The Subaltern Speaks in Argo’s Iran

What has this to do with coffee? Nothing directly, but I went to see the film in the company of an Israeli and an Iranian, and it was afterward, while discussing the film and Iranian history over coffee that this observation was made.

[Editor’s Note #1: This was originally written as a weekly response for 840-Diaspora & Transnationalism class, Fall ’12 (also posted here); the class was promising in theory, throughly meh in actuality—the best takeaway from it was that I now consider spatial travelling spaces quite differently. I am most impressed that in a Google search for subaltern and Argo, this is the only relative hit.]

[Editor’s Note #2: Argo portrays the CIA in an overtly heroic light, but for a tale of the CIA as villan in Iran, read All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer. It is the absurdist tragedy of Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. and Project Ajax; the 1953 CIA-backed coup d’état of Mohammad Mosaddeq.]




I saw the film in current release, Argo—about the 1980 taking of American hostages in Iran and the real-life secret effort to rescue six of them who, unknown to those involved in Iran, left the embassy before its siege—and came away with the impression of a pretty good thriller movie. Not great, but not bad. Well, except for the end scene that shows an entirely too-patriotic visual that is gonna lead to white people pro-creating: Hero Dude gets back with his Estranged Wife (I don’t think she ever had a name in the film, just referred to as the Almost-Ex), and they embrace, complete with American flag in the over-saturated sunlit background. That and the cars chasing the airplane up to the moment it lifts off the ground… at 175 mp… that part strains credulity, but other than those moments, it really was a pretty good film. Liberties were taken—it’s Hollywood, after all—with the true story part: a little muss and fuss from Canadians having been fully involved and at risk in real-life and whatnot, but when Canadian complain, who listens… best not to talk about it really and leave credit where the film places it, at the ever-so-competent hands of the CIA (who did manage to stage the coup in 1953 that re-installed the Shah to his tyrannical power position, so they’re good at staging coups and at backing dictators).

Anyhoo, in watching Argo, there is a painfully brief scene as part of the post-climax, self-congratulatory dénouement that struck me as both uncaring, full of pathos, and out of place. Yet, upon deeper reflection, is far more complex than all of that.

During the film, six Americans are hiding out at the Canadian ambassador’s house for 70-some days after the American embassy in Tehran was besieged during the Iranian Revolution. If the Americans were found there, they—and quite likely the Canadians—would have likely been dragged out into the street and publicly executed. The housekeeper for the Canadians—an Iranian girl named Sahar—notes that the six “family friends” have been: a) visiting almost two months, b) don’t ever go outside, and c) showed up at the same time as the siege of the American embassy. The Canadians note her noticing and no longer trust Sahar, but firing her would pose too much of a risk for them. Later, when the Revolutionary Guard comes round on suspicion there may be a plague of infidel Americans about, Sahar doesn’t budge, and lies repeatedly to the Guard about the guests; two days have the vistors been there (in line with the rescue cover story), no more.

And so it is that the menial worker, Sahar just saved everyone’s ass.

And no one knows it.

When  the Americans (and Canadians) leave, Sahar isn’t even thought of (by Americans, Canadians, and most likely, viewing audience as well). She gets left behind, of course.

Near the end of the film—after the tension of having fake passports checked at the airport and, in Hollywood fashion, they almost get caught, but finally board their flight just in the nick of time as those aforementioned cars and jeeps from the Iranian military at the Tehrani airport go chasing after the Swiss Air passenger jet as it takes off and, in the announcement that the plane has left Iranian airspace comes news that alcohol will now be served—comes a scene of about 15 seconds in which Sahar’s passport is checked and she gets waved through an metal gate where thousands of other—mostly women—refugees fleeing Iran into Iraq. The camera lingers a moment on these hordes of refugee women with their babies then—cut to: a champagne cork pops and the bubbly flows on the Swiss Air flight from Tehran to Zurich. Celebration! The Americans are safe! And, of course, that’s what really matters, right? How much more colonial and uncaring can you get? Sahar, a brown-skinned refugee woman, is left with those of her kind, condemned by politics and culture to a life of poverty, exploitation, and rape in the hell that is Iran and Iraq c. 1980-present. From their plight in one frame to the next of champagne on an international airline with celebrating Americans.


This brief and curious scene did not have to be there at all.

I had finished the film wondering what happened to ol’ Sahar who saved everyone’s ass, but how many people viewing it would?

She stood up to the Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guard, face to face. She knew what was going on and made possible the Americans’ escape. And for her bravery and fortitude (some would say cajones), she received no thank yous. No asking if she wants to have asylum in the West. Nope. Nothing. The Good Guys don’t trust her. And no longer can she stay in Tehran, because the Canadians were found out to have been harboring the Americans, so her working for them would bring no mercy at the hands of the same Revolutionary Guard she lied to. She fled. To Iraq. And, if she was smart and lucky, maybe from there into Turkey (safer than the then-soon-to-be-warring neighbors to the south). She had no choice of staying. But we-the-audience are actually shown her neglected despairing future. For one brief anguished moment. Just before the conspicuous consumption of the recently freed Americans.

The director didn’t have to show us this… this sliver of the atrocious, irrefutable Real slipped into the reflection of a make-believe story about a socio-political reality. We are allowed a tiny disturbing glimpse, and then the antithesis of—and reason for—its happening.

At first, I was pissed off that at what seemed a negligent a thing to show. Then the itch that left in me gnawed on a bit and I began to scratch. The scene was, I think, meant to be disturbing, unflinching, and harsh, as well as cynically realistic (or realistically cynical?), and well, just plain wrong. Because that reality is wrong. It’s every reason of wrongness all rolled into one cinematic wrong.

But if it wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be possible to have that suckerpunch of the Real hit ya right inside the eyes, making the cinematic audience complicit in the wrongness… if not complicit, then at least to plant the seed of disquietude.

The rating stars this movie lost with me due to the macheesemo Iranian guards chasing their cars after a plane and sunshine American flag happy ending (the latte of which was the truepart of the true story for those six people), was won back back ruminating upon this glimpse of the grotesque that shouldn’t have been there but was anyway.

It gotcha when you least expected it. Like an embassy siege on a Sunday morning.

But it couldn’t have happened any other way.




[drinking Bali Blue Moon at 3am]

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