“And I realized that what I’d taken for a stupid joke was in fact the truth.”
—Milan Kundera, The Joke
On yet another miserably freezing Monday evening, I searched between the identical buildings of New York’s most iconic university, NYU, to find the department that was designated to observe, study, and understand my home region—the unsolvable knot of the world—the Middle East.
In the basement I found a small amphitheater—a tiny room with less than 50 seats and a screen—where the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies’ Megalopolis film series was to screen Massoud Bakhshi’s 2007 film Tehran Has no More Pomegranates that evening. The film is an hour-long experimental documentary about the Tehran of today and its complex history. Produced under Iran’s strict system of censorship, it presents itself as a pro-government propaganda movie that is in reality deeply critical of the country’s situation. Very well received among the intellectual communities inside the country, where it has received multiple awards, it has also been screened in more than 40 film festivals around the world and is frequently cited as a useful introduction to the political and social realities of contemporary Tehran.
As I studied those who had come to see my city on screen, I remembered the first time I had seen this movie. It was nearly a decade ago in that other metropolis’s iconic university: the University of Tehran. It was the first film by an unknown director. At that time it was screened in a department categorized simply as “Art.” And I was convinced by friends to wait in line hoping to get in another amphitheater to see this movie. No one knew a thing about it except that it was not to be missed. Waiting in line to see a documentary might not seem like a radical choice for a group of young students, but it was deeply uncharacteristic for our generation considering that the frequent misrepresentation of our lives had made us fairly skeptical of documentaries. We grew up with our city being presented by two radical poles: the severely ethical version of our government and the voyeuristic exoticized version of the West. Obviously, both bore little resemblance to our dull and non-newsworthy real lives. Yet waiting in that line, we had decided to give Bakhshi a try, knowing only one fact about him: he too was a post-revolution child.
We were not disappointed. Even though it only had limited screenings, it immediately became a cult movie. We went to all its other screenings, bought bootlegged versions, downloaded it, and did our best to make sure it was seen.
Tehran Has No More Pomegranates is an incoherent movie with no linear narrative or plot. Worse, it’s a documentary without a thesis or even a question. Instead, it’s all a big joke. Bakhshi is the first to acknowledge this. In the opening credits, he states that what is presented is not a documentary, but a “musical, historical, comedy, docu-drama, love story, experimental film.” It’s not even a fully-formed movie, but a letter of apology, the production report of a failed project, stated not to us, but to the authorities of the governmental institute funding it: “Dear President of the Documentary Film Center: With regards, this is to clarify that I, Massoud Bakhshi, director of the documentary project on Tehran, … am unable to make this film for various reasons. I will attempt to explain in this production report.” And his subject, the metropolis, is not even a city: “Tehran is a large village near the city of Rey, full of gardens and fruit trees … notably an excellent pomegranate which can’t be found in any other city.” Only later was it turned into the capital, then to become the stage for the main figures of modernity in Iran.
Tehran Has No More Pomegranates was released in the first years after the end of the eight-year term of reformists—who came to power with a nation’s hope for better days and left it with the bitter disappointment that was born out of their lack of achievements—and the terrifying climate of uncertainty that signified the beginning of Ahmadinejad’s reign. Bakhshi comes to the scene after the golden age of post-revolutionary Iranian cinema with its heroes like Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, Mehrjui, and Beyzai who looked beyond the shortcomings and issues of everyday life to portray with humanist sensitivity the shared anxieties of all. But this older generation found this mystified world only by leaving Tehran, empowered by the beauty of Iran’s nature, and by the reception and appreciation of international audiences. The younger director focuses instead on the hideous untranslatable reality of the city that symbolizes modern Iran seeking social change.
Bakhshi spoke the language of this time: hopeless and nihilistic, conscious of the constant surveillance, ready for the censorship that was certain to surface, and aware of the possibility of prosecution. Tehran Has No More Pomegranates is about all the words not said; all it has to say is hidden deep between the lines. Knowing the freedom that comes with seeming innocuous, he makes sure he will be dismissed so that he can discuss the most controversial issues: class difference, economical inequality, female rights, even human rights. Empowered by the formal experimentalism of Godard and the dark humor of Buñuel, Bakhshi turns his lens to the absurdity of contemporary Iran. While his narration functions as an official pro-government statement to please the authorities, his images and all the subtle movements in between come together to form a requiem for a nation’s 200 years of failed hopes and dreams—for the better life and civil rights that were supposed to come with modernization.
