Paradoxes of Iranian Cinema

in 64th Cannes Film Festival

by Shahla Nahid

With its roots in a paradoxical society, the duality of Iranian cinema has become increasingly obvious over the last few decades.

An example of this paradox was shown at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Two filmmakers, both condemned in county court to six years of imprisonment. One also prohibited from shooting and writing scripts for 20 years, and one expelled from the country.

You may recognize their names: I’m talking about Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rassoulof.

However, while these filmmakers were on standby for the sentence of the Court of Appeal, Mr. Rassoulof obtained the authorization to shoot and show his film Goodbye to Cannes. The film was selected for “Un Certain Regard”.

During this time, the heavily-condemned Jafar Panahi also called upon documentary maker colleague Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to portray one day of Panahi’s life on film. An astonishing film which carries the ambiguous and evocative title of This Is Not A Film, it also came to Cannes and was selected to be shown in the Special Screenings section.

At the same time, almost at the end of the festival, Mohammad Rassoulof’s passport was given back to him. Had this move been made a little earlier, he could have been present in Cannes for the screening of his film on May 12.

So: two filmmakers made films about the events that followed the last presidential elections in Iran. Why, one might ask, were they not treated the same way?

This is a mystery and raises many questions. However, this does not mean easy answers, especially in a society like Iranian society.

The case of Panahi and Rassoulof also highlights the treatment of other lesser-known Iranian filmmakers.

It seems necessary to speak about a society which, in spite of an apparent opposition to progress, is in constant change. Iran has long struggled with duality because of the separation between the political and religious powers and being halfway between East and West. The banishment of Zoroastrianism after the Arab conquest in the 7th century forever registered in the collective memory of Iranians.

Therefore the Islamic Republic tried, from the beginning, to wipe the slate clean of the past and to ignore this duality. It did not succeed. It even, to some extent, worsened its situation by not being in sync with the modern world. This has also encouraged many Iranian citizens to claim their pre-Islamic identity feverishly.

The incompetence of those who occupied high-profile posts in cinema, as well as political positions, deprived this sector of intelligent management and threatened the great potential of Iranian cinema. However Iranian cinema proved its capacity in spite of all pressures and the lack of a clear policy.

Ironically, the double language practised by those inside the regime opened certain loopholes. It sharpened the filmmakers’ will to circumvent the bans or to cross the red lines in order to safeguard their art and to ensure its survival, sometimes risking a heavy price.

The film by Panahi-Mirtahmasb, This Is Not A Film, is an interesting example. The scene where we follow the conversation between the director and his lawyer brings up this question: how can a banned director communicate thus with his lawyer and also with the whole world through modern communication means in a country like Iran? It is also a lesson and a warning to those who think they can control everything at a time when of communication technologies do not allow any more containment of the individuals in reduced universes.

Knowing that it is necessary to obtain authorizations for each step of filmmaking, starting with the script up to final screening, some filmmakers accept the diktats, others give up, and the third group becomes independent and their own producers.

It should be specified that the problem does not stop with obtaining the authorizations. It often happens that a film which passed all these tests is forbidden, even after being selected by the greatest film festival of Teheran (Fajr) and sometimes even after a few days of screening in cinemas.

It was the case of The Lizard (Marmoulak) by Kamal Tabrizi, a comedy about a criminal who steals the cassock of a mullah in the hospital and poses as him. This film was seen by almost all Iranians inside and outside the country, although its director and producer were not known to have close links with the opposition movements.

Women’s presence on the screen also causes many problems. The restrictions with regard to women’s dress and veils are numerous but also fluid. With each change of cinematic regulators, the rules change for a while.

State aid has become rare for those who want to make films with social connotations. This help is, on the contrary, abundant for those who make propaganda films, on the religion or on the past war between Iran and Iraq.

But I would argue the future is not so dark.

A new generation of filmmakers is starting to emerge. They don’t want to resemble the masters who contributed to the recognition of Iranian cinema. They do not want to make films for festivals. They want to make cinema for the people. It is the case of Asghar Farhadi, among others, who made the excellent Separation of Nader and Simin (Jodaee Nader az Simin), winner of the Golden Bear and best male and female actors’ prices for the whole group of actors in last Berlinale. This film has lately beaten the record of all sales in Iran along with Mobilized (Basijis), a popular comedy by the very reactionary filmmaker Massoud Dehnamaki. These are still doing very well at box offices.

Another positive move is that the authority responsible for cinema in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Orientation gave more authorization for shooting during the last year, increasing the number of films produced per annum by 80-100 films to more than 170 last year.

These feature films are either in the phase of shooting or in post-production. This number does not include works-in-progress.

The reason is that nowadays art in general and cinema in particular have become a means of expression for young people.

According to some people close to the field of cinema, what is interesting and optimistic, is to see that:
1: Many of these 170 films were made by young people.
2: They represent a new approach and a new language compared to the past.

It is obvious that among these 170 films, one can find propaganda films or those produced by official bodies. But, one can also find films with good artistic and experimental qualities.

Due to the lack of the government aid, young filmmakers started making their own films by calling upon their family members or by selling their family possessions. They are naturally films with low budget but not with low quality.

It is necessary to add that this astonishing production is done in a country where the movie theatres are seriously lacking. The capacity of projection does not exceed 50 to 60 films per year: new movie theatres have not been constructed and old ones not restored.

In fact the beginnings of the Iranian revolution were marked by the destruction of half of the 420 movie theaters of the country between 1978 and 1979.          However in spite of the passion of the Iranian people for the cinema, very little was done to increase the number of cinemas. Currently one counts only 239 screens for a country three times larger than France and for a population of 70 million people.

Consequently, two third of films cannot be shown. Many are shown a few years after completion, which becomes thus a kind of censure and very problematic for an independent producer.

But, despite all these difficulties, the younger generation continues to make good films with determination and limited resources – films capable of winning the most prestigious prizes at the great festivals, and competing with countries with a wealth of resources. The last example is See You (Be omid didar) by Mohammad Rassoulof who won the best Director’s prize of “Un Certain Regard” in Cannes festival 2011.