The paradox of Iranian film: Greatness out of repression

Published by the Washington Post

Arash Azizi, a professor of history at Clemson University, is author of “What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom.” This piece is adapted from an essay in the spring 2024 issue of Liberties, a journal of culture and politics.

Iran today might be best known for two things: one of the most repressive regimes in the world and one of the most impressive cinemas in the world. The coexistence of the two is a conundrum that perplexes many people. How does a country known for ferocious repression of dissent and artistic freedom end up producing some of the most impressive films in the world? What does this tell us about the relationship between autocracy and art? And how are we to understand Iran’s cinema community, often a victim of the regime’s policies of censorship and persecution? Are Iranian films political by nature and, if so, what is their politics?

Perhaps it is best to start with the most renowned director in Iranian history, Abbas Kiarostami, whose films were born not of an engagement, positive or negative, with politics, but of an emancipating rejection of politics.

To track Kiarostami’s career, we must begin in the 1990s, when he started to make a name for himself at film festivals.Then in his 50s, he had been making films for more than two decades and was best known in his homeland for his experimental documentaries. He first practiced his art in the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, a remarkable center founded in the 1960s by Farah Pahlavi, Iran’s last queen.

But it was Kiarostami’s first post-1979 — that is, post-revolution — fiction feature that helped him break out on the festival circuit and, in the process, give birth to a new Iranian cinema.

Released in 1987, “Where Is the Friend’s House?” initially struggled to find a global audience.

To track Kiarostami’s career, we must begin in the 1990s, when he started to make a name for himself at film festivals.Then in his 50s, he had been making films for more than two decades and was best known in his homeland for his experimental documentaries. He first practiced his art in the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, a remarkable center founded in the 1960s by Farah Pahlavi, Iran’s last queen.

But it was Kiarostami’s first post-1979 — that is, post-revolution — fiction feature that helped him break out on the festival circuit and, in the process, give birth to a new Iranian cinema.

Released in 1987, “Where Is the Friend’s House?” initially struggled to find a global audience.

It was made far from Tehran, in the green, temperate fields of the northern Gilan province, close to the shores of the Caspian Sea. The film tells the story of a simple quest. Ahmad, a schoolboy, realizes he has mistakenly taken home the notebook of a classmate, who will be punished if he arrives empty-handed. He resolves to return it, accomplishing this mission of schoolboy honor means he must traverse the tough, rolling hills of the Gilani countryside to get to his friend’s home. At a time of war and revolution, when Iranian culture had become so brutal and cruel, Kiarostami created a quiet and poignant film whose protagonist was not a stand-in for another ideology; he was a simple schoolboy who would do anything for his friend not to get into trouble.

The film’s title was taken from a poem by Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980), an Iranian poet and painter whose “Eastern” influences and Buddhist inclinations made him an object of derision by the literati of his time. How could you write poems about rivers and the blue sky, a fellow poet once asked Sepehri, when so many people were being killed nearby? Yet that is precisely what Kiarostami had done. It was so refreshing, to his own people in Iran and beyond. While the Iran-Iraq War was raging, and the ayatollahs were consolidating their tyranny, his simple, humane and endearingly warm tale of a Gilani schoolboy seemed prophetic, as if it wanted to will a different world into being.

One way of triumphing over politics is to live in neglect of politics. But the film was not just an escapist route out of the tough Iranian reality; it remained profoundly and unmistakably Iranian. It relied on the mood-making of Sepehri’s poetry, the delicate sound of the setar (a Persian lute), the magically simple forms of rural Iranian architecture, and the traditions of figurative Iranian art, all deeply familiar to Kiarostami, who started out as a graphic designer. In its sovereign indifference to the political situation of its day, it was as if the film was telling us: A different Iran is possible.

Kiarostami’s simple-looking poetic cinema, mixing documentary and fiction, actors and amateurs, would soon be denounced as gimmicky by many in Iran. But foreign festivalgoers could not get enough. There was something so deeply human in his elementary tales; he found universal themes in the most provincial corners of the Iranian countryside. In 1997, with the extraordinary “Taste of Cherry,” Kiarostami finally achieved the greatest cinematic honor, the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. (Only three non-Western nations — Japan, Algeria and Turkey — had ever landed the trophy before.) The film’s plot resembled his previous work in some ways but was also a departure from it. Almost the entirety of this beautiful film takes place inside a car, as a middle-aged man drives around rural areas just outside Tehran, seeking to hire someone for a particular task: burying him alive. The first two men he sounds out, a conscript soldier and an Afghan cleric, refuse his macabre proposal, but the third one, a museum worker, agrees, although we never see if he actually carries out his task.

