Close-up: Leila Hatami part of Cannes jury, filmmaking tips from Kiarostami and more (April 28)

Leila Hatami at Cannes 2013.
Leila Hatami at Cannes 2013.

Iranian actress Leila Hatami (A Separation, Leila) will partake in the Jury of the 67th Festival de Cannes, alongside Sofia Coppola, Willem Dafoe, Gael Garcia Bernal, Jia Zhangke, Nicolas Winding Refn, Jeon Do-yeon, Carole Bouquet and president Jane Campion:

As in 2009 the Jury will therefore include five women and four men. Their task will be to decide between the 18 films in Competition in order to select the winners – to be announced on stage at the ceremony on Saturday 24th May. The winner of the Palme d’or will be screened during the Festival’s closing evening on Sunday 25th of May, in the presence of the Jury and the entire team of the winning film.

Film School Rejects shares six filmmaking tips from Abbas Kiarostami:

During a festival screening of The Wind Will Carry Us, the audience cheered at a moment during the film, and Kiarostami immediately decided to cut that moment out. Audience excitement, the director seemed to suggest, prevents viewer immersion.

The Washington, DC-based non-profit Search for Common Ground will be hosting a two-day festival on Iranian women and youth, starting tomorrow:

Please join us for a two-day screening of a selection of Iranian films highlighting the present day realities of women and youth in Iran. Each day will conclude with a panel discussion with experts on Iranian cinema. These films display the complexities and the various aspects of Iranian culture from a religious, traditional, and legal point of view.

Two Iranian films were announced this week in the official lineup of festivals in Canada and China. Iranian Ninja, directed by Marjan Riahi, will play as part of the shorts competition at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto this week (link in Farsi). The film deals with the problems that Iranian women face in the competitive martial arts scene. Maziar Miri’s acclaimed The Painting Pool will also play as part of the Shanghai International Film Festival in June. The film tells the story of a mentally challenged couple and their struggle to raise their child.

[The Painting Pool] was awarded with the UNESCO prize at the seventh Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA). Miri’s latest creation also took Best Film Award by Audiences and Best Set Design Award at the 31th Fajr Film Festival in Iran.

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Episode #2: Reception of Iranian Cinema, with a Focus on Leila (with Calum Marsh)

Welcome to the second episode of the Hello Cinema Podcast, the monthly show dedicated to Iranian cinema. In this episode we are joined by a special guest, Calum Marsh, a Toronto-based film critic and contributor to Village Voice, Esquire, Cinema Scope and other publications.

Leila Hatami in Dariush Mehrjui's Leila (1997) Leila Hatami in Dariush Mehrjui’s Leila (1997)

We start our conversation by discussing what constitutes critical and commercial success for an Iranian film from the different perspectives of filmmakers, festivals, Iranian authorities and audiences in Iran and abroad. We discuss the reception of foreign films in North America and the social and artistic context for their production and distribution. Finally, we discuss Dariush Mehrjui’s Leila (1997). While Mehrjui’s early feature The Cow (Gaav, 1969) is widely regarded as one of the best Iranian films of all time, his later films have rarely transcended national boundaries. We focus on the cultural context of Leila‘s story and consider how that might have affected its international reception. As a bonus, we also discuss the traditional Iranian dish of Koobideh Kebab with our guest!

Schedule
Opening  0:00-0:45
Introduction  0:45-2:28
Defining Success for Iranian Films  2:28-6:38
Reception of Foreign Cinema in North America  6:38-9:17
Expectations of Representation in World Cinema  9:17-21:24
Introducing Four Successful Iranian Films  21:24-24:53
Dariush Mehrjui’s Leila  24:53-46:11
Authenticity vs. Quality in National Cinemas  46:11-50:08
Closing  50:08-50:47

Download an .mp3 version of this episode here or subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.

Works Cited
Dariush Mehrjui’s Leila (imdb, amazon, youtube stream – no English subtitles)
Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry (imdb, amazon, youtube stream)
Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (imdb, amazon instant video)
Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (imdb, amazon instant video)
Marlon Rivera’s The Woman in the Septic Tank (imdb)
Music: “Sonatine” by Maziar Heidari

Correction
In the episode, it is mentioned that Children of Heaven was nominated for an Oscar in 1998. The correct date for the film’s nomination is 1999, nearly two years after its Iranian release date.

The Father (Pedar, 1996)

Majid Majidi started his film career as an actor in the 1980s, with secondary roles in a range of films including Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Boycott (Baykot, 1985). Because of his limited roles, it was hard to envision then that he would go on to become one of Iran’s most renowned filmmakers. Yet, Majidi established himself as a vital voice when his second feature, The Father, won the top prize at the Fajr Film Festival.

The Father centres on Mehrollah (Hassan Sadeghi), a fourteen-year-old boy who has recently been involved in a motorcycle accident which killed his father. Majidi communicates the details of the death in the opening sequence with an affecting shot-reverse-shot that shows Mehrollah longingly looking at a picture of himself and his father on the road. This scene is the first example of Majidi’s visual approach to storytelling in The Father, a film in which dialogue is used minimally for the purpose of exposition. Gestures, gazes and the mood that the mise-en-scène evokes convey plot points. Assisted by the percussive regional music, the rough, sunburnt setting of the barren Iranian South creates an aggressive atmosphere and externalizes the internal turmoil of the film’s young hero after his traumatic experience.

Mehrollah works in a city near his village to provide for his mother (Parivash Nazarieh) and three sisters. He is audacious and wise beyond his years but only shows his limitless rage and stubbornness upon returning home, when he learns of his mother’s remarriage. His stepfather (Mohammad Kasebi) is a gendarme in the local police force, a respected lawman who, despite his imposing figure, shows immense compassion toward Mehrollah’s sisters.

Mehrollah is incensed at the “replacement” of his father and confronts his mother. Majidi exaggerates Mehrollah’s response to the marriage through his choice of profession for the stepfather: the young boy appears all the more rebellious since standing tall against the gendarme constitutes his disregard for the law itself. Mehrollah’s hostility toward his stepfather manifests itself in different ways and eventually leads him to escape the village. His stepfather tracks him down, but the two men are stranded and hit by a sandstorm on their way back home. Their journey together forms the entirety of The Father’s final act. 

Majidi examined wildly different issues within the paradigm of children’s stories in his first four features. The Father is ostensibly about the lack of empathy in adults for adolescents during their sensitive, formative years. Mehrollah’s increasingly violent behaviour is shrugged off and he is repeatedly told to just get on with it, a mistreatment of mental issues in young adults that is unfortunately prevalent in rural Iran. Yet, while Majidi exposes this problem, he doesn’t quite explore it. It is a behaviour that simply exists and is accepted by the film. The lack of commentary by The Father in this regard, coupled with a finale that resolves the boy’s problems by brushing them under the rug does little to suggest Majidi understands this social phenomenon more than the people whose story he is telling.

On the other hand, the director subtly criticizes the patriarchal traditions of Southern Iran. The film suggests that Mehrollah’s reactionary approach to the marriage isn’t simply a case of post-traumatic distress, but also a consequence of deep-rooted conventions that the community at large hasn’t addressed. The misogynistic mentality is exposed during a physical altercation between the boy and his mother. Mehrollah, believing money to be the only motive, insultingly demands an explanation from her for marrying without his permission, a common expectation in Islamicized rural areas. In response, she relates that the murmurs and looks aimed at her after the death of her first husband had become overbearing, uncovering an unfortunate facet of Islamic societies’ attitude toward widowed women: they are properties to be reclaimed. The mother objects to this norm but remains sadly powerless against the patriarchal society, as even her son questions her autonomy over her own life.

