Nahid Persson Sarvestani: Female Auteur
by: Boel Ulfsdotter , May 23, 2019
by: Boel Ulfsdotter , May 23, 2019
‘There is no film team. It’s just me’ (Nahid Persson Sarvestani).
Born in Iran, Persson Sarvestani was a member of the Iranian student union which, in the late 1970s, demonstrated against the country’s monarchic rule, in favour of modern democracy. Fearing arrest after the Shah’s secret police had detained her brother, she left the country and arrived in Sweden on a false passport in 1982. Settling down in Sweden, Persson Sarvestani went on to learn documentary filmmaking through a determined trial and error practice while working for Swedish Television as a trainee in the late 1980s and 1990s. She came to the fore as a freelance filmmaker for a TV program called Mosaik (Swedish Television, 1987-2003), which focused on multicultural issues linked to immigrants’ integration into Swedish society, which lead on to a career as a professional documentarist.
After revisiting Iran in 1999 and coming face to face with the new type of repression that had by then seized the country, Persson Sarvestani became personally and professionally interested in addressing the situation for Iranian women. Her involvement with Iranian politics is reflected in scathing expository documentaries like Prostitution Behind the Veil (2004) and Four Wives and One Man (2007), recorded in situ despite the obvious peril of being arrested by the Iranian authorities. I suggest that with these films, she openly declined her interest in making accented cinema, defined by Hamid Naficy as commenting ‘upon the conditions both of exile and diaspora and of cinema’ (Naficy 2001: 4) to the advantage of a strongly feminist and subjective cinema. Persson Sarvestani thus introduced herself as a politically explicit enunciator in the documentary mode, whereby her films offer ‘a commentary on … public issues that affect not only them but also the culture and society at large’ through her work (Rascaroli 2009: 13-14).
As a result of the international exhibition of the above-mentioned films, Persson Sarvestani became persona non grata for life in Iran in the 2000s, and I suggest that this restraint brought about a professional transition in her documentary practice. In short, it led to Persson Sarvestani turning to her own history and first-person filmmaking, daring to take on journeys of factual and intellectual discovery totally unknown to her at the outset. In this essay, I present an outline of this segment of her authorship in relation to the general idea of self-inscription in two films, The Queen and I (2008), and My Stolen Revolution (2013).
Auteur cinema can be described as a type of signature filmmaking, primarily found within fictional genres. The director has turned the film script into a personal product bearing his or her hallmark of consistency in style, content and cinematography. Certain modes of documentary filmmaking make similar allowances for subjectivity and self-inscription, as demonstrated in contemporary interactive and expository documentaries like Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man (2012) and Michael Moore’s Michael Moore in Trumpland (2016). The inscription and performance of the self becomes a vital component in these works, regardless of whether it is performed merely on a discursive level, or manifests itself as more readily physical (Bruzzi 2006; Nichols 1991). Self-inscription is a key component in Nahid Persson Sarvestani’s work as well and was initially performed in a similar manner as in Bendjelloul’s and Moore’s films, although their content was persistently feminist. Since her transition into essay film, Persson Sarvestani’s authorial presence is instead manifested through their openly personal and semi-autobiographical subject matter.
Given the strong manifestation of a first-person camera endorsement on all levels in Persson Sarvestani’s work, I propose that she should be regarded as a documentarist in the essay filmmaking mode. I take my cue from Laura Rascaroli’s remark that the essay film is an open film format, and therefore cannot be crystallised into a genre. It must be considered as a mode, allowing for both experimentation and idiosyncrasy (Rascaroli 2009: 39). The textual commitment and pact with the spectator of an essay film is equally open-ended, but always strongly dialogical, reading simply as ‘I, the author, am reflecting on a problem, and share my thoughts with you, the spectator’ (Rascaroli 2009: 15). This pact is useful for my discussion about Nahid Persson Sarvestani’s subjective filmmaking and its possible bond with essay film, in accordance with its distinctive features:
1. Essay films have ‘a well-defined, extra-textual authorial figure as their point of origin and of constant reference’. 2. ‘they strongly articulate a subjective, personal point of view’. 3. ‘they set up a particular communicative structure, largely based … on the address to the spectator, or interpellation (Rascaroli 2009: 3).
