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The Independent Culture
Last night, both Assignment (BBC2) and Under The Sun (BBC2) offered us portraits of piety as an exercise in power. Phil Rees's Assignment film about modern Iran began by looking at the Bassidj, which, when translated, delivers a choice piece of Orwellian newspeak - the Mobilised Force for the Oppressed (clearly Iranian is an economical language). The Bassidj are a mosque-based paramilitary, who spend their free-time defending the purity of the Islamic revolution (they are also known as the Guardians of the Ayatollah), and who do their weapons training in the Teheran equivalent of the local church-hall. Watching a varied assortment of recruits, from teenage boys to old-age pensioners, it struck you that they were a sort of Imam's Army, a Home Guard without the saving grace of comedy. Be too independent-minded, wear a little too much make- up and they will deliver a brutal punchline, one presented as a lesson in faith.

"A cultural invasion is the only thing that can defeat a nation," said one cold-eyed zealot, offering a fair example of the embattled paranoia about the outside world which runs through all their pronouncements. The logic is brutally simple, even if it results in absurdities: what is not traditional is not Islamic; what is not Islamic is, by definition, hostile to the revolution. A female fashion designer found herself pulled over for wearing sunglasses, an item denounced as corrupt and Western. It is, apparently, an act of faith to squint against the glare.

Rees's film was unusual in gaining any access at all to this xenophobic crew, but it broadened from freak-show to something far more intriguing as it proceeded. As Rees explored the complex internal politics of Iran, in which the Bassidj are just one unstable element, it dawned on you that his film was not just a description of a chess game but also a move within it. His unusual liberty to film, his access to dissident voices within Iran, his account of the social failures of the revolution were all evidence of calculated strategy on the part of someone, somewhere. Who benefits from this, you found yourself wondering, to whom is a message being sent? Clearly Iran's modernisers, tiptoeing past the guard-dogs of the Bassidj, stood to gain most from the impression of barely-contained social collapse, but how would the muted alarm serve their cause? Fascinating, anyway, in its revelation of a country simmering beneath a tightly-sealed lid.

Like Rees's film, Barbie Campbell Cole's film about an Ethiopian pilgrimage strengthened as it continued, reserving its most compelling footage for the final 15 minutes. I'm not sure that this is an entirely sensible way to proceed. Though the early sections recording the trek through the Ethiopian highlands were often very beautiful - a Biblical landscape under a permanent dawn, smoke rising through fresh, clear air and a gleam in the grass - it was possible to feel it represented the tedious length of the journey a little too faithfully. Some armchair travellers will have dropped by the wayside, which was a pity, because the arrival at the shrine itself, and the power struggles over the financial resource it represented, were compelling. Haji Mukhtar, the goitre-faced elder who traditionally controlled access to the holy site (his family was known, in an echo of the earlier film, as Guardians of the Shrine) was facing a challenge from Ethiopia's answer to Oral Roberts, a charismatic holy-roller, for whom financial donation was the swiftest way to heaven. He had accused Haji Mukhtar of corruption over the administration of charitable funds, an allegation that was brushed aside: "This is a sacred place. We don't quarrel about money," replied his enemy - piety as prop again. What was fascinating was the combination of mercenary cynicism and genuine faith - the pilgrims' rapture as they entered what was little more than a whitewashed cow-byre was so heartfelt that it almost expunged the odour of exploitation.