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From Kiarostami to Panahi: The spellbinding films of Iran

The following article is based on a reproduction of a piece by Vaibhav Vats from 2009, published in the op-ed pages of the Indian Express. It was written at the height of the Green Movement; often politics does lead to the production of spellbinding art.

Through an astute lens

As the crisis in Iran escalates, the pictures of protests and unrest would not have surprised those who follow Iranian cinema closely. Since the 1979 revolution, Iranian cinema has developed a subtle language of dissent, circumnavigating the dreaded censors of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture and holding a mirror to the country’s fissures. Film critic Godfrey Cheshire wrote in Newsweek, “Iranian films show us a society struggling with itself, trying to reconcile cultural traditions with political choices, vaunted ideals with thorny realities.”

The most visible struggle, for those of us who view Iran from the outside, is the issue of women’s rights. Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, a film about the forced confinement of two women, and Jafar Panahi’s Offside, which trained its lens on the exclusion of women from football stadiums, are among several such acclaimed films.

But to understand how Iranian cinema articulates its political protest, Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten is particularly revealing. In the film, a dashboard cam eavesdrops on a divorcee’s impromptu conversations with fellow passengers in car journeys across Tehran which bring Iran’s sexual and social policies into sharp focus. In one scene, a camera focusses on a character as she scratches wildly around her hijab in the summer heat. In another, the veil drops in a moment of catharsis but is quickly put back on — Kiarostami has made his point by showing us the exhilaration of the unlocked genie. In an environment where dialogue can swiftly be clamped down upon, Iranian cinema has mastered the art of subversive suggestion, without leaving any footprints.

The picture of Tehran that has emerged in recent days has been that of a city divided — the pro-Moussavi supporters who have crowded the elite, affluent neighbourhoods in the capital’s north distinctly separate from the poorer neighbourhoods in the city’s south where support for incumbent president Ahmadinejad is strong.

In a country where one-fifth of the population accounts for 45 per cent of the household income, the class divisions point to irreconcilable narratives. Iran’s cinema has observed the chasms that separate the westernised elite and the middle classes, who long for greater freedoms and a secular state, and their poorer fellow citizens, who support religion’s primal defining role.

Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold is the tale of an overweight pizza delivery boy who, in encounters with Tehran’s wealthy classes, realises his inability to transcend his social class. Majid Majidi’s The Song of Sparrows takes this even further — portraying the working classes as powerless and inconsequential, he shows the primal role of religion as a form of social glue that gives them a sense of community and belonging.

What gives Iranian cinema its significant political weight is how often its films blur the distinctions between fiction and documentary. Solely relying on dialogue and minimal use of supporting narrative devices like background music, Iranian cinema regularly comes up with genre-defying films —Ten and The Apple being two examples — impossible to determine whether their realm is fiction or non-fiction.

At other times, they can be remarkably prescient. In 1997, Kiarostami’s most celebrated film, Taste of Cherry, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in the same week that an assertive electorate chose reformist intellectual Mohammad Khatami as president. Taste of Cherry, the tale of a nihilist who drives on the outskirts of Tehran looking for an accomplice to complete a task after he commits suicide, was distinctly at odds with the euphoric mood in Iran at the time. However, reformist hopes withered away as hardliners prevailed, leading to an environment of frustration and failure similar to the predicament of the protagonist.

But its role as an instrument against authoritarianism retains primacy. In his book, Close Up Iranian Cinema: Past, Present and Future, Hamid Dabashi has written, “In the cinema, we were re-born as global citizens in defiance of the tyranny of the time and the isolation of the space that sought to confine us. In cinema, everything was possible, and in that possibility we defied our paralysing limitations. The cinema revealed our hidden hopes as nation.”

Armed with the radical fervour of artists under siege, Iran’s filmmakers have created a searing chronicle of a fascinating and complex society — its tenuous social fabric, the weight of history, the arduous battle between tradition and modernity — as it charts its way forward in the modern world.

Via Columbia Blogs
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