Iranian Cinema Looks Inward: The 25th Fajr International Film Festival Michelle Langford August 2007 Festival Reports Issue 44 1-11 February 2007 In the year 2000, Hamid Dabashi provided an overview of the state of Iranian cinema. That year, according to Dabashi, heralded the rise of a young generation of filmmakers spearheaded by Samira Makhmalbaf, Bahman Ghobadi, and Hasan Yektapanah who were all recognised with prizes at Cannes. (1) Clearly inspired by this younger generation, Dabashi wrote with great optimism of the “death of ideology in Iranian political culture” represented by the great swell of support from Iran’s youth for reformist President Khatami, who had been elected in 1997. (2) For Dabashi, this new generation represented the advent of a new global outlook in Iranian cinema, less constrained by internal policy and ideology. Seven years and much political water has passed under the bridge since Dabashi wrote those remarks. With the ascendance of conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Presidency in 2005, the tide of reforms have been washed away for the time being and ideology is very much alive and kicking, particularly with Ahmadinejad’s vow to return to revolutionary values. Where then, does this leave Iran’s film industry? Indeed, over the last few years questions have been raised over the effect this conservative leadership might have on the censorship and regulation of Iranian cinema, which had begun to enjoy more freedoms under Khatami. My initial impression of the 25th Fajr International Film Festival was certainly not one of optimism. Indeed this view appeared to be shared by many of the international guests and an air of general disappointment hung around the breakfast lounge of the Laleh hotel each morning as we gathered for equal servings of breakfast and gossip. What was overwhelmingly clear is that aside from a few stunning exceptions, Iranian cinema seems to have taken a conservative turn. This does not in itself necessarily produce poor or un-entertaining films, but what it does reveal is a cinema looking inward, not with a self-critical gaze, but one that produces a mirror to reflect the prevailing ideology. War films, commonly referred to as “sacred defence” films were in abundance. These films deal not only with the 8 year Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), but also with the effects of the war on the home front and its ongoing aftermath. Among these, we find films set at or near the front line during the war such as Otobous e Shab (The Night Bus, Kiumard Purahmad), in which an Iranian soldier is entrusted with escorting Iraqi POWs across the front line. Similarly, in Mesl e yek Gheseh (Like a Tale, Khosro Sinaee) a wounded Iraqi officer and two soldiers seek refuge at a small shrine a few kilometres inside the Iranian border. While the older Iraqi officer is depicted as a harsh and violent man, veteran filmmaker Sinaee treats one of the younger Iraqi soldiers sympathetically, showing his developing friendship with the shrine-keeper’s grandson, while the soundtrack serves as a constant reminder of the ongoing war beyond this small haven. Mohammad Hossein Latifi’s Rooz e Sevom (The Third Day) is a classic “hero-centred” war film set in the besieged city of Khorramshar during the Iran-Iraq war. It tells the story of a group of Iranian militia attempting to protect the city from the invading Iraqi forces. The central protagonist and hero, Reza (a Nicholas Cage look-alike) must fight, not only to save the city, but his sister, who is admired by one of the Iraqi officers and is initially portrayed rather sympathetically. By the end of the film, however, in a jealous rage, he turns into a homicidal maniac, confirming that those Iraqis couldn’t be trusted after all! As Reza dies, he reaches into his pocket, drawing out a photo of Ayatollah Khomeini (conveniently turned outward for the benefit of the spectator), his life has not been in vain and he enters the ranks of the martyrs. Ultimately, the film may be read as a national allegory, where defence of the home is equated with defence of the homeland. Both Dasthaye Khali (Empty Hands, Abolqasem Talebi) and the somewhat surreal Padash e Sokout (The Compensation of Silence, Maziar Miri) address issues faced in the aftermath of war and martyrdom. In these films, the war re-surfaces as a national wound, which still pervades the consciousness of the nation. Perhaps the most cinematically complex and moving of these sacred defence films was Anke Darya Miravad (He Who Sails, Arash Moayerian). This film, which crosses into the territory of “spiritual cinema”, is constructed through a complex pattern of flashbacks weaving together past and present. A war veteran returns to Abadan to work on a project to bring “sweet water” to the region, which had been devastated by Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons. As he embarks on his journey in the present he is flooded with memories of a sacred journey he took during the war. This theme of “cleansing” the land in the present is mirrored by the theme of spiritual cleansing and purity in the past, effectively bringing the notion of the sacred defence into the present and clearly reflecting the current political climate. Spiritual films comprised the second largest category at this year’s festival. Surprisingly, a number of these focused on inter-faith themes, particularly focusing on friendships between Muslims and Christians, albeit it with varying results. Robin (directed by Parviz Sheik-Tadi) was a favourite among many of the international guests and was awarded a Crystal Simorgh by the inter-faith