Despite its increasing global isolation, despite harboring one of the most severe censorship regimes anywhere in the world, Iran had joined the upper ranks of the cinema universe. It would now be known to many in the world not just by the angry and menacing frown of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his fellow “mad mullahs,” or by the racist imagery of the 1991 American film “Not Without My Daughter,” but also by the colossal humanity of its art films.

Events soon showed that Kiarostami’s poetic humanism had been in some ways a taste of things to come. After the war with Iraq ended in 1988 and Khomeini died a year later, Iran experienced many changes. Just as state socialism was collapsing in the Soviet Union, Iran’s loud ideologues of the previous decade went through their own Damascene conversions. A most exemplary case was the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

Born in Tehran in 1957, Makhmalbaf was active as a teenager in an underground guerrilla group against the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In the early years of the revolution, he was a militantly Islamist filmmaker who made intensely ideological films — and a thug who physically attacked opponents of the Islamic republic. But in the 1990s, starting with his film “Time of Love,” which was shot mostly in Istanbul and is almost entirely in Turkish, Makhmalbaf went through a shocking transformation. His films now told the tales of earthly romances and poetic meanderings, warm tales of young people seeking a better life. After a successful screening at Tehran’s film festival, “Time of Love” was banned in Iran. The same fate awaited many of Makhmalbaf’s later films. He went on to become a harsh opponent of the Islamist regime, leaving Iran for an exilic life between London and Paris. In 2013, he was a guest of honor at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Makhmalbaf’s transformation was echoed in politics by a group of reformist officials who, under popular pressure from disenfranchised women and youths, attempted to take post-Khomeini Iran in a different direction. Was life imitating art? Just a week after Kiarostami got his Palm d’Or, the reformist mullah Mohammad Khatami cruised to a surprise victory in the 1997 presidential election. A new era of struggle opened in Iran, as partisans of democratic reform fought head-on with guardians of the theocratic establishment. Although the regime was hard at work trying to train its own filmmakers, Iranian cinema remained mostly the realm of the regime’s critics, forever struggling valiantly against censorship. Their efforts took matters beyond where Kiarostami left them. He had never set out to be a political filmmaker, but the very nature of his work made him enemies in the establishment. In fact, his films were not the only thing that alienated the hard-liners: After winning the Palm d’Or, he kissed the cheek of French star Catherine Deneuve, who presented the award. Upon his return to Iran, angry pro-government mobs were after him for this public sacrilege. Like Makhmalbaf, he would soon be hounded out of filming in his homeland.

Iranians have yet to win the battle of democracy, despite an untold number of people losing their lives in the fight. But Iranian cinema has only grown in global stature. Kiarostami, who died in 2016, is still a name to be reckoned with, but at least a dozen more men and women, working inside and outside Iran, have come to represent the country on the red carpets. One of his most worthy heirs is Jafar Panahi, whose first feature film, the celebrated “The White Balloon” in 1995, was written by Kiarostami. Panahi’s didactic regime-critical cinema and open support for Iranian freedom movements have earned him repeated bans from filmmaking and landed him in prison. Even from behind bars, he collected many laurels from festivals such as Cannes and Berlinale.

As Panahi is persecuted by the regime, Iran’s cinema community stands firmly behind him. Support has come from all quarters, including from the filmmaker who has towered over Iranian cinema since Kiarostami — Asghar Farhadi, two of whose films, “A Separation,” from2011, and “The Salesman,” from 2016, won the Academy Award for best international film, making Iran part of the very small club of countries that have received more than one Oscar in this category. (The only other non-European countries to have gained this honor are Argentina and Japan.) Just as Kiarostami started a revolution in Iranian cinema, Farhadi led his own. Instead of the heavy dose of allusion, abstraction and poetic inference that had long defined Iranian artistic movies, Farhadi’s hard-hitting dramas of middle-class life relied on masterful weaving of plot. If Kiarostami had been an art house darling, Farhadi knew how to write a tight script. Whereas Kiarostami had lionized the simple country people living far from the cities, Farhadi’s protagonists were Tehrani men and women, many of whose urban woes could have been set in Buenos Aires or Bucharest. His films depicted and dissected the complexities of Iran’s modern society, a far cry from the attractive rural simplicities of other Iranians.

