Winter 2009, Volume 25.2
Proshot Kalami received her B.A. and M.A. in English in Iran and her Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis. She has worked as radio playwright & director at IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) for four years while teaching as adjunct lecturer at various universities in Tehran. After migrating to the United States in 1998, she won the Best People’s Choice Award in pastel painting from Davis Art Center. She taught in three campuses of the University of California—Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Davis—before moving to the UK to teach in the Department of English and Drama at Loughborough University. Her book, The Untold Iranian Epic: Cinematic Story of a Nation, is forthcoming. As an amateur filmmaker, Dr. Kalami has made two documentary films, both of which are to be completed in 2009. As a professional videographer of live performances, she has worked with the Asia Society of North America, recording international theatrical performances at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), Cal Performances at UC Berkeley, Mondavi Center at UC Davis, and Chorus Repertory Theatre in Manipur, India, as well as with Nalanda LLC at Berkeley and Calcutta. She has published a number of articles in different humanities and cinema journals on world cinema. Proshot Kalami has two books of poetry and an upcoming short story collection in Farsi.
Over the past few decades Iranian cinema has gained considerable visibility in the West. However, this notion of "visibility" may come across as an accented view of an Eastern culture serving up to the Western eye what the latter wants to see. Considering Iran’s reputation as a terrorist state after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the more recently added epithet of being a member of the "Axis of Evil" by the U.S. administration, the position its cinema has managed to occupy (and maintain) in the international arena is noteworthy. Consciously or otherwise, many successful directors illustrate a theme that has proven successful in the West—while it has often brought them domestic release permission—often using non-actors and following the lives of innocent, poverty-stricken, children who are victimized by their parents and an oppressive social situation. What has made these films into box office hits around the world is their simplicity, with little technological flourish, their rich lyricism and poetry, as well as their realistic and documentary-like cinematography and editing.
While acknowledging their success among Western audiences and their artistic merit in representing the reality of life in Iran, I would like to problematize this success by posing questions that investigate whether these directors are in a race with themselves to tell more and more appalling tales with each new film, as if the more unbearable the pain, the better the chances of success in the international film circuit. The price of "human suffering" is clearly much cheaper than their selling price, and the profits are hefty. However, most of these films are seldom released in Iran, and the few that do mostly fail to gain the recognition comparable to their international reputation. In fact, one cannot find a single analysis or critical review of these films in the otherwise prolific cinema literature within Iran, despite the fact that sophisticated writings on foreign films are in plenty. It is the silence about and domestic proscription of these films that is more telling than the ubiquitous recognition they are receiving in the West.
This essay investigates Iran’s domestic silence versus the international dialogue on these controversial yet accomplished films and filmmakers. One of the best ways to gain access to the official trend and state controlled presence of cinema and cinema discourse in Iran is to look at its domestic film journals and periodicals. Most of these journals provide accurate and updated news about world cinema and publish highly theorized and sophisticated articles on films, filmmakers, actors, and cinema aesthetics. However, the discourse on the domestic film industry follows a line fundamentally separate and independent of its international counterpart. The publicly embraced presence of Iranian cinema as a noticeable part of World Cinema or National Cinema dates around 2001-2002 with Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar (2001) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997, released in the USA in 1998-99).1 By looking at the success of Iranian cinema abroad in contrast to its domestic situation, I want to problematize this dual, even contradictory reality existing within cinema discourse in Iran. This reality is a sequestered one that is first proclaimed by the state and then maintained through the official discourse on the subject on two different fronts. While the one is fabricated for the domestic arena—an absolute silence in terms of critical review beyond simple reports on the number of international screenings—the other is a staged show for the world, in which the government takes credit for the "ownership" of the art produced by Iranian artists who are otherwise not supported by that very state.
The Islamic Republic Position: What Is In It For Me?
One must revisit the above questions and the integrity of these artists to frame their attempts to supersede their domestic limitations. For the sake of survival, Iranian filmmakers over the years have acquired the language of metaphor, symbolism and allegory to convert silence into artistic expression. Is that, perhaps, why they do not receive domestic reviews in local periodicals and film journals, or often become the subject of abuse among Iranian film critics? Is this also the reason why they do not gain domestic popularity or even box office success, while being widely available in the West and often emerging as film festival winners? Are they merely "made for export" films? What are the mechanisms under which this system operates?
The end result of Iranian films at international film festivals
and their availability in foreign markets will naturally create a positive image
of Iran. If manipulated well, this image can work against the negative image the
government of the Islamic Revolution has acquired and can easily be a motivation
for sending select films abroad. Masoud Farasati, one of Iran’s major film
critics, believes that Iran’s state-controlled film authorities have benefited
from this type of cinema and continue to do so, although this cinema in general
has never been one of their priorities. "The rough and violent fundamentalist
image with which Westerners had come to saddle Iranians," Farasati says, "was in
fact lessened by this cinema. This non-violent, neutral cinema, in which every
one is minding his/her own business, represents no danger of any revolt, nor
does it have any danger of promoting fundamentalist ideas. This is a great
cinema, posing no threat to them [Iranian authorities]."2
In short, Iranian cinema geared toward the world market is as much good art as
it is good diplomacy meant to counter the demonization of Iran in the
international political theater.
First International Appearance: We make Films, Therefore We Are!
The international arena would "know" that it was the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that had liberated Iranian cinema. This façade, and the dual reality filmmakers must see and experience, in itself is a defining yet traumatizing element one should keep in mind when discussing Iranian cinema. In some Iranian film periodicals in recent years, discussions about "how to sponsor domestic films for foreign film festivals" have been ongoing. A report in Film: Monthly Cinema Journal (Mahname Cinemai Film) indicates that the President has agreed to provide about 8 percent of the cost of exporting Iranian films to foreign markets (issue # 326, February 2004: 42), and a brief report in the same issue lists Iranian films that have been shown at international festivals. Occupying the top ranks are Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly (Lakposht-ha Parvaz Mikonand, 2004), Kiarostami’s 10 Ten (Dah 10, 2002) and Five (Panj, 2003), which are all distributed by foreign companies. Beyond these taxonomic mentions, one cannot find a single review or discussion of those films in the pages of the magazine, even though sophisticated reviews of foreign films and foreign filmmakers are in plenty. The same issue also features a chart of box office success of domestic films of 2004 without, however, listing any ones successful on the international circuit. Lizard (Marmoolak, 2003) is at the top of the chart with annual earnings of 771,972,850 Tomans (approximately U.S. $7,720,000). The chart shows that no internationally successful film is being screened domestically.
It all started with a success story at an international film festival in 1987. Seven years after the Islamic Revolution, Iran sent Masoud Jafari Jozani’s The Frosty Roads (Jadehay Sard, 1985) to the Berlin film festival, which marked the beginning of a golden journey for Iranian cinema across the globe. Every succeeding story of success, be it domestically or internationally, was and is still considered somewhat of a golden emblem on the crest of the Islamic Republic, suggesting in effect that it was the Islamic Republic government that allowed Iranian cinema to be and become what it is.
In a special issue of Film: Monthly Cinema Journal in 2002, one of the most important subjects almost everyone involved in cinema has written about is the increasing role Iranian cinema has been playing in the international arena. Amir Esfandyari, the manager of film marketing of the state-run regulatory institution Bonyad Cinema-i Farabi, believes that the international presence of Iranian cinema is not related to pre-Revolution times. On the contrary, he argues that Iran’s cinema has excelled only due to the privileged treatment the arts have received since the 80s.3 Incredible in its celebratory and propagandist reclamation, this position minimizes (nay, denies) the achievement of the filmmakers themselves, and most importantly, of pre-Islamic Revolution filmmakers who indeed had achieved international recognition.4
In his recent documentary, Iran: A Cinematographic Revolution (2006), Nader Takmil Homayoun indicates that most of the Farabi authorities and Fajr Film Festival organizers believe that it was the post-Islamic Revolution efforts that allowed Iranian cinema to become an international household name from the late 1990s onwards. One of the points he makes is in relation to the formation of The Iranian Youth Film Institute (Cinema-ye Javan) and the possibilities this organization has potentially created in the arena of Iranian cinema as such. In his interview for the film, Mohammad Heydarian, former Minister of State for Cinematographic Affairs, said he believed that since the Islamic Republic Government could not rely upon the pre-Revolution filmmakers and their artistic force, they decided to launch on a training campaign: "We [the Islamic Republic Government] thought that if we cast the net wide we would increase our chances of capturing the major talents. So, we founded The Iranian Youth Film Institute, a cinema industry institute financed by the state but autonomous. It trained, with a vengeance, more than five thousand apprentice filmmakers per year. I think the institute has now trained over ninety thousand people." Nevertheless, although it would be wrong to deny the role of the state and the way it sponsored Iran’s post-Revolution film education and production, another important factor that catalysed film production was the unique aesthetic of Iranian New Wave cinema of the 60s, which (much in contrast to other Iranian films of the time that often failed to communicate any aspect of average Iranian life) opposed modes of Western imagination and told indigenous and honest tales in cryptic metaphors. That cinema dared to criticise the social condition of Iran under the monarchy and put Iranian cinema before the international community for the first time.
