Iran’s High-Water Mark

The Not-So-New Wave

By the early 1990s, the subtle aesthete Kiarostami and the fiery social critic Makhmalbaf were the leading icons not only of the postrevolutionary cinema but of the two very different generations it included. In fact, all six "class of 2000" successes noted here have associations with one or the other. The directors of Djomeh and The Circle are former Kiarostami assistants; Smell of Camphor's Farmanara is a longtime friend who produced Kiarostami's second feature. Blackboards and The Day I Became a Woman were made, respectively, by Makhmalbaf's daughter and wife. A Time for Drunken Horses' Ghobadi spans the two streams, having worked as an assistant to both Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf.

The two Makhmalbaf-family titles reflect one of the most unusual developments in Khatami-era cinema. Through much of the '90s, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's rapid rate of production matched his reputation's ascent. But in the past five years, he has released only one feature, and concentrated instead on helping his wife and kids become world-class filmmakers. As improbable as it may sound, the Makhmalbaf clan has emerged as something akin to an Islamic-world cross between the "groupuscule" in Godard's La Chinoiseand Andy Warhol's Factory. The Apple (1998) was the family collective's first feature. Directed by daughter Samira, then a teenager, and edited, produced, and written by Mohsen, it was a festival hit that effectively launched Makhmalbaf Film House.

"Mohsen and I conceived it together, like a baby," says Marziyeh Meshkini, Makhmalbaf's wife, speaking of the cocredited script of The Day I Became a Woman. (Meshkini is Makhmalbaf's second wife; her late sister was his first and the mother of his three children.) It's natural to wonder whether Mohsen is now simply working through surrogates, but the film is entirely convincing as a connubial collaboration. A witty triptych of symbolic satires, The Day I Became a Woman combines the polemical feistiness of Makhmalbaf's The Cyclist and The Peddler with a warm, positive spirit that was seldom evident in his films of the '80s. "I wanted to offer some hope in every one of the stories," Meshkini says. Indeed, each of her tales shows a female character acting to claim control over her life against considerable odds.

On the Kiarostami side of the ledger, Djomeh, the story of a young Afghani farm laborer trying to maneuver some romance into his life, achieves the muted, closely observed humanism of Where Is the Friend's House?-era Kiarostami; its compassionate vision is very much in line with the idealistic ethos of Iran's postrevolutionary cinema.

Vastly different in tone and emphasis, Smell of Camphor and The Circle hint at something new in Khatami-era cinema: a return to prerevolutionary fatalism. Smell of Camphor reflects the frustration that Farmanara, who spent most of the 1980s working in film distribution in North America, endured after he returned to Iran and submitted one script after another to authorities. He says his penultimate attempt, drolly titled I Hate Abbas Kiarostami and set in a mental institution, was too readily seen as an indictment of postrevolutionary Iran. But Smell of Camphor is hardly a cheery social portrait. One of its few upbeat moments comes in a news broadcast that shows President Khatami eloquently discoursing on freedom; yet this passage only underscores the difficulties Khatami's followers still face in securing political liberties.

An even bleaker picture is conjured by The Circle. A daisy chain of social oppression in which lower-class women fall before the flails of patriarchy, it phrases its political drama in a way that meshes with Western anti-Iran prejudices. "Little has changed there since Alexander the Great," shrieked a Film Comment reviewer, indicating the age-old biases that Panahi flatters, strategically or not. Noting that it "relentlessly portrays Iran as backward and repressive, and Iranian women as victims unable to transform their lives," Roksana Bahramitash and Homa Hoodfar, writing in the Montreal Gazette, worry that the film "will feed racism in the name of feminism."

Do such films herald another historical rupture, as their pre-'79 counterparts did? Farmanara believes that the subjects chosen by filmmakers will continue to be affected by the country's fluctuating political situation, which he says is "like the tango. You take one step forward, and then when you are pushed, you take two steps back." Yet he notes that Iran now has three generations of successful, internationally known filmmakers working side by side, from 21-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf to sixtysomethings like Kiarostami. "It's true that with the media and the critics you end up being the flavor of the month, but our success has gone on much longer than such attention usually lasts, and I think it can continue, because this cinema is extremely wealthy in terms of talent."

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