Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the School of Communication
Hamid Naficy, the Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the School of Communication, is a scholar of Iranian cinema and exile and diaspora in media. After moving to the US for college, Naficy has traveled back to Iran and around the world in his study of film. He is best known for his four-volume A Social History of Iranian Cinema, the product of four decades of research. Feature Editor Elizabeth Meehan sat down with Naficy to discuss his life, teaching, and research.
How has your research influenced your time at Northwestern?
During the course of that research [for my history of Iranian cinema], I collected a lot of movie posters as I interviewed the producers, the distributors, the exhibitioners. I decided that I would donate the posters and some 53 boxes of stuff to the Northwestern archive. They digitized them, and now they are available online for anyone else who wants to do research. In the meantime we recently curated an exhibition for the Block Museum of a selected forty-some posters.
Before that though, I had a class on Iranian cinema. I divided them into groups of four or five students, and they each took up on genre of movie posters and filmmaking. They did research, went to the digital archive that we created, wrote a paper, and created a presentation. That was helpful in curating the show, and they are all credited in the booklet that we published. I thought that was a very good experiment in teaching for me. I learned in the process the students were creative, they were energized by the hands-on experience working with the material.
What experiences were you able to bring into the classroom from your research?
I think that by incorporating my own research and experiences into it, I was able to bring in contextual material. Normally when you teach from a book, the book doesn't have that personal stamp of your journey as a writer. I tried in writing the book to retain a certain amount of my own presence in it, to write in such a way that the readers knew that this person was the inquisitive figure throughout the whole book to provide context for these circumstances. That's how I got turned to the subject of diasporic filmmaking, choosing a topic that was significant to me personally, because then I could learn from my own research about myself and my own condition and about the general condition that was happening as a result of globalization and other forces.
Could you describe the average day doing research and what difficulties that came up in your work?
In a way I lived with that research material. The years that I was in Los Angeles, there were so many film and media people that I knew. I also was involved in curating film festivals, which then got me involved in a different way with the community as a programmer and specifically with the Iranian film industry to get their films to preview. Not only was I constantly involved in researching, but being actively involved in the cultural life of Iranian Americans. Luckily I was also invited to many places all over to stay for a month or two doing research.
What was it like to teach at NU-Q (Northwestern’s campus in Doha, Qatar)?
I went there to teach for two years. I was hesitant at first because these kinds of posts abroad smack a little bit of colonial structures whereby the West gets to produce and distribute knowledge and the non-Western world gets to absorb and receive it. But "Education City" has made a sort of multiversity instead of a university which allows interdisciplinarity in ways which would hardly happen in the home campus. Students could cross-register since our school didn't offer all of the courses that they needed.
The fact that you were teaching a very diverse audience - when I was teaching, I think we had students from seventeen different countries - was also very valuable to have. While I was there, three students from different countries formed a film production company for example. I think that Qatar can become producers of knowledge, not just receiving American culture and education, thanks to government investment in a lot of educational institutions. This sort of reverses the colonial impact, in a small way.
What advice would you give to undergraduate who are interested in research?
The first advice would be to go with your heart. Think of the subject, the topic, the area that really turns you on mentally. Think back to your childhood, what have you enjoyed doing from childhood onward? That's the thing that you can pursue academically and that topic will allow you to learn about it and yourself at the same time. You can maintain the long haul of it. If I didn't like it, I couldn't have lived with it for forty years and enjoyed it without thinking of it as drudgery. While choosing this topic, I don't think I've worked. It doesn't seem like I've labored hard even though I have simply because I loved doing it. If you get bored by it, it's not yours.