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Rose Issa
Real Fictions
by Rose Issa
The Fabric of Life and Art

Iranian directors are often asked by film critics what is it that makes their national cinema so different from others? What has Iranian cinema brought to the public that others have not?
The answer is not simple because the Iranian films that most westerners have seen have many aesthetic and emotional similarities with films shown in international festivals decades ago: Vittorio de Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” (1948) is quoted very often by Iranian film-makers as one of the films that most influenced them. Italian Neo-realist cinema’s commitment to location shooting and to the use of non-professional actors has inspired more than one Iranian director, and the work of Robert Bresson and René Clement, who used small teams at the margins of the film industry, has spawned many offspring in Iran. Similarly, Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953), with its simple anecdotes, repressed sensuality and emphasis on gestures, embodies the Iranian film-makers’ quest for subtlety and emotional richness. Kiarostami’s early career in advertising is similar to that of Satyajit Ray’s, whose “Pather Panchali” trilogy (1955) depicts the collapse of traditional values whilst criticising the social failures of a political system – themes that Iranian film-makers are quite at home with.

And yet, despite such shared characteristics, no one can deny the existence of a specific Iranian cinematic language that champions the poetics of everyday life and of the ordinary person in a new style, blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality, feature and documentary. This Iranian film programme at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt differs from its predecessors in three important respects – the selection is not either random, thematic or chronological. Instead the programme highlights the genesis and development of a new cinematic language, demonstrates its unique approach, aesthetics and impact, and shows the political, personal and artistic changes that have inspired European cinema directors to imitate the style. Michael Winterbottom’s award-winning “In This World” [2002] is the most noticeable homage to contemporary Iranian cinema. This new, humanistic aesthetic language, determined by the film-makers’ individual and national identity, rather than the forces of globalism, has a strong creative dialogue not only on homeground but with audiences around the world.
But what made Iranians progress from consumers of American films to producers of their own narratives, exported across national borders? Here is the paradox: shortly before the Islamic revolutionary regime came to power in 1979, it encouraged the destruction of some 180 film theatres in less than a year. Once in power it imposed strict restrictions on the importation of foreign films. However, following the enormous and rapid social upheaval brought by the devastating Iran-Iraq war (1980–88), the conservative religious regime needed the film-makers to document current events. It is no accident that most of the currently known film directors started out making documentaries. Later, the need to entertain a public hungry for cinema, forced the only state production and distribution foundation, Farabi, to let go of its monopoly and to encourage directors to raise their own funds. This gave directors both an independence and access to outside funding and audiences that the regime must regret to this day.
Nevertheless, the generic context, style and roots of the country’s post-revolutionary ‘auteurs’ were created well before the revolution, in the early Sixties and Seventies. Directors, such as the late feminist poet Forough Farrokhzad, whose only short documentary – of a leprosy colony during the Shah’s reign – the cult film “The House is Black” (1962), combined poetry and harsh reality with great tenderness. Kamran Shirdel’s docu-feature, “The Night it Rained” (1967), is a classic that inspired generations of film-makers in Iran, with its moving tale about a true event whose facts are gradually distorted and manipulated into an almost unrecognisable form. The late Sohrab Shahid Saless’s early black and white films, “Still Life” (1973) and “A Simple Event” (1974), were made to look like documentaries and introduced a style that, when he exiled himself to Germany before the revolution, changed only in colour and content, not in form. By the time the founder of the Tehran cinematheque, Farrokh Ghaffari, himself a great film-maker, introduced these sombre films during the late Sixties, his audience was already tiring of the dubbed American, Italian and Indian commercial films that inundated Iranian screens. Dariush Mehrjui was one of the first to receive an international award for “The Cow” (1968), a bleak tale about the death of a cow, made in collaboration with a dream team of collaborators. He continued his prolific career experimenting with many genres, but his latest feature, “Bemani” (Stay Alive, 2002), is in documentary style and pays homage to the new cinematic language by leaving his usual, urban upper-class settings for a small village on the Iran-Iraq border that had made the headlines after a wave of young girls committed suicide by burning themselves to death.
However, since 1970, it was Abbas Kiarostami who came to epitomise the new style and become the ambassador for contemporary Iranian cinema. In the trilogy that began with “Where is the House of My Friend?” (1987), he made such an impact on international audiences that the doors for emerging talent were suddenly flung wide open. The trilogy continued with “And Life Goes On” (1992), in which Kiarostami searched for his child actor after a terrible earthquake struck his home. In real life Kiarostami continued to follow through the young child actor’s progress to becoming a soldier and then a family man. This following of non-professional actors who become part of an artist’s family, where life becomes the continuation of a film, is a path that many Iranian directors have since pursued. In Kiarostami’s “Through the Olive Trees”, a film within a film, we witness a continuously improvised script that shows the many directions a film can take and illustrates how simple events can change the course of a drama at any moment, both in real life as well as in film. “Homework” (1989), made in order to understand his own difficulties with his sons’ homework, was a way to capture life through film and to find possible solutions, while “Close-Up” (1990), the critics’ favourite, steals the show from Makhmalbaf by making a film about a man arrested for pretending to be Makhmalbaf whom Kiarostami then introduces to Makhmalbaf himself: a film about the power of cinema and its effect on fantasists. His latest compilation of short films, “Five” (2003), leads the new cinema to its zen-like extremity: one still camera; no words; human figures replaced gradually by animals, objects, and finally total darkness apart from the reflection of the moon on a lagoon. In “The Project”, a documentary made by his younger son Bahman Kiarostami during Kiarostami senior’s filming of the award-winning “The Taste of Cherry” (Palme d’Or, Cannes, 1997), we glimpse Kiarostami’s directing technique and cinematic vocabulary.
