It’s a testimony to America’s growing awareness of Islamic nations in the wake of September 11, that the theater was jammed full at 9:00 on a Sunday morning for a screening of the documentary “Iran, Veiled Appearance.” Unfortunately, the hoped-for and highly anticipated new insights and a deeper understanding of this ancient, increasingly relevant Middle Eastern country were few and far between in director Thierry Michel’s ambitious, yet jumbled and disorganized film.
“Iran, Veiled Appearances” provides an adequate, if cursory, Iranian history lesson, ranging from the last days of the hated Shah, through the devastating Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and up to the present. Yet, the film offers precious little explanation as to why ordinary Iranians, fed up with life under the Shah’s corrupt dictatorship, would voluntarily replace him with a fundamentalist Muslim theocracy under the Ayatollah Khomeyni; a regime which, until the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, was the most repressive government on Earth.
Nonetheless, the idea of an Islamic republic was one that the Iranian student revolutionaries of the late 1970s and ’80s embraced wholeheartedly, as evidenced by the film’s extensive exploration of “martyrs” willing — even eager — to die at the front fighting Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraqi invaders.
Yet, to a growing number of younger Iranians, the Shah’s deposition and Khomeyni’s subsequent rise to power was their parent’s revolution. For many of them, increasingly exposed to Western ideals and chafing under the clerics’ strict rules, the Revolution has failed. Pushing for a more open and democratic society, they’ve rallied around the country’s “reformist” president Mohamed Khatami who, despite being elected by over 70% of the citizenry, wields little other than ceremonial power.
Worthwhile information, to be sure. Yet, none of this is news to anyone who reads a newspaper or watches CNN. And while it’s admirable and even necessary for “Iran, Veiled Appearances” to take the time to prime those viewers who aren’t as cognizant of the situation there, this is a film that offered up the promise of probing so much deeper.
The problem here isn’t in the footage itself, as Michel’s cameras probe all around the country. Footage and interviews from student dorms, military barracks, mosques, the Khomeyni mausoleum and the Erboz mountain trails all provide a plethora of raw information. What’s lacking is any sense of cohesion in the film’s editing. Both sides of the fractured populace get to air their viewpoints here, but due to the seemingly random editing, there’s very little dramatic structure to what the viewer sees. Without any real point-counterpoint between its peoples’ two opposing visions for their country’s future, the film lacks impact and is remarkably devoid of drama. It almost feels as if it would have been just as effective to draw the sequences out of a bag at random and string them all together.
Iran is a country that our gunslingin’ president has declared to be part of an “Axis of Evil,” along with Iraq and North Korea. As both of those latter two continue to be the recent cause of some significant saber rattling, one wonders if and when Iran will take its turn in the crosshairs. As such, it might be nice to really understand this exotic “cradle of Muslim fundamentalism” and its conflicted populace. Unfortunately, those looking for answers or understanding won’t find much here except more confusion and consternation about a culture that’s very much alien to our own. Dominated by countless scenes of Iranians wailing and flailing in the giant mosh pits of mass hysteria we see so often on CNN, yet making little attempt to explain such behavior to disdainful and even hostile Western eyes, this film provides numerous superficial glimpses of Iranian life, but very little real understanding.
In that sense, then, Iran still seems as shrouded in mystery after watching “Iran, Veiled Appearances” as it did before.