It seems safe to say that global politics today are mired in presumptions and fears about “others.” Given this state of affairs, the Mizna program at the Walker is perfectly timed. Screening films from across the Middle East and North Africa region, the program states that it aims to share films that “redefine and reshape the landscape of stereotyped representations through cinematic technique and storytelling.” Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (Gaav, 1969, Iran) is a particularly astute choice. The Cow can be considered a mirror held up to the West’s latest crisis of divisive, xenophobic, and exclusionary politics. The film, set in a rural village in Iran, is preoccupied with determining the boundaries of community. Yet amid the troubling images of hatred displayed in the film, we also see the possibility of difference thriving, however briefly, within a broader collective.
At the center of the community portrayed in the film is a man named Masht Hassan, who owns the village’s sole cow. Hassan’s relationship with the cow is foregrounded in the first part of the film. The cow, unlike Hassan’s neglected wife, is treated with doting adoration. A memorable scene of Hassan bathing the animal in a pond has been described by Middle East Studies scholar Hamid Dabashi as one of cinema’s great love scenes. Hassan grunts, murmurs, and lets out joyous laughter as he washes the cow and drinks from the pond water. The scene establishes the unique relationship between Hassan and the cow through these loving gestures, reinforced by the location of the pond, which removes them from the center of the village.
The film, adapted from a short story by dissident writer Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi, is often referred to as the first Iranian New Wave film. Although there are several films made in the early 1960s that could contest this claim, what isimportant is that many critics agree there is something particular about The Cow that marks a new beginning for Iranian cinema. The film emphasizes a politics that was otherwise latent and less developed in earlier Iranian cinema of the time. The aesthetics of The Cow bear the influence of Italian neorealism and contemporaneous national new waves, while its politics can be understood as an allegory of competing domestic visions of nationhood. The film speaks to Iran’s anxieties about its position in the region and in relation to imperial forces.
It is not only the story of the singular relationship between Hassan and the cow that provokes the film’s examination of the boundaries of acceptability within a community, but also the imagined relationship the village holds with a group of people who live beyond its borders. These “others” are simply referred to in the film as the “Balouris,” and their name is called forth whenever there is a crisis in the village. Theft, vandalism, assault, and violence are all imagined as the province of the Balouris alone. The villagers’ fear is expressed by Mehrjui in the way he frames the Balouris: often depicted in a long shot, standing at the top of a small mountain, their silhouettes menacing against the pastoral landscape within the village’s boundaries.
Without spoiling the many pleasures of this important film, it is necessary to say here that things take a turn for the worse with the loss of Hassan’s cow. Hassan experiences a deep melancholia, for which the villagers antagonize and punish him. The cruelty enacted upon Hassan shows that he was only precariously accepted within the village. What was previously a hatred reserved for the outsider Balouris turns inward after the traumatic event of the cow’s death. These shifts in allegiances demonstrate the fragility of the community’s self-definition.
The Cow suggests that the answers to fighting and resisting this kind of exclusionary politics are not as clear as we might hope. What the allegory of the internal crumbling of the village shows us is that we must first look at ourselves. The brutality the village associates with the Balouris is no longer imagined; it is violence committed by the villagers themselves, and against one of their own.
In the end, there are two significant transformations in the film. In his melancholia, Masht Hassan “becomes” his cow, thereby only experiencing a true understanding of the village’s exclusionary politics by embodying the experience of a non-human subject. The villagers, bewildered by Hassan’s transformation, themselves “become” the enemy they fear—the Balouris. Thus The Cow is not about breaking stereotypes. It offers instead a rather important lesson on how easily the divisions between human, less than human, and non-human can slip, thereby showing us that the categories themselves are constructed on tenuous ground.