The Mongols


Iran / 1973 / Farsi

Directed by Parviz Kimiavi

With Parviz Kimiavi, Fahimeh Rastegar, Aqa Seyyed

Mongols2“The Mongols again. Always the Mongols.”

Their faces all gaze ahead in unison, and then an off-screen voice instructs them: look up, look down, look left, look right. They move accordingly, showing different angles to the camera. “You’re Mongols, not Turks,” they’re told, in a pretzeling ancient histories. This crowd of Turcoman migrants, probably laborers in the city, are being cast for a television documentary about Genghis Khan’s invasion of Persia. One man is singled out for the roundness of his face, which looks particularly Mongolian to the casting director. In Parviz Kimiavi’s extraordinary collision of otherness, modernization and mass communication, The Mongols, these men become the stand-ins for the feared plunderers of eight centuries ago, providing a dial with which he can channel-flip through his thoughts on hegemony and dominance, civilizational clash and social upheaval.

The men seem powerless, at the mercy of an unseen audience of directors, editors, and historical spectators. But that collective, blank look that they give off cuts through the technology, cuts through time like a crossbow shot, and engages in a strange face-off with the producers’ modern sensibilities. The television director sits in his dining room, flipping through Victorian engravings relating to pre-cinema. On the wall hangs one such scene, with a man watching a praxinoscope while a girl looks on curiously.

Two things weigh on the director’s mind: the special, which he is currently producing, about early cinema; and his upcoming move to the Southeast corner of the country, to the desert, to work on furthering the cause of television. Meanwhile his wife, seated opposite, works on her thesis about the Mongol invasions. The historical narrative through which she is wading sloshes about, soaking into his own thoughts, and growing into surreal vignettes of half-naked “Mongols” trapped in a sandstorm, or engaging in Monkees-esque antics in the desert.

“There were ‘white’ [good], ‘black’ [nomadic], and ‘wild’ [ungovernable] Tartars,” she reads, delving into the varied composition of the Khan’s army. On the soundtrack, along with her typing, we hear her thoughts as she reads from the Jami’ al-Tawarikh, a 14th-Century chronicle from Mongol Persia. Like television signal, their inner dialogues get criss-crossed and infect one another. Typewriter, television, ancient manuscript, cinema, oral lore – these media become transparent and overlap in strange juxtapositions.

“Zahedan?” she asks him, referring to the far-off city to which they’ll be moving. “When must we leave?” In two weeks, he tells her. They must stay there for a year, and their apprehension about this is glaring. They are headed to a place far from the civilization they know, to one of the ancient pockets of an Iran whose diversity is both cultural and temporal. Two jaded intellectuals, they both smoke cigarettes while reflecting on their disparate topics. She, an academic woman with close-cropped hair and he, a cinéaste who reads French, will be centuries out of place in their next home. This look into the abyss of otherness gets confused and convolved with one that took place before, countless times, in the form of Mongol incursions. Kimiavi cuts to the director (played by himself) in a jeep, but his wife is not with him, only his crew. Is he imagining this? Is he even making a film about the Mongols, or are they just stow-aways from his wife’s thesis?

Mongols6He’s part of a communications proliferation, an encroaching of satellite dishes into the forbidding hinterland. Kimiavi imagines his two hapless urbanites wandering a bare, white room holding their suitcases. With television signals bouncing around them, and electronic laser sounds dominating the soundtrack, they gaze out on the pebbly landscape from a technological ivory tower that they don’t comprehend. And it’s as bare and stagnant outside as it is in this theoretical room. However this pure, penetrating vista is somehow polluted by the dread of being toppled by a foreign onslaught, silent and total. In Valerio Zurlini’s immaculate, de Chirico-inspired Desert of the Tartars (1976), an unknown threat from beyond the pale is always kept out of sight, even while the very mention of it influences what happens onscreen. Without being too stylistically-bound, Kimiavi manages to be both literal and figurative, to map the incomprehension of his characters, the boxed freeplay of their minds in countless iterations, while maintaining the nebulousness of what they fear.

Minor things resonate disquietingly with the director’s wife’s research on Genghis Khan; on his way to the T.V. studio, the director catches the eye of his driver in the rearview mirror and its Asiaticness seems foreboding. Visions both menacing and ridiculous invade his thoughts, soaking into his exploration of proto-cinema; he imagines a fur-clad “Mongol” doffing his cap inside a Victorian zoetrope, or a Muybridge-inspired flipbook of striding “Mongols” in profile. While hiding behind Jean Mitry’s Histoire du cinema, he is ensconced in the secret history that his wife is reading, rapt by the sound of her typing. The chandelier that sits above them begins to spin, blown by a misplaced desert wind, and the “Mongols” dance in animated photos, hands linked.

Like in Desert of the Tartars, there’s a deliberate historical and cultural mismatch that places the feared hordes outside their native context. The area to where the director and his wife are moving hasn’t been conquered by steppe nomads (nor, arguably, any foreign entity for as long as the fiercely independent Baloch have been there), and Kimiavi has the band of Turcoman extras marauding the desert and introducing themselves as Mongols. They happen upon a large group of villagers who are busy excavating shards of pottery from the honeycombed ground. They’re taken back to the village, lured in with hospitality, and then locked inside a courtyard for the night. When the locals return later, they only find a bearded dervish there, braiding his hair. No Mongols here, he tells them. Like the director, their minds are playing tricks on them.

