Brandon Stanton began a photography blog in 2010 entitled ‘Humans of New York’. He trawled the streets of the US city, initially with the aim of capturing the pictures of 10,000 strangers simply going about their business. His project evolved into a montage of flourishing New York. Photos are accompanied by illustrative text, a snippet of the subject’s personal life, a potted biography, or an observation. ‘Humans of New York’ snowballed in popularity and has almost a million followers on social networking sites. It became so successful that DKNY wanted to cash in and commercially exploit Stanton’s work. The fashion label offered him $15,000 to use his images, but he declined. He then discovered that his images had been used in a DKNY campaign in Thailand, and urged his followers to lobby the global brand to donate $100,000 to the YMCA in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, as an act of recompense. DKNY eventually apologised for the ‘mistake’ and donated $25,000 to his chosen charity. Stanton grasped the power of his visual medium and set out to widen this ‘humanising’ project. His quest took him on a two-week journey through Iran in December 2012.
The result is everyday encounters revealing themselves in images of people that are… utterly human. Anecdotes bring to life smiling faces and invoke a connection that transcends the barriers of geography, culture and religion. One of Stanton’s photos is of his guide. He has this to say about him:
Mahmoud was my driver during my time in Shiraz. Perhaps the most colourful man I’ve ever met. He speaks English in simple phrases, which always involve his name, such as “Mahmoud happy” or “Mahmoud love.” Often he just says “Mahmoud,” then points at me, and places his hands over his heart.
He is the most hospitable man I’ve ever met. If I needed to cross the street, Mahmoud became a crossing guard. He would not let me open my own car door, or my own bottle of water. At one time or another, it seemed that he offered to give me everything he owned. I once made the mistake of accepting his offer of cologne, then got sprayed eight times.
My fondest memory of Mahmoud was yesterday when we laid down to rest in a garden. Mahmoud had carefully prepared two beds using mats and blankets. I couldn’t fall asleep, so I decided to let Mahmoud rest, and went for a short walk by the river. When I looked back, Mahmoud had woken up, folded up both the beds, and was running to accompany me.
It turns out that Ben Affleck, director and star of Argo, has never met humans in Iran. To be fair, he was keen to travel to the country as part of his research of Argo but was sternly warned off by US State officials. Then there is the fact that he studied Middle Eastern Studies at university but didn’t actually graduate. I find this to be the most perfect analogy. Why? Because I’m guessing he’s a good guy with a progressive world-view who had decent intentions. Someone with a thirst and curiosity for plural perspectives, and an interest in other human beings as human beings, not dissimilar to Brandon Stanton. So, how did such a lauded and celebrated Academy Award-winning film as Argo turn out to be so utterly compromised?
Perhaps the answer lies in the opening sequence. Die-hard fans point to the first few minutes as a sure sign that Argo is a bastion of balance. Here there is an attempt to contextualise the hostage story about to be played out on the screen. We are introduced to a synopsis that sums up the where, the how and the why. Popular support for Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was crushed by the hated Shah in a US-backed coup. The Iranian revolution erupted and a seminal event was the storming of the US Embassy by revolutionaries who took fifty members of staff as hostages. Six of them managed to flee. It is their story of escape to freedom that Argo concerns itself with. Affleck was under no obligation to frame his work in any sort of historical context. In fact it could be argued that it was rather courageous to attempt to offer a back-story.
But what if such nobility serves to underwrite, justify even, the film’s more sinister flaw. Yes, the scene is set. It is set by an oversimplification of fig leaf proportions. There is a reductionism that conflates neat historical conclusions and leaves the viewer contentedly complacent. We are invited to feel pleased with ourselves for the lesson that allowed us to ‘understand’ what occurred. What is it that we actually understand? For the majority of Argo audiences, their analysis of Iranian history of the past four decades will begin and end within these few minutes. Worse still, far from actually understanding, we are given no real sense of place, just a misreading that is bereft of analysis. We are introduced to the beginnings of a context, but immediately invited to end our understanding at that very point.
