Iran’s High-Water Mark


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.

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.

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 Chinoise and 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.”