I caught a “local news” story the other day on one of the local stations. Under the headline “Desert Wonderland?” they ran footage of snow in Iran and (with those slightly robotic chuckles that all newscasters are able to activate thanks to their Hillary Clinton Brand emotion chips) they talked about what was made out to seem a freak occurrence, or at least a newsworthy event. I mean, weather in Tehran isn't exactly local.
I admit, before I ever watched an Iranian film or visited Tehrangeles, I had only the vaguest notions of what the country and its people looked like. I kind of reckoned that the middle east was one big sandy desert sparsely populated with turbaned Arabs and veiled harem girls. I am, after all, a product of Hollywood stereotypes and American public schools where we prefer to teach about 1000 years of Dark Ages serf rebellions in Europe rather than even mention the developments in math, science, technology, literature and the arts occurring at the same time in the Muslim world which helped jump started the Renaissance.
Our country’s relationship with Iran has been prickly ever since the 1953 CIA-orchestrated Project Ajax, in which their elected (and secular) leader Mohammed Mosaddeq was removed from power after he nationalized Iran’s oil industry, knowing full well that Iran’s oil belonged to England! Perhaps because of this (despite Iran frequently being in the news over the decades since) it has felt like there’s a ban on showing any actual images from the country, lest the American people start to recognize it as an actual country and not the hatred-stirring bogeyman it’s made out to be by politicians and the media when it's time for uniting we the people in mistrust and xenophobia.
Out of curiosity I decided I'd watch an Iranian film a few years ago. The first one I saw, on a recommendation, was Majid Majidi’s Color of Paradise. I was surprised. There were misty, wooded mountainsides. Who knew? I read a bit about Iran afterwards. They supposedly invented skiing 4,000 years ago (although there is disagreement about it, with the Chinese and Scandinavians also claiming that honor). There were major metropolises with shiny buildings and fancy cars, not mud huts and donkey carts. And to boot, the film itself was sophisticated, poetic and profound.
Persian film began in 1900 when Mizra Ebrahim Khan Akkas Bashi brought a camera back from Paris. The first theater was opened in 1904. Sound films began with Lor Girl in 1932. Throughout the 1930s and 40s films drew from Persia's rich mythological and literary background.
In the 1960s, melodramas and thrillers dominated Iran's film output. With Masoud Kimiay's Kaiser, a new genre began that would prove popular with Iranians and influential with Iranian film, the "Tragic Action Drama." That same year Darius(h) Mehrjui's Gaav heralded the beginning of Iranian Art Film, often referred to as thereafter as "Iranian New Wave." Iranian New Wave became popular worldwide (at least with critics and adventurous film goers) with its focus on quotidian affairs and the struggles of regular people, the style is reminiscent of Italian Neo-Realism and yet also owes heavily to French New Wave's encouragement of "La politique des auteurs." The 1970s saw a proliferation of films in the Iranian New Wave which then came to a sudden halt when the oppressive and elitist Shah, considered by most a corrupt puppet of the U.S. and UK, was run out of town. Of course, the void he left was filled not by art-loving populists but by another oppressive gang, the Islamist government that remains in power today despite their broad unpopularity.
After the revolution, the new, iron-fisted government severely restricted and censored the content and exposure of domestic and foreign films. Subsequently, apolitical commercial films which generally fall into two groups have dominated: Films dealing with the Iran-Iraq War or the Islamic Revolution on the one hand, and star-driven formula comedies and melodramas on the other. In the mid-80s there was a marked boom in crime dramas. Major stars included Mohammad Ali Fardin, who (though unpopular with the government for having starred in pre-revolution films with scantily-clad women and depicting alcohol consumption) had his funeral attended by 20,000 mourners. Just looking at our Iranian films at Amoeba, actress Niki Karimi seems to grace the cover of half of them. In the 1980s and 90s, the so-called "New Iranian Cinema" (sometimes still referred to as "Iranian New Wave") began to be celebrated at film festivals around the world despite usually being banned in Iran -- although they're readily and easily viewable in Iran thanks to a healthy black market, the proliferation of satellite television and avoidable and/or bribe-taking morality police. These films, while obviously varied, usually share an emphasis on visual beauty, lyrical storytelling, and a disregard for the boundaries between fiction and reality.
Majid Majidi بچههای آسمان
Father (1996) concerns a 14 year old boy who is forced to find work to support his family after his father dies. When he returns home, his mother is re-married and there is predictable tension between the child and his new stepfather. In a plot contrivance, the boy and his stepfather end up handcuffed in the desert and the film is easily the least enjoyable of Majidi's works that I've seen.
Children of Heaven (1997) is about two siblings forced to hide the fact that they share a single pair of shoes after the brother loses his sister's pair on the way to getting them repaired. He enters a race hoping to get third since the prize is a pair of shoes. He accidentally gets first and receives a different prize that means nothing to him. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film but lost out to the singularly awful, sentimental Oscar-bait, Life Is Beautiful.
Color Of Paradise (1999) deals with a blind boy returning home from school who, though loved by his sisters and grandmother, is seen as a burden by his struggling father. His father attempts to pawn him off as an apprentice to a carpenter to make himself a better prospect in his attempts to re-marry. A tragic and sentimental event occurs in the climax and yet it somehow avoids being as cloying as my description suggests.
