Iranian New Wave

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Originally Published in GreenCine

Those of us who remember the 1980s remember Iran as a villainous empire. In 1979, Iranian activists took over the American embassy and held 54 Americans hostage for 444 days. The crisis helped cause President Carter's downfall and President Reagan spent half his time in office demonizing the Iranians.

But by 1997, America had moved on. Suddenly two strange things happened. A small, colorful, beautiful film called Gabbeh opened in American theaters, and a masterpiece called Taste of Cherry tied for the Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Iranian cinema of course, began long before 1997. But since then it has become an international phenomenon, a New Wave on par with the French movement of the 1950s and 60s, the German movement of the 60s and 70s and the Hong Kong movement of the 80s and 90s.

The directors behind the two groundbreaking films were Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh) and Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry). Iranian filmgoers knew their names long before we did, of course, as evidenced by Kiarostami's extraordinary 1990 film Close-Up. The film depicts the true story of an Iranian citizen, Hossein Sabzian, who impersonates Makhmalbaf to the extent that he begins living with a family, telling them that he plans to use them and their home in his next film. We first meet Sabzian riding a bus and reading one of Makhmalbaf's published screenplays. It's apparent that Makhmalbaf is a household name, even if - like many American directors - his face isn't famous enough to have prevented this deception.

Arguably the greatest of all Iranian films, Close-Up seamlessly combines controlled surfaces and uncontrolled realism. The first part of the film is pure Kiarostami; a reporter hires a cab and together they drive to the house in question. During the ride, they talk and the reporter outlines the whole story. They arrive at the house and the driver waits outside. Kiarostami diverts our attention to a paint can rolling and clattering down a hill. Before long the film moves to the courtroom for Sabzian's trial. Even experts have been unable to agree on whether Kiarostami stole into the courtroom to film the trial or if the entire trial was re-created for the cameras after the fact. Certainly Sabzian's story up until the trial is created. And in essence it all works for the benefit of the film, revealing a story about storytellers and deception.

The film's crowning moment comes near the end when Kiarostami manages to get Sabzian and the real Makhmalbaf together. The filmmaker picks up the imitator at the prison and gives him a ride on a motorcycle to wherever he might want to go (he chooses to buy flowers for his victims). But the microphone planted on Makhmalbaf malfunctions, cutting out every so often, so that we can't hear everything the two men say to one another. Was this an accident, or again, a kind of deception?

The Makhmalbafs

Both Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf began their careers early, and their styles are as different as their personal histories. Born in 1952 in a poor section of Tehran, Makhmalbaf began working at a young age to support his family. He helped organize an Islamic militant group and was arrested and jailed for four years after stabbing a policeman (in self-defense). Released in 1979, he devoted his life to art and began writing plays. His fourth feature Boycott (1985) is about these experiences, and, almost ironically, that film's lead actor, Majid Majidi, later became one of Iran's most successful directors.

Makhmalbaf's early films, like Boycott, The Cyclist (1987), The Peddler (1987) and Marriage of the Blessed (1989) have a brutal, angry edge to them. Marriage of the Blessed in particular; it opens on a hospital scene, a room packed with both physical and mental casualties of the Iran-Iraq war. A barbaric staff rushes around with a rattling tray, giving shots to screaming patients who are suffering bloody flashbacks.

Before long, Makhmalbaf embarked on his "cinema trilogy": Once Upon a Time, Cinema (1992), The Actor (1993) and Salaam Cinema (1995), each of which traced and paid homage to his love for films both local and international.

The trilogy seemed to loosen him up, for he then launched his most internationally successful films, starting with Gabbeh. These films were filled with a new patience and a devotion to small, beautiful details. The anger was now gone and replaced with a kind of wonder.

The 75-minute Gabbeh follows the nomadic Ghashghai people who make colorful carpets that tell stories. One young woman longs to marry a mysterious horseman who follows their tribe around, but her family's traditions prevent the marriage from being acceptable. The film is more of a fairy tale than a romance. But it's seductive and heartbreaking without being angry, which may be precisely why international audiences took to it.

