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Dress Rehearsal: The Brave Hurr’s Ta’zieh is more instructive than it intends to be and it’s more important for a Western/European audience to watch than its cinematic content would warrant.

Let me explain.

Schism’s Root

At it’s core, Dress Rehearsal is a film rendition of a traditional Iranian religious play/opera, called a “ta’zieh.” The nearest Western equivalent to a ta’zieh would be a passion play as it would have appeared in Medieval Europe.

In Dress Rehearsal, we watch the ta’zieh of a particular person from Islamic history (from the Shi’a tradition), named Hurr, or as he’s called here, The Brave Hurr, although I think it might be easier on English-speaking ears as “Hurr the Brave.”

The Brave Hurr’s ta’zieh tells the story of his changing sides at the Battle of Karbala (the same Karbala that’s in today’s news from Iraq) in 680. In doing so, he martyrs himself and his son alongside Husayn ibn Ali (the prophet Muhammad’s grandson). This event is central to the Shi’a-Sunni schism of Islam.

Insider Information

As Iran is essentially a Shi’a state, it’s difficult for Westerners to appreciate how important this ta’zieh is to their culture and history. Every Iranian knows each subtle reference made during the performance to the extent that the audience is considered part of the play itself.

For instance, in the Brave Hurr’s ta’zieh there is one quick line from one of the enemies of Husayn to the effect that he’ll do whatever it takes to stop Husayn, even if it means killing a child by putting an arrow through it’s neck. That line would be obscure at best unless you were familiar with the Shi’a tradition, in which one of Husayn’s sons, a six-month-old child, is killed by an arrow through the neck. Then that one line becomes a story unto itself.

Window Into Islam

Dress Rehearsal is a nicely filmed and competent presentation of the Brave Hurr’s ta’zieh. It’s accessible to a Western audience (possibly why it was made?) and, along with an additional short feature entitled “Ta’zieh, An Iranian Traditional Theater,” is a good introduction to the form.

If you are like me and a first time viewer of a ta’zieh, then it can be a puzzle. It seems like an opera — or, more precisely, an oratorio, with the stylized movement of a Japanese Noh performance. After brushing up on my history of the Islamic schism following the death of Mohammed, I watched The Brave Hurr’s Ta’zieh again and it made a lot more sense. Indeed it was even a moving experience. If you were deeply immersed in Shi’a tradtion, it must be downright cathartic.

For many outside that Shi’a tradition, this DVD may be of no interest, but as a window to a culture with which the United States has now become deeply involved, it’s an important and useful experience. And that is why I say that it’s more important to watch this DVD than the specific content warrants.

Warning Labels

Perhaps the most telling part of the film is an appended list of “things that might corrupt traditional ta’zieh” and a list of “things that can be done to resist that corruption.” This is classic one-ruling-party behavior, in this case, from ultra-conservative theocrats.

The warnings put me in mind of the Chinese Red Guards of the 1960’s critiquing Western influence on Chinese culture. At one point they forbade the works of Beethoven because he glorified the individual. It would be funny if they hadn’t been so dangerous. And that’s why I say that this DVD is more instructive than it intends to be.

DVD Extras

As mentioned above, there is an accompanying feature about the ta’zieh form. It’s worth watching both before and after seeing the performance itself.

Some printed notes on the history presented in the ta’zieh would have been very helpful, but I understand the difficulty of setting down in text that which is extremely contentious to the two main factions of the Islamic world.

Picture and Sound

Dress Rehearsal is very good on both counts. The cinematography is carefully considered and very nicely edited. Curiously, this competent film presentation may be in violation of the list of things that corrupt the ta’zieh, but apparently it was not so bad that the authorities would suppress the film.

How to Use this DVD

If you are as rusty as I was on the succession of Muhammed and related topics, it’s strongly recommended that you do you homework first.

I found the following to be very useful:

  • Amer Abbas: I think this DVD release in the UK is the most excellent documentary available on the event of Karbala.

    Karbala - When the skies cried Blood. Available now on www.redtears.co.uk
    February 13, 2007 reply