Baran (2001) is about a young man who starts developing feelings for an Afghani refugee at his work, not realizing that the tea boy of his interest is actually a girl. The young man, Lateef, discovers his love interest is a girl and goes out of his way to protect and help her but the refugees are forced back to Afghanistan.
The White Balloon (1995) isn't on DVD so I was lucky to grab a VCD of it at Amoeba. This is the perfect sort of family film -- the kind that you can watch and enjoy even if there are no kids around. It concerns a little girl wanting a fat goldfish for Nowruz. She loses the money to purchase it and the film concerns her attempts to retrieve it.
The Mirror (1997) begins as a story about a similar little girl trying to overcome obstacles when, all of a sudden, the actress removes her cast, her chador and her microphone and stomps off annoyed at the helplessness she's supposed to convey. The film crew spends the rest of the film trying to convince her to come to her senses and finish the film.
The Circle (2000) is about several women, again confronting obstacles of contemporary Iranian culture: disappointment at having given birth to a girl, having to wear the chador, and not being able to travel alone. Most critics thought it was Panahi's best film yet, but I found it unpleasantly and relentlessly grim, with none of the uplift of his previous films. It seemed defiantly and annoyingly preachy, making its points with a heavy hand.
Crimson Gold (2003) is very dark. It begins with the protagonist, in a botched jewelry story robbery, shooting the shopkeeper and then shooting himself in the head. The action that follows shows the events leading up to his suicide and meanders and flows in a way that makes me not want to get into the plot. I thought it was amazing. It was written by Abbas Kiarostami.
Close-Up (1990) concerns the true story of a man who impersonated director Mohsen Makmalbaf. He entered a household and convinced the occupants that he wanted to make a film about them. Their lives become intertwined but they end up discovering his deception. The actor playing the con artist is the actual con artist and, toward the end, he's introduced, in tears, to the real Mohsen Makmalbaf.
Taste Of Cherry (1997) follows a man driving around the outskirts of Tehran picking up various passengers. At first, his aims are unclear but he soon reveals that he's dug himself a grave and is looking for someone to bury him. If that sounds depressing, it is. If it sounds humorous, it's that too. And ultimately it's one of the most uplifting films I've ever seen without providing easy or false solutions to real and eternal problems. The highest praise I can give it is that it was on Roger Ebert's "Most Hated Films of 1997."
The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) is about a documentarian who travels to a remote village in Kurdistan to make a film about Kurdish funeral customs. Unfortunately for those waiting, the old woman whom the funeral is for just won't die. I liked it but found it Kiarostami's least memorable film.
Ten (2002) is a fascinating film. Shot entirely on a dashboard-mounted camera, the film entails a woman driving around Iran with ten different passengers. The logistics of making such a film are amazing. Think about the actors waiting in various locales to be picked up by the star. The fact that it doesn't feel static given the setup is incredible.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف
The Cyclist (1987) is about an Afghan refugee who, in a desperate attempt to raise money for his ailing wife, enters a bizarre contest wherein, if he can ride his bike in a circle for one week without stopping, will earn the money necessary to buy the medical care his wife requires. The portrayal of the horrific effort involved, with a small industry of bet-placing observers and vendors springing up around him is nightmarish and so tragic that it borders on comic in a way that many Iranian films do.
Darius Mehrjui داریوش مهرجویی
Gaav (1969) is the film that began the Iranian New Wave. A poor villager, whose closest companion is his cow, is away from home when the cow dies. The villagers, worried about how he'll take the news, tell him that the cow has run away. The man, Hassan, begins to lose his mind and adopt the behaviors of a cow himself. Of course, the ending is tragic.
Hamoun (1990) portrays a middle class intellectual, Hamid Hamoun, and his mental deterioration arising from his wife's demands for divorce. She's an artist who's gained greater critical acclaim (which reminded me of Anotonioni's Les Amiches). He buys a rifle, planning to kill his wife. The film, frequently described as Fellini-esque and notably voted as the best Iranian Film of All Time by a group of critics, was hard to enjoy for me, as I found Hamid a pretty unlikeable and unsympathetic character.
Babak Payami بابک پیامی
Secret Ballot (2001) is a low-key comedy about a female civil servant's attempts to get the citizens of the Iranian island of Kish to vote in an upcoming election. She is escorted by a soldier who chauffeurs her around. Coming up against gender discrimination, mechanical difficulties and widespread and understandable apathy toward the voting process, Payami constructs a comedy that everyone in the audience I was in (myself included) found downright hilarious.
Tahmineh Milani تهمینه میلانی
Hidden Half (2001) stars the ubiquitous Niki Karimi as a woman who meets a female activist scheduled for execution. It was interesting for a variety of reasons. As with a lot of the more commercial Iranian films, it deals with the 1979 revolution. It was interesting for me to see how internationalist the revolutionaries were. Students in army surplus with images of Ernesto Guevara everywhere... and a lot of the driving force was apparently communist and populist, not Islamist. The fact that it was directed by a woman isn't actually that out of the ordinary. Iran probably has more female directors than any other country that I can think of. There are more women in their government than our own, too. It's also a melodrama, and as such deals chiefly with romantic relationships. My main obstacle in enjoying it more was the love interest -- a smug, patronizing, smarmy and completely obnoxious know-it-all who I couldn't for the life of me see as the charmer that he seemed designed to be.
So, if this has piqued your interest in a cinema almost completely neglected by your local movie theater, head down to Amoeba and check it out.
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