[…] Narges/Baharak, a living woman of flesh and blood, refuses this submission to the invisibility of martyrdom, to the history of the promotion of this invisibility.

[…] Clumsy, persistent, out of time and place, the masculine identity haunts Narges who has launched a feminist campaign of anti-martyrdom filled with humour.

SHAHID never dies (?)

Where are you, O, divine martyrs?
Where are you? Pain-bearers in the desert of Karbala[1]

Where is the martyr actually? Or when is the martyr? The martyr is a narcissist without any where or when. From the desert of Karbala, where the so-called “culture of martyrdom”[2] lodged its roots, to the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988), the martyr has been the figure who renounces his body and disappears into ideal-logy of the ideological religion. Like God, for whom the martyr dies, and the immortality that the martyr seeks, martyrdom has no real place or time, it has no where and no when. Except, if we cannot prove the existence or visibility of God and the immortality of the soul, a metaphysics of martyrdom has provided us with another solution: by rendering ourselves in-visible, dying for God and extracting ourselves from the spatio-temporality of corporal existence. In his flight towards proving the ideology: «a martyr does not apologize… he would not say: ah yes, maybe you are also right. He dies for his belief»[3].

«Apology does not blindly affirm the self, but already appeals to the Other»[4]

There is an egocentrism and narcissism in martyrdom, a violence. The retreat of the martyr from the world of the living, the self-sought removal from the temporality of social and private life towards the non-place and non-temporality of God and immortality is the violence of the martyr; here in Narges Shahid Kalhor, the feminine look drags the martyr from his invisible fortress with the immortal Gods to the ground, as she seeks to remove the traces of this violence from her name.

The word “Shahid” is etymologically rooted in “shahada”, meaning “to witness, to testify to something you have witnessed”, and in Arabic “Shahid” is the hyperbole of the root “shahada”: an exaggerated witness, too much passionate testimony, whence the violence and narcissism of the martyr. So much is the testimony more important than anything else, life for one thing, that the Shahid denies existence and all the social, intersubjective life for it. Narges/Baharak, a living woman of flesh and blood, refuses this submission to invisibility, to the history of the promotion of invisibility. The martyr imposes his timelessness on the temporality of the living, the identical forever repeating instance of his martyrdom, hence he is the identity of a past that persists in the present, the impossibility of the time of future. Narges is fighting against this persisting identity of the past that is always present but never future.

Yet, there is more to that: martyrdom is the enterprise of men here[5]. It is hardly surprising that the above-mentioned history of metaphysics – especially when it comes to Islamic metaphysics of martyrdom – would be marked by masculinity. Men die for the cause while women are the reproduction machine behind the curtains, the mothers, wives, and sisters. The liberation sought here then is double: Narges seeks to free herself of both the mark of the non-existence and the timelessness imposed by Shahid in her name, on one side, and of the patriarchal background of a series of men, especially the great-grandfather who died for his cause and brought all this nonsense to the family name, on the other. Clumsy, persistent, out of time and place, the masculine identity haunts Narges who has launched a feminist campaign of anti-martyrdom filled with humour. In a moment of sarcastic self-questioning, she asks her therapist who has a visibly Nazi name, why he does not want to get rid of his past. As the man replies with silence to this question, this woman, Narges/Baharak continues her fight forcing the past to not remain silent in its stupid semi-dervish dance and answer.

However, just as the fight is becoming serious, the unexpected surprises the filmmaker-protagonist: in the midst of the drama of a woman trying to get rid of her patriarchal ideological heritage, she finds out that the problem comes to her not from the great-grandfather but the great-grandmother. What of this discovery that she has not inherited the word “shahid” from her great-grandfather but her great-grandmother? All along it has been the endeavour of the woman to leave a trace in the history of men. The silenced woman at least has succeeded in leaving her trace at the heart of the masculine identity, thus creating a rupture in the timeless identity of every present identical with all pasts, in the timelessness of metaphysics of God and immortality, a rupture in the ideality of identity. The struggle for elimination ends in an obliteration in the sense of the latter word in cancelling or stamping tickets and stamps. Try to hide and you show better the thing[6]. The erasure of identity is futile, it leads only to the revelation of the feminine traces at the heart of the patriarchal culture of martyrdom, to the temporality at the heart of the atemporality of identities. Erasure, as Grésillon sees it, is ambivalent, somewhere between «the invisibility of cancellation and the visibility of crossing something out»[7], an ambivalence between the invisibility of disappeared martyrs – cancelled by self-erasure – and the visibility of their presence malgré tout. Erasure becomes a process of obliteration in the unfolding of the film, revealing the traces of a new, so far unseen, temporality: the temporality of the feminine time, beyond and beside class struggles, a fight with linear time and a yearning for identities.


[1] The two first verses of a revolutionary song titled “Where are you, o divine martyrs?” composed by Houshang Kamkaar and sang by Bijan Kamkaar in 1980 for the martyrs of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war.

[2] Culture of martyrdom, “Farhang-e-Shahādat” is a term coined by the Islamic Republic after the Iran-Iraq war to interweave martyrdom into the very fabrics of everyday life.

[3] Quote from the movie.

[4] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, 1969, p. 252

[5] If the occidental culture of martyrdom is marked by Jeanne d’Arc and probably a whole history of women martyrs, the Iranian culture is predominated by men. First and foremost it is men who die for the cause and women stay in the background as mothers of martyrs: giving birth to them and supporting them on their journey.

[6] Sacha Sosno, in Emmanuel Levinas, On Obliteration, Diaphanes, 2018.

[7] Ibid, p. 22


Shahid | Film | Narges Kalhor | DE 2024 | 83’ | Berlinale 2024, Visions du Réel Nyon 2024

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First published: May 01, 2024