Bahram Beyzai's "Sagkoshi", Iranian blockbuster (photo: TehranAvenue)

The Ambivalent Worlds of Iranian Cinema

Is there such a thing as an authentic or typically Iranian film? The perception is often very different in the West than in Iran. Amin Farzanefar explores the different resonance of Persian cinema in Europe and in Iran.

photo: TehranAvenue
Bahram Beyzai's "Sagkoshi", Iranian blockbuster

​​Bahram Beyzai is one of the most well-known directors in Iran today. His last film, "Killing Mad Dogs," came out three years ago and was one of the biggest hits of the past decade in Iran. But with only a few exceptions, the film could hardly be found on screens in the West. The same was true of his films "Pastry Girl," The Wind Carpet," and "Fire and Water," which had also been successful at home.

Are Iranian films a grand illusion?

Beyond the question of how well a film's content can be translated across borders, there is also a question as to whether or not the Iranian films that reach us in the West are at all representative of Iranian film. Cineastes have indeed complained that the exported films create a false, exotic image of Iran. For example, films such as "Children from Heaven," "The Silence," "A Time for Drunken Horses" and others are humanist fables about solidarity and friendship. The setting is often in poor suburban or colorful rural areas. The protagonists are often children.

Bahman Ghobadi' "A Time for Drunken Horses"

​​The charge that these films are alienating to the rest of the world is only partly justified given the confusing realities of Iranian life—realities which oscillate between medieval traditions and urban modernity. Many of these films are colorful and rich in metaphors and indeed bear witness to a "typically Iranian" disposition. They all spring forth from an authentic poetic vein. Classical Persian lyricism creates simple, clear and yet highly complex images with which directors proclaim their critical—often subversive—views in symbolic form.

But this aesthetic has recently become fashionable. Some films are now produced with the goal of potential success abroad. Spectacular cases of censorship appear to be orchestrated scandals aimed at insuring the success of films in the West.

The Iranian Perspective

The search for an "authentic" Iranian cinema is not easy. Perhaps audiences can help here: In Teheran moviegoers in the last eight years haven't been able to see a single Arab film in Iranian cinemas. Indian cinema was also not represented.

It seems that the West is ultimately closer to home than Iran's Sunni neighbors. Although only six to eight Hollywood films—edited, of course—reach Iranian cinemas each year, and although Iranians are proud of their hundred-year-old film tradition, the youth in particular are still enthusiastic consumers of Western images. All new Hollywood films are available on CD, DVD or video.

Cinema screens in the towns are dominated by homegrown action films, love stories and family comedies, which are often modified versions of old Hollywood flicks. But it is also true that some of the Iranian films that are treasured in the West are very popular in Iran as well, for example films by Rassul Sadr Ameli ("Taraneh, Age 15"), Rakhshan Bani-Etemad ("Under the Skin of the City," "The Blue Veiled") oder Manijeh Hekmat's ("Women's Prison"). These filmmakers have been able to produce numerous films that were successful in the West.

Prominent directors as liars and egomaniacs

photo: AP
Running out of credibility? - Mohsen Makhmalbaf

​​Other directors who are said to aim their work at foreign festivals are less appreciated. The Teheran film critic Mehdi Abdollahzadeh refers to the films of some prize-winning directors as a theater of lies, citing for example Jalili ("Delbaran"), Makhmalbaf ("Kandahar") oder Madjidi ("Baran"). Indeed, in the eyes of many critics Makhmalbaf has lost his reputation as a filmmaker who addresses social issues in a way that is critical of the government. Some see him as an egomaniac who in more interested in burnishing his renown in the West than in his audiences at home.

And for example the Oscar-winner Madjidi is considered by some to be a talented plagiarist. Abdollahzadeh compares the questionable artistic merit of these filmmakers to great names such as Bahman Ghobadi ("Marooned in Iraq") or Abbas Kiarostami ("Ten"), who have also won prices and enjoyed success in Europe.

In a land of paradoxes and ambiguities that is currently in a phase of social upheaval, the questions of "art vs. commercial commodity" or "authentic vs. fake" remain a question of taste.

The future of Iranian cinema is still uncertain. But this much can be said: the transformation in cultural politics under President Chatami favors a decentralization of the film industry and the establishment of private production companies. This is also leading to a decline in censorship and a more direct tackling of controversial social issues—a development that has already taken hold and will continue to change more than ever in the past both the content and aesthetic of Persian film.

Amin Farzanefar, © 2004
Translation from German: Christina White

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