World affairs:

Beyond denial

posted by Justin Neuman

For a brief moment in 2007, news of a hit Iranian television series, whose Farsi title was translated variously as Zero Degree Turn or Zero Point Orbit, proliferated across the print and digital mediascapes of the Anglophone world. The series, created by Iranian director Hassan Fathi at great expense and broadcast in a thirty-episode season on the flagship state television station IRIB1, revolves around a Romeo and Juliet plot of illicit romance, with a distinctive twist: while the proverbial Romeo is one Habib Parsa (played by Iranian hearthrob Shahab Hosseini), a Muslim Iranian pursuing his studies in France, his Juliet is none other than a Jewish classmate, Sarah Astrok (played by the French actress Nathalie Matti), with whom he falls in love.

The series, a historical fiction set during the Second World War and filmed in Paris, Budapest, and Tehran, casts Habib and Sarah as star-crossed lovers in a world at war, during the course of which Habib saves Sarah and her family from the Nazi concentration camps by facilitating their escape from France and Nazi persecution with Iranian passports. At the same time as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was making international news with his Holocaust denial and vitriolic anti-Semitism—rhetoric that has become central to Iran’s foreign policy and saturated its domestic media since his presidential election in 2005—Zero Degree Turn’s frank engagement with the Holocaust as a historical reality, its depiction of secular culture, and its egalitarian, interfaith romance stunned Iran-watchers in the West. During the Ramadan fast, millions of Iranians gathered to watch the series finale, filmed amidst the ruins of Persepolis, in which Habib and Sarah reunite after years of hardship and persecution. “If Ahmadinejad perpetuates the Islamic Republic’s traditional attempts to undermine Israel’s right to exist by denying and/or trivializing the Holocaust,” asked the Jerusalem Post, “then why has Iranian state television produced Zero Degree Turn?”

Why indeed? While editorials rushed to put forward consequentialist readings, a more patient approach would instead be to step back and investigate instead what watching Zero Degree Turn can teach Western audiences about the way Iranians might imagine themselves, their histories, and their futures, beyond their rulers’ genocidal rhetoric. Especially now, several years after the series aired, in light of the disputed Iranian presidential elections of 2009, the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the developments of the Arab Spring, Zero Degree Turn offers a unique invitation to call attention to the relationship between popular media and affective engagement, and to cultivate new knowledge where political grandstanding too often trumps substantive engagement.

Without a doubt, the series merits broader attention; it should be seen, discussed, and engaged as a potential vehicle for positive cosmopolitan exchange and as a basis for a more productive future among contentious parties in a complex global system. More than anything else, I intend this post as an invitation to begin such a project; almost no one has watched Zero Degree Turn in the Anglophone world—coverage was limited to a few two-minute video clips and trailers linked to online editorials. Sources from BBC News to The Christian Science Monitor mapped similar political, historical, and ideological coordinates—citing the show’s uncharacteristically high production costs, its high viewership numbers, and the historical figures on whom Fathi based his hero. All then turn to rehash the well-documented anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial with which Ahmadinejad attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the Israeli state and bolster his domestic popularity.

As it turns out, one consequence of Iranian restrictions of press freedoms is an enforced monolingualism: despite its 2007 distribution in Europe on satellite television and a DVD release by a company in California, no complete subtitled version of Zero Degree Turn is available. Non-Farsi speakers like myself must watch online videos of varying quality, hosted by YouTube and other sites. Official links to the series on the Iran Broadcasting website are dead, but by cobbling together subtitled fragments posted by various YouTube users, a diligent Anglophone audience can gain access to episodes one, eight, and nine through the links provided here, and it is to these episodes that I turn my attention in this post.

The climax of the ninth episode occurs in a classroom that, in the melodrama’s exaggerated visual style, evokes a theater. The simple staging places Habib and Sarah side by side on the dais of a lecture hall facing a few dozen students, their contemporaries, who take notes and exchange conversation in the stadium seating; alongside them, but away from the lectern, stands a respected professor. The presentation, delivered by a complementarily attired Habib and Sarah, concerns their research on the philosophical views of, and possible connections between, seventeenth-century Shia theologian Mulla Sadra and his Dutch contemporary Baruch Spinoza. In speeches of equal length, Habib and Sarah present the fruits of a collaborative intellectual project, trading insights on Spinoza’s monism and Sadra’s rationalist conceptions of beauty, truth, and goodness. The episode stages analysis not as cultural contest but as an exchange in the Socratic, or Habermasean, public sphere.

The majority of the shots are taken either from in front of the lecturing pair or from Sarah’s side, where the camera angle and composition emphasize Sarah and Habib’s equal stature and confidence in oral argumentation. This composition is all the more striking when compared to other scenes in the series, particularly domestic interiors and thresholds, where Sarah appears inches shorter than Habib and looks up at him in moments thick with erotic tension. The message conveyed by the staging and content could hardly be clearer: two representatives of their respective cultures analyze leading liberal figures of seventeenth-century thought as equals under the secular codes of academic knowledge-production. Islam and Judaism are formally equivalent as objects of rational inquiry, independent of Habib and Sarah’s private affective commitments to their religions. One of the most striking aspects of Zero Degree Turn is the way the series depicts and celebrates secular social norms and practices distinctly at odds with the Islamic Republic’s constitutional regulation of dress, social comportment, and public morality. Not only does the series depict uncovered women, it revels in elaborate period costumes evocative of Paris in the 1940s and, more importantly, accurately portrays the secular norms of Iranian intellectual culture under Pahlavi rule. The first episode prominently features a damning critique of censorship and casts Habib as a staunch defender of a free press. In the ninth episode, the secular space of the classroom, governed by norms of free intellectual inquiry and expression, upholds both a democratic polity and an egalitarian romance under threat from an external totalitarian force.

