The dinosaurs of Iran's male gaze

The dinosaurs of Iran's male gaze

One of our favourite festival titles from before the summer began,  How Dare You Have Such a Rubbish Wish by Mania Akbari brought archival footage from banned Iranian cinema to Sheffield Doc Fest, in an essayistic critique on the liberties and constraints of women pre and post revolution. Sarah Dean dives in. 

Mania Akbari’s 2022 documentary feature How Dare You Have Such a Rubbish Wish uses archival footage from banned Iranian cinema to stare back at the male gaze in an essayistic critique of the liberties and constraints of women pre- Iranian Revolution from 1978 – 1979. The revolution transformed Iran’s leadership from an imperialist political dynasty to a republic, where women were essential as both active participants and their social position centred in rhetoric. How Dare You… responds to the tension of female agency by including almost 70 films in its astute argument for autonomy.

The filmmaker seeks to represent the complex and variable portrayals of women in tandem with their societal limitations, highlighting the visibility of women through cinema – as liberated and comedic second-fiddle, as objects of exploitation, as victims of oppression – in a fluctuating journey of female sovereignty in Iranian society. Through meditative reflection, Akbari links together women’s histories; silent-era film, the poetics of Faroogh Farrokhzad and an emergent Iranian New Wave to expose the camera as a patriarchal tool of oppression. Where the camera is used to invoke the male gaze, Akbari acknowledges this and returns with a critical one. 

Akbari’s presence within her film is threefold. Her voice sketches a flowing imaginary that binds her with the woman presented in the film clips she shows, declaring, “I am gazing into your gaze.” She is also corporeally present, her naked body slowly tattooed with flowers masking mastectomy scars from her extracted breast cancer. Her third insertion is through location: as Akbari has been exiled to London, she includes footage from the country she now resides in. The only non-archival footage, other than her slowly tattooed form, is that of Victorian-era dinosaur sculptures located in Crystal Palace Park in South East London. On the surface, the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs appear as anomalies within Akbari’s dissection of female bodies in Iranian cinema. Their presence disrupts the established flow between archive and filmmaker in an abruption obvious even to those without knowledge of their physical existence. It is in this anomalous state that these statues form a revealing space between what is being presented and its interpretation.  

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs were unveiled at the Great Exhibition of 1952 as the first dinosaur sculptures in the world, exhibiting inaccurate features – elongated necks, warped bodies and jewel-like eyes, embodying the scientific inaccuracies and liberties of early fossil reconstruction. They exist as examples of historical human error, now posed as free attraction for visitors and viewed with a nostalgic and affectionate gaze. In their popularity, the problem of portrayal serves as a reminder that presumptions of the past are easily repeatable if we are restricted from the knowledge that informs our present. 

How Dare You… contends with a similar recontextualising of Iranian cinema. Perceiving pre-revolutionary films with a critical eye, Akbari directs viewers to the objectification of women’s bodies through the inclusion of various films. Weaving clips together, Akbari ensures that her viewer understands that the chador should not be used as a monolithic symbol of oppression. The objectification of Iranian women was implicit regardless of whether in bikini or chador, exposed or unexposed – women’s bodies are at the behest of male fantasy and power. The filmmaker cannily demonstrates how, over time, the chador-wearing woman in cinema becomes an extension of both the male gaze and arm of patriarchal control. This control is visualised in women-on-women violence in clips, in which they condemn and beat a women for exposing her body. 

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs function as a structural metaphor for the ignorant gaze, one that can easily misinterpret or disregard. As a popular monument, the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs exist in multiplicities, depending on who is looking at them – young or old, how often you have examined them, your own knowledge of their inaccuracies. They function most simply as remnants of a bygone era, viewed with nostalgia and humour. However, the nostalgic look can apply fondness to the past that minimises its actualities and impact. Akbari’s visit to the dinosaurs shares an important correlation with her film’s intentions, as it reasserts the importance of looking with extant knowledge to determine its authority on the present. While the value of a historical object must continue to be re-examined for its contemporary value, recontextualization determines its function. We are reminded that the oppression of Iranian women is not a linear transformation, but an imbricative and ongoing experience that must be considered alongside the past. When we look at the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, the dearth between their anachronism and our present day knowledge speaks to a cavity of discovery and education that has taken place, however, it is only when, to use Akbari’s words, we gaze back, that we are able to recognise this. 

The importance of looking becomes central to both Akbari’s argument, as well as to the reconsideration of pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema on the present. At the core of How Dare You… is an argument against and in abhorrence of the objectification of women, with or without chador, as an ongoing tenet of existence in Iranian society. Akbari’s physical response is to use her entire existence as an object of protest. She endures the pain of the tattoo gun to shape her form with flowers as a marker of individual freedom and of bodily autonomy. She uses her voice to form important links between Iranian cinematic history and its present. Her visit to the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs remind us of her freedom to reform and reshape a history to direct us to its problems. 

In engaging in a multiplicity of self-insertion, Akbari is committed to the reclamation of these narratives without seeking to expunge or rewrite history. In doing so, she is able to navigate through the film history of Iran to locate and unite women in an eternal collective that simultaneously provokes conversation and permits us to see Iranian women on screen as both individual and collective. Through the inclusion of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, Akbari acknowledges her distance as exile from the ongoing struggle of the Iranian women’s liberation, while still remaining in dialogue with the implications of female subjugation. 

Although a flourishing industry, Iranian cinema has been subjected to state censorship both pre- and post-revolution that includes the banning of films and the prosecution of filmmakers. Akbari’s devotion to re-examining films from the past ensures that there remains a record outside of the country that highlights these films. While How Dare You… was completed just prior to the ongoing women-led protests in Iran regarding the mandatory hijab, Akbari’s archive is conversant with their drive for female autonomy, powerfully resonant in its cyclical implications. 

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