The above sequence explicitly visualizes this chauvinistic mentality and the film’s observations about the role of patriarchy in the Iranian social consciousness are repeated throughout the film’s final act, during which the tension between Mehrollah and his stepfather increases as they trudge through the desert. Majidi assures us that a bond is forming between the two men. The clues are both visual (one particular shot of them handcuffed together looks deceptively like a father holding his son’s hand) and written in the text (the stepfather picks Mehrollah up where his father left him, on a motorcycle in the wilderness).

When the finale arrives, however, it only undermines the film’s structure. The final shot actualizes the inevitable bonding, while remaining coy about the outcome of the two men’s quest for survival, an ending that is a misguided attempt at bringing emotional closure to a story that doesn’t need one. Majidi forgoes all sense of mystery in favour of a single, aesthetically pleasing image, too calculated to move the audience or leave them with much to ponder. This ending is a testament to Majidi’s deft hand at constructing poetic images and finding the sensational in the mundane, but the full emotional force of such picturesque compositions would only begin to be realized in his next film, Children of Heaven (Bacheha-ye Asemaan, 1997).

Close-up: New films, awards and an Iranian cinema poll (April 14th)

Iranian race-car driver Laleh Seddigh
Iranian race-car driver Laleh Seddigh

Essy Niknejad’s film about an Iranian female race-car driver who won Iranian National Championship in 2006 is near completion, after countless obstacles:

When filmmaker Essy Niknejad read the story of a femme race car driver who beat the odds to win the Iranian National Championship in 2006, he figured it had drama written all over it. Dubbed “Little Schumacher,” after Formula One legend Michael Shumacher, Laleh Seddigh had to fight her family and her nation’s male-dominated theocracy to realize her dreams.

“We know that racing is a white boys’ club, no matter what society we are talking about,” Niknejad says. “Plus in Iran, which is dominated by men, it must be fascinating for a woman to get to this level.”

What he didn’t realize is the many obstacles — including harsh weather, hostile locals and diminishing funds — that would make the completion of his film come to resemble the longshot that was Seddigh’s accomplishment. Through it all, Niknejad has remained undeterred.

Iranian-American filmmaker Desiree Akhavan is riding high on a wave of unexpected success with her debut feature Appropriate Behaviour:

[W]hat the judges and critics saw in Appropriate Behaviour was a touching, frank, romantic comedy full of wry observation about love in the 21st century. The film revolves around Shirin, a bisexual Iranian-American who has no proper job, a recent break-up ­behind her and a life that is essentially going nowhere.

Mitra Farahani’s Fifi Howls From Happiness won the International Competition at the Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival (BAFICI) this weekend. Here’s a description of the film from Berlinale, where it played in 2013:

Bahman Mohassess was a celebrated artist at the time of the Shah. Trained in Italy, he created sculptures and paintings in his homeland. But audiences often took offence at the pronounced phalli on his mostly naked bronze figures and his work was regularly censored. All traces of him were lost after the revolution. It was said he destroyed his remaining paintings and disappeared.
Mitra Farahani, who began her career as a painter, finds Mohassess in a hotel in Rome. The old man is flattered by her interest in his life but also has very clear ideas about how his words and life should be illustrated. His unshakeable humour is nevertheless infectious and his critical faculties fascinating. Almost incidentally, the topic moves towards art and homosexuality. Farahani wants to film Mohassess at work and discovers two brothers who commission a new piece from him. Enlivened by the encounter with these two young Iranian collectors, the artist energetically discusses his grand plans and drives a hard bargain for his last work of art.

