The media outside Iran looks too reductive for somebody trying to look at Iran. But for the World cinema enthusiast, Iran cinema offers an alternate, which is fascinating, and even surprising for its artistic sophistication and fervent humanism.
We are in the times of Hollywood almost everywhere in the World, making many national cinemas virtually out of the business, with its domination, big budgets, extravaganza and so much so, that most of its distribution houses have spread like coke, and the business of Cinema is to an extent monopolized.
Far from the maddening crowd, Iranian film makers continue to enthrall audience in their distinctive tradition; their own freshness and unwavering dedication to the real life people and problem they show and bring in those stories are sincerely brilliant. In the past decade and two, Iranian movies have won more than 300 International awards and recognized globally as one of the best forms of cinema the audience happen to enjoy so immense. These accolades inspired many Iranian directors and the likes of Abbas Kiarostami; Mohsen Makhmalbaf; Dariush Mehrjui; Masoud Kimiai; Majid Majidi; Tahmineh Milani and recently Asghar Farhadi have set the bar of film making into the extraordinary high, and many critics rate Iranian cinema as the most important national cinema, with their significance compared to Italy’s neo-realism in late 40’s, post war Japanese films in 50’s and 60’s; Czech’s renaissance of 60’sand even intellectual vibrancy of French new-wave- which is in a way of resurgence of interests among global audience.
It was the decade preceding the 1979 Iranian revolution, a far to remarkable transformation in parallel with the broader changes in Iranian culture and society. Today, Iranian cinema is recognized as one of the most innovative and exciting in the world, and films from Iranian directors are being screened to increasing acclaim at international festivals. The key to determining the apparent contradiction between Iran’s repressive image and the renaissance of Iranian cinema is to understand the relationship that developed between art, society and the state after the Islamic revolution.
The nature of the revolution, and the factionalism within the Islamic Republic, gave the public and artists an opportunity to engage the state in extended processes of negotiation, protest, cooperation and defiance. Contrary to prevalent views, the principal contenders do not fall neatly into opposing camps, and still the artistic community with the smaller space exploited divisions in the regime to confront the cultural conservatives and the segment of the state apparatus under their control.
Women and romantic themes became the main focus of this confrontation. Soon after the revolution, women and love were forced into the strait jacket of strict interpretations of feqh (Islamic jurisprudence), which allowed little room for social realities like feelings between boys and girls. With the imposition of hejab (the Islamic dress code) and sexual segregation, the public presence of women and the expression of romantic love became highly restricted. For a decade, Iranian filmgoers could hardly see women and love depicted on screen. The subsequent story of Iranian cinema parallels other post-revolutionary developments in Iranian society: a constant stretching of the limits imposed by feqh-based ideology.
Even before the 1979 revolution, the clerics in Iran rejected cinema, and called it as forbidden (haram).Unlike the Persian language was always rich in its tradition and had given lots of literary transparency and directness in the depiction of women and love. Among the traditional solutions adopted for this problem were the complete elimination of women, as in ta’ziyeh, the religious passion plays, where women’s roles have always been played by men, or idealized and unrealistic representations, such as the “neuter” figures depicted in paintings of the early Qajar period, which were embodiments of how the “beloved” was described in classical poetry. By the late nineteenth century, with the advent of photography, the representation of women had become more realistic. The drive for “modernization” under Reza Shah, and the corresponding takeoff of cinema as public entertainment in Iran, reinforced this tendency. Not only had Iranian women’s public roles and status changed, but women and love stories were integral to the film industry from the start
This was the classic situation, and the budding Islamic Republic was thus faced with an impasse. Much in the conscious of cinema’s power, the Islamic authorities could neither reject nor ignore the medium as the clerics had done before. On the other hand, feqh had nothing to say about film, apart from imposing its rules of halal and haram on cinematic images and themes. Khomeini’s regime made a concerted attempt to bring cinema under the domination of state ideology and subject it to a process of Islamization. But the Islamization process had failed, as filmmakers, like other artists, steadily managed to free their art from feqh injunctions and state ideology
The end of the war with Iraq in 1988 and Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989 brought about a shift in the power structure. The perception of cultural-revolution gave way to that of cultural invasion, which became the right’s ideological tool for disputing and eliminating the enemy within (their leftist opponents). These included some of the early militants and radicals, who were gradually breaking away from absolutist ideologies, and were developing a more moderate and liberal outlook. This group was later joined by some of the “moderates” and “liberals” (now referred to as “religious nationalists,” melli-mazhabi) and secularists (the “different thinkers,” digar-andishan) whom the radicals had overcome in the early years of the revolution. Together they became the backbone of the reformist movement that emerged in 1997.
