Pleasure Dome: Far From Iran

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[Pleasure Dome, an exhibition collective in Toronto that screens experimental media arts, will show two films about Iran on July 23rd: Taravat Khalili’s Does the Sand Hear the Waves? and Miranda Pennell’s The Host. For more information about the screenings, please visit Pleasure Dome’s website.]

If there is such a thing as “the immigrant experience,” cinema has rarely been able to capture it truthfully. Sob stories of poverty and hardship, and rags-to-riches narratives of success constitute an unrealistic binary of immigrant experiences on screen that remains very limited. Rarely do those extreme ends of the spectrum convey the complex emotional challenges of leaving home and settling in a foreign land. In her short documentary film, Does the Sand Hear the Waves?, Taravat Khalili sets aside familiar questions such as financial and linguistic limitations to explore deeper issues of identity and memory. Through the story of her own family, she studies the continuously evolving psyche of a young immigrant who spends her formative years in between two different worlds.

Having left Iran as a young girl to settle in Canada with her family, Khalili’s perspective is one shared by thousands of Iranians around the world who have moved from the country in the years since the Islamic revolution. What sets Khalili’s film apart from the majority of other works made by the Iranian diaspora about immigration is that it eschews politics almost entirely.

Filmed partly in Canada and partly at her home in Iran, Khalili’s nearly wordless film effortlessly traverses between the two spaces. The film’s structure appears incoherent, stitched together from images that individually lack focus. Yet, as part of the larger whole, they capture a chaotic, complicated process of reforming one’s identity in a new home. These ideas are difficult to articulate, and the film succeeds precisely because it allows the viewer to piece the images together on their own.

Does the Sand Hear the Waves? is an autobiographical video essay, and as such, an intensely personal experience. Yet, it is through these private moments that Khalili arrives at universal truths. When the filmmaker attends to her grandfather’s grave through a video feed on an iPad, the feeling of grief and the difficulty of remaining connected from afar will ring familiar to anyone who has left their home. In another arresting sequence, videos of earlier memories are projected on the director’s hands, emphasizing the weight of history that the body carries despite being removed from its roots. The images are personal, but their power transcends beyond the life of the artist.

If Sand is wordless, loosely structured and emotionally engaging, Miranda’s Pennell’s The Host is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Pennell also starts her film from a personal place: her British parents had lived in Iran before the Islamic revolution, where her father worked on the oil fields of the country’s fertile Southwestern province, Khuzestan.

The Host is comprised entirely of still images: aerial photographs sourced from British Petroleum’s archives, personal photos of the filmmaker’s family, photos taken by a British geologist on assignment in Iran and even paintings and hand-drawn notes. Pennell narrates the film with a somber voice that reflects the stoicism of the material. She studies the transformation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company into BP, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh’s strong stance for the nationalization of the oil industry, and the infamous 1953 coup, in which Britain, with the aid of the American government, toppled Mossadegh to deliver full power to the Shah.

Pennell’s study is a snapshot of a specific moment in Iranian history, but a critical one that shaped the country and the region’s future for decades to come. Her lens is politically impartial and visually fascinated by the sinuous milieus of the oil fields. Thus, her research results in a rare entity, a devastating, meticulously researched film that allows access to previously hidden archival material, and an insight into the inner workings of the British colonial project in Iran.

The most fascinating juncture in the film is the discovery of letters sent from British dignitaries in Iran back to the British government, reporting their findings about Iran and its inhabitants. The episode reveals the explicit racism and disregard for Iranian culture and identity among the British and the ruthlessness with which they usurped Iranian properties. Pennell stops short of adding her commentary throughout the film, always maintaining a distance to her findings. Yet, the striking final shot of The Host, a brief sojourn to a photo of three African labourers working on another colonized field, equates her perspective with that her of audience. It’s a definitive political statement from the filmmaker, and one that elevates her work from a methodical research project to a profound treatise on colonialism.

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Episode #14: CineIran Festival of Toronto

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Welcome to episode #14 of the podcast. After a four-month delay, we finally return to discuss a new festival in our hometown of Toronto, dedicated entirely to contemporary Iranian films. The inaugural edition of CineIran Festival of Toronto was held on the final weekend of November. The festival, which is a volunteer effort by a group of Iranian-Canadian cinephiles, was the initiative of Amir Ganjavie, who has brought countless Iranian films to Toronto’s screens in the past. He serves as CIFT’s senior programmer and CEO, and our own Amir Soltani is the festival’s artistic director.

Amir Soltani (Left) during an on stage interview with director Shahram mokri and actress shadi karamroudi
Amir Soltani (Left) during an on stage interview with director Shahram mokri and actress shadi karamroudi

In this conversation, Amir talks about the beginnings of the festival and its mission to present a comprehensive cross-section of contemporary Iranian cinema across genres. We discuss the challenges and future of the festival, the community’s positive reception of the event, and the festival’s guests in Toronto, including Sareh Bayat (A Separation), Shahram Mokri (Fish & Cat) and Hamed Behdad (Crime). Finally, we discuss some of the twelve films that played during the festival, including Oblivion Season featuring a brilliant performance from Bayat, the ensemble comedy I am Diego Maradona, buzzy festival hits such as I Want to Be a King and 316, and the winner of Iranian Critics’ Association prize for best film, What’s the Time in Your World?. Make sure to check back in the future for links to where these films will be available to watch online.

You can download an .mp3 version of this episode here, or subscribe to our show on iTunes.

Schedule
Opening 0:00-1:45
Introducing CineIran Festival of Toronto: Program and Scheduling 1:45-10:10
Reception, Future and Challenges of the Festival 10:10-20:50
Safi Yazdanian’s What’s the Time in Your World? 20:50-32:10
Sareh Bayat in Oblivion Season 32:10-40:25
Bahram Tavakoli’s I am Diego Maradona 40:25-48:15
Shahram Mokri’s Innovative Storytelling 48:15-54:50
Hooman Seyedi’s Confessions of My Dangerous Mind and Genre Filmmaking in Iran 54:50-1:00:55
The Best of Non-Fiction Iranian Film: 316 and I Want to Be a King 1:00:55-1:06:50
Jameh-Daraan: A Period Piece 1:06:50-1:11:30

Works Cited
CIFT’s website
Music: “Sonatine” by Maziar Heidari

Interview: Aref Mohammadi on His Career in Writing, Film Distribution and Documentary Cinema

For the Iranian community in Toronto, Aref Mohammadi is a recognizable figure. Through his various ventures such as “New Wave Cultural and Artistic Group” and “Fantasia Pictures,” as well as his film writing, he has contributed to the vibrant cinephile culture among the city’s Iranians. He has organized workshops, celebrations and film screenings. More recently, however, his documentary film, A Survivor From Magadan, has become quite a sensation. The film follows the life of Ata Safavi, an Iranian who spent decades in a Soviet prison camp on nebulous charges. His story of resilience and survival took him from the north of Iran to Russia, Tajikstan and, in the last years of his, Toronto, where Aref Mohammadi met him. In the following conversation, Aref discusses his career across the film world and over the years in Iran, Germany and Canada.

Aref Mohammadi
Aref Mohammadi

Amir Soltani: For readers who might be unfamiliar with your work, where would you say your career in cinema started?

