Bahram Baizai, An Unknown Master of Iranian Cinema
Pre and Post-Revolution
Bahram Baizai, born to a literary family in Tehran, in 1937, is one of the most enigmatic figures of the contemporary Iranian cultural scene. He is a leading expert in Iranian dramatic arts and his outstanding command of the Persian language and narration ranks him high on the list of Iranian script writers. In spite of this, his work, especially in the world of cinema, has faced much governmental resistance in the form of lack of production support, delayed screenings or total censorship of his scripts or even finished films, both before and after the revolution of 1979. Excluding his extensive work in theater, literature and academia, this article aims to introduce Baizai’s cinema by presenting the salient themes and features that establish him as an author-director.
Bahram Baizai is one of the pioneers of the Iranian art cinema of the 80s, even though his reputation beyond the borders of Iran remains far behind those who are known as the pillars of the new wave of Iranian neo-realism. While the works of many of the famous Iranian directors are easily branded as `intellectual’ and are funneled into the stream of a certain audience in Iran, or towards international festivals, Baizai’s work, multi-faceted and complex, leaves many confused as how to fit his work into any genre. Baizai insists that he makes simple films; that he writes simple stories and stresses that the complexity of his topics is not crafted ideologies that he inserts in a pretentious attempt at intellectualism! He maintains that intricacy is inherent to the nature of life; and that life, even if lived simplistically, is not independent from the convoluted paths of history and culture, which themselves are byproducts of nature: geography and psychology. 1
Baizai complains of certain critics who strive to complicate his films beyond what they are. Such critics insist that Baizai’s films are inaccessible to those who do not have a profound knowledge of Persian history and culture. With a scholarly understanding of Iranian and Asian theater, mythology and history, Baizai does not deny the underlying social and philosophical themes of his films. Yet, he speaks the visual language of cinema, defying the dyslexia of the technology available to him in Iran. In making a film, he aims at an aesthetic perfection that communicates his vision to the audience, albeit on different levels, depending on the cultural background of the viewer. In response to the question of the importance of cultural and historical readings to his films, Baizai says:
… there is always a risk that dwelling too much on deciphering such meanings blocks the way of direct communication of the film with the audience. This dimension (reference to the history and national identity) in our film (Maybe Some Other Time) is transparent and speaking about it magnifies it beyond proportion and burdens the understanding of the film. There are some film makers who think film, on it’s own, is insufficient. They strive to surmount the film with meanings and messages that grant the film a social respectability. This mentality existed in our traditional theater as well, where the actors preached morals and ethics to prove that theater was a respectable profession. I do not suffer such guilt or inadequacy (about the insufficiency of the cinema) and I think that the on-screen subject precedes the importance of any other underlying concept, which might be credited. 2
In spite of this, Baizai’s cinema does not succumb to hypocritical popularism. His devotion, in making a film, is not to box office success; neither to the official governmental guidelines nor to the propaganda expectations of any political parties. 3
I have always said that the viewers do understand, if I make my work understandable. On the other hand, if the spectator’s comprehension is not elevated enough, it is because she has not been exposed to more elated films. This is neither his fault nor his destiny. This is neither my fault nor a determining factor of my form and style. We should all try to improve this level. And I don’t know why instead of helping me, the intellectuals, the critics, the producers and the government have stood in my way. … During Downpour (Baizai’s first feature film), the equations of commercial and intellectual films were the same. The common morality of the action/drama films of the commercial cinema had a tone of political ideology and social activism. The intellectual films were praised for communicating with the mass culture. In that sense, I don’t want to be popular. Many of these (popular) moralities, in my opinion, are wrong and we are all victims of them. So, I have betrayed my people if I endorse them. I have deviated from the morals of the political parties, hence they have labeled me (inaccessible), not the people. … At the heart of my harsh expression, there is a love and respect, for the people, that does not exist in superficial appraisals of the masses. … my audiences are those who strive to go one step further, not those who are the guardians of the old equations nor those who dread self examination and self reflexivity. 4
The most controversial theme in Baizai’s films, which has frequently led to official banning of his films, is the iconic representation of women. Women’s issues are frequently addressed in the context of Iranian social cinema. Landmarks such as Bani Etemad’s Narges (1992), S. Makhmalbaf’s Apple (1998), and Panahi’s Circle (2000) invariably appear on every ``women-in-Iran’’ list. Baizai’s depiction of women on screen, however, dates back to the early 70’s and deviates from the typical contemporary realism, which draws attention to the cultural, religious and social webs in which the average women of Iran are supposedly caught. Baizai’s women, although challenged by unjust realities, transcend the boundaries that surround them, by the virtue of their natural superiority. The women of Baizai’s film are just as entangled in the ropes of the patriarchal society as are, for instance, Mehrjuy’s Sara (1993), Leila (1996), and Banoo (1992, released 2001). 5 Yet, they are not victims to it. They challenge the norm; they reject the stale tradition and they are empowered by their independence, power of will and their invincible love, as mothers, lovers, sisters and wives.