jury. Aftab Bar Hame Yeksan Mitabad (The Sun Shines on Everybody Equally, Abbas Rafei) and Masaeb e Doushizeh (Passion of The Maiden, Seyed Masud Atabi) both depicted their central female Christian characters (both named Jeanette) through morally ambiguous actions (kidnapping, culpable driving), but ultimately reach simplistic conclusions of spiritual renewal and fail to place Muslim/Christian relationships into a broader global context, perpetuating instead the very inward-looking, idealised perspective shared by the majority of films at the festival. In contrast, Paberahne dar Behesht (Barefoot in Heaven), the first feature by Bahram Tavakoli, is cinematically sophisticated, winning best film in the Spiritual section and the prize for best cinematographer (Hamid Khouzee Abyane) in the main competition. It is an enigmatic meditation on the nature of faith, life and death. Set in a sanatorium for incurable (and possibly also mentally ill) patients, a young clergy, Yahya, tends to the spiritual, and at times physical needs of the patients in their dying days. Beyond the physical setting of the film, however, the impressionistic and at times experimental cinematography with its subdued grey/blue colour range and subtle lighting techniques lends the film a highly metaphorical quality. The space is never entirely grounded in either time or place and the illnesses suffered by the patients are never explained. This allows them to take on metaphorical and symbolic significance. In the film’s closing moments a close-up shows Yahya stepping out of his shoes, placing his bare feet onto the cold, tiled floor, depicting perhaps his own spiritual departure for heaven. Unfortunately this film suffered from having extremely poor subtitling, with numerous spelling and grammatical errors that made some dialogue simply incomprehensible. Despite this, the film was one of the most creatively satisfying of the festival. If Barefoot in Heaven presented a highly metaphysical meditation on spirituality, then Khoda Nazdik Ast (God is Near) by another first-time director, Ali Vazirian, delves into the question of love, both physical and spiritual. In the spirit of a Sufi Ghazal (an ancient Persian lyric love poem), the film carefully charts the territory between earthly and divine love as it explores the burgeoning love between a simple young motorcycle taxi driver (Reza) and a beautiful young teacher (Leila). Everyday objects are invested with metaphorical significance. For example, in order to protect Leila’s modesty (unmarried men and women are forbidden from touching in Iran), Reza ties a wooden crate to his back, so she may have something to hold onto. Later, in a chivalrous gesture, he lays the crate on the ground over a deep puddle so she may cross. Still later, another shot of the crate lying discarded amongst some flowerpots symbolizes his lost love. Similarly, water and rain take on symbolic importance, ranging from embodied aspirated love, through to sadness and loss (rain) and finally to spiritual purification. However, following Leila’s arranged marriage to another man, Reza plunges into a deep depression, from which he emerges as more spiritually pure and devout. He has thrown off all worldly, material desires to bring himself nearer to God. Stylistically, the film is highly accomplished, although at times rather clichéd; it is vaguely reminiscent of the work of Majid Majidi, although without his social commentary and sophisticated treatment of spirituality. The simple, gentle story of God is Near is reminiscent of the many children’s films that Iran became famous for in the 1980s-1990s. This year’s festival presented two very different examples of this ever-present genre. Sebil e Mardane (The Manly Moustache), directed by a specialist in children’s films Javad Ardakani (Choori, 2001), is a witty fable about righteousness, loyalty and honesty based around the central trope of an old Iranian proverb: “the hair from the moustache of a righteous man shall bring prosperity within ten days.” It is a typical Iranian child-centred narrative where a little girl shows great ingenuity and perseverance to get what she wants, in this case a bicycle for her mentally challenged uncle Champion. Unlike the films of Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami, the simple, educative purpose of the film – to teach children the value of loyalty and honesty – contains very little in the way of social commentary. In contrast to this fairly benign tale, Ghoflsaz (The Locksmith, Gholamreza Ramezani) deals with the very serious problem of domestic violence, particularly violence toward children and the complicity of other adults in this abuse. Set primarily in a poor neighbourhood of Tehran, the story concerns a widower (Qasem) whose son (Mohammad) reports him for physically abusing him and his little sister (Marziyeh). Facing financial hardship, Mohammad’s grandmother pressures him to go to the police and have his father released, urging him to say that he had lied about the abuse. Upon the father’s return little Marziyeh is beaten once more. This scene is powerfully depicted through its absence. Ramazani cuts to a black screen to depict the abuse; only the sounds of violence may be heard, making us acutely aware of not seeing what takes place behind closed doors. While certainly a consequence of censorship, this “screening” of violence helps to put forward the central aim of the film: to bring awareness to this serious but largely hidden social problem. This metaphor is extended later in the film, as Mohammad visits his uncle hanging curtains in a wealthy Tehran home. While