Iran: The Era of Political Glaciation and Cinematic Creativity

in 16th Busan International Film Festival

by Shahla Nahid

According to the French parliamentary commission chaired by Jean-Louis Bianco, an era of Brezhnev-style glaciation has settled on Iran. However, the 16th Busan International Film Festival showed us the urgency and creativity of this national cinema by selecting several Iranian films for its various sections. Their choices included varied, innovative works and films which packed a sociopolitical punch.

These films showed us that another generation of filmmakers is emerging in a country where censorship is constantly on the rise. A generation which, although inspired by the works of the great cinema figures of their country, moves off the beaten track and affirms its own personality.

The first signs of change could be witnessed at the reception of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) in Berlin. A Separation’s immense success with the Berlin jury, critics and festival-goers, and later in France, where it remained on screens for over three months and attracted almost a million viewers, showed that Iranian filmmakers, who are somehow forgotten and snubbed by many festivals, still have something to say. Soon after the release of Farhadi’s film, we could also discover a minimalist but extremely well-directed, committed and moving work called Goodbye by Mohammad Rasoulof, who has been condemned along with his colleague Jafar Panahi to six years in prison. These two films, at first glance formally different, stressed both social malaise and the aspiration of young people to leave the country.

The surprise in Busan came from a debut film, Mourning (Soug), by Morteza Farshabaf. With its new cinematic language and its originality, the film won major prizes from the juries for New Currents and FIPRESCI. Mourning showed the malaise of a deaf couple after the death of their close relatives; the couple was formidably played by non-professional actors. Original treatment and a natural way of acting gave a documentary aspect to the film and made it extremely credible and moving.

The reproduction of the documentary aspect was also present in Final Whistle (Soute payan), the third film by Niki Karimi, the Iranian director and actress who treats here the delicate topic of the death penalty, the huge distress of women fighting injustice, and by extension, many other social problems. Karimi’s growing maturity was evident in her capacity to keep up a sustained rhythm in depicting this serious subject, and her use of a balanced dialogue to highlight the various positions of individuals vis-à-vis the death penalty. By avoiding linear storytelling and making use of qualified actors, Karimi touches the viewer’s soul and makes us think. In addition to directing, she plays the lead role: not an easy task, especially when the film is full of action. She also gives us the chance to deeply explore Tehran, a megalopolis which contains between 10 and 15 million people. This politically engaged film announces the arrival of another figure in the field of Iranian social cinema.

Naghi Nemati, the director who surprised and moved us with his debut Those Three (An seh), in which three soldiers were lost in a hostile wilderness, continues to follow lonely, disturbed and unhappy characters in his second film, Three and a Half (Seh o nim). He examines the cases of three women who try to leave the country. He also addresses the subject of AIDS, which is seldom referred to in Iranian cinema. His film has the impact of a blow to the head, thanks to the film’s circular structure which intensifies the audience’s anguish as we witness the characters’ desperate situations.

Nemati’s colleague, Amir Hossein Saghafi, tries to identify social misery and unemployment as the major cause of all society’s evils in Death is My Profession. He impresses us not only with his choice of subject — the theft of electric wires in order to survive — but also with his selection of landscape, actors and a suitable rhythm. Although the treatment of several themes — man’s confrontation with a cruel nature, and the relationship between the dominant and the dominated — occasionally reminds us of images from other films, this does not distort or diminish the quality of this first film whose young director may not be familiar with all of these cinematic references.

A newcomer, or “UFO” in Iranian cinema today, Panahbarkhoda Rezaee makes us experience a motionless universe of dark, silent, eventless lives in Daughter, Father, Daughter. In a similar manner to Sohrab Shahidsales or Bela Tarr, Rezaee uses beautiful, black-and-white images to take us on a meditative trip into cold nature and the insignificant lives of ordinary and isolated people. It shows us another cinema: a cinema only based on the image.

If anyone wants to see a comedy which depicts the traditions of provincial Iranian families, A Cube of Sugar by Reza Mirkarimi would be a perfect choice. The film shows a family gathering for an arranged marriage. But the marriage turns into mourning because of a cube of sugar. In spite of some moments of extreme accuracy, the film suffers from an imbalance: the men, in their clothing and appearance, are associated with symbols of life, whereas the presentation of the women is hopelessly ugly and reminds one of the qadjar era or of the very poor social classes. And this does not correspond with the social class of the family we are witnessing.

In contrast, Raw, Cooked, Burned, a 13 minute short by Shahram Mokri is a philosophical and very interesting reflection on life and destiny. This is achieved without leaving the walls of an apartment, and only through use of a particular film process (the superimposition and acceleration of images). The director shows a lonely man who visualises different consequences which might occur after he offers a cup of tea to a woman who rings his doorbell.

In addition to films made in Iran, there were films made by Iranians living abroad. Cut is directed by Amir Nadéri, the innovative filmmaker who lives in the US and does not always find the necessary means to show his considerable talent as a filmmaker; he is an artist who has inspired many others, including famous directors acclaimed at festivals. This very violent film depicts the power of money to destroy the creative spirit, while also paying homage to auteur films. It testifies to Naderi’s great knowledge of world cinema and its uncontested masters.

Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud is an Iranian story which contains a lot of poetry and humour. It has imaginative images which remind us of Amélie Poulain or Tim Burton, together with some oriental animation drawings. Satrapi tells us a tale drawn from her comic strip book, in which a musician uncle lets himself die during the 1950s. Why? For a woman he loved when he was young. A love which nourished his genius and his music…              Another light film was Ephemeral Marriage (Noces éphémères) by Reza Serkanian, who lives in France: a tourist postcard for foreigners even though its director makes use of very beautiful images.

But at the end, I must again mention the conviction by the Court of Appeal of Jafar Panahi to six years’ imprisonment and a twenty year ban on working and leaving the country; the condemnation of the Iranian actress Marzieh Vafamehr to ninety lashes and a year of imprisonment; and the arrest of documentary filmmaker Mojaba Mirtahmasb and producer/distributor Katayoun Shahabi, along with four other colleagues. This does not make one optimistic about the production of Iranian cinema in the short term. Let us hope that this situation does not last long and that in the near future we will witness a blooming Iranian cinema. It is now the duty of festivals and the family of the cinema to encourage them to continue.