Aref Mohammadi: In elementary school before the revolution, I had an Iraqi teacher who taught us theatre. It was in Karaj, and at a time when teaching theatre to third graders was unheard of. All through my school years, and before I really got into writing, I was an actor. We studied literature and Iranian texts. The first book I read was Samad Behrangi’s Little Black Fish. I went on to study literature in university. Theatre and literature had gotten into my blood by then and when I couldn’t get into film school, I decided to study Persian literature instead. Later, I passed a two-year filmmaking course at the Young Society of Filmmakers in Karaj and started making short films.

AS: Is the Young Society still active in Iran? I know many Iranian filmmakers who got their starts there.

AM: Yes, and it was our only resource for filmmaking then. They would give us the 8mm cameras and laboratory space. I made some short films and then entered theatre in 1986 as an assistant director. I met Mehran Modiri there; he was the composer for a play called Uncle Alexander’s Watch by Hassan Moshkelati. Then came another play called Slowly with a Rose. I learned a lot from these plays, but my real passion was cinema. I found my way into Samuel Khachikian’s office and I would sit there for hours just listening to everyone, hoping that one day Mr. Khachikian would tell me to join him on set, which never happened until he passed away. Later, through a friend, I became the second assistant to a director named Masoud Navayi on his film, The Years of Longing, starring Bijan Emkanian and Fariborz Arabnia. I was just beginning to make connections in the industry when my immigration to Germany happened. It was 1993. I started a TV show there called Film & Cinema where I analyzed films and film history for Persian speakers in Germany. When I moved to Canada about four years later, I started a similar show on Canada’s City TV. The community started knowing my film work through this, as well as written journalism for the Iranian media in Toronto. I covered all festivals like TIFF and Hot Docs.

AS: That’s really valuable work. It’s important to get the city’s Iranians in touch with the cultural events outside of the community itself, to introduce them to non-Iranian works.

AM: I agree. That’s why I started “New Wave Cultural and Artistic Group” in 2004. The idea behind this group was to familiarize Iranians with independent and niche cinemas. I started the first filmmaking workshops for Toronto’s Iranian community and brought educated, talented artists to teach the classes, like Levon Haftvan, Mahmoud Khoshchehreh and others. New Wave mostly operates as a workshop organization and hosts celebrations, of artists like Behrouz Vossoughi (his first one), Jafar Vali, Mahin Oskouyi and Reza Jian. Recently we had workshops by Asghar Farhadi and Mostafa Kherghepoosh. These things take a lot of work and financial muscle, which we don’t have, but I’d love to make these events more consistent. It’s a volunteer effort, really. Luckily, we’ve had really good reception so far. I believe cinema can educate people. It can become a useful tool, provided you choose the right films. That’s very important for me. The films I work with have to be thought provoking. The patrons expect me to show them the right things and not waste their time too. My personal taste usually veers towards films that bring together critics and mass audiences, not necessarily arthouse films. I like filmmakers like Farhadi who connect different audiences.

AS: I’ve said that to Mr. Farhadi in my interview with him, and filmmakers like that in Iran are rare. Rakhshan Bani-etemad is like that.

AM: And Dariush Mehrjui, of course. Parviz Shahbazi is doing that now, well-made films that audiences also enjoy, with Deep Breath or Darband. This was also somewhat prevalent in the Golden Age of Iranian cinema, which I think of as the mid-80s to the late 90s. Because the efforts of filmmakers and institutions like Farabi paid off in bringing some of the dormant filmmakers out of inactivity after the revolution. Suddenly, Nasser Taghvayi was making Captain Khorshid; Massoud Kimiayi’s best post-revolutionary works were Snake’s Fang and Lead. Mehrjui made The Tenants and Hamoun. Bahram Beizayi made Bashu, the Little Stranger. These were veteran voices that restarted their careers and a new “new wave” after the revolution. Then came Bani-Etemad’s The Blue Veiled and then the baton was passed to people like Farhadi and Shahbazi and Panahi. Unfortunately, the long downward spiral began right around the mid-2000s after the end of Khatami’s presidency.

AS: And the big festivals aren’t showing Iranian films anymore. I know Taxi won Berlin this year, but that’s really an anomaly. Even The Paternal House isn’t a match for Kianoush Ayari’s best films. Exciting voices are rare. I like Shahram Mokri a lot, for example, but there are only a handful of filmmakers like him.

AM: Yes, compare Paternal House to Ayari’s own Beyond the Fire, for example, to see the slide.

AS: To be fair, Beyond the Fire is one of the best films ever made. Few films are comparable, but the decline is real. So much has to change in Iranian cinema for it to reverse its fortunes. It’s not just about the talent, because the talent is there but we’re talking about systemic problems. Consider that the most recent numbers suggest there are only 320 theatres in Iran, a country of nearly 80 million people. How is this industry supposed to sustain itself?

AM: Quite a lot of ground up work has to be done before things can improve. The financial support is being given to cheap comedies that don’t add anything to the cultural conversation. Yet, that’s what sells, and unfortunately everybody else struggles. That’s why I think we have to treasure filmmakers like Farhadi who make terrific films that can also sell. That’s what this cinema really needs.

AS: The aforementioned Paternal House has this merit as well, if it had been allowed to be screened in theatres. People actually wanted to see it, and that’s very important in Iran at the moment.

AM: If you look at the history of our cinema, our arthouse and independent cinemas have always depended on the generosity of government subsidies or individual contributions of wealthy cinephiles and institutions. You look at a film like Parviz Kimiavi’s The Mongols, one of the best films of all time. I’ve written about this before. When it was originally screened in a theatre in Tehran before the revolution, the screen next door was showing Reza Beik Imanverdi’s Righteous Words. The lineup for this film ran kilometers long, and only twenty people watched The Mongols, who later ripped seat covers and demanded their money back. There are some films that just cannot be made without independent support because they don’t sell, so that’s why I emphasize so much on the overlap between commerce and art in films.

Ata safavi on the set of a survivor from magadan
Ata safavi on the set of a survivor from magadan

AS: The infrastructure of the industry has to be shaped so that the whole range of films can be produced within it. You’ve made some efforts in bringing Iranian films and screening them commercially in Toronto, through your new venture Fantasia Pictures. That’s been a successful effort because the films are artistically valuable, but also everything has sold full houses. I want to talk to you about your own filmmaking career now, and your incredible documentary, A Survivor from Magadan. How did you find Doctor Safavi?

AM: I read an interview with him in Shahrvand magazine back in 2010, titled “No
One Grows Old in Magadan.” I later read his autobiographical book of the same name, but at first glance, my impression was that Magadan is an island where everyone is so happy, they stay young. I was shocked when I learned the truth, and then I found out he lived in Toronto. To be honest, my first impetus to make the film was simply to ask him why he never committed suicide. Of the 3,000 prisoners who were there with him, only 200 remained after ten years, and most had committed suicide. One of the texts that has heavily influenced me is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I automatically compared Safavi with Frankl and couldn’t stop connecting aspects of the concept of logotherapy with Safavi’s story. Incidentally, when I spoke with Safavi, I found that he’s a very distant relative of mine. I spent a whole year and built a friendship with him; I got to the bottom of his story. He was accompanying me everywhere during that year. Later, I told him I wanted to make a film about him. I wanted this to be recorded as part of Iranian history and he appreciated it a lot. At the time, I had financing issues for the film and I couldn’t wait for a grant because Safavi’s physical conditions was poor. I wasn’t sure how much time I had so I poured everything into the film and financed it myself. My cinematographer, Yadi Shahbazi helped me a lot. He volunteered himself. I travelled to Iran and Tajikstan and met his old friends and his sister. I really wanted to visit Magadan, which is now in the ruins. I dreamed of taking him there, but it wasn’t possible. It would have been interesting to see him react to that environment after all these years. I had to start using archives instead, and I reconstructed reality with animation. We also substituted some places of the story with locations scouted in Toronto.