From there, Makhmalbaf made A Moment of Innocence (1996) (a.k.a. Bread and Flowers), another take on his own life story. This time the telling is less angry and more thoughtful; it may be his greatest achievement to date. Teaming up with the very policeman he stabbed years ago, the pair chose young actors to re-create the event, filming it from their two different points of view. Like Close-Up, which obviously inspired it, A Moment of Innocence turns quickly from a gimmick film into something much more beautiful and poignant.

The Silence (1998) was another quiet, lovely film rich in colors and sensitive to sounds. A blind boy (Tahmineh Narmatava) works in a music shop tuning instruments but becomes easily distracted by the natural music of the world. He becomes obsessed with the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (da-da-da-DUM), which he equates to his landlord's knocking at his mother's door, looking for the overdue rent. He hears music wherever he goes and follows it through the streets. A neighbor girl (Nadereh Abdollahyava) who looks after him, soon joins in his little games. The Silence is virtually plotless and tends to wander, but it's easy to be seduced by its rhythms.

Blessed with extraordinary timing, Kandahar (2001) became Makhmalbaf's most popular film to date in the United States, even though it returns to the director's angrier, more abrasive period. A female journalist Nafas (Nelofer Pazira) tries to get into the war-torn Afghanistan city in an attempt to prevent her sister from committing suicide at the next solar eclipse. By law, she's not allowed to travel without a man, and so she's forced to hire a series of increasingly uninspiring guides. Makhmalbaf adapts the volatile terrain to his story, such as in a harrowing and memorable scene set in a medical camp populated by limbless mine explosion victims. Unlike his earlier films, Kandahar shows both passion and artistic maturity.

While making these recent films, Makhmalbaf also founded the Makhmalbaf Film House, teaching young filmmakers the ropes. Among his students are his wife Marziyeh Meshkini and his daughter Samira.

At the tender age of 19, Samira Makhmalbaf made her directorial debut with The Apple (1998), which was written and edited by her father. Like Close-Up and A Moment of Innocence, The Apple crossbreeds documentary and fiction. It tells the true story of two young girls, Massoumeh and Zahra, who have literally been locked up in their home for eleven years. As a result, they have become social misfits, unable to walk or speak properly. Their parents - a blind woman and her domineering husband - have never bathed them due to their lack of running water.

Because the Iranian government must approve all film productions, a process that can take years, Samira began her film by shooting on video. When one of her father's films was approved, he donated his film stock to her. The Apple begins by following a social worker as she attempts to solve the girls' problem and ends with the sisters' first foray into the world. The young Samira manages a few utterly beautiful and breathtaking moments, as well as harsh moments of journalistic reality. It's an assured, moving work.

Unfortunately, Samira's follow-up Blackboards (2001) was a bit of a disappointment, chronicling the adventures of two teachers as they walk the twisted dirt roads near the Iran-Iraq border, each carrying his blackboard on his back and meeting up with groups of needy refugees. The younger Makhmalbaf fails to make her ideas or her intentions clear, despite the fact that the film is filled with extraordinary imagery.

Meanwhile, Makhmalbaf's wife Marziyeh Meshkini gave us the beautiful The Day I Became a Woman (2000), a three-part film celebrating the lives of three women, a child, an adult and an old woman. The young girl discovers that on her ninth birthday she must hide her hair under a burka and stop playing with boys; so she sneaks out for one last ice cream with her young male friend. Another woman participates in a bicycle race and is chased by her husband and family, berating her for falling down on her wifely duties. And the old lady hires a gaggle of boys to drive her around and help her buy furniture. Each story has something to say about Iran's oppression of women, but chooses to celebrate the freedoms that can be found within that oppression.

Recently, Samira's younger sister Hana joined the family act and shot her first film, a "making-of" documentary called Joy of Madness that chronicles her sister at work, shooting a film in Afghanistan.

