Open City Documentary Festival

24th–30th
April 2024
across London

Mahan Moalemi on the Films of Maryam Tafakory

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As part of a series of texts commissioned around this year’s festival programme, Mahan Moalemi writes on the films of Maryam Tafakory.

It all begins in medias res, and ends there as well, in the middle of nowhere. The compulsive and all-consuming method in Maryam Tafakory’s experimental shorts remains tied to a quest for an oxymoronic middle ground between intimacy and separation, like when fire runs on water, when dawn meets dusk at the twilight of montage. At once featuring so many and no characters at all, each of her films itself might in fact play as the characterisation of a disjointed mood, one which would reach for disturbance whenever a craving for solace kicks in. Her editorial aesthetic is mobilised around the kind of cut that brings about closeness, maybe counterintuitively but no less concretely.

Particularly in Nazarbazi (2022), she shows how the impossibility of immediate contact between two yearning bodies can set the stage for the becoming prosthetic of their organs, for the end of autonomy, as they come to rediscover their figures via the mediation of every bit of matter, visible or not, that was set to fulfil the function of a gap or congestion. In this sense, Tafakory ruminates on the often-dismissed representations of many de facto unprecedented senses and documents the fictional moments when they will have been registered by members to come. She uses the fundamentals of the cinematic craft to create an allegory for a potential dialectics between the deprivation and intensification of the sensorium, for all the ways in which visual fixation numbs the flesh and blindness accentuates corporeality. Can the bare idea of a body, sans any a priori bearing on reality, sense itself into being?

Perhaps, to paraphrase Elizabeth Fisher via Ursula K. Le Guin, Irani Bag (2021) presents a carrier bag theory of friction and other haptic dramas. The film follows a shared set of circumstances under which a bag, whether a tote, clutch, or satchel, operates like an entire narrative device. More than containing anything inside itself, each of the featured bags is marked as the locus of relations that unfold around it – a staple MacGuffin always within arm’s reach. The bag mediates embodied orchestrations and is in return animated by a host of bodily interactions that by and large remain virtual, only momentarily realised via the limited surrogacy of whatever kind of handling a handbag or a backpack could offer. A recipient of the surrounding intensities and rerouting them toward the screen, the bag is not only an alibi for continued repression, like a safety valve for what remains uncontainable no matter how strict the restrictions, but also a transgressive channel for smuggling forbidden emotions. The bag in post-revolutionary Iranian cinema, Tafakory shows, serves as a social medium par excellence as it disappears into the background while enabling the otherwise unrepresentable to make the main appearance on-screen.

But the bag is most often gendered. Tafakory is unconcerned with the myth that a neutral modus vivendi or an unmarked medium is. Her visual archaeology looks into the biopolitics that underlies the becoming vessel of the female body, how it is both inundated with draining restrictions and compelled to provide alternative channels for expression. This is not as much a disclosure of the near impossibility of giving carnal feelings a public face as an exploration of how female sexuality in particular and gender positions othered by theocratic patriarchy in general not only persist but also extend their agencies into radical perversities thereof. A Tafakory film itself is born out of a personal and unruly approach to archiving as a poesis of summoning popular memories into pirate repositories beyond the officialdom of institutional gatekeepers. Hers is a practice of rewiring access over space and time, gleaning and assembling the fragmented common denominator of a range of fictions steeped in the coexisting realities of overdetermination and underrepresentation.


Mahan Moalemi is a writer and curator from Tehran and a current PhD student in the Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies at Harvard University. He is the co-editor of Ethnofuturisms (Merve Verlag, 2018) and his writings have appeared in art-agenda, Art in America, Cabinet, Domus, Frieze, and Spike Art Magazine, among other journals, anthologies, exhibition catalogs, and artist monographs. He was the 2021–⁠2022 recipient of the Graduate Curatorial Fellowship at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts