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Iranian Cinema – national domain or part of the world cinemas?

by Ulla Fudge

The broader framework of cinemas of the world combines certain ideas and ideologies, defining the main attributes yet in the same time often going beyond the basic understanding of its definition. One thing is certain, world cinema works as oppose to the hegemonic Hollywood paradigm. Instead of commodification and standardization, world cinema underlines their tendencies towards originality and self-depiction. Nagib Lucia argues that: ‘At the core of this proposal is the belief that different cinemas of the world can generate their own, original theories. They do not depend of paradigms set by the so-called Hollywood classical, narrative style and in most cases are misunderstood if seen in this light’ (Nagib, 2011). The world cinema tends to focus on the question of realism that is present outside and within the frame.  Certain representations and depictions of social constrain and values from a national point of view connoted onto a cinematic image, play against the artifice and wide spread disneylazation.

Yet this notion of different film practises that involve more complex narrative, lack of stars, location in deprived areas, low budgets and therefore less commercially driven distribution, defines those films as ‘the other’. Lucia Nagib disagrees with the definition, saying that: ‘In multicultural, multi-ethnic societies like ours, cinematic expressions from various origins cannot be seen as ‘the other’ for the simple reason that they are us. More interesting than their difference is, in most cases, their interconnectedness’ (Nagib, 2011). By opening and show casting the national aspects of particular countries to worldwide audiences the film makers of world cinemas not only reveal the unknown territories but interlink the image with the viewer, creating an experience that can also include an emotional or identification involvement. However the term ‘the other’ doesn’t always connotes isolation as such. It can also open the doors to foreign, unknown territories. Michael Chanan argues that: ‘From time to time we’re reminded of this otherness by new cinematic waves from countries previously beyond the horizon, like Iran or China, which stimulate great interest precisely because there is nothing like cinema to create new imaginary geographies of far-away and unknown places’  (Chanan, 2011). Indeed cinemas of the world through their forms of realism often show cast a different approach to stylistic and narrative notions, applying their own, separate set of rules, indicating a flow towards hybridisation rather than influenced by hegemonic film making. Especially film makers from nations that have strong ethnical, political and religious clashes like Muslims or countries with strong social injustice and disturbing past, found their niche within the frame of world cinema. One of them is Iran.

This essay will examine the Iranian film directed by Rakhshan Bani – Etemad ‘Under the City’s Skin’ (2001) as an example of a film that can be located within the framework of world cinema, beginning with a brief glance at the Iranian cinema as a whole. Further on I would like to focus on the world audiences and their experience in viewing ‘Under the City’s Skin’, also addressing the term of ‘national’ and the distribution processes employed within the global frame.

Iranian Cinema after many years of dry spells, caused by political and social instability managed to remerged with a very unique set of stylistic and narrative notions. Particularly the 1990’s started a new period within Iranian cinema, significantly moving towards the privileged niche among other national cinemas. ‘By the late 1990’s indeed, cinema in Iran appeared to be flourishing, its remarkable transformation paralleling wider changes in Iranian culture and society. It is widely recognised not merely as a distinctive ‘national cinema’ but as one of the most innovative and exciting in the world’ (Tapper, 2002). Films like Children of Heaven (1998) by Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi’s ‘White Ballon’ (1995) and ‘The Circle’ (2000), Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘The Taste of Cherry’ (1997) or ‘Ten’ (2002), are few of many films that won vast amount of awards on international festivals.

Nevertheless, their success is mainly interconnected with the reception of the world wide audiences, with large percentage of East and West Europeans,   placing Iranian cinema in an Art Film category. The Iranian film managed in its original representation not only the depiction of Iranian realism, but also presents cinematic and stylistic notions that can be associated outside their boarders. More so, their films seem to appeal and are focusing on international audiences, employing various elements of storytelling techniques, strongly influenced by Italian neo-realism, French new wave and western cinematic forms of narratives. Laura Malvey argues, in regards to the positive reception of Iranian cinema in Europe: ‘The austerity of Iranian post-revolutionary cinema, beyond the case of Kiarostami himself, allows a space for form, for style and for thought about the cinema that has only sporadically been achieved here over recent years. This formal and intellectual cinema creates the ‘cinematic’ space of interaction and exchange between spectator and screen that defines art cinema’ (Mulvey, 2004).  Furthermore, as a result of their success Iranian cinema moved to auteurism, where Iranian film makers made their names, and alike Pedro Almodovar or Michael Haneke bring the audiences to cinemas. ‘The new films introduced the notion of director as auteur and the idea of cinema as an art like literature, poetry and theatre’ (Tapper, 2002). Makhmalbaf’s saga, Kiarostami, Bani- Etemad or Panahi are only few among strongly defined authorial presence worldwide.