Denial: An Attempt to Hide the Past
The Iranian New Wave cinema refers to a movement that began with Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969) and Massoud Kimiai’s Gheisar (1969), was continued with Bahram Beizai’s Downpour (Ragbar, 1971), and reached its eventual highpoint with Sohrab Shahid Saless’ A Simple Event (Yek Etefagh-e Sadeh, 1973) and Massoud Kimiai’s The Journey of the Stone (Safar-e Sang, 1979), which predicted the downfall of the Shah. In his book, Az Peyda Va Penhan (Of Private and Public Matters), Aydin Aghdashloo reminds his readers that during the late 60s and early 70s filmmakers embarked on making serious films for the first time, which became the foundation of Iranian Art Cinema.5 He also claims that Saless’ A Simple Event is by far the best work coming out of Iranian film. The film tells the story of a ten-year-old boy living in a small town with an ill mother and a father struggling to make a living smuggling fish, and as such it has all the elements of success that, years later, many filmmakers tried to copy. For one, the film is documentary-like and leaves the impression that it is not "lying" about life—much in contrast to most of the films that were then being made in Iran: idealistic commercial cinema better known as Film-Farsi or bad imitations of low grade western B-cinema.6 In either case, they portrayed something that the majority of Iranians could not relate to—simply capturing what anyone in Iran could go through in their daily life. The tradition Saless models for many successful films to come is, in effect, a neo-realist notion that is close to a poetic interpretation of realism, rather than the familiar narrative of conventional cinema. Consequently, that tradition gave the feeling that the films did not have a constructed plot. A Simple Event, in particular, shows the innocence of a child entangled in the brutal nastiness of reality and the pure and simple life of Iranian villagers. Although one could critique the social and political aspects of urban artists using the vantage of media and technology to "capture" rural subjects, Saless, like many New Wave filmmakers, may have chosen the village as a metaphor to comment on the social condition of Iran and its people. The loneliness of a child desperately looking for a way out is an allegory that could easily be stretched to indicate the void in modern Iranian society of the 60s. While this society bore the façade of the modern West, it was within full of pain, sorrow and sadness, analogous to the moment when the child—after searching heaven and high for a doctor—takes the village doctor to his ill mother’s bed, only to find out that she has long been dead. Yet into that despair Saless periodically intersperses the breathtaking landscapes of northern Iran, while also photographing the meandering village alleys and tightly-knit houses; all are captured in impeccable frames in washes of phantasmagoric light and shade.
The filmmakers succeeding Saless fought on multiple fronts. On the one hand, films dealing with such themes were certainly not box office winners and were made with little to no state support; the Shah’s regime would not support artists and intellectuals that criticised the shortcomings of the Monarchy. On the other hand, these filmmakers had to cross many barriers to gain both domestic release and international visibility. The ironic point is that, contrary to what one would assume, many of these films, despite being strongly critical of the society under the Shah, were never embraced by the Islamic state after the Revolution of 1979 and were hardly ever shown widely. This was the fate of Saless’ films and of those of other filmmakers of this generation. What one may conclude here is that these films’ neo-realist techniques (their metaphoric cinematic language and/or their documentary quality) were not—and still are not—the decisive factors for the government—be it the Monarchy or the Islamic regime thereafter—in supporting these films for international distribution or wider domestic screening. If they were known to select international cinema communities at all, the most likely reason for their visibility was the individual effort of their makers to take them to film festivals with little or no state support.