AS: Did he get to watch the film?

AM: Unfortunately, no. He was suffering severely from cancer so he couldn’t even sit. He only saw the film’s poster and hung it up on his bedroom wall.

AS: Which part of cinema satisfies you most? Writing books about film, making films, distributing them? You sound equally passionate about getting people to watch films that you like and making films yourself.

AM: What an interesting question! They’re so closely connected for me. In writing critiques, the best part for me is the discovery; getting around to a filmmaker without expectations before everybody else does. I brought Farhadi’s Beautiful City to Toronto when he was still relatively young. I published a piece about Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s first film. It feels like you’re unearthing a gem, even if other critics have gotten around just about the same.

AS: I know the feeling. Everyone’s talking about Arabian Nights this year and I’ve been following Miguel Gomes since Entretanto, which I think is his first short film, and I’ve been tooting his horn since then.

AM: That’s the best part, when everyone finally comes around to a filmmaker you like. That, and interviewing my favourite filmmakers and talking to them about what I like their film and getting to hear them about their process. In filmmaking, I’ve only directed documentaries so far, and the exciting part for me has been seeing the reaction of the audience. I sit in the theatre every time it’s being screened at a new festival, and I’m anxious every time. Just the technical aspect of a film being screened without problem makes me nervous enough.

AS: And you always worry that the festival experience, which might not be ideal, leaves a bad impression on the audience that can never be changed.

AM: There are so many different angles to it. The mere act of judging a film is not easy at all. I swing back and forth in my opinions of some films and I’m a professional critic. Of course, there are masterpieces that you fall in love with on the first try. Often when I change my opinion on a film, it’s because of high expectations. A favourite director whose film lets me down initially before I warm to it.

AS: Can you tell our readers about the upcoming Biennale where your film is being exhibited?

AM: Professor Atabaki, from the Centre for Iranian Studies in the Netherlands called me and said he was interested in watching Magadan after coming across clips of it on youtube. They told me they’d selected the film for a screening at the biennale for Iranian studies. The event changes location for every edition; this time it’s in Vienna. They also asked me to enter the film into the national archive of Soviet documents, which is an incredible achievement.

Aref mohammadi and ata safavi on the set of the film
Aref mohammadi and ata safavi on the set of the film

AS: It’s a very powerful film. It’s impossible for me to imagine a viewer can be unaffected by it. It’s truly a universal, transcendent experience.

AM: The thing that was important for me as the maker of this film was to convey the message the political ideology of this person is in the end irrelevant. This isn’t a political film; it’s a story of perseverance and humanity. One thing that makes me proud about the film is that I’ve had complete strangers email me after watching it and tell me how it changed their lives and their outlook. One woman, who had seen the film completely by coincidence told me in an email that nothing had brought as much positivity to her life as this film, because her difficulties paled in comparison to Safavi’s story. Ideologies have an expiry date; they don’t last. Humanity remains forever.

AS: I want to talk to you about Toronto before we wrap up. I’m proud to live in this great city, and I think especially for the Iranian community, it has become a really fertile intellectual ground. Few cities outside of Iran contribute as much to Iranian culture at the moment. As someone who’s travelled around the world and is active in promoting Iranian culture, how do you see the city and its future? I feel like Toronto will, if it hasn’t already, overtake California as the cultural centre for Iranian diaspora.

AM: Well, a lot of Iranians who come here from Europe or the States, say the community here is completely different. The reception for cultural and artistic events is very warm. One reason for it is that Iranians in places like California have a more distant relationship with Iran. They haven’t lived in Iran since the revolution and the circumstances under which they left the country also contributes to that. Many of them left against their will, so that contributes to the detachment they sometimes want to maintain with that culture.

AS: As opposed to Toronto’s Iranian community which is definitely established, but also continuously growing. There’s a lot of back and forth with modern Iran and its contemporary culture. We’re more “up to date,” so to speak. And a more representative population too, in terms of religion, ethnicity and educational and financial background. Iranians of all social strata can be found in Toronto, for better and for worse, to be honest. And there are even opportunities for Iranians here that don’t exist in Iran. Think, for example, of Shahrokh Moshkinghalam’s works that cannot be performed in Iran, but we have the privilege of seeing them here live. In terms of access, vibrancy and activity, in both creating and promoting culture, Toronto’s very unique.

AM: Or even screening a film like Reza Dormishian’s I’m Not Angry, which we just did here. That film is still banned. Moshkinghalam, and biannual Tirgan festival where he performs in Toronto, is a good example. It is quite literally unique, in terms of its wide scope and the number of patrons it attracts. If the support is there, the potential is never ending. Unfortunately, the Iranian community is not as supportive of art and culture as it should be. As in our film industry, our immigrant community hasn’t yet found the right balance between art and commerce. We have a lot of talented artists and even more successful business-minded people, but they really have to come together. Iranians are, historically speaking, artistically inclined. It’s in our blood to be multi-hyphenates. In my art workshops, more than 70% of the participants are engineers and doctors and businesspeople, who are also talented and interested in a variety of arts. But the financial support has to be there too, as well as concrete and organized plans to create and support culture. It’s a two-way relationship. Both groups need the support of the other and they can mutually thrive. The groundwork is there in Toronto. Concerts, galleries, film screenings, plays, all across the range, from commercial to sophisticated works of art, all sell out here. It just needs to be concentrated.

Iran Submits “Muhammad, The Messenger of God” for Oscar Consideration

Iran’s Oscar submission committee announced today that Majid Majidi’s Muhammad, the Messenger of God will be sent to the Academy for consideration in the best foreign language film category. The news is not a surprise to anyone who has been following Iranian cinema for the past year. Despite some strong competition from arthouse titles that had premiered at international festivals—including Melbourne, Fish & Cat, and What’s the Time in Your World?—the most expensive film in Iranian history was never going to be overlooked.

Majidi has pedigree with the Academy. His films have been submitted on four previous occasions, the first of which resulted in Iran’s first Oscar nomination back in 1998 for Children of Heaven. His latest film has been a topic of intense conversation and controversy since its production was announced. As the first part of a planned trilogy, Muhammad covers the first twelve years of the life of the prophet of Islam, and has caused a stir in Sunni Muslim countries, where depictions of the prophet are strictly prohibited.

Majidi’s epic reportedly cost around $40m, and boasts an impressive array of talent behind and in front of the camera. Oscar winners like cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Reds), composer A. R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) and visual effects supervisor Scott E. Anderson (Babe) are joined by an impressive cast of Iranian stars that includes the likes of Sareh Bayat and Mehdi Pakdel. Yet, the film’s Oscar chances appear to be minimal. Whereas Iranian audiences have rewarded the film with the country’s highest opening weekend box office of all time and continue to fill the theaters, foreign critics seem less enamored. Variety, reviewing the film after its Montreal Film Festival international premiere, called it a “dull” and “lumbering” and reminiscent of 1950s Hollywood epics. Oscar has not been in the mood for such historical fare in a long time.

