Iran 2000, Part 2

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Iran 2000,
Part 2

Two factors deserve credit
for that. First, the celebration’s 2000 edition, which was held in Tehran
on Sept. 11, marked not only the past year’s artistic achievements, but
also the 100th anniversary of cinema in Iran. Second, coming two days after
Jafar Panahi’s The Circle became the first Iranian film to capture
the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion, it implicitly commemorated a year
in which Iranian cinema hit yet another peak in global recognition, spurred
in part by the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers.

Established just four years
ago by Khaneh Cinema, the umbrella organization for Iran’s film guilds,
the Feast of Cinema is the younger and by now the grander of Iran’s two
large film awards ceremonies. The other comes at the end of the Fajr Film Festival,
which is held every February. But Fajr, where until 1998 all Iranian films were
obliged by government regulation to have their premieres, follows the ground
rules of many big festivals by hosting both international and domestic competitions.
The Feast of Cinema, by contrast, is strictly an Iranian affair that, like the
Oscars, celebrates an industry as much as an art.

The ceremony this year moved
from indoors-downtown to a Forest Hills-like tennis stadium at the Enghelab
Sports Complex in well-to-do northern Tehran. The 4000-seat al fresco venue
allowed for the extra spectacle and pageantry associated with the celebration
of Iran’s cinematic centenary, which, as it turned out, helped provide
something Iranian cultural events never seem to lack: controversy.

Seifollah Daad, a former
film producer who’s now the deputy minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance
for Cinematographic Affairs, opened the evening with a speech that implicitly
deplored the Iranian cinema’s prerevolutionary phase while crediting its
current strengths to the policies and values of the Islamic Republic. More than
one observer noted the ironic contrast between this message and the fact that,
during the montage of film clips that preceded Daad’s speech, the crowd
awarded some of its lustiest cheers to prerevolutionary stars and movie scenes.

The ironies continued with
the address by Majid Majidi, the current head of Khaneh Cinema, who warned against
artistic recidivism in the form of "commercial" filmmaking. These
remarks would no doubt surprise American cinephiles who see Majidi’s own
movies as consummately commercial: his Children of Heaven is so far the
only Iranian film to be nominated for an Academy Award, and just before I arrived
in Tehran, his Color of Paradise grabbed the title of highest-grossing
Iranian film yet released in the U.S.

But by Majidi’s definition–which
most Iranians would share–his expertly crafted films are about values and
ideals, and therefore are "artistic" as opposed to "commercial."
What he was agitating against was the kind of pandering-to-vulgar-tastes moviemaking
that reigned during the Shah’s era, and that he now sees returning in Iranian
genre films like Mummy 3, an unapologetic schlockfest whose posters were
ubiquitous in Tehran in September.

In Iranian terms, both Daad
and Majidi could be described as occupying the conservative side of the political
middle, and their official positions give them added impetus to defend cinematic
"Islamic values" against anything that smacks of the ancien regime.
But to some Iranians, the country’s theocracy itself increasingly feels
like the old order, and they’re restless for change. When one of the Feast’s
prize winners got up to receive his award, he asked for a minute of silence
for two prominent reformists now in prison. The gesture sparked a firestorm
of criticism in the conservative press the next day, but during that minute
there was very little heckling. (In Iran as in America, the audience at the
Oscars skews heavily toward the liberal.)

Climaxing an awards segment
that was notable for its concise speeches and galloping pace (our Oscar givers
could learn a few things, obviously), the Best Picture prize went to Khosro
Sinai’s Bride of Fire. The film, which I saw a few days later at
a downtown cinema, is a solid melodrama about a young medical student who’s
forced by tribal custom to return to her village and marry her atavistic, deeply
screwed-up cousin (brilliantly played by Hamid Farrokhnejad, who deservedly
won Best Actor). Though it’s not anyone’s definition of an art film,
Bride of Fire skillfully explores themes–traditional versus modern,
duty versus freedom, male versus female–that are at the heart of Iran’s
current debate with itself, and therefore ideal for a mainstream hit.

As indicated by the fact
that 47 features were eligible for prizes this year (along with 81 shorts, 54
animated films and 85 documentaries), Iran’s cinema is a much bigger animal
than most outsiders realize. Roughly, those features break down into three categories:
crappy genre and propaganda movies that rarely make it beyond Iran (fans of
this sector will be happy to know that Mummy 3’s Sirous Ebrahimzadeh
won Best Supporting Actor); mainstream movies like Bride of Fire; and
auteurist art films. Most of what gets exported belongs to the latter category,
although there’s a fair amount of overlap between it and the mainstream
group; Majidi’s films obviously belong to both. Some art films end up getting
far more attention outside Iran than inside, but occasionally one like Makhmalbaf’s
Salaam Cinema becomes a blockbuster at home.