we hear the mother of the house abusing her daughter for bringing shame upon the family with her immodest attire, Mohammad is told: “this is why houses have curtains: so that the secrets remain inside.” This glimpse into the presence of abuse in a wealthy home suggests that this may be a problem that transgresses class boundaries. Interestingly, this was also one of several films that showed off Tehran’s glossy new subway system, which ironically links some of Tehran’s wealthiest suburbs in the north with its poorest in the south. In a slight departure and development from the child-centred film, Puran Derakhshande’s Bachehaye Abadi (Eternal Kids) focuses on a developing relationship between a young downs syndrome man (Ali) and a woman (Negar) who is engaged to Ali’s elder brother (Mohammad). One of the few films by a female director screened at this year’s festival, the film is a successful and touching comic drama, which shows a very tender, loving and physically close relationship between Ali and Negar. This struck me as a rather ingenious way of getting around the restrictions that prevent male and female characters touching in Iranian cinema. The festival also premiered a number of genre films. The outrageously madcap slapstick all-star comedy Ghaedeye Bazi (Rule of the Game, Ahmad Reza Motamedi) pastiches a whole range of American, European and Iranian films. The film’s primary narrative, uncannily reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), revolves around a band of peasants competing with their wealthy relatives for the family inheritance. The film even contains a comic pastiche of the scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) in which Jean Paul Belmondo straps dynamite to his head in a gesture of self-destruction, only in Rule of the Game the character straps exploding sausages to his head! Although I found the film vaguely entertaining, I suspect this kind of humour may be too culturally specific to travel successfully. In addition to a number of gangster/crime films Sang, Kaghaz, Gheychi (Stone, Paper, Scissors, Saeed Soheili) and Makhmaseh (The Heat, Mohammad Ali Sajadi), the strange genre-bending film Eghlima (Climates, Mohammad Mehdi Asgarpour) is certainly worth a mention, if not a second viewing. Climates begins as a domestic melodrama, develops into a psychological thriller before becoming a ghost story, finally ending as an all-out slasher film complete with an evil blonde-wigged woman. While this is certainly quite an original film by Iranian standards, the plot, and genre twists just don’t deliver and the film just keeps getting sillier and sillier. Unfortunately I missed the most controversial film of the festival. The first feature film by documentary filmmaker Masud Dehnamaki, Ekhrajiha (The Expelled aka The Outcasts or Dismissed) takes a comic approach to the sacred defence genre. Dehnamaki refused to accept the festival’s audience award, “because he believed that the efforts of his film crew were not recognized,” (3) and hinted that “the authorities wanted to suppress it for being subversive.” (4) Dehnamaki has been a rather shape-shifting character in the Iranian political and cultural spheres. An ex-militia leader linked with fundamentalist movements and former journalist, he turned to filmmaking with documentaries on prostitution and football violence. The film sports an all-star cast and is predicted to be one of this year’s most popular films at the Iranian box office. The kinds of poetic, metaphorical and allegorical films that we have come to expect of Iranian cinema were few and far between this year. This may have been largely due to the absence of films by the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi, Bahram Bei’zai, and Bahman Ghobadi. One film that attempted to fill this void was Adam, the first film by Abdolreza Kahani. It tells the mystical story of Ashabad, a village where no one has died for 20 years and women give birth 3-4 times a week. One of the inhabitants of the village, the mysterious Adam, is credited for this longevity. Everything begins to change, however when a mysterious woman arrives in her Jeep. Perhaps she is an angel of death, for her arrival coincides with the first death in Ashabad for more than 20 years. She also has a profound effect on Adam. Unfortunately, the allegorical meaning of this film is lost to me. In contrast, Baz ham Sib Dari? (Have you more apples?) by another first time director, Bayram Fazli, worked very well as a surreal political allegory. Set, as the opening titles explain, in a distant land in a time far removed from the present, ironically, however the opening image immediately contradicts this statement, showing a band of robed men riding motorcycles through the desert. The film shows the effects of a cruel and cunning dictator upon three villages. The inhabitants have learnt how to survive despite constraints on their civil liberties. In one, the population pretend to be asleep, in another they continually fight, and in the third, they survive only by begging. Change may only come by breaking these habits and rising up against the tyrant. While it is tempting simply to read this film in terms of the present political climate, I feel that it also functions as a more general critique of Iranian society throughout history. Minaye Shahr e Khamoush (Mina from the Silent City, Amir Shahab Razavian) was one of my favourite films of the festival, particularly for the many-layered and intricately woven journey undertaken by its central protagonist, and for the brief glimpses of the many contradictions of daily life in contemporary Iran. Beginning