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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Syriana, Iran, and Torture

It is morning in Tehran. An all-night party draws to a close. A young woman slips a pant suit, shades, and scarf over a short dress, exchanges her stilettos for flats, and walks out the door. The opening scene of Syriana silently touches on several deep tensions within Iran's complex social order. The first tension is between the rulers and the ruled. Commentators often conflate the overthrow of the Shah and the subsequent rise of religious factions to political authority, referring to both as Iran's "Islamic Revolution." The Shah was deposed by mass mobilization led by a number of groups, secular and sectarian, liberal and socialist. The religious faction filled the resulting power vacuum largely because it was the most efficient in providing local governance in rural areas and the most brutal in silencing political opposition.

Iran has never enjoyed a consensus regarding how to integrate Islam into a constitutional regime, in part because of a second tension, between the asceticism of Arab tribal practices thought integral to the religion despite its universalistic orientation and the celebratory dynamism of Persian culture. My Persian friends describe a tacit social compact, according to which the populace acquiesces to strict regulation of public behavior in exchange for relative freedom and privacy behind closed doors. The resolution of the second tension gives rise to a third, between a public sphere dominated by conservative norms and a private sphere in which personal behavior and intellectual exchange largely proceed as they always have. The film's opening scene identifies each of these tensions without a word of dialogue, which I consider a pretty neat trick.

Syriana also provides one of a growing number of representations of torture in film and television, in this case the disfigurement of George Clooney's character by a former CIA operative. On 24, protagonist Jack Bauer has shot and electrocuted suspects, broken their fingers, even faked the murder of one of their children to elicit information. During the first season of Lost, Jack and Sayid took a page out of Alan Dershowitz's playbook, inserting a (sterile?) reed under Sawyer's fingernail to learn the location of Shannon's asthma medication. This March, Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) will be subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in V for Vendetta, originally scheduled for release on Guy Falk's Day ("Remember, remember, the Fifth of November") but delayed following the London bombings. There's been some discussion about whether these representations inform or desensitize, but the focus on 24, though understandable (given the popularity of the show, the frequency with which it portrays torture, and the narrative context of counter-terrorism operations), is slightly misleading because, on that show, those subjected to torture typically possess and divulge the desired information. The other examples involve the torture of characters who know nothing (Clooney, Sawyer) or whose resistance to torture is meant to be ennobling (Evey). It is also striking how many of these fictional torture victims are white, perhaps encouraging audience identification. I don’t have a settled view on whether the depiction of torture in fictional media is for the better or for the worse, so I’ll just open this topic up for discussion.

I will wrap up my film-inspired postings shortly with a longer discussion of Munich and the concept of revenge.

Posted by Adil Haque on January 26, 2006 at 10:51 AM in Film | Permalink

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Comments

There is something more sinister about the incidents on 24. If the TV-watching American public sees it being used, and sees it getting the desired results, even in this fictionalized format (perhaps especially in this format, which has so much more dramatic impact than a well-thought-out legal argument), it is far easier for the administration to sell torture to them when the questions about secret prisons, treatment of prisoners (charged or not, American or not) in US-military-controlled facilities, and extraordinary rendition come up. The "legal details" do not interest the average voter, and they clearly seem to be difficult for the media to make comprehensible. And so the slide continues.

Posted by: George | Jan 27, 2006 10:38:41 AM

Shades of 1917.

Posted by: Roy Lofquist | Jan 26, 2006 3:37:14 PM

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