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Iran’s cinematic revolution: Tehran Talkies

As London embarked on its first Iranian film festival, the trial of outspoken director Jafar Panahi (Offside, the Circle) began in Tehran amidst widespread international criticism from filmmakers and recognisable celebrities. “His fault is to be an artist, to be independent,” claimed actor Juliet Binoche, who recently starred in Certified Copy, Iranian director Abbas Kiorastami’s first non-Persian feature. And the world, preconditioned to receive news about Iran in a certain light, pretty much agreed.

The White Meadows has allegorical references to Iran’s state control and leaves little room for hope.

The alternative motive is slightly more brazen. Panahi, whose insightful, provocative films have won the Golden Lion at Cannes and The Silver Bear at Berlin, probably irked the Ahmadinejad government more through his support for opposition politician Mir Hossein Mousavi in the last election than for the seditious film he was purportedly in the process of filming. Tellingly, one of the main attractions at the London Iranian Film Festival was Panahi’s little gem of a film, The Accordion, an eight-minute short he made while out on bail this summer.

The Accordion sums up the paradoxes of both Iran and its internationally acclaimed cinema in its short duration. Two young buskers who ply their trade through Tehran have their instrument confiscated outside a mosque by self-proclaimed Islamist vigilantes. How they navigate its return forms the crux of the story. Censored and censured by the Iranian government, Panahi could not have spotlighted the control of artistic expression in Iran in a more succinct manner. Focusing on the next generation is standard fare for Panahi himself and for Iranian cinema, which routinely uses children to represent both the weakened citizen as well as childlike hope.

Paradoxically, for all its recent bullying of Jafar Panahi, state support of art-house cinema in Iran has been unexpectedly generous since the revolution. Abbas Kiorastami famously called it “one of Iran’s major exports” archly stating that “in addition to pistachio nuts, carpets, and oil, now there’s the cinema.” As minister of culture and Islamic guidance from 1989 to 1992, Mohammed Khatami encouraged the expansion of film production in Iran, and even though subsequent support was a bit see-saw, Iranian cinema continued to fructify.

Azadeh Farahmand, who teaches Film Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, has highlighted the manner in which the Iranian state used the festival circuit – and ironically Kiorastami’s films – to renegotiate international opinion on Iran and present an artistic image of the country after the war with Iraq. Yet, even these films tended to have cryptic political messages which were clear to the initiated. As the world watched a certain kind of Iranian high art cinema that was promoted by the government, viewers in Iran itself were drawn to noisier comedies and more visceral films. Tehran also developed a huge bootleg DVD market in Hollywood movies.

Pejman Danaei, the director of the UK Iranian Film Festival, however, is quick to emphasise that the 35 films shown at the festival are not chosen for their politics. Speaking at the press conference, he clarified that the festival was devoid of “political aims, particular genre or agenda,” rather the motivation was to screen “valuable material coming out of Iran which does not have a platform.” While it is impossible to imagine apolitical Iranian cinema, the festival certainly lived up to its promise to showcase valuable, moving, often stunning films. Not only were the screenings packed but a networking event provided opportunities for Iranian films looking to secure distribution outside of Iran. If only Pakistani cinema was this organised!

The Festival began with the enigmatic and beautifully shot The White Meadows, where Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) navigates the silent waters of a bleached, sandy world dotted by dark-robed, mournful characters. He collects tears from the wretched across several islands, capturing them in a vial to apparently turn them into pearls. It is a journey across a nightmarish yet eerily beautiful landscape, where individuality is sacrificed at the altar of the selfish, general good. Allegorical references to the Iranian state’s gripping control of citizens surface throughout what is a grim, depressing film that leaves little room for hope.

The documentary offerings in the Festival were particularly strong with The Glass House telling the stories of troubled teenage girls in Tehran and Rough Cut investigating the bizarre mastectomies performed on female mannequins in Iran to suit the dress code enforced by the vice squad. This is a torturous ritual to watch; breasts and limbs and faces are sawed off to make way for robed, “modest” clothes hangers for Tehran’s shop windows.  The overly long and tenuously strung together Pearls on the Ocean Floor also concentrates on representation, managing a unique assembly of feisty, articulate Iranian women artists working both within Iran and the diaspora. There are detailed, inspired interviews with a variety of artists: Shirin Neshat’s reductive images may have been the original muse for Robert Adanto’s film, but it is more complex artists like Shadi Ghadarian, who redoes traditional Qajar portraits of women with modern items who hold ones attention.

Unexpectedly witty, My City Pizza is a fascinating glimpse into contemporary urban Iran and changing societal concepts of food. Director Ala Mohseni makes his way through Tehran’s pizzerias, talking to people about their growing appetite for Western fast food. He also interviews traditionalists who seem to think pizza is a western weapon of mass religious destruction and find Persian stews morally correct. My City Pizza is unusually funny for any film that attempts to explore how Iranians navigate outside cultural influences. Its interviewees are open and forthcoming and have colourful, enthusiastic opinions on east and west alike. This is a very different Iran from what CNN projects into our living rooms.

Even more revealing is Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, a taut, absorbing psychological thriller where the female characters are by far the most dynamic I have seen in Iranian cinema. The narrative centres on married Iranian couples heading to a resort near the Caspian Sea; in the group are also recently single Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) and the beautiful Elly (Taraneh Alidousti), who seem to have been matched by the independent-minded Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani). The first half of About Elly is a rare window on bourgeois Iran. Apart from the loose hijabs the women wear, the interaction between men and women is natural, even occasionally flirtatious. This is a clearly savvy group where women carry Louis Vuitton bags and the men favour Nike.

The second half of the film posits how easily this veneer of modernity can disintegrate. Elly vanishes without a trace and the small holiday party becomes increasingly hysterical: did she drown in the waves, did she decide to go back to Tehran on her own or was she perhaps offended by the potential pairing with Ahmad? As doubts emerge about Elly’s character, a spider’s web of lies is woven from which none of the characters are able to escape.

About Elly is new Iranian cinema at its best and most exploratory, peeling off layers as it moves through doubt, tradition and fears of upsetting norms. The ensemble cast is simply superb; with Goshifteh Farhani (better known to international audiences as Leonardo Di Caprio’s love interest in Body of Lies) putting up a standout performance as Sepideh. It is no surprise that About Elly won a Silver Bear at Berlin and Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival. If there is any film that traces the outline of where Iranian cinema should go, this is it.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 8th, 2010.
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