From Shahid Saless to Abbas Kiarostami
Shahid Saless’ films contain all the ingredients that years later brought international recognition to Iranian filmmakers. Among the filmmakers Aghdashloo acknowledges within the same generation is Abbas Kiarostami, who was making short films that were, in fact, longer feature films broken into shorts. Also, it was at this stage of Kiarostami’s career that he began working with the themes of rural life and the aesthetic strategy of using non-actors and children. These two characteristics remained with him and continue to feed and inform his films to date. Kiarostami in this period also developed a penchant for lyricism in his films, which is a common element in the camera-work of many Iranian New Wave filmmakers. The third element coming out of Saless’ films that was later used and, arguably, perfected by Kiarostami is the documentary-like vision as a style and aesthetic strategy, which in its own way enhanced the lyrical characteristics of the films. Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House, Under the Olive Trees (Zire Derakht-e Zeytoon, 1994) and Taste of Cherry (Tam-e Gilas, 1997) offer good examples of such techniques and tendencies. These films were admired by the public, cinema critics and artists alike, although Taste of Cherry, compared to its international reputation, never received the same support at home. Kiarostami’s domestic fame and popularity during the late 80s and early 90s were undeniable, which the state and film authorities could not dismiss regardless of their efforts to create limitations and barriers for him along with others. At the same time, when his films began to attract the attention of the West, they began to generate an unexpectedly positive image of Iranian art and culture in the international arena. This offered the government an opportunity it could not ignore, a government known in the West as anti-American and fundamentalist, and a supporter of international terrorism with numerous international sanctions placed against it. Paradoxically, Iranian New Wave cinema gave the Islamic Republic a chance to change how the world viewed them. This chance led to a general softening of restriction codes, notwithstanding the Republic’s dislike for a cinema that told the truth beautifully and with deceptive simplicity.
In the fantastic and ironic narration of Once Upon A Time, Cinema (Nasser-e-Din Shah, Actor-e Cinema, 1992), Mohsen Makhmalbaf addresses this very issue and marks the shift in the government’s interest in Iranian art cinema and its socio-political reasons behind it. The film is a layered tale of a filmmaker in the royal court of Iran at the end of the nineteenth century, who invests his life and love in film but in the process needs to convince the king to embrace the new technology. The king, who at the beginning is more interested in the film’s female star, is by the end completely taken by the magic of the black box. He loses his mind and—in a suggestive allusion— takes up the identity of the simple farmer in Dariush Mehrjoui’s 1969 film The Cow, whose cow dies and who is consequently driven mad in the face of the poverty and dark destiny that awaits him. Ezzatollah Entezami, the actor who played the lead role in Mehrjoui’s film, actually reprises the role in Makhmalbaf’s Once Upon A Time, Cinema, only this time decades later and under similar surveillance looking for the same thing: state recognition and support.7 Makhmalbaf in this allegory of filmmaking in Iran reviews the archive of Iranian cinema and—although only symbolically and in a thinly veiled critique of the Monarchy—shows that B-rated films, then and now, can still be more successful than the New Wave artists, filmmakers and actors alike, who are being rejected and censored all the same. Once Upon A Time, Cinema, in that sense, is a plea for recognition, a cry of help for this cinema-lover who is on the verge of going mad, as he witnesses the gradual death of his only precious belonging.
The importance of Abbas Kiarostami in establishing Iranian cinema both within and beyond its geo-temporal borders, and specifically within the context of my argument, is the fact that he is the only successful filmmaker directly connected to the New Wave filmmakers of pre-Revolution Iran. Unfortunately, almost none of the filmmakers of that movement could successfully withstand the pressures of Islamic fundamentalism as expressed in Makhmalbaf’s Once Upon A Time, Cinema. Bahram Beizai, for instance, could only make a few films after the Revolution—Bashu being the best instance of them. He was literally put out of commission and opposed at every step by numerous barriers officials had created for him, which finally led to his giving up making films in the Islamic Republic altogether. While Beizai was effectively pushed out of filmmaking in Iran, Dariush Mehrjui and Massoud Kimiai (also after arduous and protracted fights with the system) made domestically successful films and then several historical films that showed a past no longer relevant to post-Revolution Iran. In view of these restrictive pressures, ambitious young filmmakers of the post-Revolution era would follow a more promising route by means of strategy and subtle subversion.