At the 28 Fribourg International Film Festival, Thierry Jobin, the festival’s artistic director, asked a group of 15 Iranian filmmakers to choose their favourite Iranian films of all time (link in Farsi). Among this group were Asghar Farhadi, Bahram Beizaei, Shirin Neshat, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi. Dariush Mehrjuyi’s The Cow (1969) topped their selections with five votes, while three films were tied with four votes each: Still Life (1974) and A Simple Event (1974), both directed by Sohrab Shahid Saless, and The Runner (1990), directed by Amir Naderi who was also one of the voters.  Other films with multiple votes included The House Is Black (1963), The Night It Rained (1967), Close-up (1990), The Brick and the Mirror (1965) and Shabe Ghuzi (1965).
On his selection of A Simple Event, Amir Naderi writes:

“Sohrab Shahid Saless is the father of modern Iranian cinema. We have learned so much from him and have tried to teach his films to future generations. The cinema we have in Iran today is indebted to him.”

Close-up: Fribourg, Richard Peña on Kiarostami, and more

Bahram Beizai’s Downpour (Ragbar, 1972) is one of the classic Iranian films playing at Fribourg International Film Festival 2014.
Bahram Beizai’s Downpour (Ragbar, 1972) is one of the classic Iranian films playing at Fribourg International Film Festival 2014.

The 28th Fribourg International Film Festival (FIFF) is showing an important and rare retrospective of classic Iranian cinema this year, writes Tarah Judah in Keyframe:

With this year’s special focus on Iranian cinema, curated by its creators, FIFF has undertaken a project so impressive that it can’t be confined to just eight days and one small city. Some of the films will also be screened in the nearby city of Lausanne and long after FIFF closes the project will see a new lease of life at the Edinburgh International Film Festival where Artistic Director Chris Fujiwara and his team will continue the rediscovery. Finally, the TIFF Cinémathèque in Toronto will take the reins, ensuring this important cross section of pre- and post-revolution Iranian cinema is more widely seen. International exhibition of so many of these films has been restricted for a number of political reasons over the years. Filmmakers who have taken part in the project include Asghar Farhadi, whose Academy Award winning film A Separation (2011) screens in the program, as well as Bahman Ghobadi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi, to name but a few.

Richard Peña will be doing a a lecture at the Indiana University Cinema today on the works of Abbas Kiarostami, which is exciting for more than one reason: 

Thanks to a partnership with Cohen Media who will be releasing The Wind Will Carry Us on BluRay later this year, this lecture will be led by Richard Peña, Director Emeritus of the New York Film Festival and Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University. The interview will be recorded for a bonus feature on the 2014 Blu-ray Disc release of one of Mr. Kiarostami’s films.

Director Mehran Tamadon won the 36th Cinema Du Reel Grand Prize for his documentary Iranien, reports Payvand News:

It took two years for Mehran Tamadon to persuade the four supporters of the Iranian regime to risk taking part in an experiment with him. Now he receives them as guests at his family’s country house to try out something that does not exist in Iran: a pluralistic society. As the women disappear into the guest rooms, the men discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a secular society, the veil, abortion, freedom of the press… The guests not merely outnumber the filmmaker, who is critical of the regime, but are also masters of rhetoric. Again and again, they twist his words and use them against him. His secular society, they argue, is just as ideological as their religious one. The mood is contentious, but there’s also a great deal of communal laughter, prayer and cooking. In the end, the attempt to create a social utopia fails as there are simply too many issues that are non-negotiable. But does that mean that the experiment itself has failed? After all, for a brief time, differing lifestyles and opinions managed to co-exist. A dialogue took place. For the filmmaker, however, there’ll be a high price to pay.

The UCLA Film and Television Archive hosts its 2014 Celebration of Iranian Cinema, in cooperation with the Farhang Foundation. The schedule includes a 40th anniversary screening of Abbas Kiarostami’s The Traveler (Mossafer, 1974) and new films from Mania Akbari, Jamsheed Akrami and others:

UCLA Film & Television Archive is proud to continue its long tradition of tracing the unfolding of Iran’s fascinating national cinema.  Continually offering compelling new voices and visions, Iranian film responds to a rich storytelling heritage and enters into crucial dialogue with other world cultural and artistic traditions in its unique interplay of social inquiry and formal experimentation.  This edition of the UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema offers a panoply of genres and storytelling modes, sampling the contributions of an array of film artists.

