Back in Cannes spotlight, crisis for Iranian cinema

By Fereshteh Modarresi

Four Iranian films are showing at the Cannes film festival next week, screenings that will no doubt be seized upon by art-house audiences as a sign the Islamic republic's film-makers can overcome the headaches of censorship with offerings that hold their own abroad.

But despite the flurry of foreign festival awards over the past few years, a number of Iranian directors are complaining that their films are failing to win over domestic audiences, and that the industry faces collapse.

"Unfortunately, the cinema that is supposed to address the nation is now addressing festivals," said Bahram Beyzaie, director of "Bashu the Little Boy," the story of a refugee child during the Iran-Iraq war.

From low attendance to the neglected state of Iran's cinemas, the signs are clear that the industry is in decline.

Restrictions imposed on directors by censorship and a lack of "independent" funding sources at home -- that would allow them the artistic freedom they desire -- have pushed directors to seek funding and success abroad.

These factors, detractors say, have prevented them from dealing with social and political issues of relevance to Iranian audiences or meeting their tastes in entertainment.

"Our directors are expected to maintain the cliches demanded by international festivals, so they have to disguise themselves under a mask of intellectuality that is both strange and unfamiliar to our people," Beyzaie said.

As for funding, Beyzaie complained that a "cinema mafia" is active in Iran, with an "unfair distribution of facilities and government funds among cinema artists".

"Certain families", he said, were better placed to receive government loans for their productions -- a veiled snipe at Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his daughter Samira, whose film "At Five in the Afternoon" is among 20 films competing for the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

Meanwhile, if film scripts do not conform to Islamic principles they get shot down by the official Cinema Foundation, which also provides funding to those films it deems acceptable. Directors agree that the censorship standards imposed since the 1979 Islamic revolution have contributed to putting off Iranian audiences.

However, censorship has also played a paradoxical role, said Majid Majidi, who directed the award-winning film "Color of Paradise."

The need to work around the restrictions played a key role in the development of a "new genre" of metaphorical and often emotionally intense films that emerged in the 1990s and gained popularity in the West, Majidi said.

Iran's directors have gone far in delivering humanist messages by portraying the lives of "simple people" in Iran: laborers, villagers, and street-children. The selection is vast though, including portrayals of both the real and surreal.

While they have appealed to intellectual circles in Iran, the "made-for-foreign-festival" films, as they are called here, have not been successful with ordinary Iranians.

Many also want more entertaining and more commercial films."The festival films usually portray sad stories, poverty, depression and despair. People want to have fun, especially in a country were fun is so limited," actress Katayoun Jahangiri said.

But Iran's commercial cinema has been left little room as Iranians seeking more entertainment have no problem buying pirated DVDs and video CDs of the top Hollywood productions, or accessing foreign satellite channels.

According to official figures, attendance at cinemas has fallen from 11 million in 2000 to seven million in 2002.

Since moderate President Mohammed Khatami was voted into office in 1997 on a pro-reform platform, restrictions have eased and there has been a growing trend by directors to push the limits and address issues of relevance to Iranians.

One good example is "Women's Prison" directed by Manijeh Hekmat and released in 2002, a taboo-breaking account of life in a women's prison following the revolution.

The film also features a young runaway girl committing suicide, a taboo topic in the Islamic republic, and the execution of a 17-year-old female political prisoner. It also, uniquely, features scenes of women without headscarves.

The film, whose script narrowly made it past censors, ignited a heated debate in Iran and was only screened after censors cut 20 minutes.

In September 2002, an Isfahan cinema showing the immensely popular film was burned down, and the movie was later banned.

Financing the movie was no easy task, as Hekmat said herself in an interview published in the Australia-based Senses of Cinema magazine in October 2002.

"On the one hand, nobody dared to finance my project, and on the other hand, I never agreed to reduce the quality of my movie for financial reasons," she said.

In the end she financed it herself, though one producer backed her in mid-shoot. The showdown over the film reflected the struggle between Khatami's allies and the conservatives.

But then again, the film offered little in the way of the light entertainment thirsted after by the Iranian audience.

Originally Published May 8, 2003

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