Episode #13: “Paternal House” and Mainstream Iranian Cinema

Welcome to episode #13 of the podcast. We are joined again by Corey Atad, who previously appeared on our fourth episode to discuss Still Life. Today’s topic of conversation is The Paternal House (Khane-ye Pedari), the long-awaited latest film from veteran director Kianoush Ayari. Although Ayari’s name and, by extension, his films, are not familiar to non-Iranian cinephiles, he’s become one of the most respected figures in the Iranian industry since the 1980s. Any new film by him would be greeted with enthusiasm in Iran, though The Paternal House‘s troubled history certainly added to the intrigue.

                           Kiyanoush Ayari (left) on the set of The Paternal House
                           Kiyanoush Ayari (left) on the set of The Paternal House

Ayari’s films have rarely seen the light of day since the turn of the century — 1998’s To Be Or Not to Be was his last publicly released feature. The Paternal House had been ready for several years before it was finally screened this year, only to be removed from the theatres within the first week of its release. Its confrontational violence, the radical tone of its feminism and Ayari’s admirable resolve to keep the film intact meant that this bitter, profound and absurdly comic melodrama is resigned to an unfortunate fate on the illegal market. Join us for a conversation about the film’s considerable merits, a short overview of Ayari’s career, the current condition of mainstream Iranian film and, finally, some speculation about Farhadi’s Spanish next film, produced by none other than Pedro Almodovar.

Schedule
Introduction 0:00-1:40
The cinema of Kianoush Ayari 1:40-7:50
The Paternal House: violence and comedy 7:50-18:10
Melodrama with an Iranian flavour 18:10-23:04
A sociopolitical reading of the film 23:05-31:45
Today’s mainstream Iranian cinema 31:45-37:07
Asghar Farhadi’s collaboration with Pedro Almodovar 37:07-43:58

You can download an .mp3 version of this episode here, or subscribe to our show on iTunes.

Works Cited
Kianoush Ayari’s The Paternal House (imdb)
Music: “Sonatine” by Maziar Heidari

Dariush Mehrjui’s “The Cow” and the Birth of Iranian New Wave

*This piece was originally written by Amir Soltani for Movie Mezzanine.

While Iranian films have screened at festivals as early as 1958–Samuel Khachikian’s Party in Hell played in competition at the 8th Berlinale–few cinephiles engaged with these films as part of a national cinema. Abbas Kiarostami’s work changed that in the late 1980s, and the films of directors like Jafar Panahi and the Makhmalbaf family followed suit. Yet this newfound prominence on the international scene triggered little interest in the history of this national cinema.

During the first decades of film production in Iran, cinemas were dominated by song-and-dance action and comedy films that were poor in technique and disposable in content. The screens were filled with showboating tough guys and women who traversed the Madonna-whore spectrum overnight. The Iranian New Wave evolved as the artistic, sophisticated response to the artificiality of this cinema. Some consider the earliest entry in the movement to be Farrokh Ghaffary’s neorealist 1958 film, South of the City, a truthful portrayal of poverty in Tehran. Then, throughout the 1960s, came the films of key figures such as Ebrahim Golestan (Mudbrick and Mirror), Hajir Dariush (Serpent’s Skin) and Parviz Kimiavi (Garden of Stones) and the seminal documentary The House Is Black by modernist poet Forough Farrokhzad.

These directors’ films hailed from the fabric of Iranian culture. Formally ambitious and thematically curious, they depicted the realities of rural life and drew inspiration from Persian poetry and literature. If these filmmakers sowed the seeds of change, their efforts fully blossomed with two films made in 1969: Masoud Kimiayi’s Gheysar and Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow. The latter is most commonly, and rather generously, credited with beginning the New Wave.

Mehrjui has since proved to be one of the industry’s most enduring figures, but his films have rarely traveled outside of Iran, often because their strengths are too firmly tied to their untranslatable cultural specificity. Yet, his mark on Iranian cinema is visible, whether through direct parallels between his work and that of later filmmakers–Farhadi’s A Separation is immensely indebted to Mehrjui’s Hamoun–or broader influences, such as the myriad of comedy TV series that drew inspiration from his social satire The Tenants.

Still, Mehrjui’s crowning achievement, and that of the Iranian New Wave, remains The Cow. So significant was this film that it was reported Ayatollah Khomeini’s admiration for it made him reluctant to impose a ban on cinema after the Islamic revolution, believing that the art form could become an instrument of truth and reach sublimity in the mold of films like The Cow.

Adapted from a short story by leftist writer, Gholamhossein Saedi, The Cow is about Mash Hassan (Ezatollah Entezami), the owner of his village’s only cow. His connection to this prized possession transcends that of an owner and his animal, and is known to the whole village. So when the animal dies under mysterious circumstances while Hassan is away on an overnight affair, the village bonds together to lie about her fate. Hassan doesn’t believe their story that the pregnant cow has escaped. He sits on the roof of a building overlooking the desert, waiting for her return. As he begins to lose hope, he slowly morphs into his cow, eating her hay, making her noises, and calling for Hassan to save her from the cruelty of men.

The Cow is a richly layered film. Mehrjui thinks of it as a philosophical exercise not unlike The Metamorphosis, but there is a specifically Iranian angle at play, influenced by the Sufi beliefs of unity between lover and muse. Mehrjui’s background in philosophy allowed him to infuse Saedi’s original text with mysticism, but the film was nevertheless read politically. As Mehrjui relates in his book-length interview with actor/director Mani Haghighi, the country’s situation at the time was such that politics could not be evaded among the intelligentsia and artists. But interpreting The Cow politically wasn’t just a sign of the times.

In the words of film critic Hamidreza Sadr, this was “the first Iranian film to deal with the small-scale, the unredeemed and the unheroic.” And at a time when the Shah of Iran wanted cinema to project a modern, urban and opulent image of the country, The Cow was a shocking outlier. It was banned and released only on the condition that an opening text be added to explain that the film’s event took place four decades earlier. But audiences were smart enough to recognize the familiar bitterness of rural poverty.

The allegories hit close to home. The absence of the cow threatened the sanity of her owner and the livelihood of the village. The similarities were laid bare between Hassan and the Shah, whose insecurities about the dependence of Iran’s economy on oil were palpable. The three dark figures in the distance that strike fear in the hearts of the villagers symbolized the intense paranoia and oppression that swept through the country in the years leading up to the revolution. The film contains a self-awareness about these strangers, the Bolooriha, or “the Crystallines,” as their vague, ominous presence contradicts the crystal-clear connotation of their name.

Mehrjui’s film resonated with audiences because it tapped into the sociopolitical atmosphere of the era and remained authentic to aspects of Iranian society that mainstream cinema did not. Its financial success affirmed the interest of audiences in rural stories that constituted a large portion of arthouse cinema over the next several decades. The Cow cemented the platform for implicit opposition and dissidence through cinema, a brand of social critique masked as humanist drama with which Iranian cinema was widely associated during the 1990s. That the film remains largely undiscovered internationally is disheartening, but its lasting influence on Iranian cinema is a feat unparalleled by any other film. For Mehrjui, that is perhaps the highest reward.