Habib and Sarah’s presentation is interrupted by the entrance of a German Waffen SS officer and his contingent. In keeping with the careful attention to historical costume characteristic of Zero Degree Turn, the scene emphasizes the black formal uniform of the commanding officer, a haughty Sturmbannfuhrer wearing the SS runes, braids, stars, and cap attendant to his rank. Behind him stands a young officer named Schmit Mayer, a former classmate of Habib and Sarah’s during his pre-war days as a German student in Paris. In an inspection of a university regarded as a hotbed of potential resistance, the senior officer confronts first the professor and then Habib and Sarah about the content of their presentation. Discovering that their subject is Spinoza, the officer attacks Sarah with a question: “I think Spinoza was a Jew thinker of the bad and renegade type. Is this not so?” As Sarah stutters in fear, Habib interjects with a raised hand and deflects the conversation to his own identity as an Iranian. Drawing the officer skillfully into a discussion of Hölderlin, Habib springs a rhetorical trap, quoting the poet to the effect of cryptic adage and veiled critique: “As you have commenced, you shall always be likewise.” The officer refuses the bait, continuing his interrogation: “So your research is on the Jew Spinoza,” he continues. “Is there a Jew in this class?” Seconds of tense silence tick by with the camera panning the students, who keep their eyes averted until Habib again interjects to assert that “here we are more familiar with each other’s nationality rather than the religion or race we belong to,” a claim corroborated by the informant, Schmit Mayer.

Not only do the French and Iranian students conceal and protect Sarah’s Jewish identity, a German officer actively conspires with the students in a treasonous act against his own commanding officer. Later in the episode, Schmit takes Habib aside to pass on the warning that “They’re [the Gestapo] going to start identifying and arresting Jew (sic) nationals…separating the Jews and transferring them to concentration camps.” In numerous moments such as this Zero Degree Turn takes pains to emphasize the complex entanglements that motivate diverse people, most of ‘good’ hearts, to do what they do in times of emergency. As Schmit puts it to Habib during a rainy street scene in episode nine: “When a war breaks out, unfortunately, we ordinary people have this only (sic) chance to choose between the bad and worse.” An equivocation, clearly, and the series’ portrayal of the historical reality of the Holocaust does not imply its support for a Jewish state in the Middle East; instead, while sympathizing with the Holocaust’s Jewish victims, Zero Degree Turn casts the main villain as Sarah’s Zionist uncle Theodor (clearly named in reference to Theodor Herzl), a Mephistophelean figure who opposes Sarah and Habib’s love while colluding with the Nazis to facilitate the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In this way, the series attempts to disaggregate anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and thus to disconnect recognition of the Holocaust from recognition of Israel.

Nonetheless, the series marks a potential for substantive intercultural understanding, so often thwarted by censorship, corrosive politics, and the systematic preaching of hate. It reminds us of alternate histories to the one we now inhabit, where, as Benjamin Netanyahu argued in his May 24, 2011, address to a joint session of Congress, Israel regards Iran as the gravest threat to its security. During the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and particularly during Muhammad Mossadeq’s administration, Israel and Iran enjoyed mutually beneficial ties: Iranian oil flowed to European markets through the Elat-Ashkelon pipeline, and Iran, like Turkey, and Ethopia, formed part of Ben Gurion’s “Alliance of the Periphery.” For those in the West, the popularity of Zero Degree Turn suggests at the very least that Iranians are willing to imagine far more nuanced engagements with the Holocaust than president Ahmadinejad’s denialist rhetoric would suggest.

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One Response to “Beyond denial”

  1. avatar Sarah Marusek says:

    Thank you for your excellent post. However I think that calling President Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric genocidal is an oversimplification, and undermines your own keen observation about how important Zero Degree Turn is because “the series attempts to disaggregate anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and thus to disconnect recognition of the Holocaust from recognition of Israel.” Ahmadinejad does not threaten Jews, only the state of Israel. In fact there are thousands of Jews still proudly living in Iran and they are represented in the Islamic Republic’s parliament. Furthermore the President’s denials of the Holocaust are less a symptom of anti-Semitism but instead a crude kind of questioning Israel’s “right to exist.”

    And just an observation on your comment, “As it turns out, one consequence of Iranian restrictions of press freedoms is an enforced monolingualism: despite its 2007 distribution in Europe on satellite television and a DVD release by a company in California, no complete subtitled version of Zero Degree Turn is available.” Is the lack of a subtitled version really the result of Iranian law? Or because of a limited demand in the Western free capitalist market? I seriously doubt that it is the former. Perhaps it would be more reasonable to lament the fact that the Iranian government does not automatically provide a subtitled version as a means of cultural diplomacy, rather than taking a blind jab at the press laws in Iran.

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