Following Kiarostami’s successful model, younger Iranian filmmakers often relied on the non-threatening motif of innocent children living in poverty. Among these is Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon (Badkonak e Sepid, 1995, winner of 5 awards), for which Kiarostami wrote the screenplay, and The Mirror (Ayeneh, 1997, winner of 3 awards). In the same vein we have films like Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (Bachehaye Aseman, 1997, winner of 10 awards and one Oscar nomination), The Color of Paradise (Rang-e Khoda, 1999, winner of 10 awards), and Baran (2000, winner of 8 awards), Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses (Zamani Baraye Masti-ye Asbha, 2000) and Turtles Can Fly (Lakposht-ha Parvaz Mikonand, 2004).8 The international success of these films suggests that audiences appreciate lyrical narratives and emotional sensitivity without breaking into melodrama or sentimentalism, although one could argue that The Color of Paradise, in particular, rides on the predisposed sentiment of an audience who is already mesmerised by its fantastic cinematography and magical landscape. Films built around a languid, poetic cinematography and populated with child and other non-professional actors, often in poverty-stricken environments, all add up to an arresting simplicity attractive to Western viewers accustomed to famous actors in high-budget films.
The most fundamental question problematizing this dominant aesthetic tendency in Iranian cinema is whether these filmmakers are embracing a neo-realist gaze and unflinching social narratives that draws on the tradition of Saless, or whether they are self-consciously catering to the cinematic palate of their (still-Orientalized) foreign viewers, who fancy the "other" as victim with an absolute need for the helping hand of the "master"? (Contrary to what that simple binary may suggest, it is not simplistic to assume that capturing foreign markets and international recognition are not formative factors for these filmmakers, particularly when some of them are not able to show their films in Iran and cannot obtain screening or, at times, secure production permission within the country). One must keep in mind that these filmmakers have witnessed the decline of their (New Wave) cinema masters, have experienced the Revolution and the war with Iraq, and are experiencing the ever-growing pressures of the state. The question whether these film makers are exploiting their subjects to gain fame or are telling a tale of plight and blight in the hope of communicating with a global audience is therefore legitimate. In seeking the world’s attention, are these filmmakers not, inadvertently, falling into the trap of self-exoticization? After all, hasn’t the abject "poverty" of the Orient become the new Orientalist fancy of the Occident? These questions must be addressed within the context of their socio-cultural and political specificity, which requires of Iranian artists to constantly negotiate with the mandates of the state, his or her personal artistic integrity, as well as his or her place within the larger community of international filmmakers.
In his four films—A Time for Drunken Horses, Marooned in Iraq, Turtles Can Fly, and Daf (2003)—Bahman Ghobadi, for example, remains close to Kurdistan, its music, problems, and the vexed question of Kurdish identity within the Iranian nation state. However, at times, one wonders whether Ghobadi is on a race with himself to tell more and more appalling tales with each new film and whether the desire for financial success has replaced the need to express one’s artistic integrity or to make an ethical/political/human point? One cannot argue that Ghobadi’s films are not artistically interesting. He makes the harsh reality of Kurdish identity accessible to his audience—how it is inseparable from war, from the treacherous minefields, and from smuggling the basic necessities of life through the borderland terrain between Iran and Iraq, where humans are as vulnerable to landslides as they are to landmines. A disabled young boy, who apparently has become disabled because of a minefield accident is an expert in nullifying old mines; a musician follows a voice he has heard from behind a wall all the way to the part of Kurdistan that is in Iraq in hopes of finding his beloved. They all communicate to the audience—successfully and with great artistry—the brutal reality of a Kurdish life in the depths of the wintry mountains. If it is the immense pain that motivates these filmmakers, then how could the ethical weight of such poignant depictions be borne?
