Najmeh Khalili Mahani, email@example.com
January 31, 2003
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 Baizaiís 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 `intellectualí and are funneled into the stream of a certain audience in Iran, or towards international festivals, Baizaiís 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. 
Baizai complains of certain critics who strive to complicate his films beyond what they are. Such critics insist that Baizaiís 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:
In spite of this, Baizaiís 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.
The most controversial theme in Baizaiís films, which has frequently led to official banning of his films, is the iconic representation of women. Womenís issues are frequently addressed in the context of Iranian social cinema. Landmarks such as Bani Etemadís Narges (1992), S. Makhmalbafís Apple (1998), and Panahiís Circle (2000) invariably appear on every ``women-in-Iraníí list. Baizaiís depiction of women on screen, however, dates back to the early 70ís 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. Baizaiís women, although challenged by unjust realities, transcend the boundaries that surround them, by the virtue of their natural superiority. The women of Baizaiís film are just as entangled in the ropes of the patriarchal society as are, for instance, Mehrjuyís Sara (1993), Leila (1996), and Banoo (1992, released 2001). 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 Baizaiís films is as a political signifier of the subtle strings that tie down the spirit of life and imprison the soul of a nation. In Maybe, Some Other Time, for example, a womanís 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 womanís 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 leadíí.
In fact, most of his films are strongly centered around this female wisdom. In Stranger and Fog, Raína, 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, Naíi 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 fisherís 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 husbandís 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, Kianís 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 NaíIís husband who symbolically calls Bashu his right hand (his right arm is amputated) are evidence of Baizaiís 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 Golrokhís ethical compromise to buy her husbandís 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. Golrokhís 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 oneís 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 . 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 Baizaiís 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. 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. 
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.
Baizaiís 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. Baizaiís films are rich enough in theme and superfluous enough in texture to grant interpretation. However, a factor in Baizaiís 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 Baizaiís authorship.
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, Baizaiís 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 Baizaiís 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 Baizaiís 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 Baizaiís cinema, is a tribute to the round arena of taízieh. Baizai has shown, by contrasting the realistic act of Bashu with the dramatic performance of Naíi (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 Baizaiís 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 Baizaiís own admission is his tribute to Kurosawa. Bashuís amateur casting and location shooting is a neo-realist experience for Baizai but he doesnít 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. Baizaiís 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.
erhaps 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:
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:
Baizai feels flattered that his Maybe Some Other Time and the Rabid Killing remind viewers of Hitchcock. He speaks of Hitchcockís influence, which initially drew him into the film-making business. However, he calls imitating Hitchcock mere foolishness:
While neither the technical nor the financial support for Baizaiís 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 Baizaiís original and personal vision that, over three decades, some of the most intriguing films of the Iranian art cinema have emerged.