Iranian New Wave 1960s-1970s (Film Series)

November 2-22, 2013  Asia Society and Museum
Banned both before and after the revolution, Bahman Farmanara's village drama Tall Shadows of the Wind (1979) screens on November 12. Courtesy Asia Society.

This film series features rarely screened films of the Iranian New Wave, an exceptional film movement that took place before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. During the cosmopolitan and yet turbulent period of the 1960s-1970s, an auteur cinema emerged and responded actively to the cultural, political, and social conditions of the time. Iranian New Wave is distinguished by its philosophical inclination, social critique, poetic disposition, and vigorous experimentation. This innovative spirit resonated with new cinematic trends sweeping across the globe at the time, from France and Czechoslovakia to Brazil and Japan. Collectively, the films present the artistic vision, humanism, and social consciousness of a generation of Iranian filmmakers. These films have left an important legacy and laid the groundwork for later generations. This series offers an extraordinary opportunity to survey these works and provides a window into Iranian life during this period. A documentary film about the Iranian New Wave is included in the selection.

Interview: 'Iranian New Wave' Film Curator Uncovers a Precious, Threatened Legacy

by Jeff Tompkins, Asia Society

Screening over three weeks in November, Asia Society New York's film series Iranian New Wave offers a rare opportunity to explore a vital yet little seen period in Iran's film history. Responding to the same currents that were then electrifying cinema from Paris to Prague to Tokyo, Iranian filmmakers of the 1960s and '70s produced a range of formally innovative, socially conscious and philosophically searching films that paved the way for the later, more internationally recognized generation of auteurs that includes Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Ashghar Farhadi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. (Underscoring this continuity, the series concludes on November 22 with Kiarostami's early work, 1974's The Traveler.)

Presented in conjunction with Asia Society Museum's Iran Modern exhibition, Iranian New Wave encompasses fiction features, documentary shorts and a documentary about this era of Iranian film in seven programs. Below, Asia Society Film Curator La Frances Hui discusses the genesis of the series and some of the hurdles she had to overcome in bringing these rare films to New York in 2013.

The seven programs in Asia Society's Iranian New Wave series uncover an era in world cinema that's likely to be unfamiliar even to veteran fans of international art films. Can you summarize what's distinctive about these Iranian movies — what makes them "New Wave," for instance? 

Most international film audiences were not exposed to Iranian cinema until the late 1980s and early 1990s. Works by filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf enthralled audiences around the world with their realism, humanism and lyricism. What most of these audiences don't know is that Iran has had a long and rich tradition of cinema. A major artistic breakthrough occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, the immediate decades before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Unbeknownst to many, especially young people, Iran was an active player in the international art scene back in those days. Iranian artists were exposed to artistic trends around the world and their works were presented overseas. There was an explosion of activity in all artistic fields including film, visual art (as seen in our current Iran Modern exhibition), and theater. Openness in the arts might not exactly have mirrored the everyday experience of regular Iranians, but filmmakers did enjoy the relative freedom to create innovative works. Many were especially inspired by their immediate cultural, social, and political environments.

During that time, new cinematic waves were sweeping across the globe from France and Czechoslovakia to Brazil and Japan. Many Iranian filmmakers studied overseas, such as Dariush Mehrjui at UCLA, Bahman Farmanara at University of Southern California, and Kamran Shirdel at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Italy. This generation of filmmakers experimented with the film language alongside their counterparts around the world. The spirit of innovation evoked an international flavor but the motivation was deeply grounded in the desire to tell Iranian stories. Realism and humanism — the hallmarks of later Iranian films — were already evident. When we look at contemporary Iranian cinema, it is important to not overlook the legacy of this period. In fact, some of the filmmakers active today, such as Kiarostami and Amir Naderi, honed their skills and developed their vision back in those days.

This film series, although small in scope given the richness of cinema during that time, will not only allow audiences to sample and appreciate a selection of works representative of Iranian New Wave, but also provide an opportunity to look at life pre-revolution.

Since most of these films are so rare, I'm curious to know about some of the challenges you faced in curating the series. Did the turmoil of Iran's revolution and its aftermath affect the availability of these movies?

I am glad you asked. It is in fact very difficult to put together a film series focusing on this period. The country went through a tumultuous revolution. Some filmmakers were exiled. Many films, if not lost or destroyed, were locked up. Several filmmakers I contacted directly told me they didn't know where their films went. Most don't even have a high-quality copy of their own works. A lot of film prints scattered around the world have since deteriorated. Several film archives informed me that the prints in their possession were of a quality unfit for projection, pending restoration. I heard so many sad stories that I am starting to really worry about the loss of Iranian cinema's legacy. Bahram Beyzaie's Downpour (1972) was lucky enough to have been restored recently by the World Cinema Foundation. A high-quality digital copy is now available and is here to last. Most other films have not yet met this lucky fate.