Episode #12: Secrets and Lies in Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly

Welcome to episode #12 of the Hello Cinema Podcast. We’re back after a one month hiatus to discuss Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (Darbare-ye Elly, 2009), finally released in North America last month (through Cinema Guild) after a six year delay. he film, for which Farhadi won a best director prize in Berlin, is a particular favourite of Hello Cinema. Tina, as you already know, has written a book about Farhadi’s work and is understandably fond of this film. I admit, at the risk of spoiling an upcoming list, that I consider it the best Iranian film made in the 21st century.

Taraneh Alidoosti as Elly in About Elly Taraneh Alidoosti as Elly in About Elly

About Elly is a unique export for the Iranian film industry because it is a story about middle class characters. Farhadi’s film is at stark contrast to all the Iranian films that have been widely screened outside of the country and have become critically acclaimed over the years. We speak about this depiction of the lifestyle of young, middle-class Iranians, about the formal vigor of Farhadi’s direction and the structural complexity of his screenplay, and about the work of the performers in what is truly one of the strongest ensembles ever put on the silver screen. If you haven’t yet seen the film, we advise you to do so before listening to this episode.

Schedule
Opening 0:00-1:30
About Elly‘s release history 1:31-5:20
Ruptured structure: Farhadi’s storytelling genius 5:21-12:45
An impressive formal exercise 12:46-17:50
The ensemble 17:51-24:10
The Iranian middle class on screen 24:10-33:55
Closing 33:56-35:35

You can download an .mp3 version of this episode here, or subscribe to our show on iTunes.

Works Cited
About Elly (imdb, Cinema Guild)
Tina Hassannia’s Asghar Farhadi: Life and Cinema (
The Critical Press, Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, TIFF Lightbox Shop)
Music: “Sonatine” by Maziar Heidari

From Pop Films to Exile Cinemas: A Conversation about Iranian Film History with Hamid Naficy

[Editor’s Note: Corrections and amendments were made to this transcript on March 15th, 2015.]

Hamid Naficy’s four volume book, “A Social History of Iranian Cinema”, has come to be recognized as the definitive text on Iranian films since its publication four years ago. The collection was more than three decades in the making and its arrival filled a big void in the study of Iranian cinema. We have referenced the books, as well as Mr. Naficy’s other works several times on our podcast, so we were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with him about his work and Iranian cinema. The conversation below took place on March 7th, during TIFF Cinematheque’s “I For Iran: A History of Iranian Cinema by Its Creators” series, where Mr. Naficy was introducing Ovanes Ohanians’s Mr. Haji, Movie Actor (Haji Agha, Actor-e Cinema, 1933) and Sohrab Shahid Saless’s Still Life (Tabiat-e Bijaan, 1974) which we have already discussed on the podcast.

Hamid Naficy
Hamid Naficy

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Amir: When you started your book, did you think of it as the definitive text that it has become, or did you think it would cover the entire history of Iranian cinema? Tell us a little bit about its evolution.

Hamid: It was very haphazard in a way. It began with an article I wrote on documentary films, which I published in Jump Cut, the radical US leftist film magazine, and then another article on Iranian fiction films for Quarterly Review of Film Studies. It began with those two, but maybe even earlier. It began in 1975 when I was in Iran for a few years between 1973 and 1978, and I was part of the group that created the Free University of Iran – Daneshgaah-e Azad-e Iran. At the time I was working there, I was also teaching a documentary film course at the National Iranian Radio and Television College of Cinema and Television – Madrese-ye Aali-e Cinema va Television. During teaching that year I realized that there was no text on documentary film in Persian, so I began working on that. I produced a two-volume book on the topic, Film-e Mostanad (Documentary Film), which the publishing house of the Free University of Iran published. It contained many pictures, almost all of the ones for the Iranian cinema part of it I had obtained by using physical frame enlargements from the 35mm in our laboratories. They were beautiful. Other publishers wouldn’t publish so many pictures but my university, which had the largest publishing house in the country then did it. It immediately became really popular. It came out during the revolution and by then I’d already left Iran but I heard from everybody who had taken film courses that the book sold out and it was still in use 20 years later. That became the germination of my efforts to do a book in English on Iranian cinema. My contract for this book was for one volume with Duke University Press and I have to hand it to them for rolling with the project. When it became large and I thought it was going to be two volumes or maybe more, they said “well, this is a lifetime’s work and it’s not gonna be repeated easily so we’re going to go with it. We’ll raise funds for it through our own sources and you raise extra funds. We both did. The whole object of it was to have the books be affordable by students, so the idea was that each volume should be less than $30, so all four would be less than $100. They lived up to that and they did a great design.

Amir: Iranian cinema really evolved as you were in the process of writing and you stuck with it. How frustrating was it to leave the project in 2010?

Hamid: The hardest part and perhaps part of the success of the volumes is that I wanted to have this not just be a chronological retelling of the best films made or the greatest directors. I wanted to have some theoretical and methodological approach that was consistent throughout the volumes. One of these, for example, was the importance of cinema as an agent of modernity and modernization. That line runs through all four volumes, and it also helps to then sift through all the developments that relate to this theory. Or the idea of how cinema brought about individuation amongst the spectators through its narrative style. Or the impact on cinema of the Iranian and Islamic traditions, not just oral, but also other traditions like Ta’ziyeh or Rowzeh-khaani or poetic traditions. All of these are incorporated in the films and the film industry in various ways. I wanted to show how Iranian cinema would be distinguished from Mexican or Arabic cinemas which come from different cultural beddings. I also wanted to show that Iranian cinema was from the beginning multicultural and transnational. That’s a line that goes through all of the history and now we have a huge diaspora of Iranians producing a variety of films. Even the Iranian diaspora itself is multicultural. It isn’t just Muslim, for example. In fact, at one point Iranian ethnoreligious minorities probably dominated in the diaspora.  Islam also had a major impact on cinema, the representation of women, the presence of women in cinema. It was all very complicated; and we see these factors related to women and cinema during the Qajar period and then again in the Islamic period. All of this gave continuity to the book. It was an incredible process.

Tina: What has your experience been seeing people outside of Iran in Western countries delve into Iranian cinema as a point of academic study, both compared to how it’s academically treated inside Iran and also to critics in the West and the way that they interpret and process Iranian cinema. These are three different groups of people all going after the same thing with different access levels and different visions.

Hamid: A study of Iranian cinema is always haunted by the specter of the revolution and the hostage crisis; by that I mean the history of study of Iranian cinema in the West. That revolution and the hostage crisis afterwards unfortunately forever marked Iranians as a certain kind of society; a fundamentalist, irrational, uneducated mass of people with their fists in the air shouting stereotypical things like “Death to America” and “Death to Carter”. That partly coloured how the media in the West and academics thought about Iran. On the one hand, these Westerners were affected by it. On the other hand, the critics and festival curators and academics wanted to see and show the opposite. There was an effort through programming and curating film festivals and through academic writing and film criticism to celebrate Iranian cinema more than it perhaps deserved, because the art cinema went against all the expectations of a political Iran. “If it’s so backward, then look at all the films they’re making, look at how clever and well made they are, how enigmatic and poetic they are.” It’s very hard to separate the quality of Iranian films and the reception of them from that political background.  A nation’s political notoriety beings automatic attention abroad to the works of its artists, especially the works of those who critique the state.

