CMENAS spoke with Assistant Professor Cameron Cross of the Middle Eastern Studies Department about his course, “Iranian Cinema: Re/Presenting a Nation.”
Mekarem Eljamal: What drew you to create this course?
Prof. Cameron Cross: One of my main aspirations as a teacher is to make Iranian history, art, and culture accessible and interesting for students who might otherwise have no cause or opportunity to learn about the country; cinema is one of the best ways to do this. We all watch movies; there is something in this medium deeply familiar and resonant to us, even as we encounter films from unfamiliar settings. As a bonus, Iranian cinema is consistently regarded as one of the best in the world (and has been for the last two or three decades), so we get to watch some really special films that challenge us to broaden our understanding of what cinema can do and why it matters.
ME: How did you choose the films to include in the syllabus?
CC: It's a challenging process—imagine trying to teach a history of American popular music in 14 albums—and every year I swap out old films for new ones to see what kind of alchemy they produce. I generally aim for a selection that showcases a representative spectrum of genres, filmmakers, themes, and historical moments; I also strive to find films that reward multiple viewings, that directly address the central issues of the class, and that have some critical analysis on them available in English. This is all to facilitate the work of learning to watch, think, and write about films critically.
ME: What do you hope students get out of the class?
CC: In light of my teaching goals I described above, I would want students to finish the course with a richer and more complicated understanding of the history and peoples of the region we now know as Iran (Persia before 1935). For us in the States, most images of Iran are filtered through the lens of politics and the national news, producing a rather shadowy and ominous figure without much of a human face. I hope that students, after taking this class, could give a face—indeed, many faces—to Iran after this course. In addition, I hope that students will gain a new enjoyment and appreciation for the art form of cinema itself. Every film or video we see is an amazingly complex artifact, joining technical skill, narrative device, visual composition, performance, synesthesia, philosophy, music, and time itself together in a unique package; learning to identify and analyze these various components transforms us from passive to active consumers of the medium, and with that shift in agency we develop a richer and more meaningful relationship with a craft that most of us encounter on a daily basis.
ME: What is unique about film as a medium of presenting nationalisms, histories, and cultures?
CC: Cinema is one of the best sites to explore these topics, because it does not merely "reflect" these identities, but indeed is instrumental in their very formation. One of the things I strive to impress on my students—something I didn't fully realize until I started doing the research for the course—is that cinema is part and parcel of modernity; the cinema engenders new ways of representation, new modes of experience, and above all a new kind of society; it is difficult to talk of modernity at all without cinema. And nationalism, history, and culture, in their modern incarnations, are articulated most vividly and disseminated most widely on the silver screen; it was to invoke this struggle for the power to create and (re)present "Iran" to its people and the world at large that I came up with the course's sub-title.