T-Shirt Travels

This film clearly demonstrates how neo-liberal free-market economics has destroyed the Zambian economy, putting disabling debt repayment to the IMF in the place of social spending on education, health and welfare. Squeezed by a colonial legacy of resource extraction, Cold War politics and free-market rhetoric, Zambia has ended up as the world’s largest US flea market. Although the idea is novel in terms of filmic expression, Bloemen takes a fairly generic approach, combining interviews with experts — members of the Zambian Government, as well as historians and economists — with more ethnographic footage of ordinary people’s lives and her own explanatory voice-over. The strength of the film is the way in which it traces the transatlantic journey of huge quantities of used clothing from the US to Africa as a way of visualizing and understanding unequal and unjust global economic relations. At just under an hour, *T-Shirt Travels* would be eminently suited to educational settings.

Sharp Focus on contemporary Iranian film

In the cinema, realism is both an aesthetic and a political idea. And like all such contested ideas its meaning is somewhat slippery. Soviet cinema of the 1920s, the documentary movement of the 1930s, Italy and India’s post-war neo-realist schools, 1950s working-class films from England, the international efforts of cinéma vérité in the 1960s, today’s Dogme 95 films from Denmark and the neo-neorealism of Iranian cinema: all these march under the banner of realism. What this diverse array of film-making ideas and practices also shares is an antagonism for American politics and an aesthetic rejection of Hollywood.

The latest realist school, from Iran, has dominated the world of the film festival and cinémathèque throughout the 1990s. Abbas Kiarostami’s existentialist exploration _A Taste of Cherry_ (1996) topped many critics’ 10-best lists of the decade and often was accompanied by up to five other Iranian films. Iran is a country of approximately 60 million, many of whose films are made under the auspices of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. It is also a nation whose Ministry of Culture doubles as the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. Given these conditions, it is perhaps surprising that Iranian films are so highly regarded in the West. In part this success has to do with the high estimation granted to films that provide alternatives to Hollywood. The allegorical feel of many of the films also leaves ample room for interpretation about what the films are saying about Iran and the rest of the world.

Iran has always had a healthy film industry but since its Islamic revolution in 1979 culture has become a much-vaunted part of state policy. Iran has strict regulations on foreign film imports and has boosted state support for both production and consumption of the arts. Interestingly, the films that are celebrated at Cannes are not always the same as those that draw the crowds at home. The international hit, _A Taste of Cherry_, for example, was watched by only about 75,000 people in Iran. Similarly, Jafar Panahi’s newest film, _The Circle_ (2000), currently distributed in 32 countries, was removed from Tehran’s annual Fajr Film Festival last year and is currently banned from domestic release because of its depiction of police corruption and prostitution.

In _The Circle_, Panahi has made what some consider to be the most explicitly feminist critique of the Islamic state so far. Using a circular structure of overlapping stories, the film follows a day in the life of three women recently released from prison. Although we are never told their crimes, we are given a clear picture of the repressed nature of women’s lives as they are subject to male authority for everything from buying a bus ticket to having an abortion. When even a cigarette is an all-but-forbidden pleasure, it wouldn’t be that hard to transgress the rules. The film begins with a family’s panic and disappointment at the birth of a baby girl and ends with the fugitive women back in prison. Ironically, the jail cell is no more repressive than the rest of society (the hospital, the street, the home). In fact, in the dim jail cell, the women are actually afforded some freedom from the prying eyes that control their behaviour the rest of the time.

Panahi is one of several high-profile Iranian directors working in close conjunction with one another. He began his film career as the assistant to Iran’s biggest director, Abbas Kiarostami, who also wrote the script for his award-winning debut, _The White Balloon_ (1995).

Do Iranian films support the Iranian revolution or subvert it? Does the enthusiastic global reception by cinephiles and critics come as a response to the films, or to what is seen as a critical commentary on the politics of the Iranian state? What’s clear is that a certain combination of state funding and state censorship has combined to produce a school of film-making that explores the contemporary situation of life in Iran. At the same time, it also challenges viewers to think about both how the world and the cinema might be different.

Before Night Falls

While mythologizing their own revolution, Americans have an ambivalent relationship to those of other nations. So it is with trepidation that one goes to see an American version of the life of gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who grew up in the Revolution and then emigrated to the US in the 1980s to avoid homophobic persecution. As it happens, artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel (of Basquiat fame) doesn’t take a clear line on the Cuban Revolution, opting instead for a focus on Arenas’s struggles as an artist.

Born in 1943, Arenas came from dire poverty. At 15 he joined the Revolution and then moved to Havana to pursue his love of writing while working in the National Library. Following from Arenas’s memoir, Schnabel depicts the artistic community in Havana, its cross-overs with the nascent gay community and the persecution of both by the revolutionary government.

For a few years Arenas was able to smuggle his manuscripts out of Cuba for publication in France. But in the 1970s he was prosecuted on trumped-up charges of paedophilia and incarcerated. Taking advantage of a government attempt to purge the population of gays and criminals, Arenas acquired an exit visa in the early 1980s and headed to New York to taste sexual freedom.

Arenas’s final decade is condensed into a few symbolic images. The first euphoric image of New York has Arenas riding through the city in the back of a convertible with a carload of friends revelling in the falling snow. But this taste of freedom is short-lived. New York isn’t exactly paradise for immigrants. He becomes sick with an HIV-related illness almost as soon as he arrives and then is callously sent home from hospital because he doesn’t have health insurance; the final cynical irony comes when he finds his end at the bottom of a plastic I Love NY bag. As Arenas puts it, the difference between the capitalist and communist systems is that in the capitalist system you can scream.

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