Bakhshi starts his journey through history from the birth of the city Tehran. We are confronted with early footage of Naser Al-Din Shah, the king who turned this small village into the modern capital city. An ultra-masculine figure famous for his iconic big moustache, Naser Al-Din Shah sits in his carriage, surrounded by his crew, and for a moment, our gaze is locked to his as he stares into the camera. Bakhshi keeps rewinding and repeating this short piece of footage to the rhythm of Roo-Hozi music. This sequence is followed by others depicting symbols of modernization brought to this city: the parade of the king’s court, his army, the train, all supposed to be grand and heroic and yet here looking like comical figures, poor imitations of foreign models mocked by the emptiness of the landscape surrounding them.
Bakhshi moves from one king to another, one dynasty to the next, all ending in failure. He keeps returning to that first footage of the king to remind us of this eternally destructive cycle. Throughout his analysis of these attempts to modernize Tehran, there are main figures who work together to produce total failure: the kings, the world powers, and the ignorant citizens. The modern ideals, philosophies, and structures have repeatedly been brought by gullible selfish kings and their courts, only concerned for their own personal interests and entertainment. They are seduced by the promises of world powers that are represented by a quote repeated in the film: “In this country … you really have big oil wells.” They impose these ideals on the people of this land, those born to be victims: the illiterate, foolish, addicted, criminal, savage citizens.
Bakhshi doesn’t let us forget that this journey through history serves only to underscore the present situation. In each case, after showing us the meaninglessness of the origins of the modern concepts mimicked in Iran—like the police force or female rights—he turns the camera to study the same phenomena today. Even though the voiceover assures us of the perfection of the current situation, the images beg to differ. We see a police officer in today’s Tehran, wearing clothes he can’t fill, lost and clueless, as if he’s playing a role he doesn’t understand. A century has passed since modernization gave birth to this city, and the man still remains a caricature of the model. Although the director avoids making any comments about the government or the foreign affairs, he does emphasize that people have remained as ready as ever to be victimized. As the movie puts it, while the old Tehran was mostly made up of stables, today raising sheep is the favorite activity of the people of Tehran.
Outside the three figures already mentioned, there is also a fourth hidden element: the social discourse that has become invisible through repression and the censorship that goes with it. Throughout the film, there are instances in which the filmstrip itself seems to tear, interrupting the film while we see Bakshi’s hands attempting to tape the film back together. Who has cut the film is never mentioned. But to anyone familiar with the history of Iran, it is clear that these bluntly deleted moments represent the country’s most important social movements and civil rights uprisings. Bakhshi offers no words, no explanations. He moves on.
Indeed, Tehran Has No More Pomegranates’s best moments and Bakhshi’s boldest statements are communicated through silence. Each time the film is aggressively cut in this nihilistic portrait of our past, present, and future, we are reminded that the missing element of this analysis is the country’s only hope to break this dark cycle. Using a similar approach, Bakhshi makes his most courageous comment. As he finally arrives at the ’79 revolution, he gathers footage of street celebrations combined with short excerpts of the anthems of the different political groups that came together to make the revolution succeed, many of whom were eliminated shortly thereafter. We finally hear Khomeini’s speech, and the sounds of gunshots and street fights. The Islamic Republic is established, and suddenly the sound is cut to silence—no narration, no music. We are faced with the brutal black-and-white photographs of the American Embassy hostage crisis. The revolution took its turn. There is nothing left for Bakhshi to say and the director can count on the viewer to agree on the meaning of the 30 years of events between that moment and now. Bakhshi is ready to return to the contemporary.