Mongols5The dervish in the courtyard is meant to be an echo of the apocryphal last survivor in Bukhara, who called the Mongol invasion the “wrath of God.” For more of history than not, settled populations had good reason to fear the mobile and seemingly invincible nomadic armies. The fear continues, seemingly welded to their DNA. The director’s wife, in voice-over, reads about the Tartars pillaging the Islamic cities of Northeastern Persia. She recites in a slow, rhythmic way, no doubt how these chronicles were meant to be recited. The camera spins 360 degrees over an empty landscape to the sound of galloping horses. But the director is all alone in an abandoned caravansarai, checking all the doorways. Perhaps there is no documentary, and that casting session at the beginning was for the very film that we’re watching. That opening scene is self-referential, as is everything that follows it.

No one in the ancient, walled city in Balochistan has ever seen a Mongol, but they’ve heard stories. A doddering old man tells the dervish that he was but an embryo in his mother when the hordes came from afar to ransack all of Persia. The place is one of those within striking distance of antiquity, and the people there still quake at the mention of Mongols, whose reputation goes even further than the half-continent that once paid them tribute. But even here, the dream of cinema bubbles up, as the squeaky windmills turn into spinning zoetropes.

He imagines himself as a silent-film director, aiming a gun-like camera at a Muybridge bird while the “Mongols” watch. They run away at the sound of it, then run back in reverse, chasing him over the dunes in Benny Hill style. Preparing him for the move, someone tells him: “distances mean nothing these days.” But that, of course, refers to communication and not to culture – it could be a thousand years to the next village. He coils and follows an invisible cable. Aerials protrude willy-nilly, and the “Mongols” uproot and carry them away. A strand of film disappears underground like sand-worm. “This film never finishes,” one Turcoman quips.

Still from 'The Mongols'The villagers carry a television through the town ceremoniously. Meanwhile the bearded dervish tells a story in a traditional way (illustrated by a woven curtain) to a seated group in the town square. The men bearing the television interrupt the performance to announce “television!” The audience looks up at them, and then returns to listening to the dervish’s narration of Abbas arriving at the Euphrates and founding his empire. The men carry the television into a house and lounge about the room drinking tea, watching the oscilloscope on the screen and laughing at its flickerings. Their mirth stops abruptly as the crowd of “Mongols” appears in front of them, staring back through the box. That reciprocal gaze (semi-comical, like nearly everything in the film) freezes the villagers, making them think twice about having a television set.

“They look like devil’s heads,” one villager says of the satellite dishes appearing all around. “Why couldn’t they plant trees instead?” another asks. The director is displacing the fear of steppe nomads with ambivalence at being at the vanguard of a new invasion, of gentrifying the desert. He is part of a modern project that has the audacity to try to supplant traditional ways of life the world over, and he’s not confident of its merits. While he’s experiencing these thoughts the Turcoman extras sit in the sand with nothing to do. “Can we go back to Gorgan?” one man says. His friend tells him to wait to hear instructions from the television. “What’s that?” he wonders. Later they’re standing in front of a lone gate in the middle of nowhere. They ring the intercom but don’t receive an answer. The gate is open. So, after some hesitation, they all run through it at once, full throttle.

“You’ll have to go with them,” the director is told. “You’ll have to stay with them.”

None of this is fact, reality, history, or performance; it’s a strange inter-combination of them, like a Rubik’s cube with no solution that is continually being turned over to a new array of colors. The film is a sieve that ideas can slip through and return again, each leading not to a conclusion but to an implosion that leaves behind the next one. The Mongols shows the breadth of material and the vastness of discursive flights, not to mention the level of whimsy and liberalism that were possible in pre-revolutionary Iran. Kimiavi’s love of eccentrics, seen in his more substantial body of documentary work, is seen in both the wild-eyed dervish and the toothless village man, who, recounting tales of the Mongols’ exploits, sends himself into a childish paroxysm and runs for cover.

Mongols4In a ceaselessly playful way, Kimiavi imagines an alternate birth of cinema, taking place in the deep recesses of social memory. It comes from centuries ago, a direct broadcast from the nullity of the obscure past. Cinema itself is treated a conduit for the creeping fear that the modern has for that blankness and silence. There is an existential panic in the developed world’s treatment of a perceived antiquity, of archaism, as though looking through the tube at a laughing image of its own dissolution.

There is a cloying Western tendency to label any artist who manages something genuinely unique in a repressive environment as a satirist. While there may be a great deal of satire in his successive fiction work, like 1979’s O.K. Mister, there’s enough range to the purview of The Mongols (even in its minimal setting) to be both commentary and stray into broader philosophy. In the surrealist structurelessness that he goes for, he’s free to introduce ungainly metaphors as literally as he likes, and to put himself onto the table, such as the film’s statements on what it’s like being a filmmaker. The workers who appeared to be constructing a telecom site are in fact making a scaffold for the director, and the guillotine has a television set for its blade. After it drops, what rolls away isn’t a severed head but a film canister. An empty film canister.

Some critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum among them, have compared Kimiavi to Godard, thereby damning with faint praise. While he may be a descendant of Godard’s, he seems to have a lot more ideas, and envisions them in ways that are equally illuminating and confounding. The far-flung associations that he brings out, disparate as they are, and with digressions strewn everywhere, nonetheless align in ingenious ways. They’re like a tangle of cables that, when picked up and followed, all lead to the same patchboard.

Still from 'The Mongols'Is the past another country? Are other countries, by extension, the past? In an absurdist, unrestrained way, the film turns these questions around, and around, and around, until they give the appearance of motion. The resulting synthesis has no genre, and barely even any form. It may not even be a film at all, but a knot of ideas parsed out by way of scattering, like winnowing. Mobius-like, The Mongols deals in hitherto unimagined feedback loops, the conjunct possibilities that pop up in the mind of the documentary-maker trying to fashion reality. But then, who is really calling the shots? Perhaps it’s been the Mongols all along.

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