IAAB Conference Panel 1: Screen Cultures: Transforming Community Through Media

Moderated by Yousef Tehrani, whose introductory remarks are speaking to the interconnectedness of media. The speakers here are creators and scholars of Iranian media.
[Please note that these posts are paraphrased.]


Journalist Homa Sarshar: Iranian Media as Cultural Opposition

Sarshar says she is impressed with IAAB and is proud to be here. Exile is not a particularly new phenomenon in Iranian history; this was a reality for Iranian writers and intellectuals even before the revolution. But the exile of media is unique to the last three decades: including print, radio/TV, Internet. Print is surviving, exile radio in Europe is important, satellite has grown, and the Internet is growing as a news source. The Islamic gov’t in Iran has taken steps to limit Internet access.

The growing network of exile Iranian media is playing some role in different protests in Iran. The reason is that the state monopolizes media in Iran, so short-wave radio and satellite TV are popular; state domination of Iran’s media has been undermined as Iranians look to media run by Iranians abroad.

Media outside Iran:
This has a long history; law in Iran in recent years has resulted in closure of 100 publications and an exodus of Iranian journalists. Outside Iran, we still have a culture of print media, consisting of many periodicals which have been run only by one person – and if that person dies, the periodical closes.

Political print media are mostly in Europe, and those in the US are either partisan or religious. Sarshar is listing many Iranian diaspora publications.

The good thing about print media is that the second generation of print journalists are coming to this world. She mentions NYLA here, and Namak, two magazines that come out of LA, as well as OCPC produced in Orange County and a magazine called Senses. These magazines are totally different from what the first-generation produced.

Sarshar lists political and religious programming as prolific… but besides these radio stations, belonging either to a party or a religion, there’s also Radio Iran in Los Angeles and 24-hour Iranian radio produced and sponsored by non-Iranians.

Satellite TV – since this launched, the Islamic Republic has been strongly opposed. But people in Iran find a way to watch it anyway. There are 25 channels of 24-hour satellite TV. Most of these channels are based in LA (20 of 25); fewer than half claim to be political and run by political figures, and the rest are entertainment.

The most important vehicle of communicating with Iran is the Internet. Websites in the US and Canada are the best way to get in touch with Iran. And coming out of Iran, we have a statistic that Iran is the country with 2nd largest population of bloggers.

The last thing is broadcasting sponsored by other countries: BBC, Radio Israel, Voice of America… Condoleezza Rice announced that a $75M budget would be devoted to promoting democracy in Iran via media: none of this money went to Iranian-diaspora run media and instead went to VOA and Radio Farda (based in Prague and Washington). VOA programming quadrupled in quantity; most satellite TV is just shameful to Iranians.

Northwestern communication professor Hamid Naficy: Iranian Cinema of Displacement—Exilic, Diasporic, or Ethnic?

We’ve come a long way since the first wave of Iranian immigrants in the 70s and 80s tried to pass itself off as Italian… this new generation is defining itself and “redefining the hyphen in Iranian-American.”

Focus today is not on textual aspect of diaspora films, but on the contextual. The IMF concluded that Iran has the highest rate of brain drain in the world. This is an alarming development, with far-reaching consequences. Post-revolutionary Iran also topped the list of the country with largest refugee population, primarily Afghans and Iraqis. Both of these displacements (immigration and emigration) have led to ramifications on film.

This talk will focus to diaspora-produced films. Contrary to exile press numbers, the 2000 US Census shows the US with a population of about 300K self-identified Iranians – this is underflated, as there are records for 900,000 Iranians.

It is a mistake to consider the Iranian diaspora as a homogeneous group, and also to consider Iranian filmmakers the same.

Naficy’s first book examined Iranian pop culture and TV produced in LA and disseminated abroad. From 1980 to 1991, Iranians in LA produced 17 hours of TV per week, and 27 features films. Iranians in LA (aka Persian Motown) also produced dozens of albums. There were 86 Persian-language periodicals produced in this time also.

A second book’s research showed that Iranian diaspora filmmakers made 307 films in the next decade.

A third extensive study provides a fascinating view of output; but there is no clearinghouse or research organization compiling numbers on this output. Iranians made films in 16 countries; 222 films in the US. France was second with 93 films produced.

There are four types of displaced Iranian filmmakers:

Exiled: Left Iran but maintain a complicated relationship with Iran; they maintain a desire to return and their films are about return. They suffer from lower status in their new homes.

Diasporic: Diaspora begins with trauma and scattering, but the scattering can sometimes be caused by desire for more opportunity. Those in diaspora have a prior identity. But unlike exile, diaspora is necessarily collective. Diasporic consciousness is multi-sighted: plurality is part of diasporic filmmakers.

Displaced: These filmmakers became permanent of their new, adopted countries;

Ethnic: Second-generation Iranians; they have a second-hand relationship with Iran that is mediated, fantasy-driven and nostalgic. They are hyphenates and play the politics of the hyphen to construct new identities.

Iranian filmmakers together create an accented Iranian cinema… but these modalities are not static.

Pomona college anthropology professor Pardis Mahdavi: Cyber-space and Cyber-sex in the Iranian Diaspora

Mahdavi will focus on cybersex and the creation of a transnational sexual discourse. Iranians and Iranian-Americans are having sex. This is a look at the emergence of sex in the blogosphere, specifically “blogistan” or Iranian blogs. Mahdavi will trace sex in young Iranian culture as expressed online.

