These days, it seems that anyone can become a filmmaker. Not only has our access to decent recording equipment skyrocketed but also, the platforms on which we can post information have allowed us to reach audiences wider than ever. On the flip side of this, it means that the internet has been over saturated by images of the same kind and cinematic trends of similar thought. If we have a passing idea or dream, it has become perfectly natural for us to turn to film as a medium through which to capture it.
We do not realise how lucky we are.
Bemoan the existences of these films we might but the truth is, we exist within the very minute minority of people around the world who are free to capture and project their ideas and beliefs as they should so wish. Increasingly, the content of artists and filmmakers across the world is being subjected to ever harsher censorship laws, prohibiting thought and speech which does not reflect the ideas of the state. When art and film are so much about personal freedom and individual expression, what have they become in the hands of dictators? And, indeed, can we even give films such as these their proper name? Or should we not think of them as propagandist videos? Filmmakers in the midst of social climates such as these have an arguably augmented right to self expression; what is going on around them is what the movies are made of, the things about which we construct plots and scripts. They are in the eye of the storm and they are forbidden from noticing it.
Of course, filmmakers have found a way to create. Finding obscure ways to get their ideas heard, filmmakers in the most silenced of cultures managed to give their way of life a voice. By doing this, they show their culture as what it is; inhabited by people like us, living their lives as we are trying to do. The issue with silencing a people is that it enables others to paint incorrect pictures of their way of life, the beliefs that they have and the interactions that take place in their lives. Whilst their social norms may be different from our own, we all suffer and celebrate the smallest of everyday events.
In the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the normal line up of French auteurs and slow cinema moguls was broken up for a moment with the entry of a work by Jafar Panahi. Living and working in Iran, Panahi has always pushed censorship laws in his work, focusing his attention particularly upon women and children to highlight gender issues in his native culture. Following several warnings from the Iranian government, he was placed under house arrest and forbidden from creating any new films.
Enter This is Not A Film. Filmed entirely within the confines of Panahi’s living quarters, the documentary follows him over the course of one day. He acts out a film never made, interacts with a number of his neighbours, discusses his court case. He never says anything against his government and yet, it is all there, lying dormant beneath the film’s transcript. What is apparent is that Panahi does not hate his culture. Indeed, like most directors of his kind, it is because he loves his country so deeply that he wants to hold up a mirror to it. He wants to change things and make life better for the people around him. Panahi’s film was delivered to Cannes on a USB stick inside of a cake. The only way for him to spread his idea further was to disguise it as something it was not. And yet, he continues to work and to fight for change.
More recently, female directors have had opportunity to speak from the confines of strictly regulated cultures. In 2012, Wadjda was released to international acclaim and applause. Whilst its message is deeply resonant, the story is relatively simplistic. Wadjda, a young girl in Saudi Arabia does not fit in with the other girls around her. Preferring to play with the boys and get into trouble, she soon sets her eyes on a bicycle. As a young Muslim girl, however, she is prevented from acting in the ways which, to her, feel entirely natural. There is a tension between who Wadjda is and who she is supposed to be and it is not entirely clear how she will turn out.
Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, Wadjda is the first feature film to ever have been made by a Saudi Arabian woman. Whilst it never rams its message down the viewer’s throat, there are undercurrents of the gender politics by which al-Mansour has lived her life throughout the entire script. What is most unsettling is the matter of fact way in which al-Mansour describes her country. This is how it is, she says to the viewer, look at it and acknowledge it. Never allowing the viewer to hide behind their own preconceptions, al-Mansour shows the deep complications at the heart of her own culture.
Of course, there are some who have moved away from the place from which they came. Perhaps Iran’s most famous living filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami has moved outside of his hometown in order to represent the unity of the human race. Filming initially in Tehran, he has since presented Italian and Japanese productions, posing the problem of the silenced society as belonging to the entire world. By focusing on small issues of humanity, Kiarostami makes the global, local. Kiarostami’s works are so lasting precisely because they are so singularly his own. He views the world around him in a way peculiar to himself; his vision as a filmmaker is truly arresting. And perhaps that why his messages are so enduring. Rather than painting the world as the world sees it, he presents it as he alone sees it. By enabling the viewer to perceive his way of thinking, he encourages them to change their own and, ultimately, alter the world around them.