The three children of Mohsen Makhmalbaf symbolise the paradoxes of life in post-revolutionary Iran. Without formal education but impressively self-taught, these teenagers document their family and their family’s working methods. Their director father, a former extremist Islamic militant who reveals his life in the beautiful “A Moment of Innocence” (1996), is now one of the most outspoken critics of the government and took his children out of school to work under the umbrella of the ‘Makhmalbaf Film House’. His daughter, Samira Makhmalbaf, made “The Apple” at the age of 17 and later became a Cannes Jury member at the age of 20, meanwhile women in Iran are perceived as submissive, powerless victims. Her sister Hana Makhmalbaf, now 15, has already acted in films, published a book (“Visa for a Moment”), made short films, and travelled to Afghanistan. To discover Samira’s charisma and frightening intelligence, see the documentaries made by her younger brother Maysam Makhmalbaf (“How Samira made the Blackboard”, 2002) or the one by her sister Hana (“Joy of Madness”, 2003). “The Day I became a Woman”, the debut film of their stepmother Marziyeh Meshkini, is surely the first of many as this family continuously works on forthcoming projects in Iran and Afghanistan.
However, Makhmalbaf’s sharp critical mind, growing ambition, financial independence and gradual distancing from the authorities all make the Makhmalbaf Film House one of the ultimate paradoxical products of post-revolutionary cinema. How can a country with so many restrictions produce some 70 features and 1000 shorts every year?
The growing presence of women in Iranian cinema is another paradox. In the last two decades, there has been a higher percentage of women directors in Iran than in most countries in the West. The success and hard work of the pioneering Rakhshan Bani-Etemad is an example that many women directors in Iran were following much before Samira made the headlines. Bani-Etemad’s recent documentary, “Our Times”, in which a homeless heroine stands for election, shows the strength of character and the courage of an ordinary destitute woman who stubbornly perseveres in defending her rights. The great actress Niki Karimi’s moving documentary, “To Have or Not to Have”, produced by Abbas Kiarostami, portrays Iranian women’s dilemmas and hesitations about whether or not to have children, in a country where more than half of the population is under 18 years old. The factual directness of these documentaries raises far more awareness of human rights than do most political slogans. Women’s presence in the film industry as film-makers and producers has encouraged many Iranian women, whatever their social status, to take destiny into their own hands and fight for their rights, whether through film, art or real life.
This combativeness and acceptance of life as a vehicle for art or art as a vehicle for life, is also expressed in the stylistic approach of established directors such as Bahman Farmanara. His witty, semi-autobiographical surrealist work, “Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine” is a courageous mirroring of his intellectual and artistic struggle for survival in difficult times. Jafar Panahi, whose recent film “Crimson Gold” (2003) is based on a true story that Kiarostami told him, asked his mentor to write his script (his first feature, “The White Balloon” was also written by Kiarostami). Together they found the lead actor: a physically strong, but schizophrenic, pizza delivery man, who created more trouble than Panahi could sometimes handle. It was only when he considered another possible ending, without this lead actor, that he managed to control the actor’s whims and finish the film. In contrast to this is the experience of Abolfazl Jalili, a director rebel with a cause, whose films reveal the plight of homeless young boys, deprived of a childhood and identity. Jalili’s filming would often be interrupted for months when his lead actors went astray and his wife would complain of the tedium of delousing the boys. Alhough he himself has only one son, Jalili says that he has ‘currently eight children’, illustrating the intimate interaction between directors and their non-professional actors that is so characteristic of Iranian cinema.
In “Djomeh” (2000), made by another of Kiarostami’s assistants, Hassan Yektapanah, the story focuses on the plight of one of the two million young Afghan refugees in Iran without legal status. When the non-professional Afghan actor, used in this film, was invited to the Hamburg Film Festival, and then denied re-entry to Iran, his story became another film, “Heaven’s Path” (2002), by the architect-actor-film-maker Mahmoud Behraznia, who lives in Germany.
After the recent ‘chain killings’ of intellectuals and the government’s inability to capture the killers, cinema’s mood has become much darker and filled with despair. What Iran’s cinematic future may hold can be illustrated in the work of emerging film-makers such as Alireza Amini, whose moving “Letters of the Wind” (2002) reveals the solitude of men whose only emotional comfort comes from listening to the voices of women secretly taped in the street. Together with Parviz Shahbazi’s “Deep Breath” (2003), an unusual commercial success despite its dark ending, these works describe beautifully and poetically the angst of today’s young generation in Iran.
By showing established names and emerging stars, disturbing documentaries and philosophical musings, and simple and complex allegories, this programme celebrates the development of a personal, stylistic language and pays homage to those who dare to express it. Sadly, few of these films are screened inside Iran itself. These films touch the heart so that, watching them, most spectators feel they are experiencing the poet Attar’s journey in “The Conference of the Birds” through the seven valleys of searching, love, mystic apprehension, detachment, unity, bewilderment, and fulfilment in annihilation. A mystical quest for love as an answer to life.