According to Rascaroli, the film’s interpellation is performed through an outright gesture directed at the viewers. ‘The subjective enunciators of first-person films often address spectators directly, sometimes by looking into the camera lens, or else by speaking to them [in voice-over], or simply by presenting their discourse as a confession, as a shared reflection, or as a persuasive argument.’ (Rascaroli 2009: 14). This manner of talking to the audience is of course already established in the above mentioned traditional documentary modes, but rather than being an alienating, distancing tool representative of the demagogical or ideological demands coupled to these modes, Rascaroli underlines the dialogical quality of the essay film proper. The spectators are subsequently ‘asked to take the film as its author’s subjective reflection and to connect with her, to share or reject her line of reasoning’ (Rascaroli 2009: 14). In the case of the dialogical quality of Nahid Persson Sarvestani’s work, I would however like to add that although she frequently makes use of voice-over to make contact with the onlooker, we shall see that she does not use this narrative trope in a way which fully complies with Rascaroli’s suggestion that it creates ‘a stronger impression of authorial presence than that to be experienced in most classical and narrative films’ (Rascaroli 2009: 14).
Rascaroli’s introduction of essay cinema’s interpellative aspect explicates why and how Persson Sarvestani’s auteur bravely customises any grand narrative to her own personal and critical purposes, using self-inscription as a method to confirm her subjective point of view. The most obvious example in her catalogue is The Queen and I, because it is, in fact, the murder of her younger brother Rostam by the Shah’s secret police just before the outbreak of the revolution in 1979, and the urge to vindicate his death by confronting none other than the Iranian queen Farah Diba herself about it, that triggered this particular film project. The non-linear trajectory of its unfolding, however, indicates that although the film is framed within a journey format, which, according to Stella Bruzzi, is ‘structured around encounters and meetings–often accidental’, it is of pivotal importance for the final narrative of The Queen and I that its enunciator could not possibly foretell ‘where [it would] end up’ (Bruzzi 2000: 99). The finished film subsequently tells a completely different story compared to the fabula (topic) envisioned from the outset. By placing her authorial vision (artistic idea) centre stage at the inception of the film’s narration and retaining it in the film’s fabric throughout, Persson Sarvestani’s enunciator inadvertently disturbs the investigative and progressive quality of the traditional reiteration of the journey format. The main reason for this failed interpellation is that Persson Sarvestani’s meetings with the Queen did not shed any light on her brother’s death, which means that her intended journey came full circle, leaving her where she first started. According to Stella Bruzzi ‘the presence of the author is a significant intervention’ (Bruzzi 2000: 99, my emphasis) in this narrative format, but I want to add that in order to position The Queen and I as an instance of subjective cinema based on an intellectual journey of factual discovery and self-reflexion, the appearance of the Self is a necessary, but highly unpredictable component of the film, whether physical and visible, or presenting itself merely in voice-over. In this case, it resulted in the enunciator becoming friends with the enemy, thus dispensing with her initial topic.
Beside Persson Sarvestani’s performative intervention, the most important feature in The Queen and I is, therefore, the completely organic manner in which the narrative is reiterated through Persson Sarvestani’s candid ‘weaving of the process of thought into the text’ (Rascaroli 2009: 193). The resulting liquid transparency of the film fabric undoubtedly makes the film more personal and dialogical, and thus perfectly coherent with filmmaking in the essay mode. The question remains though as to how this reflects on the agency of the female auteur having lost her track, an issue I will address in the conclusion.