While Iran’s cinematic
boom was shrewdly stimulated and nurtured by the Islamic Republic from 1983
on, outsiders also seldom recognize how deep its roots run. On the art-film
side alone, there’s been nearly 40 years of sometimes extraordinary artistic
growth and development, which can be most concisely summarized in terms of decade-defined
"generations." After the 1960s and a group of notable precursors,
the 70s saw an explosion of activity that was dubbed the "Iranian New Wave";
it produced world-class filmmakers including Abbas Kiarostami, Dariush Mehrjui,
Amir Naderi, Bahram Beyzaie and others who are now in their artistic prime.

The 1979 revolution caused
the whole apparatus to grind to a halt for a time, but the social and industry
renewal that followed brought forth, in effect, a second new wave of directors
with their own postrevolutionary sensibility. The 80s juggernaut included Mohsen
Makhmalbaf, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (Iran’s leading woman director) and several
others. Though the early 90s saw a bit of a slowdown, due partly to increased
restrictions imposed by the hardliners, its filmmaking generation eventually
included Panahi and Majidi, whose audience-friendly The White Balloon
and Children of Heaven (respectively) caught fire internationally, kicking
the Iranian cinema to a whole new level of box-office and critical success.

And now, with impeccable
timing, generation 2000 has arrived. Beginning with three top awards at Cannes
in May (including a shared win of the Camera d’Or for best first film),
Iran has proceeded to clean up at many of the year’s prize-giving festivals:
Montreal, Venice, Pusan, Edinburgh, Chicago. While some of the attention has
gone to veterans like Panahi and Bahman Farmanara (Smell of Camphor, Scent
of Jasmine
), most of the prizes have been won, remarkably, by first-time
directors. Not since 1986, when that second new wave broke, have there been
so many acclaimed debuts.

The first one to reach American
theaters, Bahman Ghobadi’s Time for Drunken Horses (which shared
the Camera d’Or and, in Tehran, won the critics’ prize for best film),
opens in New York and more than a dozen other cities this Friday. A stark, impassioned
drama about children who live among smugglers on the mountainous Iran-Iraq border,
the film is one of those Iranian works that draws inevitable–and in this
case deserved–comparisons to the Italian Neorealists. It certainly marks
a promising start for its director, a 30-year-old Kurd who’s worked with
Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami.

Though he’s first out
of the gate in the U.S., Ghobadi has plenty of company and competition, including
a whole crew issuing from clan Makhmalbaf. For the past couple of years, Mohsen
Makhmalbaf has said, he’s been "making filmmakers, not films."
His daughter Samira’s second film, Blackboards, was one of the big
Cannes winners. Now comes The Day I Became a Woman, the first film by
Samira’s stepmom and Mohsen’s wife, Marziye Meshkine; it won top awards
at Venice, Pusan and Chicago. Other current offerings from Makhmalbaf Film House,
as it’s called, include the debut documentary by Mohsen’s teenage
son, Maysam.

It’s tempting to call
this whole surge of activity "the Khatami wave." Not only has the
loosing of restrictions on filmmakers by President Mohammad Khatami’s government
contributed to the boomlet, but many of the films bear the mix of forward-looking
restiveness and present-tense frustration that’s characterized Iran during
his regime, with its constant see-saw between idealistic reformism and conservative

I also realized while in
Iran that the Khatami era has witnessed other changes pertinent to filmmakers.
When I first visited the country in 1997, three months before his election,
I don’t think I saw a single cellphone or Internet connection. Now both
things are ubiquitous in Tehran, and other technological innovations are following
fast in their wake. Abbas Kiarostami told me he will shoot no more movies on
film. He’s now completing a UN-sponsored documentary feature about AIDS
children in Uganda, and it convinced him, he said, to use digital video for
all his work.

The current strength of
the Iranian cinema internationally doesn’t appear salutary from every angle.
To an extent, it’s a product of the hype-driven, flavor-of-the-month mentality
that reigns at many international festivals, where programmers who wouldn’t
give Iranians the time of day 10 years ago now will condescendingly tell them
what kind of films they’re expected to make (this according to one well-known
director). And, no doubt, Iran also looks good because virtually every other
national cinema today resembles a dead bug decorating Hollywood’s windshield.

Still, watching the Iranian
Oscars underscored how remarkable, and unlikely, the Iranian ascent has been.
A decade ago, many cinephiles would have considered the idea of a cinematic
renaissance in Iran beyond laughable. Now, for an ever-increasing number
of people, "foreign film" means Iranian films, in the way it used
to mean European films. How long can it last? I wouldn’t hazard a guess.
The one thing that occurred to me in Iran is that the more Americans see of
Iranian art films, the more they’re going to be intrigued enough to cross
the line into mainstream territory. Bride of Fire or its like coming
soon to a theater near you? Don’t be surprised.