Recognizing these appealing factors in attracting larger audiences is important, as is the possibility of taking advantage of such appeal, which is precisely what the Islamic Republic has banked on. One may wonder why the Islamic government (even partially) supports Ghobadi’s films. Their value as propaganda for the Islamic Republic surely must be a decisive factor. The first judgement a Western viewer may have upon seeing these pro-Kurdish films is that they are subtly criticising the government for its treatment of the Kurds. However, this is only what appears to be the case at first, for in the end it is evident that these films have also been "permitted" to be made under the same regime, which suggests that this regime is not as repressive as it is seems. This provision to allow for dissent alone makes it viable for the Islamic Republic’s film production organ to support Ghobadi’s films, and thus makes them "saleable" on the international market.
However, while Ghobadi’s ostensible "criticism" and political objective is allowable and gained the regime’s support, films like Behram Beizai’s Bashu (1989) never received state support for international release and screening. Bashu does not communicate in those familiar and Orientalist tropes spelled out above, but instead addresses the problematic of the national Iranian psyche on a philosophical level. The film questions the racial and regional forms of discrimination that put a world between Naie (the heroine played by Susan Taslimi, a leading Iranian actress whose films were subsequently banned in Iran) and Bashu, a boy from the southern war-stricken provinces, who by strange quirk of fate rides an empty truck to the north of Iran, which is culturally very different from where he comes from. When he emerges from the truck after a night’s ride, he finds himself in a place as good as foreign, although technically he is still within the borders of the same nation. The film symbolically foregrounds the diversity of languages, the different strands in Iran’s nationalist ideology, the simultaneous masculinity and emasculation of a nation, and the feminised essence of nature personified in the ancient Persian goddess Amanita. The film, in other words, speaks on several levels at the same time and complicates the situation beyond a straightforward bleeding-heart reading of the situation. Naturally, such a film offers a spicy meal for an Orientalist palate, in addition to being too dangerous for the Islamic Republic to accept.
It is indeed true that the pre-Revolutionary New Wave filmmakers were at the beginning of their mission to establish their own cinematic language and authority in order to reveal a larger picture of their life that had been manipulated by the effort of Mohammad Reza Shah. Poetic neo-realist techniques were better suited to this purpose, while communicating to their potential global audience. New Wave filmmakers were not only facing the dominance of Hollywood film, which simply did not allow other nations to envision their own cinema, but also the dictatorial presence of the Shah, let alone the presence of a state religion that, even then, was a force to reckon with. Pressed in between this powerful wedge, young Iranian filmmakers began to dream their dreams not in the language of the West, but by developing their own cinematic identity and traditions.9 The question is, how would those same techniques suit a filmmaker who has on himself the mark of a failed revolution and a raging war, while being stamped a "terrorist" by the West? Filmmakers in both regimes have struggled to make their voices heard and their identities proclaimed, and it may well be that the country’s ongoing 40-year political and cultural turmoil was the crucial crucible from which new forms of cinematic expression and innovation emerged.
These days, in a profound historic irony, Iranian cinema has flourished and gained global recognition under a fundamentalist regime that has, in general, undermined any artistic innovation not in keeping with the boundaries established by its theocratic codes. It gave to the world filmmakers like Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi, Bahman Ghobadi, and state-approved authority figures such as Ali-Reza Shodja-Nouri, the former Head of International Relations for the Farabi Foundation, have made it their mission to send at least one Iranian film to major international film festivals each year. Mohammad Beheshti, another former Head of Farabi, boasts that since 1979 Iranian cinema has earned more than 100 international awards across the globe (qtd. in Iran: A Cinematic Revolution). Both, in effect, claim credit for the state for the international renown Iranian filmmakers have earned, regardless of these artists’ aesthetic and personal risks. When asked to explain the success of Iranian cinema in the international market, Abbas Kiarostami asserts that Iran’s cinema now ranks with the country’s best exports—pistachio nuts, carpets, and, of course, oil. There is no doubt that Iranian cinema is recognized as one of the pre-eminent national cinemas in the world today. However, while Iranian cinema fills a lacuna in international film discourse (in both the academic and commercial literature), the regime has effectively silenced any possible discourse about these successful films and their filmmakers inside its own borders. Makhmalbaf and Panahi have decided to leave Iran and live abroad, while Beizai has stopped making films altogether. Amir Naderi has completely dedicated himself to his New York-based film productions and still photography, and Kiarostami has remained engaged with international co-productions that are often filmed abroad with foreign subjects, actors and crew. While in the "Orient" (I use the term here with all its problematic implications) a dark pall of silence covers Iranian filmmakers, the Occidental interest they have stirred up in the Orientalist mind of the Occident continues to morph into ever-renewing forms of otherised exotica.