Abbas Kiarostami

Often mentioned in the same breath as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran's other leading filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, does not have his own film school, but he uses his influence in other ways.

His first feature film, The Traveller (1974), made an enormous splash in Iran and its impact could be equated to that of The 400 Blows or Breathless in France. It tells the story of a young boy who ditches school in order to attend a soccer match in Tehran. He must cajole bus and train fare from anyone he can think of, but the strain and difficulty of the day catch up to him; he falls asleep and misses the game. This captivating, black-and-white feature film was a clear indication of Kiarostami's enormous potential.

Nevertheless, nearly fifteen years passed before Kiarostami made a second feature, a film that would launch his career in earnest. In the meantime, he made a few documentaries (e.g., Fellow Citizen, 1983) and minor features (First Graders, 1984). But it was Where Is the Friend's Home? (also known as Where Is My Friend's House?, 1987) that fully established him as a world master. Again focusing on the story of a young boy and his travels, the film tells the story of a boy who mistakenly takes his classmate's homework home with him; if he doesn't return it the classmate will receive a zero in class. So the boy embarks upon an odyssey around Iran's twisty dirt roads, not entirely sure where he's going. He meets several people along the way, some helpful, but most ultimately deterrents. Like The Traveller, Kiarostami finds a single, lovely, unforgettable image with which to end the film.

With The Traveller and this film, Kiarostami also made the discovery that government censors tended to more quickly approve stories about children; many other filmmakers would follow suit over the next 20 years.

Where Is the Friend's Home? inadvertently began what would come to be known as the "Earthquake Trilogy," since the town in which the film was shot suffered a massive earthquake in 1990 killing some 35,000 people. For his follow-up film, And Life Goes On (a.k.a. Life and Nothing More, 1991) Kiarostami told the semi-fictional story of a filmmaker and his son who venture back into the same village to find the two actors who starred in the first film. Like the previous films, it makes brilliant use of space, specifically the village's windy roads and uneven terrain, and deliberately leaves many questions unanswered, as if to prolong the natural mystery of life.

A third film followed, Through the Olive Trees (1994), which tells the story of a film production and an actor's efforts to woo his female co-star. But this film has suffered a terrible fate. Because of a deal made with the best intentions, the notorious Miramax ended up with the distribution rights to the film. It probably played for a week or so in major American cities, but since then has been completely unavailable. It has never been released on video or DVD in the US, and apparently, Miramax doesn't even have a viewable print in their library.

Kiarostami more than made up for that slap in the face with his next film, Taste of Cherry (1997), which shared the 1997 Palm D'Or with Shohei Imamura's The Eel. This extraordinary work is by far Kiarostami's most challenging film, and polarized the world's film critics at the time. A man (Homayoun Ershadi) drives around the outskirts of Tehran, apparently looking for someone. We slowly learn, through trial and error, that the man intends to commit suicide (we don't know why) and he hopes to find an accomplice. The man, known as Mr. Badii, will dig a hole, take poison and lie down in it. If he is still alive in the morning, the accomplice will help him out. If not, the accomplice will fill in the hole. It takes some time before Mr. Badii finds someone to listen to his story, and quite a bit more time before he finds someone who agrees. In the meantime, we hear a wide range of stories from the various people who get into his car, notably an elderly taxidermist. The taxidermist reveals that he himself almost committed suicide once but was saved by the taste of a mulberry. The film ends when Mr. Badii lies down in his hole, the film fades to black, and comes up on video footage of a film crew, including Kiarostami himself and the very much alive Ershadi, walking around the set. This ending infuriated many critics but united many others. Cinema luminaries such as Akira Kurosawa and Jean-Luc Godard were quoted singing the film's praises. In any case, it showed an ever more mature and experimental Kiarostami at work.

