Feb 4, 2004

version #1

The Split Narrative of Privacy

Babak Afrassiabi

After having been away for almost a year, Golrokh Kamali, the protagonist in Sagkoshi, a film by Bahram Beyzai, returns to Tehran on the morning of the Islamic Revolution. At her entrance into the city of Tehran, she realizes that her home has been confiscated; she wonders if she will recognize her belongings any more. Tehran is hurriedly being reconstructed, soldiers run around the streets and walls are being painted over with new slogans. For her accommodation, she is taken to a hotel room that is facing a construction site. The view from the window, where men are welding steel and constantly pass along, is present in all the shots taken from inside the hotel room. The view to the outside is a constant reminder of rapid (patriarchal) change, but more importantly, it places the room within view from outside. This of course inverts the architectural functioning of the window as a screen to the outside world – rotating, as it were, the window/screen 180 degrees, turning her privacy into a spectacle, gazed at from her window to the outside. (Her telephone conversations are constantly tapped by the hotel manager.) The room may be the exclusive spatial privacy of the female protagonist, but it is implicitly occupied by the outside world. In more than one scene we see the outside in its reflection in the mirror inside the room. The extension or the infiltration of the construction site into the hotel room signifies forced reconstructions of the private space as a necessity for ideological change; a continuous overlapping of the one onto the other is a way of maintaining total transparency in both fields.

In Iran, life in the private space has long been in contradiction with that in the public space. Obligations of behavior, mannerisms and appearances in public spaces have all contributed to its incongruity with life in private spaces. As a result certain inevitable overlapping moments of the two domains have come to effectuate their experience as highly schizophrenic and conflicting. One true manifestation of such moments, of the “clash” between the private and the public, is to be traced in the representation of the home (as the most private) and the appearances of its inhabitants in Iranian movies. (How often have we seen a couple, either represented as married and/or being married in real life, appearing in their home, as they would have had to appear if in a public space, obeying strict codes of modesty?) This is a phenomenon often talked about and looking at its politics of display can help us to understand the representational level on which the private and the public come to contradict each other and how this contradiction finally entangles each domain even in real life.

On the one hand, the represented space is characterized as a private territory (the home within the film), but on the other hand (a less fictive one), since it is publicly displayed, it is considered a public domain. The public screening of the privacy of home is seen as its entrance into the public field with all its codifications. What is being undermined and deferred in this process of translation is the fictiveness of the screened privacy and consequently that of the modesty implied in it. Only when the fictive privacy of the home is perceived as the continuation of the real of the public domain can it become subject to codifications of appearance and behavior implied in public spaces. By its enunciation as a public domain, the image of the home is bared open to the entrance, or rather, the invasion of the dominant gaze of modesty. The image of the home is reframed within codes regarding public space, and automatically stripped of any privacy. In the end the modified image communicates more than anything the presence of the dominant gaze looking back onto us as viewers, from inside the image. The dominant gaze constantly re-enters and re-establishes itself within the image of the private, becoming an inevitable part of the image, or the image itself. By constantly eliminating the boundaries between public and private, as well as the distinctions between fiction and reality, it expands its territory as far as representations of privacy and private narratives.

The (ideological) desire for a modest depiction of private spaces is kept alive through a refusal to admit the fictiveness of their cinematic modesty, the disavowal of the gap between the modified image of the private and its reality beyond control. As all disavowals are, by their very nature, split into two, the dominant gaze establishes itself on the very basis of the split between the refusal to admit the fictiveness of the image of the private and the belief in its modesty as the actual modification of the private real. However, the result is at once the disavowal and the unwanted affirmation of the lack in the modesty of the private… the lack of inconsistency between the modified image and its true referent. But more so, the lack of the dominant gaze within private spaces as truly lived.

In the end the screened space of the home is neither completely public, since it takes place within the private walls of a home, nor commonly private, since it is represented in regard to the obligatory laws implied in public appearances. This displaces the scene of the home from the totality of the fictional narrative of the film, but what is actually taking place is suppression by way of replacement, the replacement of the mise-en-scène of the private with that of the public and the denunciation of the image of the private as already a mismatch that constantly needs adjustment; a way of suspending the referent real of the home by representing it in its ideal proper image. The attempt is one of balancing out the two spaces of public and private and finalizing them into a single ideal (transparent) space. (The fact that Golrokh Kamali is living in a hotel room is not a coincidence. Within the narrative of the film, the hotel room is a transitory space between the private as personal to private as collective, from who she was to who she should become. What is interesting however, is the way she inverts this space into one from which she operates her revolt towards this very process of translation and modification.)

If the cinematically modest representation of privacy is finally one beyond both the fictive narrative of the film and the reality of the private, we might conclude, it is an image wiped clean of its identificatory references. The inhabitants of this space are momentarily placed outside their true roles. But instead they are given an extra role to play, a role within a role, one that refers not to the narrative of the film but rather to that proper, ideal appearance. This extra, exterior role imposes a break in the film, but with it, there comes to emerge an extra level of identification, one that refers to a space exterior to that depicted in the film. As a viewer one easily identifies with the roles played, however false: the message is communicated and sent through, just like a TV commercial between two sequences of a film, but this time present throughout the film. This exterior role played by the actors communicates those codes that are imposed onto appearances and mannerisms in the public space, those we are implying onto ourselves even while we are watching the film in a cinema theater. We both experience the presence of the same gaze in the space we inhabit, either in front of the camera or in front of the cinema screen. This is a level of identification that is beyond any fictive realm. We, as spectators, identify the gaze inside the image with that in the outside public world.

However, this moment of disruption within the film, the cut introduced into the narrative, is a moment of truth: the manifestation of the extremity of the division and incongruity between the private and the public, which has come to exist as the result of a lack of correspondence between the two for a long time. Far more than this, it represents the internalized split within each space, the gap with the other. The experience of private spaces remains one defined by constant shifts between privacy as lived and as gazed at. The presence of the gaze is felt in every private space even when it is not there, threatening to eliminate the privacy.

In front of the screen, one is caught in a space between the gaze looking onto us as inhabitants of public space, and the gaze present in the image of the private looking back onto us as viewers. Other than a position of control the gaze provides itself with its own depiction, a reflection of itself in the screened image, staging a fictive unification between the public and the private space. In this sense the kind of identification that is at work is one between the gaze and its own projection onto the image; we as viewers only activate it. As such we are deprived of any personal relationship with private or public spaces. What is passed onto us is, however, a rupture, one that we carry around going from one space to the other.

Still from Sagkoshi by Bahram Beyzai

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