Tina: It’s not like there was really much interest before all of these events took place. Film scholars weren’t really talking about Iranian cinema in the 1960s.

Amir: And when every few years or so something would premiere at a festival but it wouldn’t start a current to study these films as part of a national cinema.

Hamid: Yes, Iranian cinema wasn’t considered a national cinema before the revolution, it was just the authorial cinema that outsiders were interested in, like the films of Mehrjui’s or Kimiavi.  But now the quantity of art house cinema after the revolution has increased so much as to constitute a kind of ‘national cinema’.  The other thing was the impetus within the Iranian film culture to want to reach out to the world and not to be locked in within the Islamic Republic’s domain, so filmmakers participated in film festivals. It’s also part of globalization. As the number of film festivals increased, people began to invite these filmmakers and they and their films traveled abroad extensively. Each time that one of the filmmakers was held at the airport or didn’t get a passport, that became the news. There were controversies from Iranians in exile as well. On the one hand, exiles contributed to the popularity of Iranian cinema, because suddenly you had hundreds of thousands of Iranians abroad who clamored to the movies to see Iranian films, so they provided audiences. On the other hand, those Iranians who had left the country during the revolution as exiles and were opposed to the Islamic Republic (some of them in the film business), took an oppositional stance to the postrevolution films. They made these festivals controversial. That also contributed to the recognition of Iranian cinema. I had my own experiences with these people.

Amir: This mixing of politics and cinema is something we are still not rid of. You think of how this year’s win for Taxi at Berlin was received here and in Iran and it’s impossible to find an article that talks about the news of its win and doesn’t mention anything about the filmmaker and his political situation. Perhaps because of these politics, one of the things I always come across with people interested in Iranian cinema is their curiosity about two particular areas of Iranian film history: the New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s and the Golden age of the 1990s. Where would you direct them next? What’s the blind spot that compels you the most?

Hamid: That’s a good question. One area which is just beginning to gain interest among scholars is the popular films of the second Pahlavi period, the 1950s-60s. There are two sub-genres, of which the main category would be filmfarsi. That itself could be divided into the jaheli or looti films (“tough guy films”) and the other would be the stewpot films, or abgooshti. These have been less studied and by and large have been disdained by Iranian critics. Almost all the pre-revolution critics and, even more so, post-revolution ones condemned these films because they were considered to be formulaic, badly made and popular with less educated people and lower classes and full of sex and violence. The nomenclature, too, filmfarsi, is somewhat pejorative. But I think gradually people are getting to see what’s special about them. In fact, I think that these two sub-genres are the most “Iranian” of all films.

L to r: NAsser Malek Moti'i, Fardin and BEhrouz Vosoughi, the three biggest stars of Pre-revolutionary Iranian Cinema
L to r: NAsser Malek Moti’i, Fardin and BEhrouz Vosoughi, the three biggest stars of Pre-revolutionary Iranian Cinema

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Tina: Why do you think there is now more of an interest in these films?

Hamid: I think it’s a generational difference. Almost all of the older critics like Hooshang Kavoosi and so forth who were disdainful of this type of film have gone. A new interest in pop culture has come to be. It’s not just intellectual culture and intellectual literature anymore but pop culture, pop music, pop film, pop things in general.

Amir: It’s happening recently here as well. You think of people studying something like “vulgar auteurism” and the growing interest in things that aren’t considered high culture. I find that there’s this public perception, not critical, that these films were all the same in Iran. I know of concerted efforts in Iran to make collections and preserve some of these films. I was able to purchase a few on the so-called “free black market” in Iran recently. I bought Fardin’s films and Froouzan’s. They’re not the same thing at all. There’s this misconception about abgooshti films all being same, but that’s not true. There’s a lot of interesting things going on.

Hamid: There are certain things that give these films a certain narrative and stylistic patterns, which interestingly are derived from Iranian oral tradition. If you look at oral traditions before writing, in order to remember things people developed a culture that included the use of well known phrases, sayings (masal) and the sort of things that we still use in Iran all the time. These masal were used creatively by poets. In fact, the art of poetry had to do with how well they put together these well known phrases differently from other people. So they used the building blocks that everybody knew because everybody had passed on these things to each other orally but they would artfully combine them to create new utterances. During Homeric times, a similar kind of oral culture was in existence, so repetition and rhythmic iteration of existing building blocks and stereotypical characters and icons became an important part of many Iranian arts—music, tilework, handicraft, carpets, poetry, theater, and now cinema. The other important factor in Iranian art and cinema was improvisation and the third factor the presence of audiences who would by their own reaction encourage the poet or the performer to continue along this line or that line. You still see some of this behavior among certain people who go to the movies. Even in the US, if you go with a group of African American audiences to a black film, you will see them talking to the movie a lot more than white audiences, because there’s that oral tradition of speaking back at the preacher, at the poet, a sort of call and response aesthetics. If you go to the church the same kinds of interaction is going on. If you go to a poetry session in Iran right now, when someone is reciting poetry, everyone is going “bah bah, aali gofti” (Wow, you said it beautifully.) They encourage interactivity. If you look at Iranian genre films such as, filmfarsi, a lot of the stories are along these lines. They’re familiar and have come down to Iranians from texts like Shahnama and the characters are typical. They’re not individual. The jahel is a jahel. I cite situations in my book for a film that involves, say, Fardin or Malekmoti’i, one of the character actors of these filmfarsis, and the director says, “well, you know what a luti does. You should act in this film the way that you acted in that film,” so Fardin already knows his role very well and he doesn’t need to be given a script. Not only is the improvisation an oral tradition that is part of the acting and storytelling, but also part of the filmmaking. A number of these filmfarsi filmmakers were not professionals. They were not educated, hadn’t even finished high school in some cases, let alone having gone to film schools. So they would not have a script ready for shooting. They would come and ask Fardin to do Fardin and Malekmoti’i to do Malekmoti’i and they didn’t need to have a dialogue written for them. Everybody was ready to improvise. The camera people would set things up right there and then. That’s why there are mistakes in these films, like entering from this door and exiting from the same one. Things like that don’t make sense logically. It’s because they’re improvised, with the resulting discontinuity. You could say that these are bad filmmakers, but you could also say they’re following a different logic of filmmaking. It’s important to not just focus on the films as texts but also on the production process itself, which often times determines what the text will turn out to be.

Amir: It’s interesting that the form and content of these films engaged with each other in a way that encouraged that type of DIY, artisanal filmmaking to flourish. Maybe the industry was artisanal and the necessary production values were not in place to make better films, but many cultural elements encouraged the filmmakers to be artisanal as well.

Hamid: That’s why I think you have to look at cinema not as an imposition from some other place, especially in a country like Iran where cinema really dates to the very beginning, to see how the cinema gets domesticated. That’s part of the Iranian history, to assimilate other cultures and to absorb new things from other cultures. If I could say that Iranians have one characteristic that stands out – they’re not unique in it, but they’re good at it – it’s that capacity to mix and match, to hybridize, to absorb, to adapt, and adopt. If you believe the history of Iran, even the pre-Islamic history, Dariush is said to have conquered so many countries and yet allowed all those countries to have their own autonomy and cultural forms. In many ways, the central Acaemenid government absorbed features of the conquered societies and cultures. If you look at Persepolis’s architecture and sculpting, for example, some of those iconographies and imageries come from countries that he had conquered. You could also say that Iranians are good copiers and imitators, of course. At the same time, they add something to what they imitate and copy and, I think, that difference is what makes Iranian creativity long-lasting.

