Cinema in Iran

The Calm before the Storm?

It's not that long since Iranian cinema was famous for its innovation, winning international prizes across the board. But now the buzz about the Iranian film industry has died down, both in the West and in the Islamic Republic itself. Amin Farzanefar considers the state of Iranian film past and present

Mohsen Makhmalbaf (photo: dpa)
Mohsen Makhmalbaf used the cinema as an instrument of propaganda before focussing on realism with a social conscience in his later films

​​In the mid-eighties, an ever-increasing number of Iranian films began being screened at European film festivals. With their unfussy visual language, amateur actors, and clear moral message, they conquered Western cinemas.

Two very contrary figures were characteristic of this period. One was Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a member of an "anti-Shah guerrilla" who initially discovered cinema as a means of propaganda.

His early work, with its obsessive, almost messianic sense of commitment to a cause, gave way to a socially committed realism. As a credible critic of the regime, he became a kind of folk hero – ending up as a dissident suffering from censorship.

New awakening between agitprop and romance

The other was Abbas Kiarostami, who was less well known in Iran itself, but all the more prominent at the European festivals. A master of the inner world, his parables, which played out in idyllic landscapes, were enriched with endless nuances of meaning.

Abbas Kiarostami and Mania Akbari in Cannes (photo: AP)
Abbas Kiarostami, a "master of the inner world", won numerous film awards including the Golden Palm in Cannes for his film A taste of cherries

​​His films, which remained light and humorous for all their depth, won the hearts of movie enthusiasts and talented disciples, but there were others who merely copied Kiarostami's work. They simply adopted one of his formulae: poor children running through a landscape filled with blossoms, searching for something like a sack of rice, a pair of shoes, a jug or a house.

Kiarostami himself dealt with the temptation of plagiarism in Close Up, perhaps the best film of the period: a man pretending to be the renowned Makhmalbaf is fed by a family of admirers. The charade continues until the deception is uncovered and the real Makhmalbaf turns up.

A complex commentary based on a real case, it is just as universal as it is Iranian in what it says about reality, appearance and the yearning for a different life.

Beauty and suffering: women film-makers

The nineties, which were so successful for Iranian film, were also the era of Iranian women film-makers, of which the most prominent were Tamineh Milani and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad.

Milani's action-oriented variations of Hollywood genres – melodrama, thriller or comedy – follow a single pattern: usually an intellectually superior woman is dominated by her very average man, who is, however, supported by patriarchal family and social structures.

​​Rakhshan Bani-Etemad counters this sometimes banal brand of feminism with precise, realistic portraits of women (such as single mothers or artists) who have to make their way in a challenging, uncomfortable world.

These women – who were initially mocked by their male colleagues – soon became figures with whom the public identified, and who performed well at the box office. Milani's divorce comedy Cease Fire recorded Iran's highest ever box office takings.

There is now an increasing number of successful women film directors: Samira Makhmalbaf, Marzieh Meshkini, Manijeh Hekmat and Mania Akbari. Moreover, a number of female actors have become role models for a generation of young Iranians: Niki Karimi, Hedieh Tehrani and Golshifteh Farahani portray beautiful women, living in the city, often suffering, but always self-confident.
Under the "reformist" president, Mohammad Khatami, the children who had been running around on the streets turned into young people who wanted active involvement in the processes of globalisation and an Iranian-style pop culture.

Don't believe the hype!

But an overview of Iranian cinema would not be complete without mention of a few points which may correct many assumptions.

On the one hand, the Iranian movie miracle was not born of resistance; it was a direct result of the revolution. After several cinemas had been destroyed and burnt down by the Islamist mob as symbols of alien western-imperialist influence, Ayatollah Khomeini personally encouraged a new form of cinema. Darius Mehrjui's film The Cow, which attacked rural feudalism, was to serve as the standard for a new national cultural treasure.

As a consequence, new film promotion structures were established which were unmatched in the rest of the region. Young directors received unprecedented sums of money, and a Kafkaesque game of simultaneous promotion and censorship – often at the hands of the same institution – developed.

At the same time, the Iranian cinema miracle was founded on continuity and picked up where the film culture that existed under the Shah left off. Many of the directors came from a movement which was the Iranian version of the French New Wave, and which as early as the seventies reconstructed existing genres like the action film and enriched them with socially realistic content and formal experiments.

Bizarre symbolist film worlds

Bizarre symbolist film worlds: Director Sohrab Shahid-Saless

​​Some auteurs like Shahid-Saless and Taghvaie developed bizarre symbolist worlds in which daily life seemed like an abyss; others, like the theatre expert Bahram Beyzai, used mythology to explore the depths of the people's soul.

And there's a third aspect: the picture of rural unspoiled art-house cinema, emerging against all the efforts of the censorship authorities, is an exotic projection – a fantasy of the post-modern West.

In reality, so-called "goat films" play a marginal role in the movie houses of Tehran. In addition to social, divorce and family dramas, the public prefers the same slapstick, action and weepy films as the rest of the world.

And it was this kind of cinema that produced a number of blockbusters which, in a way, appealed to the masses and allowed social discontent to be expressed in guffaws of laughter. In a system in which private and public life, revolutionary ideals and economic reality are becoming increasingly incompatible, and the average Iranian is finding it harder and harder to coordinate his multiple identities, it is no surprise that the three biggest successes of recent years have been comedies of mistaken identity.

Director Rasoul Sadr (photo: Maryam Afshang)
Film production in Iran is sometimes a Kafkaesque cat-and-mouse game of promotion and censorship

​​Kamal Tabrizi's Lizard tells the story of a thief who escapes from prison in the clothes of a cleric and becomes a village mullah. In Saman Moghaddam's Maxx, a washed-up rock musician from LA who is invited to a classical music concert causes confused panic in the refined world of high culture. And in Cease Fire, a woman who is set on getting a divorce accidentally stumbles into a psychotherapist's surgery instead of a lawyer's office.


Recently, however, Iranian cinema seems to have gone quiet. Panahi describes the situation under Ahmadinejad as follows: "Under Khatami I could at least make my films before they were banned; now that too has become difficult."

That being said, the directors are used to the ups and downs of the film industry. Moreover, those institutions responsible for funding Iranian cinema want to support the domestic film industry and know that they have a reputation to lose. This explains why even old masters like Bahman Farmanara, Massoud Kimiaee or Bahram Beyzai are still working.

Poster for Kamal Tabrizi's film <i>Lizard</i>
Biting satire on the mullahs in the Islamic Republic: Kamal Tabrizi's film Lizard

​​However, the work of the next generation of artistically talented directors like Rafi Pitts, Parviz Shahbazi, Abolfazl Saffary or Mona Zandi very rarely ends up on our cinema screens. The hype is over for now, and festivals and cinema enthusiasts are looking elsewhere – Turkey, for instance – for talent.

Perhaps this is the calm before the storm: we are currently seeing a renaissance in the field of documentaries: Bahman Kiarostami, Massoud Bakhshi, Mehrdad Oskouee and Maani Petgar are just a few of the country's documentary film makers. They are turning their attention to a wide variety of subjects: the sharp increase in demand for nose-jobs and satellite dishes, the situation of minorities such as transsexuals, AIDS sufferers or veterans of the first Gulf war, the situation of Afghan and Iraqi refugees – but they are also covering ethnographical, historical and biographical topics.

A new generation of film makers is now engaging with the most varied facets of a society that is oddly locked in the tension between optimism and stagnation, between attraction towards the past and fascination with the computer age.

Amin Farzanefar

© 2009

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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