Philipp von Rosen

Shoja Azari

26 Jan - 01 Mar 2008


In his newest film Odyssey, the Iranian-born Shoja Azari leads us through a scene of post-apocalyptic ruin, which at first glance is reminiscent of the harrowing images of war-torn Iraq. While the camera moves along a series of seemingly endless passageways, accompanied by the far off sounds of a cello playing (Maya Beiser), we hear a voice-over of the Farsi-poem Thus spoke Earth (1992) from the Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou, telling the story of a conversation between man and the Earth during the End of Days. The Earth mourns in poignant verse man’s betrayal of her boundless love and devotion, which aside from injuring the Earth, has ultimately lead to the extinction of mankind itself. The Film starts with a pan across the façade of the crumbling building and then follows with a series of still shots, invoking of the earnest camerawork of TV news segments. This trusted style coddles its viewer into a sense of security and at the same times manages to refer to the dulling of modern day sensibilities suffered as a result of the constant consumption of this type of apportioned reality. Azari then breaks with this sequence of distant images and introduces a new rhythm to his account with dynamic camerawork.

We begin to read the scene differently and allow the movements of the camera to lead our changing perceptions of the scenery. At times we are left to examine the rawness of the slaughterhouse’s various instruments of torture, at others we are wisked along paths overgrown with weeds and grass, still yet we follow the building’s central corridor to the relentlessly steady pace of its abandoned, killing machinery. Grotesque details emerge, like a one-way sign amongst the chains and meat-hooks. It is only at the end of the film that the artist abandons this ascetic, documentary-like direction to confirm with a scene, remarkable for how haunting it is, what is previously only hinted at.

In light of the unimaginable crimes of the 20th Century, artists and intellectuals have questioned the reality of a god who would have accompanied mankind through such atrocities. With his film, Odyssey, Azari brings these existential doubts to the world of the 21st Century – a globalized world in which the front no longer runs East/West, but North/South, between First and Third Worlds, between Islamic and Judeo-Christian cultures.
Better said, Azari introduces us to a world where the conflicts, which have shaped our present, are long gone, where a trip through the halls of a former slaughterhouse is what is required to allow vague remembrances and associations to be brought to life. From the emotionless perspective of an unmanned surveillance drone, which has survived the fall of mankind and is left to probe the remains of a fallen civilization, Azari leads us to a place of ancient brutality, whose presence we recognize in videos of Islamistic terrorists beheading their victims and in the sanitized technologies of torture used in the Christian West (Guantanamo), a tradition of cruelty revived in the prisons of Abu Ghraib. However for Azari, who lives in the United States, it isn’t about taking a political position and legitimizing the moral grievances of one side against the other.

The Earth’s denunciation to man in the words of Shamlou’s poem that “Heaven, that swindler, teaches you that justice is more important than love!”, is much more a statement of radical pacifism than a justification for the use of force to achieve that which is seen to be just. It is a reference to the fatal consequences of supposed religious morality as the cause of unconscionable destruction. However Azari goes beyond questioning that which religion has been sought to justify. With “Alas! If love were in rein, there would be no cruelty to be a need for justice!”, he questions the fundamental efficacy of religion itself, in the same way as it was questioned after the Holocaust.

While the horrors of the Nazi-Terror were easily associated with a particular people and attitude and allowed the rest of the world to revel in its own comparative righteousness, the terror of the 21st Century has made such a clear separation of the world into good and evil parts impossible. When today even the so-called Free World must order its ideas of morality to allow for the use of torture, the Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” becomes subservient to a relative morality applied on a case by case basis according to the perceived necessity of the situation.
The consequence of this new order is the ostensible end of a god-given, universally applicable moral code. To follow Azari’s argument further, mankind wasn’t able to complete it’s Odyssey through the ages and reach salvation in the awaiting arms of it’s Penelope. It’s path goes further, but now without any guiding direction.

With the bare, three-tiered structure of camerawork, cello, and text, Azari connects with the work of his previous films where he endeavored to reduce each film to its most essential elements. If it can be said that in Window, a series of short films (2006), he had shortened nine different stories to the moment before the dramatic climax and then filmed these without cuts, then in Odyssey the production of the entire piece may be reduced to the movement of the camera. The layers of text, picture and music accompany and lend each other meaning, until finally in the last scene a person appears and, with a single, final deed, fulfills all grim expectations: with heavy steps he pushes a veiled corpse through the immense hall to deposit him among a waiting mass of covered bodies.

Azari was born in 1958 in Shiraz, Iran, emigrated in 1983, and has since been living in New York. Up until this point, Azari has made a name for himself mostly through his feature film work (including Maria do Los Angeles, 2003, and K, 2002), which have been shown at various international film festivals (Tribeca Film Festival and Festival del Cinema di Locarno, 2006; Gutek Poland International Film Festival, 2004; Belgrade International Film Festival, 2002 – 2003; IFP Los Angeles International Film Festival, 2003; Moscow International Film Festival, 2003; Venice International Film Festival, 2002; Thessaloniki International Film Festival, 2002). In addition, since 1997 Azari has been collaborating closely with the Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat, in, for example, Turbulent, which won the Golden Lion of the Biannual Film Festival in Venice (1998), Rapture (1999), Fervor (2000), Passage (2001), Possessed, Tooba (2002), The Last Word (2003), Mahdokht (2004) and most recently Zarin (2005). Being exhibited along with Odyssey are photographs from a series of the same name.

Tags: Shoja Azari, Shirin Neshat