Dropping Off the Face of the Earth 2015
Roya Akbari’s previous two short films Only Image Remains (2014) and Dancing Mania (2012) engaged the personal documentary form with specific attention to the context and production conditions of Iranian cinema. In Dancing Mania, she follows the making of her sister’s featureFrom Tehran to London (2012), threading together her own questions and interpretation of what is occurring within the film. The result is a parallel trajectory that explores the play of symbolic meanings invented in a cinema constrained by strict conditions of control. In Only Image Remains she takes as a point of departure her off-screen role in Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, and proceeds from there to weave in interviews from prominent contemporary Iranian directors on the historical roots of cinema in Iran. In her thesis film, Dropping Off the Face of the Earth(2015), she shifts her attention to her own transnational life and subjectivity as an Iranian immigrant to Canada.
In a studio visit last year, she described being struck by the beauty of the landscape in British Columbia when she first arrived and feeling a sense of solace in the tranquility of the natural environment that was in deep contrast to the place she was leaving. As a young art student, this portrait quickly unraveled for her as she began to see, through artworks by Aboriginal artists such as Dana Claxton and Rebecca Belmore, that her new home was also underwritten by a trajectory of violence that had not been visible to her before. Thus through the medium of an essay film, Akbari attempts to grapple with the complexity of her forming relationship to Canada with this new knowledge in mind.
The video attempts to perform an act of excavation, to see past surfaces and reach further into the history of place. This impulse can be likened to what motivated artist Greg Curnoe to produce the journal Deeds/Abstracts (1995), which traced the history of the occupancy his property in London, Ontario, back thousands of years in order to understand both its working-class and pre-European settlement histories. Frank Davey has commented about Curnoe’s project that “He felt strongly that as a white individual he had benefited directly from the injustices First Nations people had suffered and that a major part of that benefit was hidden in the Canadian ‘forgetting’ of thousands of years of First Nations social development and inhabiting of the land.” In the forward to the book, Curnoe writes: “I have felt the power of many details adding up to an understanding of the ground I am standing on.” This statement could also be held to stand for a sensibility shared by Akbari, who likewise seeks to deepen her understanding of the ground she now resides on. Her own artistic response takes the form of a video letter, in which she invokes her empathetic identification with the silencing of aboriginal history through the lens of her own experience of violent cultural suppression under the Iranian regime. Akbari, in her voiceover narration, proposes this point of commonality: “The concept of home for me and you is not devoid of pain and agony and its memories, not free of violence.”
A key thematic within the video is the notion of visibility, which is addressed formally within the picture edit and framing decisions that include partial views that convey a symbolic resonance with the notion of suppression and being blinded to the whole picture. Views of the lakeshore are captured through underpasses and other concrete structures that allow only partial access to the vista. Her images highlight the density of the built-environment—infrastructure such as the subway and rail systems—against the enduring presence a waterfront ecosystem that is psychically erased by the current division of the lands. In one shot, she frames her reflection on the subway doors as she exits into Museum station, which displays a colonnade that has been decorated to invoke the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum housed above the station. This taxonomical display, devised as popular marketing tool, includes a pastiche of representations such as an Egyptian deity and a Toltec warrier that flatten these cultures into mere decorative adornment and mythic abstraction. In particular, the inclusion of a reproduction of a Wuikinuxv First Nation bear house post foregrounds the extent to which aboriginal icons and symbols have been exploited in a way that conceals the ongoing ramifications of colonization in Canada. This force of concealment is a subject that personally concerns Akbari.
Throughout the video, it seems as if Akbari is struggling to figure herself within the complex symbolic register of contemporary Toronto. In some sequences, she looks trough window displays and signage in Chinatown attempting to comprehend her position in relation to competing layers of cultural formations, as in a brief scene of ordering food in a Chinese restaurant. Her camera records Chinese and Vietnamese street advertising, as well as a selection of mannequin heads that sport both Rastafarian hats and protective winter masks. These latter accessories, used to protect the face against the harsh winter elements, create alternate connotations in relationship to the legal
enforcement of women’s head covering in Iran. Akbari’s own body appears most vividly within the film in a morning ritual of preparation that includes the blow-drying of her vibrantly died hair. This punch of colour has charged meaning in relation to the imposition of legal regulations of female appearance in Iran and suggests an expressive desire that carries over into her life in Toronto. Describing this context, journalist Farah Shilandari writes: “a lot of Iranian women try to show their disobedience through putting some strands of their hair out of their scarves (…) Such gestures of disobedience allow Iranian women to develop their identities specifically for the reason that they are forbidden; and enables them to construct their identities against the torturous rituals governing what they are forced to wear, how they are expected to act, the gestures they have to control, the daily struggle against arbitrary rules and restrictions.”
One of the ways in which Cinema consistently silences subjects is by omission. In her two previous films, she draws attention to the absence of visualization of female bodies within Iranian cinema. Indeed, owing to a technical failure, Akbari’s appearance in one Kiarostami’s film was limited to her voice only, while her image was lost. In conceiving of her place in Canada, Akbari does not want to perpetuate errors of omission. In her voiceover, she invokes “It was as if the spirit of this place, was buried underneath the river.” Building out this metaphor, the images she collects attempt to draw attention to the mechanisms of visibility and invisibility in Canadian visual culture. Her film is bookended by two images—at the outset of the film, she is seen turning off studio lights aimed at a white seamless backrop, and at the end of the film, she rolls up a black one, effectively setting and clearing the stage for new perceptions. Structurally, these images serve the purpose of reinforcing the terms at stake in the film—the problem of seeing a place for all its histories and negotiating a place within it.
A curatorial essay by Sarah Robayo Sheridan
All photo credits: Jesse Boles
multichannel digital video essay Farsi with English subtitles @University of Toronto Art Centre