These women, however, signify more than their traditional roles. Their pivotal function in the majority of Baizai’s films is as a political signifier of the subtle strings that tie down the spirit of life and imprison the soul of a nation. 6 In Maybe, Some Other Time, for example, a woman’s quest for her identity points to a national concern. In Bashu, the fear of the unknown and the narrow mindedness lead to the isolation of a woman who is independent and brave. A woman’s struggle in the rotten world of men in Rabid Killing speaks also of the directors personal struggle in a society where corruption is becoming a social epidemic. Baizai comments that it is only in a macho-manist society that a critic says ``Baizai made another film with a woman lead’’.
It is in a patriarchal society that the lack of presence of a man in the leading role invokes critical attention … the greatest disaster of patriarchy, where grownups decide for children and men for women and the government for the real people and the intellectual for the imaginary ones, is that it is the women and children who suffer the consequences of the men’s decisions. The victims of patriarchal self-centeredness are not only the women and children, but also many a man. These people are my subjects. Against a masculine tyranny, the children build up a hatred that will make them the martyrs or the tyrants of the future. The women, on the other hand, have their internal defense mechanism and a subtle wisdom that balances them against the violence of the world. 7
In fact, most of his films are strongly centered around this female wisdom. In Stranger and Fog, Ra’na, whose first husband is presumed dead in the sea, becomes the soul fighter whose dagger is capable of killing the cloaked men who have come from the sea to take her second husband back. In Bashu, Na’i stands alone, against the mistrust of the community; her motherly instincts shelter Bashu in the rain; she tends to his fever although the doctor refuses help; she saves him from drowning by a fisher’s net. In Travelers, it is a woman who is the carrier of the mirror and it is the grandmother whose faith brings the mirror and light back to the crowd of mourners. They question the sanity of the old woman who, in spite of all the evidence of the death, insists on proceeding with the wedding. Even the most cynical woman of them all, Hamdam, possesses a psychic sense of something that has gone wrong. The lightheartedness of Mastan and her cheerful wit contrast the rationalism of her professor husband. In Ballad of Tara, only she can be the guardian of the historic sword. Indifferent to the significance of the sword, Tara hands it in to one of her male neighbors. But, he runs back to Tara and returns it in fury and cries that the sword has invited haunting ghosts to his house; that his rest and sleep has perished. It is only Tara who uses the sword to harvest, to defend her children from a mad dog. It is Tara, a young single mother who dares to face the ghosts and at last dares to fight the almighty waves of the sea to claim her historic lover, the ghost warrior, back. Even in his darkest film, Rabid Killing, Golrokh, a writer, risks her life and dignity to face the most menacing of men, in order to bail her husband out of his jail sentence. Yet at last, with broken heart and broken body, when she realizes that she has been but the agent of her husband’s corruption, her humanity survives and surpasses the impulse of revenge as she walks away and back into her intellectual world of writing.
