The Iranian Cinema

By Godfrey Chesire

Originally Published in Beyond the Veil

For Americans who want to look beyond the reductive image of Iran presented by the US media, Iran's cinema offers an alternative that is fascinating, even astonishing, for its artistic sophistication and passionate humanism.

At a time when Hollywood has put many national cinemas virtually out of business, and Hollywood itself is dominated by flashy, special effects-laden fantasies, Iran's filmmakers continue to impress world audiences with their distinctive formal ingenuity and dedication to real-life people and problems. In the past decade, Iranian films have won nearly 300 awards at international festivals, where directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf are recognized as among the cinema's most accomplished artists. Many critics now rank Iran as the world's most important national cinema artistically, with a significance that invites comparison to Italian Neorealism and similar movements in past decades.

While this phenomenon is still too little-known to American audiences, even aficionados of foreign films, Iranian movies have started gaining visibility in the US. In 1996, Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon (winner of the Camera d'Or at Cannes and Best Foreign Film from the New York Film Critics Circle) became the first Iranian film to gain broad art-house distribution in the U.S.; its success was paralleled the following year by that of Gabbeh by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose films also toured major U.S. museums during 1997. In early 1998, Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes in '97) won rave reviews when it opened in New York and Los Angeles; it is still playing in some areas of the country. Other new Iranian films will be seen in U.s. festivals and other venues in the coming months, and past releases are increasingly becoming available on video.

I first encountered Iranian films en masse at a festival in New York in 1992, and was immediately struck by the artistic quality of what I saw as well as by the sheer number of talented directors represented. In writing about and discussing Iranian cinema since then (I have also spent four months in Iran doing research for a book on the subject) I find that there are two questions most frequently asked by Americans who are interested but still uninitiated:

What are Iranian films like?

In some ways, of course, they are as different as the very diverse individuals making them. Yet there are common threads that link many of them. They often focus on ordinary people caught in harsh circumstances brought about by social, cultural or natural forces. The devastation caused by an earthquake, the wounds and traumas left by war, the hardships heaped on the poor, the prejudices faced by women -- these are powerful subjects, and Iranian filmmakers manage to address them not with easy sloganeering or sentimentality, but with insight and a sure sense of storytelling basics and dramatic purpose. The films' most singular quality is a feeling of compassion for those who suffer.

Formally as well as narratively, Iranian filmmakers have shown a genius for making virtues out of constraints. Since the films are cheaply made, they often have a surface simplicity that encourages subtlety and realism; budgetary limitations are perhaps one reason their directors have also become famous for exploring the boundary between documentary and fiction. That Western-style violence, obscenity and sex are prohibited (actresses must wear the veil at all times, and couples may not even hold hands) has meant that filmmakers carefully choose their subjects and practice skillfully indirect, allegorical storytelling. For example, films about children, an Iranian specialty, allow for a form of oblique social commentary and intimate situations that would be harder to effect among adults.

In the very best Iranian films, this combination of artful simplicity and subtle suggestiveness produces results that refine our notions of the cinema's expressive possibilities, and its connections to other arts. Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian director most acclaimed in the West, makes films that elegantly combine his interests in painting, poetry and philosophy, and that have drawn to comparisons to such world masters as Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa.

How is serious, artistic filmmaking possible in Iran?

The question assumes either 1) that Iran's culture doesn't offer the usual bases for such artistry, or 2) that the Islamic Republic's authoritarian nature could hardly permit any kind of free expression. Both notions are considerably wide of the mark.

Iran's 2,500-year-old culture has deep roots in philosophy and all kinds of literary and artistic achievement, making for an age-old cosmopolitanism amenable to many innovations, including the movies. In the early 1970s, Iran experienced a boom in European-influenced "artistic" filmmaking that included important work by directors such as Dariush Mehrjui (whose The Cow helped launch the movement), Kiarostami, Bahram Beyzaie, Amir Naderi and others.