1Although Iranian films have been strongly present in many international film festivals and have been recognized by, mainly, film scholars since the 1970s, it is mainly due to the attention Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf attract that slightly older films such as Bashu (1989), Hamoon (1990), The White Balloon (1995), Children of Heaven (1997) and others gradually became recognized.
2Taken from Masoud Farsati’s interview with Nader Takmil Homayoun in Iran: A Cinematic Revolution, a feature length documentary commissioned and produced by Caroline Bonmarchand (Avenue B, France, 2006).
3The Farabi Cinema Foundation was established in 1983 as the executive assistant department of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. This foundation started its activities based on the executive policies and methods of the IRI (Islamic Republic of Iran) cinema and continued the supportive programs with respect to the production and screening of feature films, their aims being to support the Iranian cinema industry. Esfandyari’s comments can be read in his interview with Mohammad Mohammadian, "Ask Me All You Want…: A Dialogue with Amir Esfandyari," featured in the same edition of Mahname Cinemai Film.
4I am thinking here in particular of Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (Gaav, 1969), which won the ICIC award in 1972 at the Berlin Film Festival.
5Aydin Aghdashloo is a prominent Iranian painter and art critic, who has written extensively on film and art history. For more information please see www.aghdashloo.com. Of Private and Public Matters first appeared from Siyamak Books (Tehran) in 2000.
6A typical Film-Farsi plotline often deals with a type character, a person from the lower or labor class who is habitually getting into gang fights, but respects the law of the common people, protects women while keeping them confined to the domestic space, and most often is an anti-hero. This character is often attracted to a certain dancer who works in a café in the murky parts of town, hence the moral dilemma resulting in a fatal fight.
7Ezzatollah Entezami is one of the most celebrated actors to establish his career with the New Wave filmmakers and has been a dominant figure in Iranian cinema since the 60s. In Mehrjui’s film, the farmer Mash Hasan (Entezami) loses his cow and, traumatized, loses his mind and imagines himself as the cow itself. In Once Upon a Time, Cinema, Makhmalbaf has Entezami reprise the role he had played almost 30 years earlier, as he revisits and relives his past in the reel world of cinema. He is once more visited by the trauma of the loss, hence his repeated madness.
8Panahi has worked with Kiarostami on many projects, either as his assistant or working on scripts written by Kiarostami. Ghobadi was the second unit director for Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999).
9Mehrjui’s The Cow, for instance, embarrassed the King and the government, because it did not portray a sparkling picture of modern Iran. The film was initially confiscated and only after its international success allowed for domestic release. Beizai was later to receive similar treatment from the Islamic regime for Bashu, in part because there is no mention of a mosque or call for prayers in the film. Although Bashu remains one of the best films ever made for the Iranian screen, it gained little recognition abroad.
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—. Downpour (Ragbar). Iran, 1971.
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—. Five (Panj). Iran, 2003.
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—. The Journey of the Stone (Safar-e Sang). Iran, 1979.
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—. Children of Heaven (Bachehaye Aseman). Iran, 1997.
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—. Once Upon A Time, Cinema (Nasser-e-Din Shah, Actor-e Cinema). Iran, 1992.
Mehrjui, Dariush, dir. Hamoon. Iran, 1990.
—. The Cow (Gaav). Iran, 1969.
Mohammad Mohammadian, "Ask Me All You Want…: A Dialogue with Amir Esfandyari," Mahname Cinemai Film, Special Issue no. 296, 2002: [precise pagination needed].
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