I have been working with a Rails mentor (the very wonderful Maria Gutierrez) to help learn how to build an app from scratch. I’ve had an idea in mind for a couple of years, but never thought I knew quite enough to do it all on my own. I have a ten-year-long habit of downplaying my skills and abilities in this field. First, I was going to find a couple of developers to make it for me. Then I decided I would do all the design and front-end work and find someone to do the rest. Then I decided I would just learn how to do it all myself.
Maria and I set up the working framework of the application and guess what? It works. This idea I had for years and which I thought I didn’t have the ability to make reality - it’s a working, existing thing. It’s pretty amazing. It makes me wonder why people who have the ability to do this aren’t doing it all the time, because it’s so much fun.
Which brings me to Iranian cinema. (Stay with me. I know where I’m going.)
I’ve long been a fan of Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who has been making neo-realistic films tinged with his humanitarian perspective for years. Or, at least, he had been. Since early 2010, he has been under house arrest and under a twenty-year ban from doing anything associated with filmmaking by the Iranian government, who convicted him of propaganda because of perceived anti-government messages in his films.
Twenty years of being explicitly prohibited from doing what you love, what you live, to do. Twenty years of being prohibited to create art and express your opinion because your government doesn’t approve.
In 2011, the Cannes Film Festival screened Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, a loose documentary that thumbed its nose at the governmental filmmaking ban while providing a window into Panahi’s imprisonment and struggle. It was smuggled out of Iran to Cannes on an USB drive hidden inside of a cake.
This film broke my heart. Compounding the heartbreak are the recent reviews of Panahi’s latest “film,” Closed Curtain, which just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and which paint a portrait of his increasing despair. There are also reports of the struggles other Iranian filmmakers are having getting their art past the governmental censors. In addition to heartbreak, there is a deep sense of helplessness. Although the international film community has rallied in support of Panahi, there is little anyone can effectively do to do change his current situation. Certainly not Western film viewers like I am.
However, thinking about Panahi’s example and how it could possibly relate to me made me think about my own process and habits of creation. If we can’t do anything to help Panahi materially, could we honor his lesson, a lesson he’s gone to such pains to document and share? Because think about this - even after everything, he’s still making films. He is still finding ways to create. In an environment specifically designed to stop him from creating, he is still making things. He hasn’t given up, he hasn’t backed down, he hasn’t given in. He is still making things.
There’s a powerful lesson there, especially for Western film viewers like I am. Whatever barriers you think are preventing you from making something? Find a way around them. Examine your biases, examine your shortcomings, examine the reasons why you are not doing something you want to do. Because, frankly, they’re not good enough. They may be inside you, they may be outside you. Make ways around them. So that you can make more things.
I held myself back from learning and making things I wanted to for years, for reasons that didn’t deserve the time and energy I gave them. I saw similar barriers in front of other people, some of which were translated from and into the system that surrounded them, and I started helping to create ways to break all of it down. It’s an interesting paradox that sometimes the best way to break something unjust down is to focus on creating something new. And that you don’t have to lead a revolution. Just do something small for yourself, and see where it goes.
My first and favorite Panahi film is Offside, the tale of several young Iranian girls who try to get into a soccer stadium to watch a game, in spite of the fact women are not allowed in stadiums. He talks about the similar situation with his daughter that inspired him to make the film:
There is always a way. If it doesn’t exist, make it.
This Is Not a Film’s co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, told the audience at Cannes in 2011 that: “The god Zaroastra said that to fight darkness you don’t brandish a sword but you light a candle.” Light a candle. Go make something.