And second that, in the event of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, Iran’s primary answer will be through Hizbollah and will therefore involve Lebanon.

Suleiman’s dilemma

Nasrallah’s conduct in Damascus as a ‘pseudo’ Lebanese minister of foreign affairs has drawn strong criticism from many March 14 leaders, who reiterate the sovereign right of Lebanon’s government to decide over matters of war and peace. This puts President Suleiman in a difficult situation at the National Dialogue meetings.

He will be determined to ensure national unity, having from the beginning of his tenure tried to position himself centrally. The dialogue meetings could be a means to calm tensions and avert conflict, but only if Suleiman is seen as a neutral arbiter. He must thus avoid siding too openly with March 14 against Hizbollah.

He will also need to respond to international pressure on the weapons issue. He will hope that the National Dialogue gives the impression that the Lebanese state — and not Hizbollah — still makes decisions on war and peace.

Finally, he must decide on the extent of Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) cooperation with UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon. The two sides have recently performed joint manoeuvres on Mount Hermon, ostensibly designed to stem the flow of arms to Hizbollah. More extensive LAF cooperation with the UN could force a verbal confrontation with Nasrallah.

Outcomes

One should not expect too much from this week’s session. In reality, all parties know that, as Hizbollah demonstrated in the May 2008 fighting, its hand cannot be forced by any Lebanese party. It is also clear that no consensus can be reached in the current heated situation; and that the meeting is primarily a result of Suleiman needing to demonstrate to the West that he is doing something.

Therefore, the meetings are largely symbolic, though the stakes are high. If things go badly, the discussions could underscore the gulf between March 8 and March 14, reversing the tide of their improved relationship under the Hariri government. In any case, March 14 and others will treasure having a platform to express their deep concerns over the prospects a new war with Israel, which may in the end restrain Hizbollah. In the best case scenario, provide the platform for real negotiations in the future about a defence strategy formula that integrates Hizbollah’s weapons into the LAF.

War drums

Despite the fact that Hizbollah will not disarm and Israel increasingly sees the group as an existential threat, a regional war involving Hizbollah is unlikely in the coming months.

Having learned the lesson from the 2006 war, the group will not get easily drawn into a new conflict and will resist minor Israeli ‘provocations’, let alone staging military operations against Israel. In order to maintain national and international legitimacy, it is necessary for Hizbollah to fight a defensive war, if anything at all.

On the Israeli side, despite the usual gung-ho rhetoric, the leadership cannot politically justify an unprovoked attack on Hizbollah. It may seek an excuse, thus provoking Hizbollah into small clashes, but the latter is aware of this and will seek not to respond. The Israeli leadership will heed US warnings and refrain from attacking Iran before more diplomatic efforts have been exerted. If it does strike, it will do so no earlier than the autumn.

In the longer term, a clash is more likely — whether it arises from an Israeli strike on Iran, or some other action. Hizbollah will wait until a war fits its strategic thinking, since the need to maintain domestic legitimacy at present tops its strategic agenda. Nevertheless, these priorities are not set in stone; strategy may change should there be a shift in the balance of power within the group.

In conclusion, Suleiman faces a hard task containing the March 14 coalition’s deep reservations about Hizbollah’s weapons. If he succeeds, the National Dialogue meetings could strengthen the government. If not, Lebanon will once again appear divided, risking the stability of the fragile unity government, and increasing the chance of outside powers taking advantage of domestic divisions, as they routinely do in times of conflict in Lebanon.