Filmstill "Gabbeh", by Mohsen Makhmalbaf (photo: Makhmalbaf Film House)

Reality Torn and Distorted

Iranian cinema has been successful in the West with films full of rural poverty and isolation. But where are the urbane films that address the lived realities of this divided country? By Birgit Glombitza

photo: Makhmalbaf Film House
Filmstill "Gabbeh", by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

​​An accursed village. Children with the faces of old men, packed heavier than a mule. Fully veiled women who scurry through the streets. And at the far end of the food chain, illegal Afghani workers or refugees in ragged clothes.

In many Iranian films that make their way across the border—trimmed by Iranian censorship—into our movie theaters, Iran is presented as a perpetually sinister religious state. It appears as a singularly run-down province where the religious state's ban on images has driven away all color and contact with modern civilization.

Getting the wrong picture

German moviegoers could easily imagine "that there is no electricity and no telephones in all of Iran," says the director and producer Mohammad Farokhmanesh. But this common image in the cinemas has very little to do with reality.

Farokhmanesh was born in Shiraz in 1971. At age sixteen he was already learning to make documentary films at an Iranian film institute for youths. After he did his military service, he went to Hamburg and studied with Helke Sander at the University of Arts Berlin and together with Frank Geiger and Armin Hofmann founded the production company "brave new work."

Hardly any urban life

"There are a lot of extremely talented directors and also cinematographers in Iran," says Farokhmanesh. "But it is not easy to show their work here. Everyone just wants to see Kiarostami or Makhmalbaf films, as if they represented all of Iranian cinema."

Far too seldom do we see Iranian urban life and the strong Western influences on architecture, businesses, music, advertising and goods. Or women with decorative scarves rather than just veils, and with full schedules. Women who check their lipstick in rearview mirrors, as we saw recently in Kiarostami's "Ten" or in the films of Rakshan Bani-Etemad, who is hardly known in the West.

Instead, we repeatedly hear of the compressed misery of characters who struggle to eek out an existence in the countryside. As Farokhmanesh explains: "Remote areas with timeless, pitifully poor protagonists. Most likely a narrative decision resulting from censorship. But it must be said that this has also brought forth a subject that is easier to market. Films that are produced less for Iranian cinema than for audiences abroad."

The truth of children's acting

There is also a high demand for films with child actors. Children are seen as the carriers of a subtle, even a subversive symbolism and are considered ideologically neutral. They can raise questions about the system and give expression to despair, things for which any adult would land in prison.

In Holland, France, Germany and particularly Japan, Iranian children's films are widely marketed. "With the exception of, for example, 'Run, Lola, Run' and 'Goodbye Lenin!'" says Farokhmanesh, "Iranian cinema sells better internationally than German films."

Since the success of Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iranian films are part of the repertoire at art house cinemas and at international film festivals.

Small wave of conservative nostalgia

And with the film "Five o'clock in the Afternoon" by twenty-three year old Samira Makhmalbaf, which won the prize for best director at Cannes, and the film "Joy of Madness" by her fourteen year old sister Hana, which is currently being shown in Venice, the next generation of filmmakers are already establishing themselves internationally. The family structures, however, recall that of the Coppola's.

According to Farokhmanesh, the interest in Iranian productions abroad has "unleashed a small wave of conservative nostalgia among some directors. And some are certainly gambling on creating a success abroad with films that are forbidden." Undine Zamani, who organized a series of Iranian films with director Petra K. Wagner at the House of World Cultures in Berlin in 2000, does not go as far in her analysis of the situation. But she has also perceived a strange folklorist "trend toward films full of rural poverty and isolation."

But the modern metropolitan films of the young Iranian cinema have not in fact been banned by the leaders of the revolution. They can be seen in the movie theaters of the capital. During her last visit to cinemas in Teheran, Undine Zamani was also astonished by "the many films about drugs, prostitution, the repression of women by men, and other taboo subjects."