A beginning is better than nothing, it could be argued. The consequences here, played out in a world of complications, however, are far-reaching. A missed opportunity is catapulted onto the screen and resounds with contemporary poignancy. A valiant attempt at context is used almost as a justification for the rest of the film’s laziness. Expectations heighten before crashing down as the movie descends into the predictable and disturbing mulch of stereotype and homogeneity of the Iranian people that epitomises their popular demonisation.
Argo is saturated with images of two-dimensional Iranian characters that are a routinely braying mass of hate and anger. There is no question of heterogeneity. The worst stereotypes are compounded, using the Islamophobic response ubiquitous in popular media – fear of the irrational, violent Muslim. That we have not moved on from such depictions is profoundly depressing. The only Iranian character that has any shred of suspected humanity is the Canadian ambassador’s maid. She is, however, portrayed as a dark, strained character who the ‘good guys’ are not sure they can trust. She is cast firmly as the Other, which is emphasised by the ambiguity that surrounds her – is she with us or against us? Her employers do not truly know her, just as none of the Iranian characters are allowed to be known. Even when she proves her credentials and does not betray the secret residing within the embassy, she is still a victim.
It is easy to come away with the impression that the entire population of Iran was gripped by revolutionary zeal in 1979. There are some informed moments, such as the hostages’ saunter through Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. The bazaar was a well-known force for conservatism and drew deep within its bowels the most enthusiastic zealots of the revolution. However, as with the rest of the film, a sprinkling of fact soon descends into utter conflation. A legion of outraged and screaming men swarms the screen like a pulsating, murderous mass. They are indistinguishable and ooze barbarity. Meet the humans of Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. There is no mention of the grievances of the previously law-abiding and peaceful merchant-class, the state meddling in their personal lives and the restrictions placed upon their social, political and religious freedoms. There is no context to this frothing, animalistic wrath except a rejection of democracy and freedom.
The good versus evil pretext of Argo is symptomatic of the US government’s intractable policy at the time. Like the needle of a record player restricted to the groove of the vinyl record it must play in ever decreasing circles before reaching the end only to automatically start again, US-Iranian history was set in that moment on the course that continues to define it. Argo neglects to explain that within Iran there were potential allies and swellings of resistance against the revolutionaries. That there could be diversity within Iranian politics was never entertained and instead the US response was to condemn relations with the evolving nation to the state in which they continue to exist today. Domestic politics within the US became tangential to the exacerbation of the hostage crisis. The film’s many gaping historical omissions include the sidelining of the role of the Canadians and the British.
There is ambivalence in the portrayal of the US government that I am sure Affleck is patting himself on the back for. No side comes away without critique. Except Hollywood of course. This is ironic considering its historical long-standing complicity in the fight against the Other. The current Other being those Reel Bad Muslims.
However, if you don’t stop to think, and allow yourself to be placated by the opening sequence, it is a thoroughly enjoyable film. John Goodman and Alan Arkin excel in their roles and there is no doubt that Affleck has seamlessly directed the film as a competent thriller. But then when the lights come on, it occurs to you to stop and think. At a time when the upheaval of change is occurring around the world, not least the on-going Arab Spring which continues to resonate in Iran, the film is a catalogue of un-thought. Mutual ignorance and the perpetuation of stereotype is the victor while Hollywood is the hero. The US movie industry may be structured on superficiality but the consequences are immediate and real, betraying parallels with contemporary global events. Argo is a reminder that the US is as befuddled by the Arab Spring as it was by the Iranian revolution. The fact that there has been no change in polarity between the US and Iran is one of the most horribly depressing themes of our time. Argo reinforces a wilful ignorance that is a recurring nightmare. And it is a constructed ignorance that can cost real lives. The lives of humans in New York and Tehran.
I hear that the Iranian government, outraged at the misrepresentation of its people and history in Argo, has commissioned its own film version of the hostage crisis. Affleck claimed that this was, for him, a great compliment. Really? It is hardly likely to be a subtle production, full of nuance and truth, accompanied by breath-taking cinematography exquisitely executed by the greats of Iranian independent cinema such as Abbas Kiarostami and Samira Makhmalbaf. Sadly, we can only expect an equally bludgeoning and ignorant retort offering another metaphor for the chasm of misunderstanding between the US and Iran. Ignorance and parody will prevail.