The specific complexity of known and unknown facets within the Iranian cinema works not only because of its exotics but also because of its ability to connect with the viewer beyond the national connotations. ‘Under the City’s Skin’ directed by Bani-Etemad is an example of Iranian cinema that works well beyond the boarders and seems to adapt certain criteria and ideologies that make possible to allocate the film within world cinemas category.

‘Under the City’s Skin’ tells a story about a family that struggles not only because of the lack of money but also because of many dilemmas they are facing. In the capital city Tehran that is torn between modernization, tradition and corruption, Abbas, the oldest son, works for a textile shop owner in order to earn enough money to go to Japan and get a profitable employment. He tries to convince his old and tired mother, Tuba, who works in the factory to sell their home, to help him financing his trip and promises her financial rewards when he is back.  Sadly, the company he hands the money to in order to obtain the visa closes down and leaves him with nothing. As a result, he turns to crime and pays a bitter price for it. Nevertheless, the plot also strongly revolves around Abbas’s family; his sick father, who is unable to assist with any help,  younger brother, a university student who disagrees with the Iranian government and a sister, a young teenager, trying to find her place within society, unable to fully fit or appreciate the rules thrown upon her as a young woman. In the end Abbas in a desperate attempt to earn money tries to smuggle heroin, yet unsuccessful gets to the point of no return that leaves also his family stranded and penniless.

In order to locate ‘Under the City’s Skin’ within the broader framework of cinemas of the world this part of the essay will focus on the narrative as such, moving to the film’s particular elements that found its appeal among viewers, and then addressing the question of ‘national’ within the extensive understanding of global audiences.

When it comes to the basic definition of the cinemas of the world ‘Under the City’s Skin’ ticks all the necessary boxes. Saeed Zeydabadi – Nejad sums up the latter and many other Iranian films by saying: ‘They are mainly made with non-professional actors, are filmed on location rather than in studios, contain a number of long takes, blur the boundary between documentary and fiction, and many of their narratives are open ended. A main feature of many such films is that they appear to be ‘a slice of life’, with seemingly little dramatization or fictionalization. The stories are often about the urban or rural poor’ (Nejad, 2010). Indeed, in ‘Under the City’s Skin’ all those elements are present. The action takes place in Tehran, and the urban location is very primary to the action. The tall buildings, the restaurants connote the new emerging Iran, while poor houses on the outskirts of the city remind us about the real people occupying the urban spaces. The family that Beni-Etemad portrays lives in poverty, struggling not only with the issues of their family but also with their financial and social situation that is heavily influenced by the politics and ideology ruling in Iran. ‘Films like ‘The Bride’ and ‘Under the Skin of the City’ presented the sense of immorality and disorder that were subtly manifest in Iran’s economic situation. Everything is for sale; families are betrayed, mothers abandoned, honour smothered through unlawful acts, and the hero is eventually at the mercy of the success for which he has sold himself’ (Sadr, 2006). This impossible ‘to get out’ situation is also strongly underlined by a certain anarchism when it comes to the law. This is visible when Abbas loses his savings he handed to the agency to get a visa. By arrival he sees that they escaped with his money. It is obvious that he will never be able to get his money back. The same happens when the father and Abbas sell their little house to the property buyer. When the mother begs him to sell the house back to her, he rejects her harshly, and by being a woman and additionally a poor civilian she has no right to appeal.  The viewer is also aware that despite the stylistic notions, Beni-Etemad wishes to present the real Iranian people, portraying their existence and documenting real life events. The reminder would be the beginning and the end of the movie, where she films the mother being interviewed at work in the factory, talking directly to the camera, which furthermore increases the viewer’s awareness.

This leads us to yet another issue that cinema of the world invites and that is the situation of women within a society. Iran deals with this matter in majority of their films, seeing not only an injustice but a broad topic needed to be explored. The film director Kiarostami, talks about the female portrayal: ‘‘Women are beautiful and complex which makes them good cinematic subjects’; He also said that the representation of women in Iranian cinema so far had not been realistic, because female characters in the films are limited to devoted mothers, scheming seductresses, or women who are unrealistically strong. He added that in Iranian cinema, making films about women is a trend from which he could not stay away (Nejad, 2010). In case of Beni–Etemad who herself is a female, we observe women from a female director point of view. In ‘Under the City’s Skin’ we get to know the mother, working hard all her life, trying to sustain her family together, but hit with flows of injustice, poverty and lack of any sort of normality. Abbas’s sister is an example of a teenager, who starves for freedom in a desperate attempt of self-expression. Yet not her but her close friend steps against the written rules, escaping from her family house. Her story ends badly, as she is forced to live on the streets and becomes not only social outsider but also dead to her family.

