London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Iranian cinema has been proving its worth as a flourishing film industry since the early 1990’s. To many, it is regarded a phenomenon. Some critics even contend that its influence on international film is akin to that of the French New Wave, which rose to prominence in the 1950’s and 60’s. Others laud it as the best exporter of cinema, with a significance warranting a comparison to German Cinema in the 1970’s and the Cinema of Hong Kong in the 1980’s and 90’s.
Today, Iranians have a growing presence in international film festivals. Iranian films bravely rival other cinematic works of art for the grand prize.
In this article, we attempt to answer the questions: How was Iran’s film industry able to rise to such glory? How was it able to become so internationally popular despite its humble technical capabilities and the state’s stringent censorship regulations which dictate everything from how women are to dress in films and other minor details, to the typical taboos of sex, religion, and politics? This question can only be answered by briefly recounting Iran’s cinematic beginnings and by listing its most prominent names.
Iran’s film industry can be traced back to the year 1900, when the then shah of Persia, Mozaffar Al-Din Shah, returned from a trip to Europe and obtained the first camera to enter Iran. In the year 1904, the first movie theatre opened in Tehran. Despite the very early start of cinema-going in Iran, the first Persian movie was only released in 1930 by the name of “Avi ba Rabi” by Ovanes Ohanian, an Armenian-Iranian director.
Early Persian films were influenced by Indian cinema. They soon, however, developed a style of their own. In the 1960s, there was increasing pressure from the state to follow modernist approaches to cinema, and to make Iran appear enlightened and Western-friendly. A new wave of directors soon emerged. These young directors experimented with new methods of filmmaking, and were not afraid of criticism. One of the era’s most important films is “The Cow” which was directed by Dariush Mehrjui in 1969. This film, which was shot in its entirety in an Iranian village, introduced the cinematic style of “realism,” which builds on Italy’s “neorealism” and would later be used by Iran’s most notable directors.
There are a number of characteristics that make Italian neorealism distinct. First of all, it usually follows the lives of the impoverished and the working class. It is also characterized by long shots on location. At times the whole movie would be shot exclusively on location, usually a village, a poor neighborhood or the countryside. It is also generally filmed with nonprofessional actors in supporting roles and sometimes even lead roles. The realism of life is often emphasized in these films, and most scenes consist of people running fairly mundane errands. This particular film “The Cow”, however, was banned from screening during the reign of the Shah, because it, according to censors, did not live up to Iran’s new modern image. Mehrjui managed to flee Iran and the film was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1971 and met with wide critical acclaim.
Iranian cinema remained to produce films of high-quality till the mid-1970’s. Bahram Beizai’s “Gharibe va Meh” [The Stranger and the Fog], a 1975 film, is probably one of the most notable films of that era. This, however, dramatically subsided until the revolution took place. When it did in 1978, everything cinema-related changed. The whole prospect of “Cinema” was shunned, as it was seen as a symbol of the Shah’s regime and of Western influences. Soon, over 180 theatres were burnt down, and over 400 people were deliberately wounded or killed in an Abadan cinema. These circumstances, along with state-imposed censorship whose boundaries remain uncertain, have led female filmmakers and actresses to flee the scene. Despite this, many notable films were made in the early eighties. One such film was Bahram Beizai’s “Chariké-ye Tārā”[The Ballad of Tara], 1980, another was Marg-e Yazdgerd [Death of Yazdgerd] by said filmmaker, 1982, both were banned in Iran. By the mid-1980’s, the state’s attitude towards filmmaking changed. It began to encourage local art and filmmaking. State-imposed censorship and banning was nevertheless still rampant.
In my opinion, its history and bold insistence to make films in spite of such thorny circumstances, while still attempting to circumvent censorship is what made Iran’s film industry so distinctive and one of the most successful film industries in the world, particularly since the 1990’s.
If we were to divide the lot of Iran’s most prominent directors into sections according to cinematic generation, we would get a generous list of inspirational directors who left a unique mark on Iranian cinema as we know it today. Although most of them espoused neo-realism, each director had his own distinctive style of filmmaking.
Two main figures are crucial to the discussion of Iran’s second generation of filmmakers, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami. In 1979, Makhmalbaf decided to take up writing screenplays full-time upon being released from prison, which he was in on account of joining an extremist group and killing a police officer (in self defense). One of his early works “Boycott”, 1985 was widely believed to be a story based on his own experiences. The irony of the situation was that Majid Majidi played Makhmalbaf in the play, only to become a prominent director himself in the future. Boycott was followed by “The Bicyclist,” 1987, and “The Marriage of the Blessed,” 1989, which told the story of soldiers and their suffering in post-war Iran. Makhmalbaf’s films usually promoted messages that criticized the society. In 1989 he began filming “Once Upon a Time, Cinema” in which he expressed his love for cinema. Films such as “Actor” 1993 and “Hello Cinema” 1995 ensued.
Soon, what critics described as Makhmalbaf’s best work to date came out. “Gabbeh” [Persian rug] was the film that made Makhmalbaf an international name. It was a film devoid of Makhmalbaf’s usual social criticism and was instead a reflective one. It tells the story of an elderly married couple who buy a beautiful Persian rug. As they spread the rug on the ground, a young girl magically appears whose name is “Gabbeh.” The movie follows her story as she narrates it to the elderly couple. It is a human story of love and life. It garnered Makhmalbaf many international awards and was one of the most celebrated Iranian films. “A Moment of Innocence”1996, and “The Silence” 1998 followed.
The film that garnered most critical acclaim, and the Federico Fellini Prize from Paris, was “Kandahar.” Critics believe the film’s timing was a decisive factor for the win. The film came out following the 9/11 attacks on America, and showed the world who the Afghans were, how they lived, and how Afghan women suffered at the hands of the Taliban. The beauty of it lays in the fact that it was not judging Afghan society so much as it was just conveying the hard cold truth. The film is set in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban. Like other Iranian films, it is partly true and partly fictional. It tells the story of a female Afghan refugee in Canada who travels to Afghanistan upon receiving a letter from her sister, who was left behind, that she is utterly depressed and intends to commit suicide. She then goes on a quest to reach Kandahar and save her sister. On her way she goes from one guide to another, each with their own story to tell. She also reminded herself that, if caught, she must pretend to be each guide’s sister, wife or mother. With this film, Makhmalbaf tapped into a virgin film locale, Afghanistan. This soon led up-and-coming Iranian directors such as Yassamin Maleknasr, Abolfazl Jalali, Siddiq Barmak, and Makhmalbaf’s own daughter Sameera to follow in his lead and make films about Afghanistan.
What set this film apart; however, was Makhmalbaf’s famed use of symbolism and metaphors as well as his heartrending scenes. One of the most surreal and unforgettable scenes to me was when a helicopter dropped artificial limbs on parachutes and a mob of men on clutches limply ran to the landing zone. This was a part no one could forget.