The Sword of Oppression
Resident Exile A Portrait of an Iranian in America Directed by Alexandra Anthony, Ross McElwee Michel Negroponte At the Off the Wall Cinema. April 23 through 26
TO LOOK AT HIM, you would never suspect what he has gone through. Few visible scars betray his ordeal. His socks and shoes conceal the most obvious reminders--an extensive collection of burns on his legs and feet, which were slit open and then cauterized with smoldering cigarettes. Of course, maybe if you looked closely, you might notice his crooked jaw, which protrudes unevenly, expecially when he indulges in a rare smile. His hunched shoulders and shuffling gait--the drooping posture of one who faced prison torture for over a year--call more attention to themselves, especially as he walks around the campus of the University of Houston, a dark, diminutive figure submerged beneath a foamy wave of white teeth and blond-haired, bare-chested Adonises.
Yet for Kazem Ala, the physical suffering has faded. Of course, the memory of his arrest in 1979 for participating in an anti-Shah demonstration in the streets of Teheran and his subsequent torture at the hands of the Shah's secret police must linger in his mind. But for Kazem, the legacy of physical scars is dwarfed by the uneasy truth that, for the most part, his fourteen months of suffering in the bowels of an Iranian jail may have been meaningless. For though he was--and continues to be--a dedicated opponent of political oppression in Iran, the very oppression that Kazem fought against has endured even after he had left prison and the Shah, too, had left Iran.
After he was released from prison, Kazem fled the Shah's embattled reign of terror and came to Texas, where he enrolled as a full-time student at the University of Houston. He was a refugee from torture and terror, a refugee who nonetheless hoped to one day return home to a more tolerant and stable country. But contrary to the hopes of Kazem and thousands of other Iranian students, political oppression did not end with the overthrow of the Shah's regime, and under the country's new 84-year-old leader. Ayatollah Khomeini, government by decapitation flourished. In the eyes of Kazem, indeed in the eyes of most of the nations of the world, who watched with disbelief as 52 Americans were taken hostage and paraded through the streets of Teheran, the sword of oppression had simply changed hands. The voice of government opposition still could not and would not be heard. As Kazem looked on from his new home in Houston, where he had since married an American to keep from being deported back to Iran, he began to realize that he was no longer just a refugee, but was, as long as the terror in Iran continued, an exile from his own land. The knowledge that nothing had changed in Iran, that if he were to return he would face the possibility of imprisonment and torture once more, burned within him, causing him more pain and suffering than the beatings or smoldering cigarette butts ever had. With their documentary Resident Exile, the team of Alexandra Anthony, Ross McElwee, and Michel Negroponte--all local fimmakers--have captured this pain, and have translated it into a technically excellent and uniquely relevant film.
THE TRIO OF DIRECTORS first became aware of Kazem's story in April. 1980, when they saw him interviewed on a television talk show. In the short interview, a small portion of which appears at the opening of the film. Kazem Ala told of the tortures he had both witnessed and experienced. At one point, though visibly shaken and upset, he continued o recount horrors he had seen (among them a story about a mother forced to watch while her infant son had his throat cut), explaining that "I have a duty to say this." And in Kazem Ala's confession about his own duty, the directors recognized and fulfilled their own duty as documentarists: to provide not just a dramatic and realistic message for the community, but to help see, as the founder of the documentary movement, John Grierson, once said, "society emancipated from its confusion and bewilderment."
For although the American news media provided thousands of hours of coverage about the hostage situation and the turmoil that plagued Iran, no account of the causes that brought about the seizure of the embassy was ever as straightforward and instructive as this short documentary. Those Americans (and there seem to be many) still confused about the explanation for the frenzy that swept the streets of Teheran in November, 1979, need look no further than Resident Exile, Kazem Ala and thousands of other Iranian students like him were systematically arrested and tortured for expressing their opposition to the Shah's regime--a regime that the United States helped set up in 1953 and then continued to support militarily and economically for over two decades, even though the Shah's Iran consistently had one of the worst records of human rights violations in the world. The United States, by virtue of its hearty and longstanding support of the Shah's regime, was party to the torture of Kazem and thousands of other anti-Shah demonstrators. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that when the camera follows Kazem and his wife to the Houston Astrodome, it pans across the stadium, filled with enthusiastic fans on their feet singing the National Anthem, and then focuses on Kazem, who remains seated, his face grimly defiant as the words "land of the free" echo through the stadium.
In their attempt to present both a personal and social perspective on the situation in Iran, the directors follow Kazem around Houston, using their camera carefully and unobtrusively, often relying on glaring juxtapositions. Whenever Kazem's wife appears in a scene, as she does for instance, in a sequence where Kazem sits on the beach and points to his scarred feet and ankles, the camera constantly shifts, focusing first on the Iranian's dark, weathered face and then on her plum, ivory face. The contrast is sharp and suggestive: for while Kazem describes, with grim experience painted on his face, the tortures he underwent, his wife looks on innocently, almost uncomprehendingly. In only a few frames, she becomes the personification of America, a nation that for the most part failed to accept or recognize either the extent or the nature of political persecution in Iran. Even though the directors of this superbly edited film limit themselves to scenes that are rich in metaphorical compression. Resident Exile explains more about Iran that the network's endless scenes of rampaging students.
In focusing on the reality of Kazem's torture, the team of Anthony. McElwee and Negroponte doesn't simply present scene after scene of tearful recollections. Instead, the directors rely on a rather commonplace scene in a dentist's office to evoke some of the horror of Kazem's persecution at the hands of the Shah's secret police. While Kazem lies prostrate in a dentist chair (a scene itself reminiscent of Marathon Man), the camera focuses on the dentist as he lights a match and uses it to sterilize a dental implement. The camera lingers on the match, and suddenly the memory of Kazem's early encounters with matches makes an ugly intrusion.
Unfortunately, despite its technical excellence and unique social and political perspective. Resident Exile was overlooked by the sponsors at the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). The production--originally slated to be shown nationally on PBS's Nonfiction Television series--was subsequently cancelled. Only the persistence of these local filmmakers and the Off the Wall Cinema have enabled the film to make its world premiere here in Boston. Of course, in deference to the PBS network one might point to the very real possibility that many zealous Americans might have been outraged by a program that concerned itself with the plight of one Iranian much to the exclusion of the American hostages, but the film's singular focus, its preoccupation with the trials of Kazem Ala, is its very strength. Unwilling to provide a simple reiteration of the revolution and the seizure of the American embassy, the directors instead trace further back in time to concentrate on one individual and the circumstance leading up to his torture, circumstances that inspired the Iranian people to overrun the American embassy and take American hostages. The perspective is unique and (as PBS anticipated) provocative. But despite efforts by PBS, at least, the film has surfaced, and if the film itself is a triumph, the fact that it is now being shown is even more significant. Resident Exile signifies the victory of both dramatic content and free expression. It is a victory that begs to be seen and shared.