Laura Mulvey on Iranian Cinema

Laura Mulvey writes the afterword to The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity (Tapper, 2002). She uses Azadeh Farahmand’s chapter on Western acclaim of Iranian cinema as a starting point for her own musing on the discourse between third cinema and western audiences. Her interest lies in how third cinema is consumed by Western audiences who may have little knowledge of the culture in which it was produced:

[third cinema films] also raise general issues about the critical appropriation of new cinemas in, as it were, a cultural vacuum, without adequate understanding of the circumstances under which they have been produced and then circulated abroad. (Mulvey in Tapper, 2002 p255)

Mulvey begins by discussing whether Iranian art film has succeeded solely on its exoticism, or something more substantial:

The austerity of Iranian post-revolutionary cinema, beyond the case of Kiarostami himself, allows a space for form, for style and for thought about the cinema that has only sporadically been achieved here over recent years. This formal and intellectual cinema create the “cinematic” space of interaction and exchange between spectator and screen that defines art cinema… The exotic along cannot sustain a “new wave”. A new cinema is only of lasting interest if it articulates questions and raises problems that are of aesthetic significance in their own right. (Mulvey in Tapper, 2002 p255)


But is there something special about cinema which makes it different to other forms of third world art? Iranian director Jafar Panahi asked If we could tell a film, then why make a film?(Katz, 2012). Mulvey believes that cinema’s status as the art of seeing is uniquely connected to censorship in a way that other art forms are not:

Throughout history, the cinema has raised questions about ways of seeing. Unlike any other medium, the cinema is able to construct and inflect the way a spectator relates to its images. As a result, the question of “how”, the question of form, takes on a particular importance alongside the “what”, the question of content… the problems of “what can be represented?” and “who can see what?” are close to the heart of the new Iranian art cinema. These questions, in the Iranian context, necessarily raise questions about state censorship and regulation. (Mulvey in Tapper, 2002 p257)

Azadeh Farahmand argued that censorship can’t be considered a good thing. I agree with her and, I think, so does Mulvey. But Mulvey notes that good or bad, censorship has driven Iranian cinematic innovation:

The need to rethink and reconfigure affects not only gender image and relations, but, as a logical extension, editing, staging, ways of storytelling, processes of identification and so on… the Revolution has, even if accidentally, generated the conditions in which innovation becomes an essential element in cinematic practice. (Mulvey in Tapper, 2002 p259)

This comment is not so much praise for censorship as it is an indictment of the lazy filmmaking which she finds in Western, comparatively uncensored films.


In comparing Western art cinema its Iranian counterpart Mulvey highlights the tendency of Iranian cinema to place the audience in position of empathy rather than embodiment:

The characteristic film of the Iranian New Wave shrinks in scope and expands in time, moving away from dramatic plot, action or romance into great simplicity. With a shooting style that tends to avoid close-ups or shot-countershot, the camera takes on an equivalently greater importance, and its relationship to what it sees enters the picture, breaking down the cinema’s conventional transparency. (Mulvey in Tapper, 2002 p259)

This seems to link to the documentary tradition which lends its aesthetic to many Iranian films, blurring the line between fact and fiction. And when discussing the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Mulvey highlights this very point as the crucial component of his work.

I would like to say something about Kiarostami’s cinema and why is might be that films with little or no overt political content may still raise important issues of the politics of cinema. While Kiarostami has played an important role in defining the aesthetics and formal characteristics of the Iranian New Wave cinema, his films reach out towards key questions about the nature of cinema as a medium. To my mind, this is the main reason why his films have had such an impact on Western cinephiles and film theorists, who found themselves contemplating once again a cerebral, conceptual cinema of a kind that has more or less completely disappeared in their own countries. In particular, Kiarostami explores the narrow line between illusion and reality that is the defining characteristic of the cinema. (Mulvey in Tapper, 2002 p260)

She finds that the uncertainty which derives from this undrawn line between truth and fiction to be the real draw to Kiarostami’s work, because it engages the audience’s curiosity.

Kiarostami’s films emerge into the outside world, as discussed above, into something like a cultural vacuum, and have necessarily to be watched, by the film festival spectator, for instance, in a spirit of uncertainty and curiosity… But as Kiarostami’s films are themselves actually built on an aesthetic of uncertainty and curiosity, this approach is simultaneously socially desirable and cinematically necessary… the pleasure of Kiarostami’s cinema is to be found in the process of deciphering rather than in the fascination of spectacle. (Mulvey in Tapper, 2002 p260)

Mulvey believes that this curiosity is, on balance, beneficial to third cinema and the culture in which its films are made.

Curiosity should always lead back to questions of social understanding, to finding ways to fill in the gaps of ignorance and cultural divergence… The state of uncertainty in which he leaves his spectators, and the need to question the status of the images of the screen, breed a broader desire to understand the culture in which these films can be made. (Mulvey in Tapper, 2002 p261)

And it is through the examination and analysis of these films that their exoticism will cease to be relevant, leaving their cinematic merits as the only criteria by which they are judged.


Katz, D., (2012) “If we could tell a film, then why make a film” – Jafar Panahi’s This is Not A Film, London: The New Wolf, Available from: [Accessed on 30 April 2016]

Tapper, R., (2002) The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, London: I. B. Tauris



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