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The dismal, desert landscape in Wawrzyniec Kolbusz’s latest photographic series looks much like the bombed-out terrain we often see in documentary war images. Here, though, it’s just as contrived as anything at Disneyland. The terrain was manipulated by set designers at Cinema City, a functioning studio production house outside Tehran that specializes in unique brand of cinema known as “Sacred Defense.”
This genre of Iranian filmmaking began in 1980, not long after Saddam Hussein’s troops invaded Iran by land and sea. As thousands of Iranians were dying in the bloody conflict, the country drew on its rich film history — cinema spread from France to Iran before it reached the United States — to stir its citizens to fight. The war movies they created emphasized Islamic religious ideals; soldiers were depicted as self-sacrificial martyrs committed to a cause, contrasting favorably with their greedy and bloody-thirsty Iraqi counterparts. To date, the strange genre has produced over 100 films — some of which have even won international awards.
Kolbusz first heard about Cinema City while reading a history of Iranian film, and he was struck by the way it had helped create a noble mythology of war that didn’t always sync up with the truth. “Sacred Defense is a story of producing artificial war images and reconstructing historical events to create a group memory,” the photographer explains in his artist’s statement. “[It] is a game, in which images make us believe we see war. We are looking at illusions, however.”
As part of the series, Kolbusz photographed the Museum of Holy Defense in Kerman and the Holy Defense Museum in Tehran, which opened in 2013 with the aim of “[promoting] resistance culture.” Its high-tech displays include simulations of what bombardment feels like, reconstructions of destroyed classrooms and bullet-riddled bedrooms, and also wax figurines of soldiers in action. In the gift shop, visitors can even buy plastic replicas of hand grenades and land mines. Kolbusz’s eerie images of these scenes and objects explore a society’s fascination with its traumatic past, even as it’s surrounded by new conflicts.
But if it seems like the project simply confirms old stereotypes about Iran as a country of war and propaganda, Kolbusz’s argument is actually much more nuanced. The series — recently shortlisted for the 2015 Hyères Award — includes manipulated satellite images of Iranian nuclear installations. In some, the buildings stand whole, while in others, they’ve been hit by Western strikes — a reference to ongoing tensions regarding Iran’s purported nuclear development. It’s hard not to look at these images and remember President George Bush’s claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, an excuse to invade the country that moved many citizens of the United States to support the war.
“I wanted to show that we do exactly the same thing,” Kolbusz told Hyperallergic. “And it happens that very often we do it in the context of the Middle East.”