In May 2022, as the 32-year-old director Saeed Roustayi walked up the steps of Le Palais des Festivalsin Cannes for his film “Leila’s Brothers,” he had a lot to be proud of. His very presence there was a grand achievement — and a sign of how far things had come for Iranian cinema since the 1990s. Of the 21 films being presented in the main competition at Cannes, “Leila’s Brothers” was the only one that did not hail from a rich country. (All were from the West, except for two films from South Korea.) After the Belgian director Lukas Dhont, who turned 31 a few days before the festival, Roustayi was also the youngest director in the competition. But, given the bleak national mood under the increasingly tight grip of the theocratic tyranny, many Iranians were no longer lining up to cheer.

Certainly the sourness and disillusionment came as no surprise to Roustayi. His films bristle with bitterness and hopelessness. Throughout the 2010s, as Iran suffered under the twin pressures of U.S. sanctions and the economic incompetence and mismanagement of the theocracy, the middle classes depicted in Farhadi’s films were increasingly pauperized and destroyed. Indeed, it is accurate to say that, with hopes for change dashed time and time again, Iran is going through the most despairing period in its modern history. And this bleak outlook is perfectly reflected in Roustayi’s films. “Leila’s Brothers” is a song of despair, a cup of tea “more bitter than poison,” to use a Persian turn of phrase. Again, this is not a consolatory cinema, a cinema of false hopes, uplifting tales or feel-good gimmicks. “Leila’s Brothers” is not poverty porn, either. In fact, the main family of the story does not quite live in extreme poverty. The movie’s bitterness comes not from an exaggerated portrayal of squalid conditions but from its sober depiction of tragic constraints that limit even previously middle-class families in modern Iran.

A few months after the curtains went down in Cannes, a massive anti-government revolt erupted in Iran. This time, the impetus was the killing of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been detained by the morality police because her headscarf fell short of the imposed Islamic standards. Tens of thousands took to the streets. Women threw off their shackles — that is, they publicly burned their mandatory hijabs. The regime went on to kill hundreds of people as it faced a months-long rebellion.

Many in the country’s film community took unprecedented actions of solidarity with the protesters. Taraneh Alidoosti, who played Leila in Roustayi’s film, published a picture of herself without the hijab on Instagram, brandishing a banner with the movement’s slogan, borrowed from the Kurdish movements in Syria and Turkey: Women, Life, Freedom. She was thrown in jail in December 2022, only to be freed the next month after posting a huge bail. Other actors and filmmakers suffered similar fates. As he had promised in Cannes, Roustayi refused to accept any of the suggested cuts that the Iranian authorities had imposed on “Leila’s Brothers” as a condition for its public screening. The film was thus denied a permit, imposing a massive financial cost on its makers. In August 2023, Roustayi, along with his co-producer on the film, was sentenced to six months in prison for the crime of taking the film to Cannes without permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. This led to outrage in Iran and beyond. They served nine days, with the remainder of their sentences suspended over five years, during which they have to take a course in Islamist reeducation and stay away from other members of the Iranian film community.

As Iranian filmmakers have flourished in recent years, the conditions in their country have worsened in every way. In Iran, there seems to be a perverse relationship between cinematic excellence and governmental cruelty. No, the cinematic community has not overthrown the government or changed things fundamentally. Nor are most Iranian films directly political or of the journalistic speak-truth-to-power kind. But those who demand that artists pick up a bullhorn, or a machine gun, forget the roots of Iran’s cinematic triumph. Iranian films have countered a political regime bent on penetrating every aspect of life by centering a force of sheer humanity; by showing that there is more to life than slogans; by demonstrating that truth is not absolute.

In a climate of hostility and repression, what has mattered is not what Iranians films do or say, but what they are. And what they are is a zone of freedom, shrewdly and miraculously extracted from the unfreedom that surrounds them.

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