The authorial presentation of the ambiguous narrative of The Queen and I is representative of an essay film in the journey format, which is made particularly clear by the open-ended dialogues between Persson Sarvestani and Farah Diba since these were not scripted beforehand or otherwise prepared. After the film’s original objective was obscured, Persson Sarvestani’s extra-textual authorial figure allows the film’s fabula to take on a more pronounced liquid form, indicating the way in which the director embraces the fact that she simply cannot anticipate what will be said during their conversations. I introduce liquid form as a notion derived from Zygmunt Bauman’s ideas on liquid modernity as individual, chaotic, ambivalent and uncertain; in short lacking a communal, permanent and reassuring structure (see Bauman 2000).
Trapped in friendly conversations about their beloved home country, all Persson Sarvestani’s knows is that she somehow cannot bring herself to talk about her younger brother Rostam to the Queen. In the course of these conversations, Persson Sarvestani openly confesses to the audience that her reluctance to challenge the Queen over her brother’s death is due to a loss of momentum, brought about by the fact that she and Farah Diba, in fact, share the same destinies. They are both permanent refugees from Iran with a strong yearning to go back to their homeland, albeit fully aware of the fact that they cannot. Their dialogues at the same time indicate that they do not share the same dream of how this imagined new homeland, Iran, should be construed. This means that, despite having met and bonded as exiles, the women also implicitly represent completely different social stations and, consequently, wish for different societal systems to govern the future Iran. On a personal level, the Queen’s candid confession about her wish to reinstate the Persian monarchy in ‘Iran’ forces Persson Sarvestani to come to terms with the painful fact that she will actually never be able to discuss the matter of her brother’s death with Farah Diba. A defeat she unreservedly shares with the audience, through the camera. 
Moving on to the problematic fabula of My Stolen Revolution, whose title in many ways seriously contradicts its content. The film’s multivocal central characters clearly work against that well-defined, extra-textual authorial figure that Rascaroli has put in place as a necessary point of origin and constant reference in the essay film. In the film, Persson Sarvestani brings together a group of women who have not seen one another since they were imprisoned together in Iran in the 1980s. Their shared memories from this horrible experience disclosed in the safe surroundings of the film director’s home, allows the reunion to take on an almost therapeutic meaning, as well as representing an official testimony, thus turning My Stolen Revolution into a witness film. The women even build up a model of their prison cell to be able to describe their ordeals in greater detail. Their testimonies unexpectedly bring the director to tears. By including the sequence in the film’s fabric, and publicly sharing the somewhat embarrassing and self-centred scene of her crying over the fact that she does not, in fact, share the other women’s experiences in the aftermath of the revolution in Iran in 1980, Persson Sarvestani’s enunciator, however, retains her hold over the film. Her ashamed self thus manages to remain central to the film’s narrative, just like she did when she openly confessed her incapacity to challenge Farah Diba over her brother’s death in The Queen and I. Pitiful or not, this line of action is thought-provoking in that it underlines the liquid nature of the multi-layered film fabric in relation to the outright subjective character of her work as an auteur. By thus editing the films, Persson Sarvestani further challenges the viewer’s expectations of her performative intervention in them and unashamedly exposes their high level of subjective interpellation.
Her limited ability to become fully embedded in the conversation is made clear after Persson Sarvestani’s voice-over has informed us that the Iranian activists were imprisoned by the thousands after the religious coup. Her informants confirm that they were locked up together with approximately one hundred other women. The prison cell measured around eighteen square metres and a couple of the women appearing in the film were imprisoned for up to ten years for their political involvement, suffering severe physical and mental torture under the state’s effort to subject them to the country’s new religious rule. Still, they manage to re-enact their bodily postures and exchanges with other prisoners on the living room floor of the film director’s beautiful home. The women’s terrible accounts in tandem with the fact that Persson Sarvestani never was subjected to any of this apparent hardship and abuse herself, finally provokes an unexpected outbreak of overwhelming emotion on her part. I suggest that this outbreak occurs because Persson Sarvestani suddenly feels ashamed about the fact that she escaped relatively unscathed while the others had to pay a high price for their political activities. What is pertinent to my argument here, is that as a consequence of both Persson Sarvestani’s liquid authorship and her position as the film’s enunciator, she dutifully includes this ambivalent scene in the film, causing potential embarrassment to any onlooker.