The arrival of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 brought the nation's cinema to an abrupt halt. But in 1983, a group of young intellectuals working under then-Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad Khatami (now Iran's president and still a formidable movie fan, reportedly) created a blueprint for reviving Iran's cinema at every level. Part of the plan involved encouraging serious artistic works that could win Iran favorable attention at foreign festivals. Thus, filmmakers such as Kiarostami, Beyzaie, et al. were not only allowed to work again, but were given support and encouragement.

To be sure, Iranian directors have always been tightly constrained by censorship. But, paradoxically or not, the kind and degrees of censorship enforced in Iran have served to make many artists that much more skilled, resourceful and determined. Culture in Iran today has the electricity of a place where art, ideas and ideals still matter. Twenty years after its Revolution, Iran is involved in a great debate over its identity and direction as a society, and cinema plays a remarkably important role in that collective self-examination.

Where to see Iranian films

On Video

Of the regrettably few Iranian films now in general video release, the most likely to be found in the foreign-language section of better video stores is The White Balloon, the highly acclaimed prize winner released theatrically in 1996. Scripted by Abbas Kiarostami and directed by Jafar Panahi, this droll comedy-drama brings a rich sense of personality and place, as well as humor and oblique social commentary, to the tale of a persistent little girl trying to buy a goldfish on New Year's Eve. It's suitable for all ages.

In the spring of 1999, New Yorker Video will release Gabbeh, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's lyrical, exquisitely colorful, fairytale-like allegory based on the lives of nomadic Iranian carpet weavers. This is one of the true masterpieces of recent world cinema.

Unquestionably the best source for Iranian films in the U.S. is Chicago's excellent Facets Video (1517 West Fullerton Ave., Chicago IL 60614). Facets rents as well as sells its titles. For catalogues and orders, call 800-331-6197. Website: Email: Facets currently offers eight Iranian titles; it plans to release six more this fall. The original eight are discussed below. For viewers seeking an introduction to the Iranian cinema, I highly recommend the first two titles as great indicators of its artistic quality and diversity. The final two, meanwhile, are ideal for younger viewers.

--Bashu, the Little Stranger, by Bahram Beyzaie, has been voted the best post-1979 Iranian film by Iranian critics. Made during the Iran-Iraq war and originally banned, it tells of a poor farm wife trying coax a young war refugee out of his fear and trauma; it features a brilliant performance by actress Susan Taslimi.

--Hamoun, a dark comedy-drama that evokes comparison to Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, will stun anyone who assumes Iranian society is free of post-modern discontents. Directed by Dariush Mehrjui, it's about a 40'ish intellectual whose midflife crisis includes a marital meltdown and obsessions with Kierkegaard and J.D. Salinger.

--Where Is the Friend's Home? was the late-80's film that launched Abbas Kiarostami onto the world stage and set the prototype for Iranian "kid quest" movies. Nominally about a little boy trying to exchange notebooks with a schoolmate, this deceptively simple gem has the rigor of poetry and the haunting resonance of allegory.

--Life and Nothing More (a.k.a. And Life Goes On) is Kiarostami's film fictionalizing the experience of a movie director, much like himself, who undertakes a wayward odyssey through an area devastated by an earthquake, in search of the kids who'd acted in his previous film. A complex, allusive masterwork.

--The Peddler and the following title are striking films of social criticism made by Mohsen Makhmalbaf in the mid-80s. This one comprises three hallucinatory tales about the poor, damaged and disenfranchised left behind by the Iranian Revolution.

--The Cyclist is Makhmalbaf's harrowing tale of a poor worker who makes himself a carnival spectacle, riding a bicycle for days on end in a punishing public endurance test, in a desperate effort to raise money for his ill wife.

--The Need, by Ali Reza Davoudnejad, is a perfectly pitched, highly affecting tale of moral choice among the young. Telling of two poor boys vying for the same job in a printshop, it teaches a lesson in such a disarmingly forthright way that it makes you wonder how our movies lost this sort of generous, ethical purposefulness. A great film about, and for, adolescents.

--The Key, about a three-year-old boy left to care for his infant brother when their mother runs out for an errand and inadvertently locks the apartment door, is the most purely delightful of Iranian films. Scripted by Kiarostami, the documentary-like comedy has almost no dialogue, and is suited to viewers from 5 to 95.

