Iran’s revolutionary cinema

The Iranian cinema went through a true renaissance as a result of the Islamic revolution in 1979 that brought Ayatollah Khomeini into power. Under the previous regime of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, which lasted from 1941 to 1979, films were mostly a commercial affair. With the revolution, however, filmmaking came to a halt until 1983, when the Farabi Cinema Foundation was created by the new government to encourage the production of Islamic films that were both artistically and politically engaged.

The new government’s strict censorship drove many filmmakers into exile or out of the industry, but some stayed and adapted while a new generation was trained to put the government’s message before the public. One of the most effective films was Bahram Beizai’s Mosaferan (Travelers, 1992), in which a wedding ceremony is tragically disrupted when the bride’s sister and her entire family are killed in a horrific automobile accident en route. Beizai introduces a Brechtian note early on, when the sister turns directly to the camera and announces that she and her entire family will be killed shortly. When news of the crash is received, the wedding is transformed into a wake, as mourning relatives gather to comfort the family in their time of grief. The grandmother, however, refuses to believe that the accident has happened and argues that the sister and her family will still attend the wedding. In the film’s transcendent climax, the dead relatives float into the house holding a large mirror in front of them, seemingly resurrected from the dead in a blaze of blinding blue light.

Other key directors of the new Iranian cinema include Mohsen Makh-malbaf, whose Nun va Goldoon (A Moment of Innocence, 1996) deals with his own teenage years as an anti-Shah firebrand, when he was arrested and jailed for stabbing a policeman. Years after being freed as a result of the revolution in 1979, Makhmalbaf decided to make a film of the incident. But in an unexpected touch, the policeman Makhmalbaf stabbed appears out of nowhere for a casting call, hoping to get a part in the film. Makhmalbaf uses this material to weave a complex tapestry of past and present, real and imagined, and of what was and what might have been.

Makhmalbaf’s wife, Marzieh Meshkini, directed an elegant three-part film about the life of women in Iran, Roozi ke zan shodam (The Day I Became a Woman, 2000). The movie was shot as three shorts to escape government censorship, then shipped

out of the country and assembled in Paris into Marzieh Meshkini (right, foreground) directs Roozi ke zan shodam (The Day I Became a Woman, 2000), one of the key feminist films of the new Iranian cinema.

Final form. Harshly critical of the sexism of the Iranian government, the film was denounced at home, though it won numerous awards abroad.

Another director working with stories of women and the Islamic regime is the couple’s daughter, Samira Makhmalbaf, whose films include Sib (The Apple, 1998, when she was eighteen) and Panj é asr (At Five in the Afternoon, 2003). Abbas Kiarostami is another leading exponent of the post-revolutionary Iranian cinema, exploring the harsh realities of daily life in films such as Khane-ye doust kodjast? (Where Is the Friend’s Home? 1987) and Zendegi va digar hich (Life, and Nothing More, 1991) in near-documentary style. Zire darakhatan zeyton (Through the Olive Trees, 1994) completed this Kiarostami trilogy, self-reflexively presenting a dramatic account of the filming of the first movie, using its own actors to re-create the production process. Ten (2002), an even more rigorous work, is composed entirely of shots of a woman driving a car and, in reverse-angle shots, her various passengers.

Jafar Panahi’s Ayneh (The Mirror, 1997) is the story of a lost young girl, Mina, who searches the streets of Tehran for her mother. With her arm in a cast, Mina hitches rides from various buses and taxis, but just when she seems on the verge of finding her mother she suddenly steps out of character. The real Mina (also the actress’s name) removes the prop cast and walks off the set in disgust, complaining, “All they want me to do is cry all the time.” Members of the crew attempt to coax her back to work, but the real Mina is resolute; she will find her mother on her own and get home without any assistance. At first director Panahi is at a loss as to how to deal with the situation, but he suddenly realizes that Mina is still outfitted with a wireless microphone. As Mina wanders off on her own, Panahi instructs the crew to follow at a distance. Using telephoto lenses, they capture Mina’s journey through the streets of the metropolis as she continues to badger passersby for assistance. Abruptly, all traditional cinematic cutting ceases, as Panahi simply loads one ten-minute 35 mm magazine of film after another into his camera and relentlessly pursues Mina through an urban landscape of wrecked cars, semi-sympathetic bystanders, bewildered policemen, and unceasing pollution and noise. When the wireless microphone that Mina is wearing shorts out, the film becomes silent; when it cuts back in again, we are allowed to hear the real-time sounds of the city. We realize that the filmmakers themselves have no idea what will happen next and have completely abandoned any fictive framework; what we are seeing and witnessing now is real and relatively unmediated. The first half of the film is a remarkable achievement, but the second, near-documentary section of the film becomes a trancelike meditation on the mechanics of reality and role-playing, in which the camera’s insistent and impassive gaze recalls the early sound films of Andy Warhol.

By 2006, however, the initial ardor of the Islamic revolution was beginning to cool, and the most popular Iranian film was a Hollywood-style romantic comedy, Tahmineh Milani’s Atash bas (Cease Fire, 2006), which was a massive hit with local audiences. The films of the Makhmalbaf clan, Abbas Kiarostami, and other more serious Iranian filmmakers suddenly seemed of interest only to academic audiences; for the general public, light escapist entertainment was popular once again, as it had been in the Shah’s era.



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Iran’s revolutionary cinema