The films of Iran do not promise a happy end. Also the audiences do not expect one. There also is no hero. Abbas may be an example of a fighter, but his story ends badly and he is condemned to exile within his own country. This large portion of realism connotes what is important for the cinema of the worlds, which is the depiction of specific identities and an open window towards ideologies and politics that are normally closed to the outside public. Yet another important element in films like ‘Under the City’s Skin’ is the promotion of distraction of pleasure. Laura Mulvey, in her essay ‘Distraction of Pleasure as a Radical Weapon’, while comparing Hollywood to an alternative cinema discusses a particular way of perceiving an image. Her general argument also applies to the notion of world cinema. Mulvey sees Hollywood as a representative of a visual pleasure, underlining the need of more original visual expression that challenges rather than only entertain. She writes: ‘However self-conscious and ironic Hollywood managed to be, it always restricted itself to a formal mise-en-scene reflecting the dominant ideological concept of the cinema. The alternative cinema provides a space for a cinema to be born which is radical in both a political and in aesthetic sense and challenges the basic assumptions of the mainstream film’ (Mulvey, 1990). The narrative in ‘Under the City’s Skin’ doesn’t invite to only sit back and enjoy like in Hollywood productions, but to actively observe, making own assumptions, without expecting the obvious or count on a happy ending. We, as a viewers are not able to tell how Abbas will end up or what will happen to his family. The last shot presents his mother talking to the camera, revealing her pain, anger and despair. At the beginning of the film she seems rather timid and scared of the camera, yet the last shot makes us aware that her patience wears off and her hope for better tomorrow fails.

The audiences are able to follow the story of the characters in ‘Under the City’s Skin’ in a specific time of their lives, without a pressure of conclusion or a pressure to split them into black and white personalities. ‘In both May Lady and   Under the Skin of the City, a tension is maintained through Beni Etamed’s disinclination to present the stories from a single, fixed viewpoint that would present a clear or coherent statement. She attempts a dissection of historical and present reality, but she rarely reaches the kind of rigid conclusions that one would expect from this forensic approach. Instead, the various events are presented from several social and economic angles, leaving any final resolution and interpretation to the viewer’ (Sadr, 2006). Abbas may be perceived as a man inclined to crime, but he does it in order to save his family. The father is weak and useless, yet he loves his wife and his family unconditionally. This way the audiences instead of judging find a level of identification and compassion. Ohad Landesman writes about Kiarostami saying that his films: ‘…fulfil the Bazinian esthetic responsibility in its full extremity: observing life without judging it or intervening in its natural flow’ (Landesman, 2006) . The same can be applied to Beni – Etemad and her film. The characters are humans like ourselves and therefore even if drastically different also alike.

When it comes to the style of the film, Beni-Etemad employs contemporary filming techniques that are appreciated by wider audiences. She mixes multiple genres moving from drama to documentary, depicting realism mixed with poetics and also includes certain elements of nostalgia. ‘The collapse of cinematic narrative convention opens up a space and a pace in which the elements of cinematic form acquire visibility in their own right’ (Mulvey, Afterword, 2004). Beni-Etemad uses beautiful visual takes that are enhanced by specific kind of music, added in various ways. Sometimes as a depiction of an emotional state of the characters and sometimes it is the real sound of the city. There is also certain Brechtianism in ‘Under the City’s Skin’, connoted by a conscious use of the camera. As the film starts and ends with the mother talking directly to the camera, interviewed by film makers, we are reminded about the presence of the film maker itself. It is the impression of reality we are witnessing. Yet a reality that may have been censored and therefore is heavily overloaded with symbolism and visual connotations.

When considering ‘Under the City’s Skin’ among the world cinemas, it is crucial to stress the importance of the audiences. Naficy thinks that: ‘Iranian exiles, international audiences and film – reviewing establishments abroad were sophisticated enough to understand the constricted political contexts in which the films where produced’ and ‘…these viewers and reviewers tended to highlight the initiative and skilfulness of the filmmakers’ (Naficy, 2004). That being said, the world audiences differ extensively from the national viewer.  They will connect and identify on an utterly different level, making assumptions from extensively various point of views, taking foremost  into consideration their own background and identity. ‘There are many things in Iranian films which are difficult to fathom for the non-Iranian viewer and are best understood by Iranians, particularly the better educated ones’ (Nejad, 2010). Audiences from Iran or other repressed countries or one troubled by political and social instabilities will connect with the characters and understand their situation comparing them to themselves. One that experienced Communism in East Europe or Militarism in Argentina will better understand the corruption, poverty or Abbas’s actions that forced him to crime. They will not expect those characters to change or suddenly win a lottery, but they will understand more clearly their emotional inner struggles. Also the figure of the ‘uber mother’ is very much present in most of the underdeveloped countries. It is a mother that is everything and sacrifices herself utterly to the needs of her family. In case of Beni-Etemad’s film, the mother is portrayed as a struggling force, filled with an unconditional love, never ceasing to fight back.