But for a long time only a fraction of these films made it to international festivals, as did for example the film "The Girl with the Sneakers." The film tells the story of a middle-class Iranian daughter who rebels against her family and eventually runs away. The film drew so much attention in 1999 that the government began to establish shelters for run away girls and to confront, at least ostensibly, inhumane social taboos.

The young generation has fuelled cinematic creativity

Everyday practice in Iran has long since found its way around the doctrines of the Mullah. The market for pirate copies is booming. American blockbusters can be found on DVD on the black market just days after the film's premiere in the US, with perfect subtitles.

Often chadors can be found draped not over the heads of women but over forbidden satellite dishes that bring RTL, MTV and American entertainment stations to Iranian households. The state's attempt to foil the media invaders with interference signals has not been successful, nor popular.

Two-thirds of the Iranian population was born after the 1979 revolution. They know only one life, that of an Islamic republic, and they are tired of being told how to live by men with long beards. They want boutiques with designer clothes; they don't want to have to hide their CD collections as if they were a stash of drugs.

Veils have been replaced by small scarves that allow women's hair to spill out in the front and the back. And the upper classes have long found ways of amusing themselves on the ski slopes or at parties without deference to behavioral and dress codes.

Land of paradoxes

Power structures in the country are as torn as the colorful summer dresses in the store windows along Teheran's main shopping area, which the Basij, the paramilitaries loyal to the revolutionary leaders, destroyed a few months ago. The film officials in the country are in an equally schizophrenic state.

Besides the Farabi Cinema Foundation, the executive branch of the film department at the cultural ministry, the other group primarily responsible for the 300 filmmakers in Iran is the religious, ideological Sureh. The Sureh "is behind the great complex of Iranian film history, the films about the Iran-Iraq War, in which enthusiastic soldiers are allowed to suffer a great hero's death," says Farokhmanesh. "Even a director like Mohsen Makhmalbaf comes out of this tradition. Also ideologically. This is how he became known in Iran before he turned to making critical and reflective films."

Until four years ago, screenplays had to be turned over to the cultural ministry for examination. "Under the liberal cultural minister Mohájerani, who was in office from 1997-1999, films could be shot without first having the script inspected," recalls Farokhmanesh, "but today under Ahmad Masjed it has gotten more difficult."

Some projects are halted right away, others address the most controversial topics and yet wind up on screens unedited. Not infrequently, films are completed only to be banned or restricted to foreign audiences only. Arbitrariness seems to be the only reliable category employed by the censors.

Arbitrary censorship

For example, the prize-winning film "The Circle" (2000), in which Jafar Panahi brings prostitution to light in the land of the veil, is still banned today. And Tamineh Milani, one among a dozen or so women directors in Iran, was arrested after a showing of her film "Two Women," in which she reveals the bigoted strategies men use to repress women.

Iran and the cinema have a love-hate relationship with a long tradition. In the early 1950s, the Shah invited a delegation of American professors from Syracuse to Iran to teach the basics of film techniques, screenplays and dramaturgy. This constituted a laying down of foundations, and it had lasting effects.

When movie theater chains were shut down, burned down or converted to religious sites in the years after the revolution in 1979, they were still shouting "action!" and "cut!" on the film sets. These ritual commands originated in the land of the archenemy.

This seems to be a marginal paradox given all the "incredible contradictions in the Iranian film industry, which still forbids films yet simultaneously profits from their success at international festivals," notes Farokhmanesh.

Iranian films, it seems, are not only subject to clerical censorship, but also increasingly to the very worldly laws of supply and demand. Whether or not the masters among its most prominent directors will have to sell out at a loss with imitations of the picturesque, or whether lesser known filmmakers will be able to reach European screens with films that address new subjects, will depend even more in the future on the courage of foreign co-producers and the curiosity of festival organizers.

Birgit Glombitza
This article first appeared in the Tageszeitung, Berlin (taz)

Translation from German: Christina White

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