The hybrid quality of Persson Sarvestani’s essay films is also emphasised in the women’s subsequent enacted, emblematic performances in My Stolen Revolution. Due to limited space, I shall not go into the relevance, nature and formal characteristics of re-enactment as a visual trope in relation to documentary cinema here. Suffice it to say, that Persson Sarvestani’s use of re-enactment in My Stolen Revolution may seem problematic at first because of its apparent lack of relevance within the documentary journey format per se, and the interpellation at the heart of My Stolen Revolution in particular. However, with reference to Persson Sarvestani’s continuous interest in female agency as well as her openly political filmmaking, the women’s theatrical shedding of their prison costumes in the form of black robes, veils and blindfolds, amount to nothing less than a symbolic re-enactment of women’s liberation for the camera. This silent re-enactment is performed against a white background by all bar one of the Iranian women and obviously has a particular bearing on their own experiences. All performing women begin by looking steadily into the camera, but then something happens at the moment of execution. It’s almost ritualistic in character, like a peripeteia. Suddenly these women take on sometimes fierce, sometimes openly distressed faces, discarding their veils and robes in either fury or distress. They loosen their hair, thus stressing an ability to move freely again after having been confined. Dispersed over the film’s latter half, these silent motifs have a very strong impact on the audience – both in terms of the enactment per se, since some women initially were in severe doubt as to whether they could go through with it, but also in terms of the symbolic content of these re-enactments. Emblematic, yes, but still fully in line with Persson Sarvestani’s feminist auteurist vision. I, therefore, suggest that these re-enactments have a place within the film’s overall narrative structure or sujet. From a discursive point of view, the act of putting on, but especially discarding their garments, also conveys a clearly political message to both past and present day Iranian women, in favour of a democratic society without religious involvement. In my view, this is how Persson Sarvestani finally takes back control over her film.
Consequently, Persson Sarvestani’s auteurist approach manifests itself in her consistent creation of transparent film fabrics that reflect her role as the films’ enunciator. There can be no doubt that Persson Sarvestani’s films are the product of an overt first-person author. She is in the films simultaneously as enunciator, their narrator, and as a character–and all these figures are closely identified with the director herself. (Rascaroli 2009: 41). According to Rascaroli ‘[I]n … essayistic cinema, the subject of the enunciation literally inhabits the film and embodies in a narrator who identifies with the extra-textual author. This is what I refer to as a ‘strong enuciator’. (Rascaroli 2009: 193).
As for The Queen and I, Persson Sarvestani’s continued physical appearance in the film can also be theoretically linked to Bill Nichols’ participatory documentary mode in combination with Rascaroli’s declaration that although the presence-absence of the enunciator is key to the essay film, the direct address to the onlooker is equally essential in terms of the film’s success (Rascaroli 2009: 37). I have already mentioned that this ontological requisite becomes directly apparent when Persson Sarvestani lets the onlooker go through the same ordeal as when Farah Diba unexpectedly calls off her participation in the film project, and how the filmmaker manages to persuade her to resume their collaboration by telling the Queen ‘the whole story’, as it were. The strong dialogical relationship Persson Sarvestani has by then established between the film’s enunciator and the onlooker thus comes into play fully at this point (Rascaroli 2009:35), because the onlooker is as perplexed as the filmmaker herself when faced with this cliff-hanger. Many onlookers realise that this event could have put an end to the entire film project. I, therefore, suggest that Persson Sarvestani’s decision to include it in the finished film is twofold: it is a truthful reiteration of the narrative development as it happened and thus indicates the film’s self-reflexive character. However, by using this unexpected turn of events to extend and dramatise the film’s fabula, she simultaneously defines the hybrid quality characteristic of cinema in the essay film mode.