Nevertheless the involvement of western audiences is also present and possible. ‘Foreigners, or those who lack the necessary language, therefore, cannot hope to understand the film thoroughly. But while this might reduce the film’s political significance and flatten the nuances, the kind of problems it addresses is comprehensible, even of on an intuitive rather than an informal level’ (Mulvey, Afterword, 2004). Especially in films like ‘Under the City’s Skin’, the portrayal of the family and its struggles awake an interest and sympathy for the positively represented characters. It is not merely the tourist gaze searching for exotic values. The audiences wish for Abbas to succeed. To get the visa, earn money for his family and get the girl he is in love with. The viewer worries about the tired mother and sympathises with her never ending strength to carry on. Also in every family there are teenagers like Abbas’s sister and brother, who want to change the world. The only difference is that it is not the next door neighbour.

Also within the narrative there is a feeling of dislocation, especially present in characters of Abbas and his brother and sister. ‘Dislocation (journeys, searches, homelessness, exile) is a major theme in Iranian films’ (Tapper, 2002). In ‘Under the City’s Skin, it is the search for unknown, for the new. The changes in the city, visible by many road works and tall buildings, also connoted by the scene where Abbas is taking his family to the restaurant to eat pizza and drink Coca-Cola, connotes changes towards globalization and standardization, visible not only in Iran but all over the world. Also the old world represented by Abbas’s parents changes rapidly and confuses them. The new generation represented by Abbas’s younger brother and sister wishes to move forward, almost disconnected with the past. Abbas is in a way the link between those two worlds and he is able to understand both, the old and the new realties. Yet by being interlinked with both worlds his identity and consciousness seems to float, not being able to take a stand or find his place within a society.

 Furthermore the level of understanding for the western audience increases with the structure of the narrative that even by mixing different genres still sustains traditional plot, without extreme disconnections or without a sudden change of the story diegesis. The action flows continuously connecting the characters, their stories and their surroundings. The plot has beginning, middle and an end. Even if Beni-Etemad leaves us with an open ending where we are not quite sure what will happen to Abbas, there is a certain traditional breakdown in the action that is well known by the global viewers and accepted as a general story telling technique. The audiences of the world cinema are able, despite national connotations to appreciate the story told and the context within. Yet how much therefore ‘Under the City’s Skin’ is national and how much it is directed towards international audiences?

 Iranian audiences despite the success of their films on international circuit seem to have slightly different approach to their national cinema. It often criticizes the only one sided depiction of the Iranian society by show casting their country from one point of view. The excotic poverty has more appeal for the global audiences than the depiction of middle class or intellectuals. ‘One of the allegations against these films is that they show ‘backwardness, poverty and negative images of Iranian society’ which conform to the stereotype of the country, and that is why they are popular at festivals’ (Nejad, 2010). The visually enhanced films about third world countries existence where children have no future, woman are victimised and men struggle with their identities, succeed and bring rewards. Therefore the Iranian cinema may have been seen as a global marvel, yet is not as much appreciated on national level. ‘Another allegation against art cinema is that Iranian films are ‘primitive in style’ and show Iran as ‘an exotic other’ which allegedly non –Iranians enjoy to see’ (Nejad, 2010). When asked an Iranian friend what she thought about ‘Under the City’s Skin’, she said that she did not watch it, as it is probably again about the poor and depression. The lack of uplifting qualities may appeal to the world audiences yet may this way miss the home box offices. Also there is a question of the type of audiences the film aims for. With its artistic connotations and refined symbolism the films like ‘Under the City’s Skin’ may tell a story about the poor but are clearly aimed towards intellectual Iranians and outside the country towards middle and upper classes. ‘Indeed, as Shahbazi suggests, there are number of elements in all such Iranian films which are much easier to understand for the more educated Iranians’ (Nejad, 2010). Many Iranians admire Beni-Etemad for her contribution to Iranian film and het international stardom, yet how of a home box office success she is, is debatable.