In addition to the on-screen roles of the characters, Baizai makes a rhetorical use of women – e.g. in Ballad of Tara, Maybe Some Other Time, Travelers and Rabid Killing – to speak of the present realities of the Iranian society. Besides women, children represent his hopes and fears for the future of, not only Iranians, but also humanity. For example, in Maybe Some Other Time, Kian’s odyssey of self discovery is triggered by her concern for her unborn child. The survival of Bashu and his acceptance by other children, and his acceptance by Na’I’s husband who symbolically calls Bashu his right hand (his right arm is amputated) are evidence of Baizai’s faith in a new generation who will walk past the horrors of war, the barriers of race and ethnicity and will compensate for the handicap of the older generations. In Rabid Killing Golrokh’s ethical compromise to buy her husband’s freedom back, represents the current struggle of intellectuals – embodied in the character of Golrokh – who are trying to fool corruption, decadence, lust, hypocrisy, illiteracy and ignorance out of existence. Golrokh’s husband, represents her hope for rebuilding their broken family; metaphorically a troubled society, which deserves a second chance. He also uses male protagonists, symbolically, in films such as Downpour and Stranger and Fog, to address social and political issues that an individual faces in a dictatorship state, namely the mistrust and paranoia that plague one’s freedoms of action and ideology.
Although subtle, the adamant political stances of his films have cost Baizai his tenure at the faculty of art in Tehran University. They have also led to tighter than usual restrictions of his film-making activities 8 . Ironically, the subjects of his criticism, are not only the tyrants but also the victims. Baizai challenges them to understand and to acknowledge their responsibility for having fallen prey to authoritarian exploitation.
National identity is the core of the political concerns of Baizai. He believes that an anthropology of the folk and pop culture of a people is the basis of understanding their society. He deplores the negligent attitude of the Iranian intellectuals about the origins of their culture and society. He blames the lack of national and historical self-appreciation to be the cause of the present cultural cacophony in Iran. Baizai saturates his films with references to old culture or rural folklore. Such presentations – fruits of many years of Baizai’s research on the origins of Persian plays and rituals – contribute not only to the formal aesthetics of the film, but also ring bells to awaken the national conscience.
In Ballad of Tara, Baizai explicitly speaks of a nation, embodied in Tara, who inherits a relic of its history, the sword of the grandfather. As Tara comes face to face with the wounded soldier of the ancient wars and learns of the tale of his bravery, she falls in love with her history. Tara represents a nation who realizes the glory of its past, falls in love with it, attempts to reclaim it from the infinite ocean of the past, and yet accepts the reality that what is lost to the waves of time is lost forever and submits to a pragmatic but noble union with a man of earth, of present, of productivity.
In Maybe Some Other Time, Susan Taslimi, who played the lead role of Tara, functions iconographically in three roles: Kian who doubts her identity; Vida, the twin sister, who is a self assured artist, and their mother who gives up her child to the fear of poverty and deprives the other child from affection because she obsessively regrets the loss of the child whom she has abandoned. Kian embodies a society which cannot fit together the pieces of its present realities and suffers nightmares of dangling in darkness, without roots, a handle to hang from nor a ground to stand on. Kian, whose concern for the future of her unborn child – an allegory of the future generation – leads her into the path of self examination, discovers a twin sister, Vida, an artist who is fully aware of her origins and the circumstances that had led their mother to abandon one of the two. 9 Transparent to the on-screen story, the quest of Kian and a comparison of two sisters speaks loudly of the fears and instability of not only a person, but also a society which is oblivious to its past, to the creativity and strongheadedness of the one which is aware of its history, even if it is dark and bitter. 10
Maybe Some Other Time
In Travelers, Baizai speaks of the power of a people who are capable of defying the oppressive reality of death and darkness with an invincible trust and defiant hope in light and life. Here, he criticizes a pessimistic national attitude that easily leans on a cushion of regret and mourning and challenges Iranians to reject the notion of the death of hope and to bring back the historical mirror of the union and the joy that has belonged to them for generations.