Amir: Are you aware of any concrete effort to restore some of these older Iranian films and introduce them to a wider audience, like we saw with the restoration of Mehrjui’s The Cow (Gaav, 1969) by the National Archive?

Hamid: No, unfortunately I’m not. I’m surprised that Iranian authorities haven’t really thought of what they have in their films not only as cultural treasures but also as a commercial enterprise. During the 1980s, the black market on video was rampant and the government decided to join this black market and created its own video distribution network. Yet, they weren’t running the company like a commercial enterprise, but a government entity. Some of the art cinema films are in distribution abroad but almost none of the silent films or early sounds film, or even the 1960s films new wave or filmfarsi films are being distributed in good versions. Partly that’s because the filmfarsi movies are generally not subtitled, and that’s an obvious necessity; partly because the government disdains these films. On the other hand, if they had looked at them commercially and considered that there would be a lot of people who want to show these films, they could make a lot of money.

Amir: I’m curious about your opinion today’s Iranian cinema. We come across articles decrying the death of Iranian cinema at least once a year from some prominent film critics. With all these previously above ground filmmakers now making underground films and others making films abroad and the increasing commercialization of the domestic productions, do you think these concerns are legitimate?

Hamid: I think the idea of national cinema in general is in crisis, partly because of globalization, partly because of the triumph of Capitalism and partly because of digital technology and the internet that allow people to make underground films with a $500 camera and edit them on their little laptop with really high quality, and then distribute them to millions of people. All of these developments are problematizing the idea of national borders and national cinemas. Filmmakers are not bound by the structures of funding from nation states as much. Look at Kiarostmai who lives inside Iran and makes his films abroad now in foreign languages with non-Iranian actors. His films don’t get shown in Iran very much but he doesn’t leave Iran. Look at Makhmalbaf’s entire family who left Iran and live and make films in exile, or at Ghobadi who left Iran and makes films. The first films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Bahman Ghobadi made outside of Iran, Rhino Season and The Gardener, are unsuccessful films, they are meandering and unfocused. Making films internationally is a complicated issue. Not everyone can do it and Makhmalbaf himself, before doing this experiment of going into exile, made films in neighboring countries in Turkey and Tajikistan and Afghanistan first. I have a thesis in the book that it was only in the Islamic Republic that filmmakers revived the idea of the Persian Empire, as many filmmakers made films in the neighboring countries that have Persianate cultures. Ironically, this did not happen during the Pahlavi era, when the state invoked the Persian cultural heritage as state policy, but happened during the Islamic Republic era, which was hostile to the Persian predecessor to Islam.  During both epochs you observe the cultural resistance of the filmmakers to state policies, some of it perhaps unbeknownst to themselves. None of the filmmakers who made films in the neighboring countries made films in any of the Arab countries. Now that the Makhmalbafs and Ghobadi are in exile, they are not as successful. Their next films might change that, of course.

Amir: When you read about domestic cinema in Iran dying, do you roll your eyes and go “oh, not another one of these”?

Hamid: I think Iranian cinema will evolve. It may not be the same art cinema of the 1980s and 90s and 2000s even. It will be a different cinema that will have more popular films and underground films of various sorts. Underground everything has now become de rigueur: music, publications, fashion, film, parties. I think things will evolve and that’s a good thing. The other thing that defined Iranian cinemas of the 80s to 2000s, at least the art cinema, was that they were mostly bounded by the nation state and by its censorship apparatus, which then forced certain allegorical and textual approaches onto films. Once Iranians became globalized and could make films in different places with different moneys for distribution in different places to different audiences, they were no longer bound to the national rules. Films will be less uniform. There might be more variety and experimentation and more mistakes, but the best will come to the top. I’m certain that it will be a younger generation. The older one, the ones who already made a name for themselves and for Iran, like Kiarostami, Beyzaei, Mehrjui, Panahi, Majidi and Bani-Etemad and others are… I mean, even these filmmakers evolve. Look at Rakhshan’s films. She’s not locked into one style or one type of film, making documentaries and fictional films. She’s constantly evolving. Part of this is because of her daughter. I think the younger generation is keeping the older one straight and on their toes. Another thing that’s interesting about Iranian cinema now is the family structure of the filmmakers. I’m calling it a family mode of production in my books. Almost all of the major filmmakers are making films with their families. The Makhmalbafs work on each other’s films. Bani-Etemad’s husband produces her films and her daughter stars in them. Mehrjui’s wife was the designer on his films; Beizai’s wife acts in his films. Farhadi and his wife work together. This is a new phenomenon that didn’t exist before. New production forms will produce new cinemas and film forms.

Faramarz gharibian in tall shadows of the wind
Faramarz gharibian in tall shadows of the wind

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Amir: Every guest we’ve had on the show says their favourite Iranian film is Close-up, except your colleague Nick Davis, who picked Taste of Cherry. We laughed about the fact that even he picked another film by the same filmmaker. I suspect that wouldn’t be your answer, but asking your “favourite” Iranian film is perhaps too broad a question. What is the film that most compels you to speak about it?

Hamid: I think Close-up is a very unique film that can be talked about a lot but I also think that Kimiai’s Gheysar (1969) is an important film cinematically and culturally. I also think that Mr. Haji, Film Actor is a very unique film and you see some of Eisenstein and Vertov’s city symphony films in it in the way it celebrates Tehran as a modern city. All the experimentation that he engages in is great. Bahman Farmanara’s The Tall Shadows of the Wind (Saaye-haaye Boland-e Baad, 1979) is another one. Mehrjui’s The Cow I think is a very powerful film. Every time I show it in my class, the students are overtaken with the power of that simple story. No one thinks you can make a film about someone who becomes a cow, but he does it in such a powerful, convincing way, with such attention to the psychology; partly because Gholamhossein Saedi was a psychiatrist who wrote the original story on which this is based and worked with Mehrjui to adapt it, and Entezami who acted in the film as such a seasoned actor. Bani-Etemad’s The May Lady (Banu-ye Ordibehesht, 1999) is a very good film, cinematically and socially. Here is a woman who’s single, a filmmaker, a professional and wants to maintain a love relationship with a guy to whom she’s not married, all of which are no-no’s. I think she does a great job. There are so many. I don’t have a single favourite really.

Tina: It’s probably impossible for you.

Hamid: Yeah, this is very hard. Also, Shirdel’s The Night It Rained (Aan Shab Ke Barun Umad, 1967) is a prophetic film for its time .

Amir: That would probably be my answer. I’ve always loved that film but seeing it on the big screen for the first time was remarkable. The mostly non-Iranian crowd responded to it really well, too. It’s such a riveting experience, so funny and detailed and layered.

