Exile​ ​and​ ​Self-Reflexivity​ ​in​ ​Mohsen​ ​Makhmalbaf’s​ ​The​ ​Cyclist

Scope | Akhil Puthiyadath Veetil

Edward Said in his Reflections on Exile describes the incomprehensible nature of twentieth-century exile due to the absolute scale of displacement. A greater difficulty arises in expressing the nature and phenomenological aspect of exile through arts without objectifying the exiled figure in the process (Said , 2013, 138). Nevertheless, it is problematic to claim that aesthetics can never capture this new phenomenon. Carrying this strand of thought further, this essay will examine Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s poignant film,The Cyclist (1987), and propose that the
film achieves two things: (1) it highlights the nature of exile being “by humans for humans” through Iran’s dependency on the abuse of Afghan migrants and (2) it counters the risk of depicting exile as a banal reality by making the medium (film) self-reflexive.

The Cyclist sheds light on the conditions of Afghan migrants in Iran. Nasim, a poor Afghan, comes to Iran for his wife’s life-saving treatment. Wanting to raise money for the procedure, he decides to pedal a bicycle for seven days and nights continuously around a town square. The film highlights the brutality of the event—Nasim is forced to continue through his exhaustion by means of washing his face with cold water and keeping his eyes open with
matchsticks. Shops and betting spring up at the square to cater to the needs of the spectators—reflecting a microcosm of the larger relation of Afghans migrants and the Iranian citizens. However, before proceeding further, it is necessary to give a brief historical account of Afghan migration to Iran. Migration from Afghanistan occurred due to several reasons (Adelkhah and Olszewska’s paper). The major political reason has been the Soviet invasion and the Taliban control over the region. On the other hand, Afghanistan is a drought-prone area and frequent
migration is a result of economic necessity (Abdelkah, Olszewska, 2007, 140). Ethnic concerns complicate the migration further as majority of Afghan migrants are Sunni Pashtuns whereas Iran is a Shia majority nation (Ibid., 149). Afghans provide a large portion of the unskilled/semi-skilled workforce in Iran—the works range from livestock herding and prayer-bread production to well-digging in rural areas (Ibid.,115). Iran is therefore in a similar
situation to that of Western Europe where the economy depends upon the migrants, but the anxieties of a national identity imply a constant stigmatisation of these immigrants.

Makhmalbaf intends to unveil this contradiction in the film. As Nasim pedals, we see a large crowd of spectators gathering. The camera breaks away from the narrative of Nasim and repeatedly focuses on the struggles of the ‘citizens’. There is the old woman who is awaiting death and a younger abandoned single mother. These Iranians have come to the square in order to earn a living by providing refreshments, astrological prediction, and other forms of comfort while Nasim continues to pedal. I propose that this does not merely highlight the role of the Afghan migrant in the larger Iranian economy, but that a particular market or demand is created out of Nasim’s plight. For example, in the film, there are multiple scenes of trucks coming to take unemployed Afghan workers outside the city for digging trenches. Trenches or wells can be used for irrigation purposes, but Makhmalbaf juxtaposes this with a Nasim, whose suffering is depicted as necessary for the sustenance of the market at the town square. The film sheds light on how the disposable migrant is needed in order to deflect the larger problems existing within the country which ranges from gender inequality to unemployment. The banality, which Said is concerned with, is precisely what Makhmalbaf intended to focus on. The astrologer reads the circus owner’s palms and a conversation about her husband abandoning her takes place. But Nasim continues to pedal in the background and his image is repeatedly returned in the shot to prevent his invisibility. However, what the conversation does is deny his presence to the two
speakers—only the viewer can see his presence and hence associate with the troubling banality of the situation. In other words, the viewer becomes aware—by being distant—of how exile is a phenomenon created by humans for humans, and yet not lose the affective element in this process of realisation.

Makhmalbaf, following the tradition of several other films vis-à-vis self-reflexivity, makesit a point to bring the camera and its positioning into the film itself. Apart from the from the aforementioned shot of Nasim pedalling in the background, there are other two significant angles from which Nasim’s revolving is portrayed. The first involves the camera at a fixed position, taking the role of the Iranian spectator observing Nasim pedal. The second involves a
close up—the camera is mobile and moves in rotation along with Nasim’s face. The latter is the angle through which we see Nasim’s exhaustion and sleep deprivation in the cold nights. It is also the shot taken while Nasim’s son repeatedly slaps him and throws water at his face to keep him awake. The rotating shot plays two significant purposes. First, rather than examining the Afghan migrant as a larger category, The Cyclist individualises Nasim, gives him a backstory and makes the outcome of his actions significant to the viewer. The contradiction—the need for Afghan migrants and the violence perpetrated upon them—is explored by making Nasim an individual recipient of this contradiction. In other words, by embodying him with the physical trauma of the contradiction. The close up allows his exhaustion to be visible and it leads to temporary hallucinations, where he sees his son in a school uniform—reflecting the desire of the migrant to integrate and sustain a particular standard of living. However, the hallucinations also show the psychotic nature as if desiring stability and opportunity is a distorted reality. Nasim is
brought back to ground realities with flashing images of his wife in pain, but the film ends with him continuing to pedal despite winning the challenge. His son begs for him to stop but to no avail since Nasim completely loses touch with reality. The scene is significant because his achievement is paraded on television. The cameras are visible as reporters attempt to take his interview. At the very end, the previously mentioned shot—the rotating camera focused on Nasim—is visible now. There is a second camera, recording the first camera record Nasim’s rotations. For the first time in the film, the viewers have a more holistic perspective of the migration and its politics in Iran. The rotating shot therefore achieves two purposes. It acts as both a humanising tool (when Nasim becomes an individual) and a dehumanising instrument (where the camera objectifies Nasim). The contesting cameras become a site of the differences in the imagination of the Afghan migrant in Iran and provides self-reflexivity which prevents
cinema as an art form from objectifying the exiled figure.

Works Cited
Adelkhah, Fariba, and Zuzanna Olszewska. "The Iranian Afghans1." Iranian Studies 40, no. 2
(2007): 137-65. doi:10.1080/00210860701269519.

Bicycleran. Directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Iran, 1987.

Said, Edward W. Reflections on exile and other literary and cultural essays. London: Granta, 2013.


About the Writer

​Akhil P. Veetil completed his Masters in English from the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and
Humanities (MCPH) in 2017. His research interest is in Hindi Literature and Modernism.