Baizai’s enigmatic persona emerges from his independent approach to the subject matter, beyond a narrow band of cultural restrictions, and far removed from the preachingly moralist or pretentiously mystical narration, which are at the core of the prolific Iranian cinema industry. Textual interpretation is the norm of analyzing Iranian art in general. Baizai’s films are rich enough in theme and superfluous enough in texture to grant interpretation. However, a factor in Baizai’s art of social criticism that distinguishes it from those of his more famous contemporaries, is his lavish use of cinematic tools at the disposal of his expressionist form. Looking at individual components of his mise-en-scene, camera movement, and montage may tempt one to brand his style as derivative. The intense lighting, the dramatic acting, the symbolic set designs might look as artificial and cliched attempts at saturating the film with melodramatic effects. However, insisting on a full use of cinema language, carefully designed and aimed to increase the depth of the on-screen story, both in the visual and the textual sense, constitutes the essence of Baizai’s authorship. 11
It is a popular critical belief that enjoying Baizai requires a solid footing in Persian language. In a culture where poetry and the written word occupy a wide band of the artistic spectrum, Baizai’s narratives are not told as much verbally as they are pictorially. A masterful playwright, almost every single dialogue line in his films has a purposeful function and meaning. Baizai minimizes the amount of casual conversation in order to make time for communicating other ideas. In fact, screen time economy in a conventional sense is not the subject of Baizai’s devotion. The casual conversations of on-screen people are conveyed not as much in words, rather in facial expressions, in the looks in their eyes, in the complexity of their dreams and hallucinations, in the colors of their environment or clothes. Many of the spoken words of his films can be edited out without disrupting the continuity of the plot. However, these wordy inserts are often informative, serve as a platform for the theatrical performances of the actors and provide a backdrop that enriches the texture of the film.
In fact, a common critique of Baizai’s style is the abundance of unrealistic or excessive stylistic patterns in those of his films that have a realistic story, such as in Rabid Killing, which is considered as a social critique, or in Travelers or Maybe Some Other Time, which can be branded as family dramas. However, the over expressive act of Golrokh in Rabid Killing, as she addresses characters representing different stereotypes of corruption, is a tribute to a folk theater tradition, "pardeh-khani", where the narrator addresses the spectators, often ranting about morals. The repetitive and circular movement of camera, which is one of the signatures of Baizai’s cinema, is a tribute to the round arena of ta’zieh. Baizai has shown, by contrasting the realistic act of Bashu with the dramatic performance of Na’i (Susan Taslimi), that he is capable of directing in both worlds of neo-realism and expressionism. Many of the verbal and pictorial inserts, which seem to disrupt the classical continuity of Baizai’s films, can be considered as avant garde cinematic exercises within an otherwise conventional narrative film.
In Maybe Some Other Time, there are documentary-style voices of a reporter speaking of the problem of pollution and over population of Tehran, while the images of traffic, flashing lights and confused people are edited in an experimental form, reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi. In the same film, there is a sequence of the antique dealer’s voice giving a relatively long explanation of the history of those heritage objects in his shop. This provides the director an Eisenteinian-montage device to provide the viewers photographic tableaus of some of the most treasured relics of their history. The sequence of the mother dragged behind the carriage, more than being a Soviet-style attempt at extracting emotions, is a homage to the silent-film era, which gives the director a chance to eternalize scenes of the old Tehran, which are being rapidly replaced by high-rises.
The camera movement and the framing and reframing of the choreographed movement of characters in Travelers reminds one of Fellini. The editing style, the costume design and the tracking speed of the camera in Stranger and Fog, according to Baizai’s own admission is his tribute to Kurosawa. Bashu’s amateur casting and location shooting is a neo-realist experience for Baizai but he doesn’t shy away from employing non-classical montage or expressionist compositions, such as the ghost of the burnt mother, to display the fears and feelings of Bashu. The army, emerging from the waves of the sea in Ballad of Tara, or the fight scene in Stranger and Fog, where Ayat bleeds from where he wounds the stranger who has come to take him back are lyrical and surealistic depictions of epics. Baizai’s facial close-ups and playful use of color that enhance the atmosphere in Travelers and in Maybe Some Other Time are reminiscent of Bergman’s style.