The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) received a far broader range of acclaim, and indeed, it reached cinematic heights that even Taste of Cherry could not have indicated. It combines many of the pet themes and visuals from Kiarostami's previous films, but imbues them with a new maturity. A band of filmmakers arrives in a small village to chronicle the death and subsequent funeral of the village's eldest woman. While they wait for her to die, they integrate themselves into the townspeople's daily lives. The most memorable scenes take place when the film director (Behzad Durani) tries to answer his constantly-ringing cell phone and finds that it can't get a signal within the labyrinthian confines of the city. He must run, get in his car, and drive to the highest point in the city, a hill upon which a man is digging a well. We never see the well-digger (he's always hidden in his hole) but Behzad tries many times to have a conversation with him. Many of the film's characters are never shown to us, especially a teenage girl. When Behzad meets her, he's inspired to recite the poem from which the film's beautiful title comes. Again, Kiarostami touches upon many themes and asks a few questions, but does not provide the answers, a rare and wondrous thing in 21st century filmmaking.

Following this major achievement, Kiarostami chose specifically to work only in video. He made a new documentary, ABC Africa (2001) - another film that went largely unseen in the United States thanks to shoddy distribution - and the feature film Ten (2003). As minimalist as it gets, Ten was shot with two small digital video cameras mounted on the dashboard of a car. We view a woman driver (Mania Akbari) as she converses with ten passengers. Some appear only once; others come back again and again. It's no less than a brilliant achievement, as we learn, layer by layer, all about this mysterious, beautiful woman in sunglasses and makeup. The only element missing here is Kiarostami's usually gorgeous camerawork.

Today Kiarostami continues to experiment with digital video and appears to be moving in a more Godardian direction, recessing deeper into personal essays and exploring the nature of cinema itself. His latest projects extend naturally from Ten. Five Long Takes Dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu is a 74-minute meditation set along the Caspian Sea, and 10 on Ten offers, yes, ten lessons on filmmaking, using Ten as its model.

But, like Makhmalbaf, he is also interested in helping young filmmakers get their careers off the ground. Rather than starting a film school and offering hands-on assistance, Kiarostami does what François Truffaut did for Godard on Breathless; he merely offers a "story" idea, allows his name to appear in the credits for marketing purposes, and lets the young directors take it from there.

Jafar Panahi

Undoubtedly, Kiarostami's most talented pupil is Jafar Panahi, who worked as an assistant director on Through the Olive Trees before Kiarostami helped him make his amazing 1995 feature directorial debut, The White Balloon (which had the distinction of being distributed in the United States a whole year before Gabbeh). In this film, a young girl embarks on a journey to buy a new goldfish for the Iranian New Year celebration (actually the first day of spring). Unfortunately, she loses her money and spends most of the film trying to get it back. Perhaps the most Bicycle Thief-like of Iranian films, The White Balloon concentrates less on "realism" than on finding beauty within naturalism; the structure of the film couldn't be more controlled. Unlike The Bicycle Thief, though, The White Balloon also works as a charming children's film. Panahi's next film, The Mirror (1997), very much follows in his mentor's footsteps - especially Close-Up - telling the story of a little girl who waits to be picked up by her mother, gives up and decides to find her own way home. Halfway through, the film suddenly turns into a documentary, telling the story about the making of the film.

But The Circle (2001) is something else altogether, a daring yet confident work from a filmmaker who has come into his own. It was banned in Iran but found an audience in the United States. Concentrating on the unfair treatment of women, the film tells several consecutive stories: two women released from jail seek illegal passage out of town, another woman is thrown out of her home for being pregnant, a third woman tries to abandon her baby daughter in the street and is arrested for prostitution, while a real prostitute is arrested as well. The film begins with a horrible wailing noise; in a prison-like hospital, a family despairs because a woman has just given birth to a baby girl. When the film winds up, all of our main characters - who cross paths, Slacker-like, during the course of the film - sit in a similar prison cell. Panahi uses his unerring eye for natural detail during the course of the film and effortlessly and seamlessly combines it with this scathing social commentary.