Hamid: We showed it at Berkeley last year and I was interviewing Shirdel on stage. It was really fun. That’s part of the transnationalization of Iranian directors. Shirdel was exposed in Rome to Italian films and neorealism and to the new wave of French cinema. Self-reflexivity came to Iranian cinema very early, before revolution with Shirdel and Kimiavi—two European-trained filmmakers. It wasn’t by Kiarostami or others after the revolution. Also, Farrokhzad’s film (The House Is Black), and not to forget, Ebrahim Golestan’s Mudbrick and Mirror (Khesht va Ayeneh, 1965). It’s a great film, especially the way it shows the fear and anxiety of that period; all those dark and tall buildings in the dead of the night. It’s a really great film.  So are Shahid Saless’s Still Life (Tabiat-e Bijan, 1975), Kimiavi’s The Mongols (Mogholha, 1973), Naderi’s The Runner (Davandeh, 1985), and Beyzai’s Bashu the Little Stranger (Bashu, Gharibeh Kuchak,1985).

Episode #11: Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Roya Akbari

Welcome to the eleventh episode of the Hello Cinema podcast. As regular listeners of the show are aware, TIFF Cinematheque is hosting “I For Iran: A History of Iranian Cinema by its Creators”. Fifteen feature films and three shorts from Iran will be screened as part of a series that was initiated by Thierry Jobin, the artistic director of Fribourg International Film Festival. On today’s show, we’re honoured to host documentary filmmaker Roya Akbari, whose film Only Image Remains (2014) is opening the retrospective.

Roya Akbari in Only Image Remains Roya Akbari in Only Image Remains

Akbari started her career in cinema with a short but memorable voice performance in Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (Dah, 2002), alongside her sister, Mania. Her first work as a director was a short documentary called Dancing Mania, about a film her sister was directing about dance in Iran. Her latest, Only Image Remains, is the most recent entry in a TIFF Cinematheque retrospective that includes films as old as Haji Agha, The Movie Actor (1933). In this film, which Akbari directed on the occasion of Fribourg festival’s Iranian retrospective, she discusses this national cinema with filmmakers such as Bahram Beizaei, Amir Naderi and Rafi Pitts.

We asked her about her motivations for making this film, the history of Iranian cinema, the cultural significance of producing Iranian works in diaspora, the difficulties of making films as a woman, and TIFF Cinematheque’s retrospective series. Akbari will introduce her film, as well as The Night It Rained (An Shab Ke Barun Umad, Kamran Shirdel, 1967) and P Like Pelican (P Mesl-e Pelikaan, Parviz Kimiavi, 1972). For a complete schedule of events at the retrospective, click here.

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Works Cited
Music: “Sonatine” by Maziar Heidari

Festivals Galore: Berlinale’s Golden Bear winner Taxi, and Highlights from the 33rd Fajr Film Festival

Jafar Panahi’s niece, receiving the Golden Bear for “Taxi” on his behalf.

It’s been a fascinating couple of weeks for Iranian cinema, beginning in Tehran with the Fajr Film Festival and culminating in Jafar Panahi’s Golden Bear in Berlin for Taxi. Berlin has been generous to Iranian filmmakers in the past—most famously with Farhadi’s triple win for A Separation in 2011—and this year was no different. The critics were on board with the jury: FIPRESCI awarded both their prizes to Iranian films, with Taxi in the competition section and Hamed Rajabi’s A Minor Leap Down (Paridan Az Ertefa-e Kam) in the Panorama section.

Panahi’s film doesn’t have a prayer in receiving public screenings in Iran, meaning it was never even in contention to get a festival berth at Iran’s most important film festival. Now in its thirty-third year, Fajr is designed to showcase the best films ready for the upcoming calendar year, which starts with the start of spring in Iran, on March 21st. The dichotomy between Iranian cinema’s foreign exports and domestically popular films is visible with such exclusions: Panahi’s film, A Minor Leap Down and the other Iranian film at Berlin, Atom Heart Mother (Maadar-e Ghalb Atomi, Ali Ahmadzadeh) will not screen at Fajr. Not that this happens every year, mind you. Most successful filmmakers have had the first domestic screenings of their work at Fajr, chief among them Asghar Farhadi, Reza Mirkarimi and Rakhshan Banietemad.

Fajr tends not to generate the same amount of enthusiasm that it did a decade ago—partly because of the general decline in interest in cinema in Iran—but it still remains the most significant time of the year for the industry. Not everyone is on board with the idea of the festival—least of all myself—and it is very rare to see any country putting the best of its upcoming films on show, often months before theatrical release, hence tempering any public anticipation in case of less than friendly reviews, which is often the norm at film festivals. And yet, having discussed this issue with industry professionals, I’ve noticed they tend to agree the festival is an integral part of Iranian cinema, due to the environment it fosters, the thrill and the rush it provides for its mostly young attendees, the relatively lax environment where real issues in the industry can be discussed and, most importantly, the fact that films are mostly released before they pass through the censor’s scissors. Tweaks need to be made to the festival’s structure, but no one wants to see it go.

This wasn’t a year for the internationally famed directors at Fajr, but several younger directors screened new work, and many received stellar responses. This year’s top prize went to Crazy Face (Rokh-e Divaaneh) by Abolhassan Davoodi, who also won the audience prize with a small margin. This is Davoodi’s first film in six years. He’s directed several critically acclaimed hits in Iran, but his most popular hit remains Bread, Love and Motor 1000 (Naan, Eshgh va Motor-e 1000) a wild, irreverent and uproariously funny social comedy. Crazy Face also nabbed prizes for best director, visual effects and sound.  

Poster for Farzad motamen's The long goodbye, starring Saeed Aghakhani, sareh bayat and mitra hajjar
Poster for Farzad motamen’s The long goodbye, starring Saeed Aghakhani, sareh bayat and mitra hajjar

Davoodi is a director whose films are very well received at home without crossing over the border, and his competition consisted mostly of filmmakers in a similar position. Farzad Motamen, who shot to fame with an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s White Nights, had The Long Goodbye, a romantic-crime film reminiscent of the pre-revolutionary jaheli films (and a brilliant poster evocative of the genre, too). Veteran comedian Saeed Aghakhani, won best actor for the film’s lead role. Alireza Raeesian, whose previous films had played at San Sebastian and Montreal festivals, brought his latest film, A Time for Love and took away two prizes for cinematography and screenplay.

Mostafa Kiayi—a less established name, but the winner of last year’s audience prize—won two prizes and nearly took the audience award again for his film, The Ice Age, which was one of the buzziest titles at the festival. But the film to really keep an eye out for didn’t even play at the competition lineup: trusted voices have been praising Safi Yazdanian’s What Time Is It In Your World? starring real-life couple Leila Hatami (A Separation) and Ali Mosaffa (The Past), and Hatami’s real-life mother, Zahra Hatami. Mostly shot with amateur actors in the north of Iran, the film is about a woman who returns to Iran after 20 years in France to reconnect with her rural roots. The premise, the famous stars and the fact that parts of the dialogue are in French have me hoping this one will tour international festivals.

Despite the lack of local distributors for some of these films—and some will inevitably remain without release plans for a few months—this promises to be a strong year for Iranian cinema. Most importantly, the general sense of doom that followed the tepid response to last year’s festival, when several notable filmmakers of the past delivered mediocre films, has been replaced with enthusiasm. It does feel ironic, however, that the most acclaimed film of the year is bound to be one that doesn’t receive any screen time in Iran.