To conclude, Iranian cinema despite the critics and the issues discussed can be clearly allocated within world cinema aesthetics. It is mainly because of the topics addressed, which further on are strongly related to the realism of the human existence. Where Hollywood concentrate on the illusion, feeding the audiences with mass appeal, directors like Beni-Etemad tell stories about humans, that are stripped to their basic emotions, going beyond the closed doors, revealing different kind of world. ‘The distinctive forms and achievements of Iranian cinema, owing little or nothing to Hollywood or Western models (other than the medium itself, and the rewards of international acclaim) have shown that, culturally at least, the fear of ‘Western invasion’ can be dismissed as a chimera’  (Tapper, 2002). Through film festivals all around the world films like that can find its niche and win acceptance among broader audiences. Iranian films win many awards and are fully established on festivals. ‘Festivals devoted to Iranian films multiplied’ (Tapper, 2002). There is even an Iranian film festival in London. ‘Iranian cinema has much to teach the world about poetry, children, emotion and class’ (Tapper, 2002). There may be a critique of the repetitive stories, handling and over using similar styles and films made for the world audiences rather than Iran.  Yet this does not hinder Iranian cinema to win continuous awards and sustain its popularity.

‘Under the City’s Skin’ was positively welcomed by the world wide audiences. It was released in 2001 on many festivals, in countries like UK, France, Italy, Greece, Canada or Argentina. It won among others; a special jury prize at Moscow International Film Festival and at Torino Festival an audience award, best feature film and best script. Beni-Etemad proved again that she can move beyond the factual and emotional boarders. Laura Mulvey writes about the traveling of the films by saying: ‘As films do travel, and will continue to do so, discussion and criticism are essential for them to find a serious place in ‘world cinema’. It is through these means that they can reach beyond the immediacy of fashions or the appeal of the exotically different’ (Mulvey, Afterword, 2004).  It is arguable if ‘Under the City’s Skin’ can entirely abandon the exotic appeal or move beyond the current fashion for Iranian Cinema. Rakhshan Beni-Etemad certainly proves that Iranian film is not only a passing novelty but a niche that clearly sustained its place and can be certainly allocated within the world cinemas. Yet how much is that benefited by the films exotic values and fashion for Islamic voyeurism is questionable.

Having said that, the exotic appeal, rather than disadvantage, can help those productions to establish stronger and competitive markets and therefore extend their distribution possibilities, forcing them beyond the festival crowd. By not being able to experience personally other cultures, the audience from around the world will always see certain exotic and strangeness, even if only partially. ‘Under the City’s Skin’ works on many emotional levels and produces identification values, but one cannot help to observe and marvel by seeing the unknown and different.

Throughout its presence and its existence, the world cinema proved to be acknowledged and appreciated. It may not be able to compete with Hollywood and high budget productions. Yet, in the same time its ‘otherness’ in terms of stylistic notions and original form of expression established films from either underdeveloped countries or one that struggle politically and socially, not only as a piece of information but also as an artistic visual expression. Beni-Etemad in an interview, said, when asked about Iranian filmmaking that have a significant impact on the world: ‘One reason is that probably the international audiences is curious to know about these countries like Iran, or other countries in the region, but more importantly, is that the viewpoint of the Iranian filmmakers on issues is not simply individualistic, they try to put things in a broader perspective and look at human relationships in a different fashion.’  (Joanne Laurier, 2005). Indeed, ‘Under the City’s Skin’ earned its place within world cinemas frame by attracting wide range of audiences, proving that films of a national nature can convey multi-faceted qualities and employ more approachable techniques, without entirely abandoning the cultural connotations or an original form of expression.

Additionally, it determined its place within world cinema by proving that emotional involvement can be reached on many levels. The style of the film, the location, and the topic addressed creates an active viewing experience where the viewer can identify, observe and acknowledge other reality than their own. Having said that many topics addressed in ‘Under the City’s Skin’ are present not only in Iran; the women inequality, the family issues and the globalization are common everywhere else. Also the film raises a question if national cinema works on an international level and further on questions if films like ‘Under the City’s Skin’ are directed more likely towards international markets. As ‘Under the City’s Skin’ was fully acknowledged by film festivals around the world and won significant awards, it certainly found its appeal among worldwide audiences. In case of Beni- Etemad success, it is due to the depiction of Iran and the Iranian people with a mixture of human and exotic. Her filmic style moving from fiction to documentary and real to fantasy opens other ways of viewing experience, which is more active and in a way also interactive. As the characters within the plot change and move with the flow of the new emerging world, the world wide audiences travel with them.


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