Poor on the outside, rich on the inside

Submitted by Janine on 13 May, 2005 - 9:24

Joan Trevor reviews the documentary “Cinema Iran” (Channel 4) and looks at some of Iran’s cinematic output

On the surface, Iranian cinema is everything US cinema isn’t, so Mark Cousins began his Cinema Iran programme interviewing movie goers in New York.

“Why do you go to the movies?”, he asked. “It’s a fantasy, right?”, they answered. Then Cousins gave the very ordinary scene he was filming — unbeautiful people in everyday clothes walking along a New York street on a wintry day — the Hollywood blockbuster treatment. Filmed it through a letterbox window, slowed it down, blurred it a bit, shot it from some monumental camera angles and gave it a portentous musical score, cut to aerial views of Brooklyn Bridge: in a trice you were looking at a whole different proposition. Reality where something unreal was about to happen. Maybe.

Well, Iranian films aren’t like that.

Cousins explored three key aspects of what for him makes Iranian films good: poetry; prohibition; realism.

Cousins did not define to my satisfaction what he means by poetry. But he sought to illustrate it.

The “poster boy” of Iranian cinema, Abbas Kiarostami, was a graphic designer before he was a film maker. His films are visually arresting but his images are simple. The z-shaped path in his most widely enjoyed film Where is the Friend’s House? (1987) showed this. His images are redolent with meaning. Like a Japanese haiku.

Cousins talked about Iranians’ reverence for poetry – and they do have that. This wouldn’t at first sight seem very pertinent for Iranian films, with their casts of simple folk enjoying everyday conversations. But, as with poetry, all the deep stuff goes on between the lines.

This is partly a function of the second factor in the success of Iranian cinema: prohibition.

Iranian cinema became popular abroad during the 1980s, but it was in gestation from the 1960s, in the reign of the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

The first internationally acclaimed film of the Iranian “nouvelle vague” was The Cow (1969) by Dariush Mehrjui. This strange film, about a man so much in love with his cow that, when it is killed, he begins to believe that he is that cow, was made in a poor village with villagers playing the bit parts.

Some see an allegory for Iranian society under the Shah in the film, although it’s too oblique for me. In fact, the film was banned because it depicted poverty and thus clashed with the image of Iran that the Shah wanted to project.

Iranian films always seem to be saying something, even if it’s not always clear what. Usually, they are not making big, political statements, but small, humanist statements. It just so happens, that for much of Iranian history, that is all that has been allowed.

During the last Shah’s reign there was popular cinema, which came to be known as Film-Farsi. In format and style, it borrowed from Indian cinema; a cast of two-dimensional characters told simple stories and broke into song at regular intervals. In the films I’ve seen, the hero is usually a poor bloke while the baddies are more well-to-do and westernised.

The powerful clergy had always disapproved of cinema, associating it with immorality. During the revolution, 180 cinemas were shut or burned down, leaving 256 cinemas standing in the whole country. More than 300 people died in one arson attack on a cinema in Abadan in 1978.

After the 1979 revolution the clergy changed their attitude. Cinema could be used as a way to uphold Islamic values, and within bounds was encouraged.

Iranian films have severe strictures: don’t criticise the Islamic Republic; women’s hair and body must be covered up; actors and actresses must not touch. Some of the strictures are bad in that they are strictures, but they are not bad in themselves: films should not show “disturbing violence”, or anything that “denigrates people on the basis of religion, language or race”.

So, in the Islamic Republic, Iranian film makers making thoughtful, unsensational films about realistic themes have had a clear path… so long as they trod it very carefully.

In the programme, director Abolfazl Jalili made the initially outrageous claim that film makers are more restricted in the west than in Iran… I think he meant that in Iran they are relatively free from the commercial imperatives of the market, and if he didn’t mean that, it is nevertheless almost certainly true.

Let us, however, not be starry eyed! Cousins interviewed two women directors on the issue of censorship. They both acknowledged its existence although they had different views on its significance.

Samira Makhmalbaf, director of The Apple (1997), said, from under an inch of make-up, that the restrictions forced people to be more creative and imaginative to get their message across. And, in any case, why did western women think that going bare-headed and showing their legs equalled freedom? Mania Akbari, director of Twenty Fingers (2004), said the restrictions were, well, restricting. An awful lot of important things cannot be said at all.

And the restrictions are getting worse. Some directors, including the immensely successful Mohsen Makhmalbaf, are now working outside Iran. Films are banned. The popular comedy The Lizard (2004) by Kamal Tabrizi was banned after a few successful weeks at the box office and some deliberation by the authorities.

The Lizard depicts a criminal who escapes from prison in stolen mullah’s robes. Before he can escape across the border, he is adopted by some simple villagers who think he is their new priest.

This irreligious man grows into his role, dispensing genuinely pious wisdom, unwittingly doing good works, and even convincing himself that he, like everyone else, can find a path to God.

It’s a very enjoyable film, though more than a tad naïve. On the whole it shows religion in a good light.
The head of Iran’s Guardians Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, whose opinion got the film banned, called The Lizard “a hideous film” and a “bad influence”. (He hadn’t seen it, by the way.)

The director, Tabrizi, in an interview with the BBC, protested:

“Because of the sensitive status of the clerics in Iranian society, and due to the special relationship between the public and the clerics and the damage done to it, we thought that this film could mend the gap.

“Before turning hierarchical, the relationship between the general public and clerics was determined by friendship. We believe that this traditional relationship is damaged now.

“In our film, we thought we needed to emphasise that the main bridge connecting people with clerics is sincerity, love and affection, and nothing else.”

Not at all a revolutionary message. In fact, quite the opposite, but not acceptable to the clerics who would be tyrants.

It might be, of course, that Jannati is right, and Tabrizi was being disingenuous. There is plenty of scope for people to see what they want to see in the film. A lot of people took it that the director was calling mullahs “lizards”, and straightforwardly portraying them as lecherous, foulmouthed, and on the make — and enjoyed the film all the more for that.

Though “Cinema Iran” praised Iranian film makers for their “dedicated realism”, in my view, Iran’s cinema today presents relative realism.

Plausible plots, convincing characters, realistic (often real) settings. No shoot ’em up antics, special effects, airbrushed Hollywood beauties having unfeasibly good sex.

Iranian films are not boring for the absence of it. In Iran, bootleg DVDs circulate of Hollywood blockbusters, of course they do, but most Iranian cinema-goers also eagerly go to see Iranian films.

Times do change, however. Some people cynically argue that the reason Iranian cinema is any good is because they don’t have much money to spend. So what will happen when Iranian cinema gets more money? What would Iranian directors do with Hollywood budgets?

The Duel (2004), about the early years of the Iran-Iraq war, was the most expensive Iranian film ever, costing $4 million to make. $4 million spent mainly on blowing things up. It was harrowing, it was moving, but it was also… sensational.

Viewers in the West get to see the best of Iranian cinema. Iranian film makers make their fair share of crappy “romances” too. The unreality enters at the point when, after boy meets girl, they never, ever, even remotely, get it on.

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