Iran’s High-Water Mark

The Not-So-New Wave

Like the few other national cinemas that maintained any kind of transnational presence during Hollywood's globalization, Iran's has pegged its fortunes to approbation by international festivals. By that measure, 2000 was another banner year for a cinema that a decade ago was barely a blip on programmers' screens. At Cannes, the Camera d'Or (for best first film) was shared by Bahman Ghobadi's A Time for Drunken Horses and Hassan Yektapanah's Djomeh, while the Jury Prize went to Blackboards, the sophomore feature by Samira Makhmalbaf. At Venice, Jafar Panahi's The Circle became the first Iranian film to capture the Golden Lion, and Marziyeh Meshkini's The Day I Became a Woman took the Future Cinema prize. And at Fajr, Iran's own international festival, top honors were claimed by Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine, the first film in over 20 years by veteran moviemaker Bahman Farmanara. (Besides A Time for Drunken Horses, released here in the fall, The Circle, Smell of Camphor, and The Day I Became a Woman all opened in New York in April; Blackboards and Djomeh are slated for the summer.)

In a temporal sense, all six belong to what might be called the "Khatami wave." Iranian cinema entered a new era when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected president of Iran by a landslide in May 1997, the same week that Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry became the first Iranian film to win the Palme d'Or. Certainly, Iranian producers still face daunting problems (including a severe shortage of domestic screens), and filmmakers continue to be surrounded by a thicket of content restrictions. However, Khatami's first culture minister, Ataollah Mohajerani, quickly indicated that conditions under the new administration would be different. Besides lifting bans on several films, he dropped the requirements that films premiere at Fajr and that scripts be vetted by censors before shooting.

As widespread buoyancy and optimism after Khatami's election turned into frank debate and demands for reform, artists and intellectuals took the lead in articulating the desire for a freer society. At the same time, hardliners threw every available roadblock in the progressives' path. The resulting tug-of-war has been reflected in a cultural mood that swings between confidence and melancholy, optimism and bitterness. The era's heightened social concerns are embodied in these new films. Blackboards and A Time for Drunken Horses depict the harsh lives of Iranian Kurds. Djomeh dramatizes the disorientation encountered by Afghani immigrants. The Circle and The Day I Became a Woman focus on the difficulties faced by women. And Smell of Camphor throws the spotlight on successful filmmakers who haven't worked since before the 1979 revolution.

Marziyeh Meshkini, director of The Day I Became a Woman
photo: Robin Holland
Marziyeh Meshkini, director of The Day I Became a Woman

Farmanara's film, in which an aging director broods over the deaths of several of his contemporaries, provides an apt reminder that Iran's cinematic surge predates the West's recent fascination with it. Beginning in 1969, Iran experienced a decade-long boom in art films that local critics dubbed the Iranian new wave. Though the level of talent was much the same as it would be later, the mood of Iran's films was significantly different. During a time of mounting unrest and opposition to the shah's regime, cutting-edge movies were almost uniformly dark, depressive, distraught. In a word, fatalistic.

The revolution's aftermath brought not only a new generation of filmmakers but a new tone to Iranian movies. In 1983, a group of young intellectuals working under then-Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Khatami got parliamentary approval to revive Iran's movie industry. Prerevolutionary directors were invited to resume their careers, and younger aspirants were able to begin working. While the government laid down guidelines spelling out what couldn't be shown (women's hair, any touching by actors who weren't married, etc.), it didn't attempt to dictate what would be depicted, and filmmakers focused on the lives of ordinary people with an attitude that was generally compassionate, searching, affirmative. In short, idealistic.

This positive mood helped the films get noticed when they began showing up at international festivals in the late '80s. Iranian cinema almost seemed like a return to the ethos of Italian neorealism; nowhere else did the art film retain such an air of generous, hard-won humanism and social purpose.

Because it came from the Islamic world, the postrevolutionary cinema faced an uphill battle against Western hostility and prejudice. Yet Farmanara believes that the demonization of Iran also helped lead to the breakthrough of its cinema. "The massive anti-Iran publicity in the American and Western media created this kind of black hole, and out of that comes Where Is the Friend's House?—a very touching, very kind film," he recalls of Kiarostami's 1987 film. "Such movies took people by surprise." Kiarostami was instrumental in creating a genre of films that focused on children but were aimed at adult audiences, producing a number of Iran's biggest international successes, including Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon and Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise.

Such films, some cinephiles in Iran insist, appealed to sentimental Western notions of "third world" hardship and picturesque poverty. Perhaps so, but the child-centered genre also served as a foot through the international door, and it was hardly the only kind of film that drew foreign attention. Also during the '80s, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a former Islamic militant who had been imprisoned under torture during the shah's regime, turned out several passionate, highly polemical social dramas.

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