Through a San Francisco Peephole, a Glimpse of Video Art in Iran

Still from Atefeh Khas, 'Friendship,' 2019. (Courtesy of the artist and Peephole Cinema)

San Francisco’s Peephole Cinema is so unassuming I accidentally walked past it twice. But that's part of the magic of this unostentatious (and miniature) screening space, established in 2013 by artist Laurie O’Brien and run today by Sarah Klein: its ability to blend in with its surroundings. Three doors up from 26th Street, about three feet above ground level, a dime-sized peephole in the side of the purple-painted staircase to 280 Orange Alley is a portal to other worlds.

That transportative feeling is even stronger with the cinema’s current program. Curated by local artist Minoosh Zomorodinia, Hofreh (Persian for “hole,” “cavity” or “eye socket”) presents six silent, experimental short videos from contemporary Iranian artists. Each one is a study in effective brevity, none longer than a minute, and all tell beautifully composed stories of identity, gender and human relationships to nature.

Still from Tara Goudarzi, 'Offering,' 2008–2019. (Courtesy of the artist and Peephole Cinema)

Viewed in January 2020, just days after the United States killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, amid chatter about “World War III” and anti-war protests, this short-term and small-scale program deals in specificity. Hofreh is six videos from six artists, on loop 24 hours a day. It presents the concerns of artists, ordinary Iranian civilians, who we rarely get to hear from when gross overgeneralizations, glossed-over histories and terrifying threats rule the airways.

The program opens with a literal splash in Tara Goudarzi’s Offering. Action comes near the end of the 30-second video, and it occurs suddenly (potentially violently) as what looks like dark mud splashes across the artist, who stands still in a white veil. In a statement about the Offering series, which Goudarzi performs and documents in a variety of natural settings, she writes of the veil as a companion: “We have always been together, ever since I was nine, sometimes out of divine love and sometimes out of hatred.” The offering seems to be her long relationship with this garment, which she now enjoys for “its purity, and its plainness, its whiteness.”

A few videos later in the loop, Nooshin Naficy’s A Stone Embryo appears as the most direct complement to Goudarzi’s short. Instead of nature “acting” on a lone female figure, this video features a woman in motion. But even as she climbs a rock formation to cradle a stone, the camera pulls back, shrinking her figure against the dramatic landscape.

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In Zomorodinia’s curatorial statement, she makes reference to the encroachment of urban development on natural space in Iran, relating the imposition of humanity on nature to the societal expectations placed on Iranian women. This, she writes, “causes many to leave the country so they can live freely,” allowing them to escape either family demands or social pressures.

Still from Majid Ziaee, 'Hasht,' 2017. (Courtesy of the artist and Peephole Cinema)

Setareh Hosseini captures this state of in-between-ness in her own stop-motion video Bubbles, which shows a woman’s image over a sky, spinning as if presenting herself from different vantage points. Clear “bubbles” dot the space around her, ultimately landing on her face and erasing her image. In a poetic accompanying statement, Hosseini writes of “girls suspended between staying and leaving,” “girls left back,” and “girls of waiting.”

While Majid Ziaee’s Hasht (Persian for “eight”) and Razieh Goudarzi’s Mirror Sky are no less ambiguous, they document an often playful agency within nature. Ziaee’s stop-motion video of just eight frames begins with him reclining and ends with his body “supporting” an angled desert tree, mimicking the character for “eight” (٨). Razieh Goudarzi’s 40-second video zooms in, keeping the frame tight on a hand holding a round mirror. As the figure walks across a leaf-covered ground, a surrealistic view of empty branches shifts across the mirror’s surface. We get to look up while looking down—and while also looking through a round hole of our own.

The everyday sounds of Orange Alley become the score for anything showing in Peephole Cinema. On the morning of my visit, that meant nearby jackhammering and the occasional passing car. The contrast between image and audio doesn’t feel too jarring—we’re used to looking at things on pocket-sized screens while tuning out the surrounding world. What’s more noticeable is the physical effect of viewing (I had to bend in half to put my eye to the hole). Sustaining that pose, even for a relatively short span of time, makes one acutely aware of the peephole as a tool of both surveillance and privacy. To look through it is to be vulnerable, a fitting exchange between artist and audience.

Still from Razieh Goudarzi, 'Mirror Sky,' 2015. (Courtesy of the artist and Peephole Cinema)

Reflecting this exchange is the most sublime video in Hofreh, Atefeh KhasFriendship. In it, a bird sits on a woman’s shoulder and delicately dips its beak into her ear (a bodily hofreh, if we’re paying attention). The woman rubs her ear in turn, and the bird shifts its eye directly toward the camera, a fourth-wall break by an unwitting actor.

Just as the jackhammer and the cars can’t be fully muffled, it’s impossible to watch Hofreh without placing the program in the context of the present moment. Its artistic merit remains, but its relevance increases. Because specificity, even in the smallest of doses, speaks so much louder than we often care to hear.

'Hofreh' is on view at Peephole Cinema (280 Orange Alley, San Francisco) through Jan. 25, 2020. Details here.