Of the titles that Facets plans to release this fall, Nargess is a riveting tale of crime and female desire from Iran's leading female director, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. Zinat movingly chronicles a female medical worker's battle against rural prejudice. The Travelers, an emotional and stylistic tour de force by Bahram Beyzaie, concerns a lavish Tehran wedding feast that becomes a wake. And Once Upon a Time, Cinema is Makhmalbaf's exuberantly whimsical celebration of the entire history of Iranian cinema. This series' other titles will be The Last Act and Legend of a Sigh.

Film Festivals

The Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago offers North America's only annual festival of new Iranian films. This year's edition, the ninth, will take place October 3-November 1 and will feature visits by a number of filmmakers including the brilliant cinematographer (and now, director) Mahmoud Kalari, the director Aboulfazl Jalili, and others. The festival's 10 features will include Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's The May Lady, Jalili's Dance of Dust and Dan, the controversial cross-dressing comedy The Snowman, and the visually sumptuous spiritual allegory Birth of a Butterfly. Info: (312) 443-3733.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center will present its third festival of Iranian films at New York's Walter Reade Theater this Nov. 13-Dec. 3. This edition will feature three sections: pre-1979 films (a very rare chance to see masterpieces from before the Revolution); a selection of new Iranian films; and a salute to veteran director Dariush Mehrjui, a pillar of the New Iranian Cinema whose career stretches from the seminal The Cow in 1969 to Hamoun, Pari, the banned Banoo, Leila and the new Pear Tree in the '90s. Mehrjui is expected to attend the festival. Info: (212) 875-5600. Website:

The Film Society also presents the New York Film Festival, which in recent years has launched a number of Iranian films. Running from late September into early October, the 1998 NYFF has one Iranian title on its docket: The Apple, a fascinating docudrama scripted by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and directed by his 18-year-old daughter, Samira. It's the true story of two sisters who were locked up from birth by their parents, then discovered and released at age 11.

In Canada during the early fall, both the Montreal World Film Festival (late August to early September) and the Toronto Festival of Festivals (mid-September.) annually offer selections of new Iranian films. Montreal's competition this year will include Bani-Etemad's The May Lady. Both festivals will offer the first North American looks at Makhmalbaf's newest film, The Silence.

Upcoming Theatrical Releases

Next January, watch for the biggest US splash yet by an Iranian film when Miramax Films releases Children of Heaven. Directed by Majid Majidi, this genial crowd-pleaser, about a poor brother and sister temporarily obliged to share the same pair of shoes, walked away with almost every award offered -- including the grand prize, the critics prize, the people's prize, and the ecumenical jury prize -- at last year's Montreal festival. Miramax is positioning it for a shot at the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Other releases are still in the tentative stage, but three films seem likely to open in US theaters by next spring. Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple, noted above, will first be seen at several North American festivals. Dariush Mehrjui's Leila, a fascinating drama about a young wife who's pressured to let her husband take a second wife, won critical raves when it debuted at the Museum of Modern Art this past spring. And Jafar Panahi's The Mirror, which re-teams the director and young star of The White Balloon, has captured awards that include the grand prize at last summer's Locarno Film Festival.

Meanwhile, Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry continues to play the US art-house circuit. The first Iranian film ever to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes, it caused an immediate stir in Iran for treating the touchy subject of suicide; while more severe than most of Kiarostami's work, the spare, allusive drama displays his characteristic visual grace and mix of personal and philosophical concerns.

In Print

One indication of Iran's vibrant film culture is that ten film magazines are published in Tehran. One, Film International, which appears two or three times a year, is in English. Slickly produced, it offers detailed coverage and critical appraisals of Iran's film production, as well as Iranian views of world festivals and developments in international cinema (there's a particular interest in American indies like Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley, and occasional interviews with critics such as Andrew Sarris and Jonathan Rosenbaum). Overseas subscriptions are available. Inquire by email: <>.

Bibliography / Endnotes

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