The rightist faction concentrated its attacks on the MCIG (Ministry of Culture & Islamic Guidance). Mohammad Khatami, the minister since 1982, had laid the foundation for the growth of a domestic cinema and an independent press as part of his general contribution to the development of open cultural policies. The Farabi Cinema Foundation, a semi-governmental organization, put a partial ban on the import of foreign films and provided financial support for filmmakers. But it was too late. The old taboo topics of women and love had already come out of the shadows.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film A Time to Love (1991) marked the beginning of a new approach. It dealt with the forbidden subject of a love triangle (one woman, two men), and the relativity of human conditions and judgments. A Time to Love was shocking, not only because it revealed a change of position by a filmmaker committed to Islam, but also because he chose such a sensitive storyline, a romantic film to convey the message, was shot in Turkey. This film was shown in Iran only at the Fajr Festival, not in public cinemas, though it was passionately debated in the press for some time. During this phase, women film directors broke away from the male vision and started to produce films dealing clearly with female characters and love. Notable among them is Nargess by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (1992), another love triangle story (two women and one man), which won the main 1992 Fajr Festival award.
In the absence of a free press, cinema came to provide a kind of social critique. Its favorable critical reception meant that it also reached outside audiences, putting it in a unique position as the alternative face of Iran to the world. The conservative policies of the rightist faction, which now controlled the MCIG, politicized the filmmakers. During the 1997 presidential election, for the first time filmmakers made their implicit political tendencies explicit. Almost the entire cinematic community came out in support of Mohammad Khatami. His campaign commercial was produced by filmmaker Seifollah Dad, and a number of other filmmakers spoke in support of his candidacy.
In the years subsequent of 1992 festival, Iranian cinema enjoyed a sturdy global gradient. Almost unknown to many audience, by the end of the nineties Iranian films had been embraced by festivals around the world and won virtually every major prize they offer. During this time its cinema may well have been the most significant image-enhancer the decidedly image-challenged Islamic Republic enjoyed internationally.
Iranian films mostly focus on ordinary people caught in severe circumstances brought about by social, cultural or natural forces, besides the central women character they face in the Islamic society is something to comprehend from. These are powerful subjects, and Iranian filmmakers manage to address them not with easy sloganeering or romanticism, but with insight and a sure sense of storytelling basics and dramatic purpose. The films’ most singular quality is a feeling of compassion for those who suffer.
Iranian filmmakers have shown a great intellect for making virtues out of constraints. Since the films are economically made, they often have a surface simplicity that encourages subtlety and realism; budgetary limitations are perhaps one reason their directors have also become famous for exploring the boundary between documentary and fiction. That Western-style violence, obscenity and sex are prohibited (actresses must wear the veil at all times, and couples may not even hold hands) has meant that filmmakers carefully choose their subjects and practice skillfully indirect, allegorical storytelling. For example, films about children, an Iranian specialty, allow for a form of oblique social commentary and intimate situations that would be harder to effect among adults.
In the very best Iranian films, this combination of artful simplicity and subtle suggestiveness produces results that refine our notions of the cinema’s expressive possibilities, and its connections to other arts. Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian director most acclaimed in the West, makes films that elegantly combine his interests in painting, poetry and philosophy, and that have drawn to comparisons to such world masters as Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa.