Perhaps in any other part of the world, where cinema did not have to justify itself on the grounds of other forms of art, Baizai would have been given due credit for his courageous experimentation with such diverse cinematic styles. Although phantoms of Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, Hitchcock and Welles dance in his films, his technical, financial and even ideological freedom do not come even close to theirs. He speaks of such a lack:
… How can you conceal the spatial discontinuity of the actual locations which are patched disharmoniously into a distasteful mixture of modern and old? How can you conceal the discontinuity of time, the passage of the seasons after every open-ended shut down of the production? In a film, which is planned only in your head and you have half of the production weight on your shoulder – until the producer disappears and you have the full weight! – , such sporadic disorganization increases the shooting time, tires you and the crew and even then, you have to conceal this fatigue from the screen! In the American lair of Hollywood, or in Italy’s cineland of Cinecitta, locations are often entirely created by set designers. There are institutions for recruiting and training the extras. I haven’t gone and I haven’t seen, but I have heard from those who have. They speak of planning, a "foreign" concept to us, which belongs to a system of foresight and order. … here we are making films in an "unpredictable" environment; we don’t know which neighbor or shopkeeper will object to our shooting, which uniformed or non-uniformed police will pop in our way, which ideological patron of the neighborhood thinks cinema is a source of immorality … these are some of the issues that I have alluded to in Downpour … 12
Although he acknowledges the impressionability of an artistic subconsious, he denies any attempt to copy any style or form of art. He hints to a prominent but poorly researched cultural link, which historically existed between Asia and Persia of ancient times, and hence explains the reminiscence between his costume designs and dramatic styles with those of Asian plays and Japanese cinema:
Many filmmakers have been my teachers; many of the good ones and many of the bad ones. From the latter group I have learned what not to do. From the former group, my affinity with Bergman and Kurosawa is of the same nature as it is with Griffith, Eisenstein, Lang, Hitchcock, Welles, Ford, Rossellini, etc. I try to learn and to understand, it doesn’t mean I like all of them equally, or that I don’t criticize them. If you are more focused on (similarity of my work to) Bergman and Kurosawa, … it is perhaps because incidentally, our resources are more or less the same. I have seriously worked on the Japanese theater, which is Kurosawa’s source as well. I have also worked on the western play, which is Bergman’s source. I know that the Persian miniatures of seven centuries ago are more Japanese than the Japanese paintings of seven centuries ago! … The sickle of death [which Baizai has used in Stranger and Fog] is not adapted from the Seventh Seal, It has been symbolized in Ferdowsi’s poetry and in Naser-Khosrow’s as well. … yes the symbols are the same. 13 Only, they (e.g. Kurosawa and Bergman) have images and we are denied to have imagery for centuries … they have the tradition of visual communication of the meaning , and we don’t. They have freedom of expression and we don’t. … Their style is not forced out of necessity. In our situation, I doubt if they could take even one shot! 14
Baizai feels flattered that his Maybe Some Other Time and the Rabid Killing remind viewers of Hitchcock. He speaks of Hitchcock’s influence, which initially drew him into the film-making business. However, he calls imitating Hitchcock mere foolishness:
I think anyone in anywhere in the world, who makes a suspense movie, will inevitably remind you of Hitchcock …(but Hitchcock) lived in a first hand society and hence, his topics were first hand. We live in a scattered and discontinuous second hand society where the urban life in a few big cities is an incomplete adaptation of the life in Hitchcock’s first hand society. Therefore, any movie that addresses the city dwellers, appears as an adaptation of a western work. None withstanding the chaos and the tastelessness of this ad hoc system of life, and ignoring the olive skins of the population, what is national in this amalgamation (big cities in Iran)? … All I do in my films is to avoid picturing this chaos; otherwise, the narrative will be drowned. Consequently, my work is labeled foreigner and a copy of western or eastern cinema! 15
While neither the technical nor the financial support for Baizai’s films come close to any of those masters, luckily their stylistic signatures are at the disposal of his baroque creativity. He amalgamates and adapts them freely as tools of structuring his narratives. He finds imitation a futile attempt at creativity, and is often on an intellectual guard to defend any comparison drawn between his work and those of the oriental or occidental masters, with a long list of references to the old Persian literature and history, which predate not only the history of cinema, but also
often the texts from which those cinematic landmarks are adapted. It is from Baizai’s original and personal vision that, over three decades, some of the most intriguing films of the Iranian art cinema have emerged.