briefly in Hamburg, Bahman Parsa, a heart surgeon, returns to Iran for the first time since the revolution. While in Iran, he travels to his hometown of Bam, a city still suffering from the devastating earthquake of 2003. Amongst the ruins, past and present unfold contiguously, the ruins and deserted family home coming to symbolise the dispersal of the Parsa family (and by implication the nation: Parsa being the original name for Persepolis, capital of the Persian empire) during the revolution – it is suggested that Bahman’s father served as a military officer under the Shah. Among the contemporary references, Bahman’s young driver points out some of the changes that have taken place such as the re-naming of streets. For example, what was once Eisenhower St (which the driver explains was named after an English singer!) is now Azadi (peace) St. The young driver is also forever casting his gaze at girls on the street, and explains the coded language of honking, hinting at the prevalence of coded communication in Iranian culture more generally. Billboards, mobile phones, comments about nose jobs and techno music highlight the presence of modern, Western consumer culture, which is juxtaposed with glimpses of revolutionary images on TV, and Ahmadinejad talking about nuclear power plants. These details successfully manage to give this film both local specificity and contemporary global relevance, resisting the “nativist” tendencies which Dabashi has accused some Iranian filmmakers of. (5) This brings me to my picks of the festival, which both dealt with the very contemporary and pressing social issue of drug addiction. Santouri by the “father” of the Iranian new wave cinema, Dariush Mehrjui, was perhaps my most anticipated film of the festival. In fact it was not certain until the last minute whether we would get to see it, for apparently the censors had insisted on some changes, including the removal of some scenes featuring the film’s beautiful female protagonist, Hanieh, played by Golshifteh Farahani. In addition, it was rumoured that they had also judged the use of the name Ali for a drug addict inappropriate, for this is the name of the revered first Imam and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. The film is a fine, realist drama reminiscent of some of Mehrjui’s earlier films. Bahram Radan’s passionate and convincing performance of the drug-addicted musician Ali is worthy of comparison with Ezzatolah Entezami’s performance of the man who thinks he is a cow in Mehrjui’s groundbreaking Gav (The Cow, 1969). There is no doubt that this film serves as a gritty social critique, and was one of the few truly introspectively critical films of the festival. Rakhshan Bani Etemad, working for the second time with Mohsen Abdolvahab, her co-director on Gilaneh (2005), has produced an outstanding cinematic experience with Khoon Bazi (Mainline), staring Bani Etemad’s daughter Baran Kowsari, who plays a young woman (Sara) struggling with drug addiction. Accomplished cinematographer, Mahmoud Kalari who has worked with most of the greats of Iranian cinema including Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami, Tahmineh Milani, Mehrjui, Majidi and Panahi has provided this film with a highly unique but utterly contemporary visual style. Shot predominantly with a hand-held camera in almost black and white, Kalari allows just a touch of colour to seep into the image at crucial moments. The rather confronting use of extreme close-ups of Kowsari helps to deeply connect the viewer with Sara’s suffering, and with her mother’s desperate attempts to protect her from society and herself. This film is surprisingly fresh and daring, given Iran’s censorship regulations, directly depicting scenes of drug taking and more than hinting that Sara sells her body to feed her drug habit. In fact, at times I was barely aware I was watching an Iranian film. Mainline transcends the very local issues of its content to produce a cinematic experience of the highest international standard. It is difficult for an international guest of the Fajr Film Festival to fully assess the impact of individual films on the viewing public. Unlike most international festivals where journalists, festival directors and other film professionals may attend the public screenings, in Tehran, international guests, who are generously looked after by the Farabi Cinema Foundation, attend screenings that are not open to the general public. This generates the effect of being sequestered away in a little international enclave, and prevents us from experiencing the energy, excitement and passion normally associated with an international film festival. It was strangely surreal not to experience the throng of the crowd and the displays of appreciation and disappointment that usually accompany festival screenings. That said, with this being my first visit to Tehran, I’m not sure I was ready to experience the Iranian throng just yet, despite the Iranian people’s enormous reputation for a deep, passionate engagement with cinema. I look forward to sharing this experience with them in the future. Endnotes See “Whither Iranian Cinema? The Perils and Promises of Globalization” in Close Up: Iranian Cinema Past, Present and Future, Verso, London & New York, 2001, pp. 244–282. Ibid. p. 268. Mehr News 14 February 2007, last accessed 30 May 2007. “A comic film about a grim subject”, The Economist, 19 April 2007. Dabashi writes, “Nativism not only blinds Kiarostami’s generation of engaged intellectuals to the global configuration of power, but also makes them ignorant of subnational, domestic colonialism.” p. 257.