Censorship in Iran is always been nasty. Dariush Mehrjui’s seminal film Gaav (The Cow, 1969) is now considered a groundbreaking work of the Iranian new-wave. Thou the film was sponsored by the state, but they promptly banned it upon completion because its vision of rural life clashed with the progressive image of Iran that the Shah wished to project, while its prominence at international film festivals annoyed the regime then.
Since the mid-1980s, Iran’s policy on film censorship has been changed in order to promote domestic film production: the strict censorship eased after December 1987. Old directors resurfaced and new ones emerged. However, the application of the rules is often inconsistent. Several films have been refused release inside Iran, but have been given export permits to enter international film festivals. Even here, the censorship is inconsistent: May Lady by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (1998) got through but her contribution to Stories of Kish (1999) did not.
All of Jafar Panahi’s and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s films have been banned from public theaters in Iran. Couple of topics dealing with love or for that matter about revolution is also a no go.
In 2001, feminist filmmaker Tahmineh Milani made The Hidden Half, which was viewed of presenting the anti-revolutionary forces in a positive light. Milani was jailed and many Iranian and international artists and filmmakers protested her release. Eventually President Khatami and the Minister of Culture were able to secure her release. Of a subsequent film, Two Women, Milani has said “[it] was banned for seven months and before I could even start on it my script was banned for seven years. It was eventually released and was a box office hit in Iran.
In ‘Nargess’ Rakhshan Bani-Etemad who is a pioneer director, pushed censorship codes to the limits, questioning the mores of society, showing desperate people overwhelmed by social conditions and a couple living together without being married.
Abbas Kiarostami has had significant acclaim in Europe over several of his films; the Iranian government has refused to permit the showing of his films in his native Iran. Kiarostami’s films have been banned in his country for more than 10 years now. They are only accessible there through pirate DVDs and private screenings. Kiarostami is uncertain what the government dislikes about his films, saying “I think they don’t understand my films and so prevent them being shown just in case there is a message they don’t want to get out.” Despite this, Kiarostami has displayed an extraordinarily benign perspective, at least in recorded interviews: “The government is not in my way, but it is not assisting me either. We lead our separate lives.” Despite the censorship, Kiarostami insists on working in Iran, saying “I think I really produce my best work in Iran.” He believes that throughout the ages and all over the world censorship has existed in one form or another and artists have managed to live with this, saying “Today, the most important thing is that, although there is censorship, Iranian filmmakers are doing their job and they surpass the difficulties of censorship showing and discussing many things. So why ask me about what’s not in the films? It has happened many times that a filmmaker hides a weakness under the excuse of censorship but difficulties have always existed in our lifestyle and our role is to surpass them.”
The director Mohammed Rasoulof, whose “Manuscripts Don’t Burn “which was recently made in 2013, has been banned in Iran and he was convicted of charges relating to state security and anti-government propaganda. These are the wild natures in Iran, and yet Iranian films thrive for so much repeatedly the internal challenges. These directors of past and present have made Iranian film proud and endeared the global audience, extraordinary feat and I am sure many more bests to come from Iran…..
The most notable figures of the Iranian new-wave are Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi, Bahram Beizai, Darius Mehrjui, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Khosrow Sinai, Sohrab Shahid-Saless, Parviz Kimiavi, Samira Makhmalbaf, Amir Naderi, and Abolfazl Jalili.
While Kiarostami and Panahi represent the first and second generations of New wave filmmakers respectively, the third generation is represented by Rafi Pitts, Bahman Ghobadi, Maziar Miri, Asghar Farhadi, Mani Haghighi, and Babak Payami, along with newly emerged filmmakers such as Kiarash Anvari, Maziar Bahari, Sadaf Foroughi, Saman Saloor, and Mona Zandi-Haqiqi.