From the point of view of the auteur’s omnipotent presence and absolute power over her film project, I also want to point out that Persson Sarvestani’s original micro-narrative is henceforth overruled by the necessity to adjust her artistic vision, in relation to Farah Diba’s powerful person, despite being the film’s enunciator, and creator. Persson Sarvestani’s own history as a political activist, accepted by the Queen, subsequently plays an important role in the downplaying of the filmmaker’s female agency when discussing their opposing views on Iran’s former regime, in the film’s second half. By letting the grand narrative of historical Iran take precedence over the film’s initial topic (confronting Farah Diba with her brother’s death in the hands of her husband’s secret police), Persson Sarvestani’s authorial influence over the film’s fabula is seriously hampered and sidestepped. The question is however if the demise of its original topic also pulls the film’s narrative away from the enunciator’s control, or whether the adjustment of her artistic vision en route is merely a fair reflection of the liquid quality of Persson Sarvestani’s authorship.
A similar instance of an interpellation that is first initiated and then collapses also occurs in My Stolen Revolution after Persson Sarvestani has shared with the viewer her efforts to locate each one of the five women appearing in the film. Once the recording of their meeting at the filmmaker’s house has begun, it becomes clear that Persson Sarvestani, rather than participating herself, can in fact only listen and ask questions, as the women start telling their stories. These five women share unique memories and experiences of certain locales and situations to which the filmmaker herself cannot connect. The film’s objective thus becomes less clearly personal and subjective in relation to the filmmaker per se. Persson Sarvestani however clearly remains its enunciator because its topic, pronounced liquid character and interpellative qualities are typical features of her authorship.
I contend that the unexpected interventions on the above films’ initial narratives severely test Persson Sarvestani’s authorial role in her work, placing her authorship on a par with a notion that Rascaroli has described as a ‘double presence’ or ‘self-reflexive split’ in relation to the essay film format. The film’s authorship is thus disturbed and ‘played out in the interstices between narrator and enunciator’ (Rascaroli 2009: 40). Persson Sarvestani’s ‘self-reflexive split’ is evidenced by the fact that she has in both films initiated the meeting with Farah Diba, and the reunion of five the emigrated women, to discuss a preconceived announcement to the viewer in the films’ initial footage. From an epistemological point of view, Persson Sarvestani allows the narrative’s displacement to occur despite the fact that she must already, from the beginning, have been aware of the fact that she would not, for example, be able to testify to the horrors of Iran’s new regime when inviting the women to talk about their hardship while imprisoned in Iran, in My Stolen Revolution. Her authorship is therefore primarily located outside the films’ liquid fabula, limited to her role as the film’s narrator (in the form of a voice-over) and director, while still reminding us of the fact that ‘the voice-over [is a] privileged site of the textual construction of the enunciator; and … an instrument of expression of the author’s subjectivity and thought’ (Rascaroli 2009:14).
I argue that, contrary to many other first-person filmmakers mentioned in scholarly texts, the overt ‘double presence’ of the author in Persson Sarvestani’s work puts Rascaroli’s call for a strong enunciator to the test, based on her suggestion that ‘they [should] create a stronger impression of authorial presence than that to be experienced in most classical and narrative films.’ (Rascaroli 2009: 14). Persson Sarvestani thus openly undermines any heroic proportion of the enunciator as a heavenly inspired genius with consummate power. Instead, she endorses a possible discursive weakening of the enunciator’s role by making the auteur look ambivalent, as seen in the films discussed here. This weakening of the enunciator’s role is made manifest within the text by the films’ liquid narratives and their unstable self-reflexivity, which lessens their affinity with the traditional idea of signature auteur products by a filmmaker with s strong, personal artistic vision.