Here too, the artist’s criticisms are implicit. Early in the movie a random citizen is being interviewed: Jafar, the foreigner. With his thick Turkish accent, Jafar plays the role of Shakespeare’s fool, the gullible, naïve outsider. The movie begins as Jafar thanks the municipality’s efforts to improve the city, and confesses his love for Tehran. He stands in front of a trash-can bearing the city’s famous slogan—“Our City, Our Home.” The director rapidly considers all the possible subjects for a documentary on this modern city—pollution, public transportation, the car industry, and so on—all of which are issues belonging to any metropolis. After a brief look at each, the subject proves itself to be rooted in bigger problems like corruption and hence politically loaded, so Bakhshi backs down. To assure the authorities that he has no objections, he performs comical polls, mimicking those frequently done by the country’s national television. People stand frozen in front of the camera—resembling the subjects of iconic works of photojournalism by photography agencies like Magnum—while the background continues to move, mocking the whole show. The narrator introduces each character by their first name and then simply summarizes their opinion: “Satisfied.” The individuals blankly stare at us, still, and silent—all but the “dissatisfied” Jafar. Only this outsider fool is naïve enough to object. He speaks of the brutal scenes of aggression he has seen in the streets of Tehran. As the film continues, the subjects addressed become more and more sensitive, and each time the poll ensures us that people are satisfied and that there are no issues to discuss at all. In the last and most important subject discussed, real estate and economic inequality, the candidates finally speak. One can recognize words expressing their objection, yet the voice of the narrator overpowers theirs with, “Satisfied,” and moves on.
It is here that Bakhshi finally gives up on Tehran. The city is doomed—an apocalyptic earthquake is certain to come soon. Those who die immediately are the lucky ones. 65 percent of all new buildings constructed will be destroyed. Considering the magnitude of the situation, the city will collapse. Diseases like bubonic plague will surface to put the rest of the people out of their misery. But we, the citizens, can’t be held responsible. The ruined structures are the fault of the former kings; the poor construction of the buildings is to be blamed on the immigrant bricklayers; and the plague brought upon us by the “British rats.” And what about our censored social dialogue? Bakhshi responds: Well, at least with the apocalypse upon us, there’s no longer a need to talk about reform, freedom, democracy, and civil rights.
At the beginning of the film, Bakhshi had already resigned from this project, calling it impossible. In the end, as he closes his letter, he asks to be pardoned for not continuing this project because it’s pointless. He begs, instead, for a chance to search for Tehran’s dried pomegranates of the past.
Tehran Has No More Pomegranates has ended yet again. Deserted by his crew, Bakhshi climbs up a mountain as the song that was once the anthem of Tehran’s underground movement is played: “You, being born in the Middle East, that’s what they call geographical determinism."
The lights came up, the song kept playing, and I was reminded that nearly a decade had passed. I was in New York and so was Namjoo, the singer who was once the rock hero of my city. I looked around and realized I was surrounded by three types of people: students of Middle Eastern Studies, longing for some visual support for all their abstract discussions; the first and second generation of those who had left Iran before the revolution, seeking a way to familiarize themselves with the new Tehran; and those like myself, in-between, nostalgic, and terrified of Tehran gradually becoming strange to them. As the Q&A began, I started to realize that if you had come to see the hidden side of Tehran, or a radical political work, you would leave empty-handed. Bakhshi was no hero, neither was he attempting to become the new beloved refugee artist. He has remained in Iran, and even though he has moved on to making documentaries about other countries and turned to fiction, he has continued to make work. After all these years, all the events, and all the opportunities we’ve had to describe Tehran with complete freedom, I look back at the memory of that other amphitheater and our enthusiasm and I see why we were so moved by it: not because the situation had limited our taste, but because the dance between what we meant and what we could say was and continues to be part of the reality of our beloved city.
Like the film, Tehran and its complexity will most likely be lost in translation. But if you are willing to let go of your need for certainty and knowledge, and occasionally be confused, you might find yourself moved by the beauty of the most absurd song.
Tehran Has No More Pomegranates screened at the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU on February 9th. http://neareaststudies.as.nyu.edu/
YASI ALIPOUR (Columbia University, MFA 2018) is an Iranian artist/writer/folder who currently lives in Brooklyn and wonders about paper, politics, and performance. She is a teacher at Columbia University and SVA and is currently a resident at the Sharpe Walentas Studio program. For further information, please visit yasamanalipour.com.