Washington — Filmmaker Robert Adanto says he is fascinated by the Iranian art featured in his new documentary, but even more by the women who have created that art and their view of the Iranian society in which they live — or which they have left behind.
“I just wanted to stick with looking at the art as a vehicle for exploring larger issues,” said Adanto, an American whose film, Pearls on the Ocean Floor, has begun making the rounds of movie festivals in the United States and Europe. The film explores the work and thoughts of 16 Iranian, Iranian-American and expatriate artists. His previous film, The Rising Tide, followed young artists in China.
“For me, just the act of creating — of painting, of sculpting, of dancing — that’s humanity at its best. It’s our elevated self,” he said. “I’m kind of an idealist in that way, and that’s my core belief. And these women, like the Chinese artists, are doing that at great odds.”
Although Adanto trained as an actor, he comes to his topic from a background in teaching, with nearly all of his classroom experience at a well-known private school, Crossroads, near Los Angeles. There, he said, he was able to concentrate on one part of the world or another in an interdisciplinary course, and he became intrigued by Iran. Just as with China, he said, “you can’t predict where Iran will be in 10 years.”
And as different as China and Iran are, he said, both have conservative cultures, limited freedoms and young people caught up in the possibilities of change. “Iran continues to kind of have this exploration towards democracy, people striving for it, and a youth that now with globalization and the Internet knows of the outside world, and it’s being held [back] by this kind of archaic, clerical system that doesn’t want to open the gates,” he said.
The London-based Iranian multimedia artist Afsoon, who goes by one name, says in the film’s opening interview that she cannot help but be conscious of the freedoms she enjoys while friends still in Iran “don’t have these very basic rights.”
“Because I’m such a nonpolitical artist, you know, my works have been so autobiographical that I wouldn’t be able to pretend that I have a political side,” she said. “But I am a woman and I am Iranian. And in itself, the fact that I say what I want to say is my way of trying to point light onto what other people cannot do in Iran.”
Adanto credited the 2009 book Iranian Photography Now, edited by Rose Issa, with pointing out recurrent themes in today’s Iranian art: the legacy of the 1979 revolution; the residue of the Iran-Iraq war; the longing and nostalgia for a homeland by those in the diaspora; and the divided identity of those within Iran, especially women, who must navigate between their public and private selves. “Some people were saying, ‘Three or four times I switch throughout my day, depending on where I am, where I’m going,’ and … I just thought I could do a film on that,” Adanto said.
Although the subjects of Pearls on the Ocean Floor are artists, Adanto said the issues they deal with apply more generally to Iranian women. “We in the West have simplified Iranian women through the media, and all the images have no complexity,” he said. “We’ve robbed Iranian women of their complexity. They remain silent, or we imagine them to be downtrodden. The images we see, we imagine them to be poor, with no sense of humor, no sexuality, no personality. Most of the times you see Iranian women, they show the Shia women in black chadors, with their fists [raised], yelling, and that’s who an Iranian is in the West.”
Pearls — the title comes from a poem by the 14th-century poet Hāfez — shows some very different pictures of Iran, and especially of its women.
Haleh Anvari, for example, plays off the image of the black chador with photographs of women in spectacularly colorful and flowered ones set against bleak landscapes or glamorous city scenes. Shadi Ghadirian, another photographer, has created what seem to be new black-and-white portraits from the 19th century, with a traditionally dressed woman from the Qajar period (late 18th century to early 20th century) holding a boom box or a Pepsi can; in another series, colorful chadors show only a kitchen utensil or other household item where the woman’s face would be.
The art and the 16 featured artists express mixed feelings about Iran, but the women who have left the country — and even those who have lived in the United States all their lives — draw material from Iranian culture, Adanto said. “There’s kind of a glorification of their past,” he said. “They know they come from a great civilization.”
There’s also a sense of loss. “It is a vacuum when one cannot have a healthy relationship to one’s home country,” Parastou Forouhar, a painter based in Germany, says in the film. “It’s like the memory of an abuse that one feels.”
The women’s art also draws from the drama of Iran in their lifetime, Adanto said. “This is what they grew up with. [Sara Rahbar] said, ‘My mom sung me songs of the revolution to put me to sleep. It’s not as if I decided to pick political work, but these were the things that were important to me.’” Rahbar, a mixed-media artist who divides her time between the United States and Iran, has incorporated elements of the flags of both countries into her art. Gohar Dashti, who grew up in southern Iran during the devastating war with Iraq, has created photos of domestic scenes overtaken by war: a man and a woman watching television in a bunker, eating a pleasant meal at a table in front of a tank, hanging laundry on barbed wire or setting off on their honeymoon in a bombed-out car.
“I think it’s hard for any artist to get away from their life experience,” Adanto said.
Afsoon said that, for her, the life experience is essential to the art. “Once you lose something for life and you know you can never get it back, you know, it sort of stays inside you, and with me, it’s my childhood and my past,” she said. “I left Iran, and in some ways Iran changed, and what I do, I try to re-create that … and therefore I can visit my own past. And I believe that in my own life, my own experience, you have to walk this life, you have to walk this way, to find a key, to discover yourself, and for me, part of the journey is through my art.”
Adanto said the Iranian government’s crackdown after the June 2009 presidential election prompted him to abandon his plans to visit Iran, but he was able to arrange interviews in Europe with the Iranian-based artists. He said funding for the project included a gift from the mother of one of his students, a Kurdish Iranian American.
His next film won’t take him quite so far from his Los Angeles home: Adanto said he has been interviewing artists in New Orleans who have rebuilt their lives since a hurricane devastated the city in 2005.
More information on Pearls on the Ocean Floor and The Rising Tide is available on websites for the films.