I suggest that the liquid quality of the narrative development in Persson Sarvesatani’s films is framed within the notion of authorial divestiture, a term used by Cecilia Sayad to reflect a conscious transition from traditional auteurism to a collective form of authorship (Sayad 2013: 40-41). This inclination is also suggested by Persson Sarvestani’s use of interior interpellation (or interior monologue, if you will) as a decisive contributing factor to both films’ fabula. Such a multivocal variety of interpellations leaves the spectator in limbo and further diminishes the authorial control over the voice-over’s narrative. I would even venture to say that the re-iteration of the fabula in both The Queen and I and My Stolen Revolution, in fact, depends on a liquid form of interpellation that overrides the films’ efforts to present two works by the hand of a strong enunciator. By allowing these dialogues to dominate the films’ narrative fabrics, Persson Sarvestani divests the fabula of her own authorial presence.
I believe that this is a key characteristic of Persson Sarvestani’s essay films, and it has a pivotal effect on her role as the films’ enunciator and author. It also seems to have had a direct bearing on her approach to the reiteration of evidence in the form of narrative voice-over and edited filmed footage in her self-reflexive documentary practice during the past ten years. This modus operandi results in the form of authorial intervention, which constitutes a unique take on the essay film format. Considered the most autobiographical format in relation to Rascaroli’s postulation that: ‘In first-person cinema, the address is unmistakably characterised as personal, as coming from an enunciator that overtly identifies with the empirical author’ (Rascaroli 2009: 15), the implications for introducing Nahid Persson Sarvestani as a strong enunciator seems to misfire.
Documentary films in the essay mode represent a hybrid form between fiction and non-fiction cinema, which results in ambivalence. What makes Persson Sarvestani’s essay films unique is subsequently their fluidity, their way of setting new targets en route, leading to a form of authorial divestiture which confirms the outright self-reflexive and liquid character of their mode. Her female authorship consequently makes way for the liquid enunciator in line with Zygmunt Bauman’s ideas on liquid modernity as fragmented, unstable and ambivalent (see Bauman 2000). I propose that Laura Rascaroli’s definition of the enunciator’s different roles, in tandem with Cecilia Sayad’s notions of authorial divestiture and collective authorship, all echo Bauman’s suggestion that a person can shift from one social position to another in a fluid manner. Hence my call for a definition of Persson Sarvestani’s authorship as communicated by a liquid enunciator in that they relate to a group of women and their journeys of factual, political and intellectual discovery. This is the hallmark of Persson Sarvestani’s agency as a female auteur.
 I am aware that their intimate dialogue of the Iran they once knew may tempt a labelling of The Queen and I as a film in the tradition of diasporic or accented cinema. I, however, suggest that any such measure is prevented by the film’s transparent film fabric, its documentary and interpellative dialogic form, as well as by its openly subjective cinematography.
Bauman, Zygmunt (2000), Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Naficy, Hamid (2001), Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Nichols, Bill (1991), Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts of Documentary, Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Rascaroli, Laura (2009), The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema And The Essay Film, London & New York: Wallflower Press.
Sayad, Cecilia (2013), Performing Authorship: Self-Inscription And Corporeality In The Cinema, London: I.B. Tauris.
Ulfsdotter, Boel (2018), ‘The Memories of Belleville Baby: Autofiction as Evidence’ in Boel Ulfsdotter & Anna Backman Rogers (eds), Female Authorship and the Documentary Image: Theory, Practice and Aesthetics, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 144-158.
Film & TV Programmes
Four Wives and One Man (2007), dir. Nahid Persson Sarvestani.
Michael Moore in Trumpland (2016), dir. Michael Moore.
Mosaik (1987-2003), Swedish Television.
My Stolen Revolution (2013), dir. Nahid Persson Sarvestani.
Prostitution Behind the Veil (2004), dir. Nahid Persson Sarvestani.
The Queen and I (Sweden, 2008), dir. Nahid Persson Sarvestani.
Searching for Sugar Man (2012), dir. Malik Bendjelloul.
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