Iran has seen a major revolution online; young Iranians use the Internet to explore sexual relationships. Mahdavi conducted field work in 2005 exploring the Internet’s role in:

1. New vocabularies
2. A place for consumption
3. An unregulated means of meeting, mating, and cheating

Many Iranians keep travel blogs; young Iranians take pictures of life and surroundings. One popular LA blogger took pictures of LA club life. The inspiration for the cybersex study came out of a study about transgressive sexual culture in Iran. Much of the regime operates via a fabric of morality. Young Iranians are using their bodies to fight this fabric.

This study examined how young Iranians understand and enact sexuality within the parameters of the Islamic Republic.

Urban young adults in Iran are highly literate and educated; there is 45% unemployment for this population. They have a lot of time on their hands; many scholars are calling this a recipe for an Internet revolution. Spending time online connects young Tehranis with Iranians abroad.

Mahdavi wants to explore how this revolution is affecting Iranians. Today there are over 100K Persian blogs. Internet usage is growing faster in Iran than anywhere else in the Muslim Middle East.

The title “enghelaab-e-jensi” (sexual revolution) was born on Iranian blogs. The blogs are a way to rebel and also now get sexual education. Meeting, mating, and cheating online is also a big part of this online revolution: cybersex felt socially safer, and going on a date is risky in Iran. Iranians want to be sure that taking the risk of a first date is worth it. This is also echoed in Los Angeles, where “gossip is rampant.”

Urban Iranians in the diaspora and Iran carve out a private sphere for themselves online and cybersex is “situated resistance.” Cybersex, influenced by diaspora, is a threat to the social and moral order of the Islamic Republic.

Portland State University graduate student Farzad Sharafi: Kurdish in Iran and America: New Media and the Negotiation of Hybrid Identities

Most cultural revolutions happen via print capitalism; the most popular languages are the languages of print. Then education follows in those languages and states follow, all administered in the dominant language. In the early 1800s, the West looked East and exported their languages there in the effort of expanding their markets (British in India, Syrians in France, etc.).

For most ethnic minority groups in Iran, there was barely literacy in Persian, let alone in their own languages. How did nationalism develop without a print language? For Kurds, the answer was radio. Radio broadcasts allowed ethnic minorities to imagine themselves as part of a larger group. Thus by the 1979 revolution, Iraqi and Iranian Kurds saw themselves as one people.

By 1984, the Islamic government in Iran had quashed Kurdish nationalism. For the new generation of Kurds, there was a silence about what it meant to participate in Kurdish struggle or have a transnational Kurdish identity. Kurdish identity “became a hassle.” This changed by 1991/1992, when the provisional Kurdish government in Iraq was established. If you go to Iran today, Kurds are connected via satellite. And today the Internet is a major source of solidarity for Kurds: there are 270 websites, and all but 7 are accessible in Iran.

Sharafi encourages all to think about what it means to be Iranian today with the presence of electronic connectivity. Imagine what’s possible with new technology, and what it means for a new Iranian identity.

In regards to research about sexual revolution in Iran, is this cybersexualization also disempowering?
Mahdavi: This is of concern, as is the risk involved. Mahdavi does not want to create false dichotomies. There is also a political consciousness; this is something that Iranians are comporting but it’s not necessarily unconscious. Diasporic Iranians have been more affected by the “sexual revolution” in Iran than Iranians in Iran have been by the diaspora. Lines are shifting and blurred.

Pedram Moallemian: In regards to identity and Kurds, how is the situation for the new generation different, especially regarding what’s happening to Iraq?Sharafi: Today’s generation of Iranian Kurds are not so naive to believe that complete autonomy is possible for Kurds within Iran. Human rights publications are following the Kurdish situation in Iraq and Iran. The Iranian government is now allowing Kurdish dress and publications, so there is an alleviation of some pressure. The regime should continue to look at the cultural situation of Kurds.

What was the basis of translating “enghelabi-e-jensi” to “sexual revolution”?
Mahdavi: The book talks a lot about secular feminism and activism, and this frames this term. Young people are trying to assert their agency. The phrase is sort of a catchphrase; the actual situation goes much deeper. The term is inspired by what happened in the U.S. and other places.

Behzad Tabatabai: Can you talk about the key differences between the two generations of Iranian diaspora television and print?
Sarshar: The first generation came to the U.S. in exile, not by choice. For the first 3 decades, we were under the impression that we need to do something to get back to Iran and reverse the revolution. The first generation of journalists failed to change the regime in Iran; the only result in efforts was invention of a cottage media industry that didn’t go anywhere. The launch of satellite TV caused a renewed hope that was also unfulfilled. The first generation aimed high, was optimist, and wanted drastic results.

The second generation was born abroad, knows what they’re doing, and the goals are clear. It provides a voice for the diasporic generation. For the first generation, the time is passed. The second generation is more concerned with honest journalism. The first generation is comprised mostly of people who are not journalists.

Naficy: I’m less pessimistic about the first generation. It was successful in creating a sense of Iranian identity in diaspora, in exile, and a kind of Iranian ethnic economy. Advertising was an impetus to creating in ethnic economy. It also allowed Iranians to live in different locations rather than living in an “Iranian ghetto”; it allowed them to maintain an identity and community beyond geography.

RE: The hyphen in Iranian-American: What does identity mean to this generation of Iranians?
Naficy: Iranians used to think the hyphen is a minus, and now they think it’s a plus.

In the late 1990s, for the first time there was a sense of community in diasporic Iranian pop music. Is there a watershed moment in which diasporic identity emerged in visual diasporic Iranian culture?
Naficy: The ceasefire with Iraq was big, because Iranians could return and experience how Iran was different. It became possible to think of being Iranian without a nation. The cinema Iranian diasporic community was created in the 1990s, particularly because of return visits and documentaries that came out of them.