Commonly referred to as one of the world’s most conspicuous film cultures, Iranian cinema actually has a good shot at being the most significant breakout “wave” since Godard bounced his day job. Fifteen or so years into the post-revolutionary period, the movement is still gathering force—and the most spellbinding specimens aren’t stylish tubthumpers but patient and elliptical pathétiques, so simple in their architecture that their meanings and resonances effortlessly multiply. Even so, the Iranian surge can seem a somewhat surreal phenomenon, an arbitrary cataract of narrative wisdom that could just as well have exploded from Egypt or Romania or Kazakhstan. The nagging question, even now and even for the Iranian filmmakers in Jamsheed Akrami’s documentary Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema After the Revolution, is: Why Iran?
Everyone interviewed, from Abbas Kiarostami to Mohsen Makhmalbaf to Majid Majidi, has his or her own ideas, but they all sense that the oft noted Islamic strictures on society and media have machine-pressed their cinematic options into a kind of whole-grain eloquence. It’s a bitter notion that Makhmalbaf, for one, finds difficult to digest, but even he cannot refute it, particularly as the artists weigh in unanimously on the advantages of Iran’s Hollywood-import boycott. The Screening Room series frames Akrami’s crudely shot video essay—and its unavoidable debates about the government bridle—with Iranian staples stretching back to 1970 with Kiarostami’s rare shorts (showing for just two days). The focus on child-centered films is merely a hook, but the obsession with preadolescents is another issue Akrami’s interviewees cannot agree upon. The fact that half of Iran’s present population was born after 1979 is just the simplest of explanations.
Nothing, it seems, is black-and-white in Iran, and the ambiguities launch out of the films like bottle rockets. For the newcomer, here’s another opportunity to see Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy in one sitting: Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987), As Life Goes On . . . (1991), and Through the Olive Trees (1994). Each subsequent film rises from the fictional essence of its predecessor, and yet tangles with an authentic rural Iranian universe; the trilogy constitutes a uniquely profound act of cinema. Jafar Panahi is a thorough Kiarostami study: Though the popular and Kiarostami-outlined The White Balloon (1996) is relatively prosaic, The Mirror (1998) telescopes the Koker films into one bifurcated, Duck Amuck–ish hyperreality that is also a straightforward tale of a little girl making her way home through Tehran.
The only Makhmalbaf being screened (Mohsen resisting for the most part the Iranian yen for kids’ perspectives, except in his Tajikistan-shot frieze, The Silence) is Samira’s The Apple (1998), the beautiful if ethically questionable metafilm about a very real pair of retarded sisters released into the world. The relative mush-mindedness on view in Majid Majidi’s The Children of Heaven (1997) and The Color of Paradise (1999) half-converts the Iranian wave’s visual equipment into clichés (because he uses them as clichés). It’s no surprise that, as one of Akrami’s talking heads, Majidi proclaims the need for Iranian filmmakers to court the mass market and pander to audiences as Hollywood does.
Considering Majidi’s asinine prescriptions in light of And Life Goes On . . . or The Mirror, it’s easy to see the cultural profit of Islamic control. However, other eminences in Akrami’s chattering survey fill out the spectrum; if there’s one thing proven, it’s that there’s more Iranian dialogue about censorship and freedom than the U.S. media would imagine. The doc is also fat with film clips from before and after the 1979 revolution, but innocent of sensationalism as they are, Iranian films aren’t terribly quotable—except when used to illustrate how filmmakers must choreograph their action so that men and women never touch on-screen. (“The greatest loss is the loss of love,” director Bahram Bayzai growls.) Kiarostami (with shades and dwindling hairline, the spitting image of Godard circa 1965) remains nonchalant about “the rules,” but Makhmalbaf, for one, is exhausted by the struggle. Still, he rationalizes, cinema will survive while the governments that censor it will disappear: “We have Tarkovsky’s films, but the Soviet Union is gone.” The alarming parallel notwithstanding, Western audiences may well wonder what price sublimity.