As a film curator, I am committed to presenting films in professional formats fit for public screenings. Although the series is not comprehensive of the period, I am delighted to be able to include significant and representative works. Other great films were also made during that time, such as Farrokh Ghaffari's The Night of the Hunchback (1964), Masoud Kimiai's Gheisar (1969), and Sohrab Shahid Sales' Still Life (1975), to name a few.

It's likely, of course, that most people won't be able to attend the full series. Are there any particular highlights they should make a special effort to see?

It's hard for me to name one or two highlights since they are all great films. Audiences who are familiar with European art films would be delighted to discover The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969) and Downpour (Bahram Beyzaie, 1972). In these two films, you will find stylistic parallels to French New Wave and Italian Neorealism. Those who are interested in exploring the politics of fear and surveillance during that time might want to check out Dead End (Parviz Sayyad, 1977) and Tall Shadows of the Wind (Bahman Farmanara, 1979), in which seemingly ordinary life is overshadowed by political terror. Kamran Shirdel's documentaries expose viewers to the life of the marginalized but with a keen cinematic eye on experimentation. Fans of Kiarostami will enjoy The Traveler (1974), an early testament to the director's brilliance. The Lost Cinema (Jamsheed Akrami, 2007) is an informative and insightful documentary about this period of Iranian cinema.

I am extremely excited that directors Sayyad and Akrami will attend post-screening Q&As. Iranian film scholars Negar Mottahedeh (Duke University) and Hamid Naficy (Northwestern University) will also join discussions to help us look more deeply into this period of Iranian film.

The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969) launches Asia Society's Iranian New Wave retrospective in New York on November 2, 2013. Courtesy Asia Society.

Downpour (Bahram Beyzaie, 1972) screens on November 15 in a 2011 restoration by the World Cinema Foundation at Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory. Courtesy Asia Society.

Never shown in Iran, Dead End (Parviz Sayyad, 1977) won actress Mary Apik the Best Actress Award at the Moscow Film Festival. Courtesy Asia Society.

Tehran is the Capital of Iran (1966-1980) is one of four documentary shorts by Kamran Shirdel screening on November 20. Courtesy Asia Society.

Program 1:
Saturday, November 2, 2013, 6:00 pm

The Cow
Dariush Mehrjui. 1969. Iran. 100 min. B/W.

Mash Hasan (Ezzatolah Entezami) is the owner of the only and much treasured cow in his impoverished village. One day while he is away, his beloved cow is mysteriously killed. Afraid to hurt Mash Hasan's feelings, fellow villagers tell him the cow has run away. Distraught, Mash Hasan descends into madness and assumes the identity of the cow, as the village deals with a collective psychological breakdown. Although funded by the state, the film was banned for a year due to the unabashed depiction of poverty in the countryside — a stark contrast to the image of modernization promoted during the Shah's reign. The film was smuggled to the 1971 Venice Film Festival where it received the Critics' Award.

Program 2:
Friday, November 8, 2013, 6:30 pm

The Lost Cinema
Jamsheed Akrami.
2007. USA. 100 min. Color & B/W.

This illuminating documentary examines the background and significance of the Iranian New Wave. An artistic and political awakening gave birth to films that rejected uninspiring mainstream offerings and dominating foreign imports led by Hollywood. Made by Jamsheed Akrami, filmmaker/critic/scholar, the documentary sheds light on the political messages these films carry, and the reasons why many were banned pre- and post-revolution and continue to be inaccessible in Iran even today. Included are in-depth analyses of films such as The Cow (1969), Dead End (1977), and Tall Shadows of the Wind (1979), accompanied by insightful filmmaker and expert interviews. Followed by director Q&A, moderated by Negar Mottahedeh, Associate Professor of Literature and Women's Studies, Duke University. 

Program 3:
Saturday, November 9, 2013, 6:00 pm 

Dead End
Parviz Sayyad. 1977
. Iran. 95 min. Color.

A young woman (Mary Apik) lives on a dead end street with her family. A mysterious man has been following her. Who is he? Is he a secret admirer or someone who is plotting harm? While the young woman draws up romantic fantasies, fear sets in as the man’s omnipresence alludes to the pervasive surveillance carried out by the secret police force, SAVAK, set up by the Shah's regime. Due to the film’s underlying political theme and the portrayal of female subjectivity, it became banned by both regimes pre- and post-revolution and continue to be inaccessible in Iran even today. Although never shown in Iran, the film won actress Mary Apik the Best Actress Award at the Moscow Film Festival. Followed by director Q&A, moderated by Jamsheed Akrami, director of The Lost Cinema and Professor of Media Studies and Production, William Paterson University.