- Amoo Sibiloo – 1970
- Ragbar (Downpour) – 1972
- Safar (Journey) – 1972
- Gharibe va Meh (Stranger and the Fog) – 1974
- Kalaagh (The Crow) – 1978
- Cherikeye Tara (Ballad of Tara) -1980
- Marge Yazdgerd (Death of Yazdgerd) – 1981
- Khate Ghermez (Red Line) Writer – 1981
- Davandeh (Runner) Editor – 1985
- Bashu (Bashu, the little stranger) – 1987
- Maybe Some Other Time – 1988
- Mosaferan (Travelers) – 1999
- Goftegoo Ba Baad (Kish Stories) – 1999
- Screenplay of Rooze Vaghe’e (Day of Incident) dir. Shahram Assadi, 1995
- Editing Borje Minoo (Minoo Tower) dir. Ebrahim Hatami kia, 1996
- Screenplay of Fasle Panjom (Fifth Season) dir. Rafi Pitts, 1996
- Ghokassian, Zavon. Conversation with Bahram Baizai, 1992, Agah Publications
- Gozaresh-e Film (Film Report) 12:185
- Mahname Cinema’i-e Film (Film monthly Magazine), 19:279
- Mottahedeh, Negar. "Bahram Baizai’s Maybe Some Other Time: The un-Present-able Iran," Camera Obscura 15.1 (2000): 162-191
- Mottahedeh, Negar. "Bahram Bayza`i: Filmography" in Life and Art: the New Iranian Cinema ed. R. Issa and S. Whitaker (London: BFI 1999)
- Interview with Jahanbakhsh Nouraei, "Iranianfilm.com"
- Conversation with Bahram Baizai, Zavon Ghokassian, 1992, translations by Najmeh Khalili. Further references as , from now on, this book is referenced as Conversation.
- Conversation, p. 287 ↩
- Conversation, p. 287 ↩
- Gozareshe Film (Film Report) 12:185, p. 79 ↩
- Conversation, p. 54 ↩
- Mehrjuy is one of the leading Iranian directors who has dealt extensively with the social issues of the Iranian bourgeoisie, especially with role of woman in sustaining the patriarchal culture, as well as the emotional and psychological effects of it on the women. ↩
- The word "nation" in this paper refers to any people who are united by a common geopolitical history; whose bases of moral and culture overlap and whose tradition and language stem from the same root. In this sense, the text of Baizai’s film is not bound within an Iranian nationalist compound and can be easily generalized to any resembling society, namely those with a totalitarian dictatorship or a colonial government, where a wide gap exists between the will of the people and the disposition of the state. ↩
- Conversation, p. 43 ↩
- Negar Mottahedeh, "Bahram Baizai’s Maybe Some Other Time: The un-Present-able Iran," Camera Obscura 15.1 (2000): 162-191 ↩
- Negar Mottahedeh, "Bahram Bayza`i: Filmography" in Life and Art: the New Iranian Cinema ed. R. Issa and S. Whitaker (London: BFI 1999), 74-82< ↩
- Baizai, himself, insists on the transparency of the subtextual meaning of his films (Conversation, p 288): "Yes one can symbolize the separation of the sisters, to historical separation of two people of the same race, or not; one can generalize the loss of identity to the whole society; or not. One can say that the meanings of the characters’ names refer to the differences in their psychology; or not … such readings into my films deprive me of producers who fear box-office failure in case my representation of the mother becomes mythical. They also give an excuse to the censorship officers who need to find an excuse to stop me … I salute the critics who called Maybe Some Other Time an Indian movie!, Viva Indian Movies! Don’t magnify my films, let me live! ↩
- Interview with Jahanbakhsh Nouraei ↩
- Conversation, p. 50 ↩
- Ferdowsi is a legendary Iranian poet, whose Shahnameh, or the Epic of Kings, written in 1010 AC, is one of the landmarks of the Persian literature. Hakim NaserKhosrow is a poet and writer from 1015-1102 AC. His book of poetry includes about 12000 verses of elegy and fragments. His outstanding works are: Zada al-Mosaferin, Khane Akhavan, Vajhe Din, SafarNameh, and RoshanaeeNameh. ↩
- Conversation, p. 100 ↩
- Conversation, p. 269 ↩