Characteristics of Iranian low-budget auteur films
1 A script often inspired by true life stories
2 The use of real, mainly outdoor locations – censorship requires that actresses wear veils even when portraying indoor activities, such as sharing a meal or sleeping, so, in order not to look ridiculous, directors prefer to work outdoors where women are veiled anyway. This regulation prevents directors from reflecting reality in intimate scenes.
3 The use of non-professional actors, which involves long preparation and improvisation.
4 Simple, aesthetic choices and subtle and austere images.
5 A strong sense of ambiguity about what is real and what is fiction – a narrative driven less by action or words and more by emphasis on gestures and glances that reveal character and emotions.
6 A certain tenderness in contrast to harsh realities.
7 An atmosphere of repressed sensuality and a sense of alienation, where characters are often alone, lonely and wandering.
8 A multi-layered language where metaphor encourages multiple interpretations.
9 A humanistic language with a simple and modest treatment and the emphasis on human values, as opposed to the high-tech, fast action Western

In these stories that often mirror the tension between modernity and tradition, what prevails is a strong longing for justice and a lesson in survival – for the directors, the characters, and their audience.

Recommended reading
– Hamid Reza Sadr, Against the Wind, Politics of Iranian Cinema,
Zarrin publishing, Iran 2002
– Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema, Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking,
Princeton University Press, USA 2002
– Hormuz Kéy, Le Cinema Iranien, l’Image d’une Société en Bouillonnement,
de ‘La Vache’ au ‘Gout de la Cerise’, Karthala, Paris 2000
– Rose Issa and Sheila Whitaker (eds.) Life and Art: the New Iranian Cinema,
BFI, National Film Theatre, London 1999
– Hamid Dabashi: Close up. Iranian Cinema Past, Present and Future,
Verso, London 2001
– Richard Tapper (ed.): The New Iranian Cinema. Politics, Representation and Identity, I.B. Tauris, London 2002
– Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum: Abbas Kiarostami,
University of Illinois Press 2003