Program 4:
Tuesday, November 12, 2013, 6:30 pm

Tall Shadows of the Wind
Bahman Farmanara. 1979. Iran. 90 min. Color.

Based on a short story by Houshang Golshiri, who also collaborated with director Bahman Farmanara on his breakout feature Prince Ehtejab (1974), this film centers on mysterious and chilling events that take place in a village. A group of superstitious inhabitants have erected a scarecrow for protection but soon find themselves terrorized by multiplying scarecrows. Made at the end of the Shah’s reign, the film offers a metaphorical reflection on power relations—how people create their own idols who turn around to terrorize them. The film’s alleged political message was found so dangerous that it was banned both pre- and post-revolution. The film was presented to great acclaim in Cannes Film Festival’s Critics' Week section.

Program 5:
Friday, November 15, 2013, 6:30 pm

Bahram Beyzaie.
1972. Iran. 128 min. B/W.

A teacher has been transferred to a school in a poor and conservative district. He encounters the beautiful sister of a student and develops feelings for her. Although this young woman is intrigued by his attention, she is already engaged to a local butcher. In this small community where social codes are strictly followed, gossip about the two soon start to spread. Suddenly this modern intellectual finds himself under bizarre surveillance. This feature debut evokes French New Wave for its youthful impulse and Italian Neorealism for its realistic portrayal of local life. (Restored by the World Cinema Foundation at Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna/ L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in 2011. Funding provided by Doha Film Institute.)

Program 6: (Four short documentaries screened in one program)
Wednesday, November 20, 2013, 6:30 pm

Kamran Shirdel - Social Documentaries

A foremost figure in Iranian sociopolitical documentary, Kamran Shirdel studied filmmaking in Italy, with teachers including Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. After returning to Iran, he made many documentaries focusing on the marginalized sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and Art. But due to his revelations of the dark side of society at a time of seeming economic progress, Shirdel was expelled and exiled. Women’s Quarter and Tehran is the Capital of Iran had to be completed years later since materials were confiscated during production. Screening introduced and followed by a Q&A with Hamid Naficy, Professor of Radio-Television-Film and the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani Professor in Communication, Northwestern University.

Women's Prison
1965. Iran. 11 min. B/W.

In this Tehran jail, over 200 women and girls are housed, convicted of crimes such as murder and drug addiction. Beyond depiction of peaceful literature and handicraft classes are desperate personal stories of women held behind bars.

Women's Quarter
1966-1980. 18 min. B/W.

Shot in the red-light district of Tehran, this film portrays the bleak existence of prostitutes. A text recited in a classroom about the progress the country has made is juxtaposed with candid interviews with prostitutes, who tell their stories of capture, escape, poverty, and daily struggles.

Tehran is the Capital of Iran
1966-1980. Iran. 18 min. B/W.

A text glorifying the Shah's regime is set to ironic images of a poverty-stricken district in Tehran, populated by homeless people, blood sellers, and petit criminals.

The Night It Rained
1967. Iran. 35 min. B/W.

A village boy  is hailed in the media for heroically preventing a train’s derailment. Shirdel arrives in the village and unexpectedly hears opposing accounts of what happened. By presenting the different accounts, each serving the individual subject’s self-interest, Shirdel explores the possibility of truth.

Program 7:
Friday, November 22, 2013, 6:30 pm

The Traveler
Abbas Kiarostami. 1974. Iran. 74 min. B/W.

A young boy in a provincial town is a diehard soccer fan. He steals, scams, lies, and skips school in order to gather enough money for an overnight bus trip to Tehran to watch his favorite team play. At times comical, the film is infused with poignancy as the camera lingers on this tough and yet vulnerable boy with deep affection. This self-assured work is an early testament to the brilliance of director Abbas Kiarostami, who is acclaimed for his affecting portrayal of children and philosophical study of human behavior. His celebrated works include Close Up (1990), Life, and Nothing More… (1992), and Certified Copy (2010).

This film series is curated by La Frances Hui.
Interns: Daisy Yiwen Cai, Hsin-Yuan Peng, Nai-Yun Peng, Jane Jingyu Shi, Bahar Pour Tabatabaei

Via Asia Society
Thanks for reading Iranian New Wave 1960s-1970s (Film Series)

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