Baduk (1992)

When Majid Majidi’s Baduk (1992) begins, we meet Jafar (Mehrolah Mazazehi) and Jamal (Maryam Tahan), a young brother and sister waiting for their father to return from the depths of a water well in the dry desert of Southeast Iran. Following their short conversation with a group of elderly men which conveys the recent death of the children’s mother, they watch as the soil begins to fall inward on the well, and their father, trapped beneath heaps of sand, loses his short, helpless battle with nature. Left without parental and financial support, Jafar and Jamal leave their small village in search of a better future. In a matter of hours, they’re lured by a man whose ulterior motive is to sell them for profit. Jafar is sold into slavery and trained to become a drug smuggler at the Iran-Pakistan border. Jamal is sold into an underage prostitution ring operated by Saudis in Pakistan. Jafar begins to learn the tricks of the trade, but all he has on his mind is finding his way across the border to rescue his sister.

The opening of Majid Majidi’s debut feature is perhaps the most definitive scene in his career, from a director who would go on to nab Iran’s first ever Oscar nomination with Children of Heaven (Bache-haye Asemaan, 1997). The scene serves as a reference point to which many of the director’s favorite motifs can be connected. In Majidi’s next feature, The Father (Pedar, 1996), the plot is again initiated by the premature death of the protagonist’s father. The intimate relationship between siblings is the thematic fulcrum in Children of Heaven. Humanist explorations of poverty continued to be Majidi’s focus in his work, as did multiethnic tensions and examinations of life in rural Iran. On the surface and the basis of their plots, Children of Heaven is the film with the closest parallels to Baduk. One could even argue that the former tells an innocent, milder version of the same story, in which the stakes have been significantly lowered. Both narratives follow a young boy and the lengths to which he must go to save his sister. Jafar is thrown into the adult world and must sneak across national borders to liberate Jamal from her captors. The burden on Ali’s shoulders in Children of Heaven doesn’t weigh quite as much—he is given the financial responsibility to find Zahra a new pair of shoes—but the thematic foundation is the same. Both films tell stories of young boys who have to punch above their weight in order to provide for their family, yet Baduk is the bolder, more politically daring film. 

Baduk navigates, literally and figuratively, the dangerous waters of child slavery, prostitution and the tumultuous politics of Iran’s most underrepresented province in cinema, Sistan and Baluchestan, with poise and subtlety. Very few Iranian films have tackled these issues since. Was it the trouble Majidi faced with censors over Baduk that pushed him into more conservative territory in his later works? Is that why the brutal murder of a young child so openly depicted in this film gave way to the portrayal of death in Color of Paradise, in which “the boy’s soul departed like a fading light” so gracefully?¹ This is no slight on Majidi’s later films; his oeuvre exhibits remarkable consistency in quality. Plus, provocation alone does not make for a good film and its absence not for a bad one. However, it is intriguing in retrospect that the flag-bearer of humanist cinema in Iran started his directorial career by holding a knife to his audience’s throats. Would Majidi’s career have turned out differently if his first film was celebrated, rather than slashed, by authorities for its critical but compassionate look at Iran’s neglected southeast?

There is no romanticization in Baduk. Majidi plunges so deep into the Baluch milieu, with its long history of social troubles, that the realities of Jafar’s severe circumstances speak volumes without any need for melodrama. The young man’s acts of valor are not consequences of a need for dramatic beats; they are rugged, thorny truths from a part of the country that has barely been recognized for its destitution. The depiction of a child sold into slavery and taught to smuggle drugs from one country to another, climbing across barbed wire in search of his sister is Majidi’s indictment of a reality close to home yet almost seemingly foreign in a national cinema centered in Tehran and populated by films about the city and its residents. Though Majidi’s later works took him on a journey to other distant reaches of rural Iran, none expressed as much ideological audacity as Baduk.

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1. Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Vol. 4: The Globalizing Era, 1984-2010, pg. 221.