Kiarostami returned to help Panahi for his fourth feature film Crimson Gold (2003), another accomplished film that introduces us to a cross-section of fascinating characters, wallows in intricate everyday detail and offers a bit of wry observation about the way we live. A sluggish, overweight pizza deliveryman (Hussein Emadeddin) wishes to marry but can't afford a proper ring. When he visits an upscale jewelry store, he's treated like garbage. As he tries to deliver pizzas to a soldier he once knew during the Iran-Iraq war, to an illegal party, and to a lonely rich man, each situation winds up illustrating just how and why he will never be able to transcend his current social and financial status. Like The Circle, this film begins and ends in violence, though this time that violence is far more shocking.

Ali Reza Raisian

In 2002, Kiarostami provided an original story to another director, Ali Reza Raisian, who used it to create Deserted Station When their truck breaks down, a man and a woman go to the nearest town - a small depot consisting mostly of women and children - for help. While the man heads out to fix the broken vehicle, the woman takes over the schoolteacher duties for the day, bonding with the children, especially a small disabled girl. For the film's remarkable ending, the couple drives away in the repaired truck and the children refuse to stop running after it. Deserted Station is more character-driven than many of Kiarostami's films and gets most of its mileage out of the emotional ties between the children and the teacher.

Majid Majidi

Some might equate Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami to an Iranian Spielberg and Lucas, controlling and guiding the trends and talent for most of the industry. But other talents still manage to emerge, independent of those two mighty godfathers.

Though Majid Majidi began his career as an actor in Makhmalbaf's films, he has guided his own directorial career. Indeed, Majidi has unquestionably enjoyed more commercial success in the United States than any other Iranian filmmaker. His feature debut, Children of Heaven (1998), became the first Iranian film to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Very much in the vein of Where Is the Friend's Home? and The White Balloon, this film focuses on a pair of siblings, an older brother and a younger sister. On his way back from the repair shop, the boy loses his sister's shoes and they arrange an elaborate scheme to share the same pair of shoes during the school day. Salvation comes when the boy enters a race in which second prize is a dazzling new pair of sneakers. Slicker and more crowd-pleasing than previous features, Children of Heaven nonetheless crosses the finish line with its beautifully rendered details and emotional truth intact.

Majidi followed that hit with The Color of Paradise (2000), which is both the worst Iranian film ever to be released in the United States and the most popular and financially successful. Taking a cue from Makhmalbaf's The Silence, the film tells the story of a blind boy who has become a burden to his heartless father. Majidi goes for over-the-top melodrama here, drawing characters in broad strokes without any of the carefully observed nuances that make the less commercial Iranian films great.

Fortunately, Majidi reformed for his next film, Baran (2002), which, like Makhmalbaf's timely Kandahar, deals with Afghani refugees in Iran. To help support her family, a girl disguises herself as a boy and gets a job at a construction site. She takes over the tea-making duties of a young man, who gets jealous and inadvertently discovers her secret. For this film Majidi left behind his sentimental leanings and takes a more neo-realist approach, going so far as to depict the illegal refugees running and hiding when the inspector visits the worksite. Taking a cue from Kiarostami, he also uses the unique space of the worksite itself as a sort of character in the film.

Tahmineh Milani

A few other filmmakers have enjoyed some success here in the US, but on a much smaller scale. Feminist filmmaker Tahmineh Milani is herself perhaps more interesting than some of the films she's made. One of Iran's only high-profile female filmmakers, she is forever tangling with the government. She waited seven years to get her film Two Women (1999) approved, and, after the release of her follow-up film, The Hidden Half (2001), she was jailed for supposedly "anti-government" remarks.

The story of her imprisonment received arguably more coverage than the release of her films. The films themselves have a hysterical, melodramatic quality and show little regard for dialogue or cinematic shape. Two Women tells the story of a scholarly woman whose spirit is crushed by her father, an unwanted husband, and the advances of a stalker, while her friend lives a relatively free life in Tehran. In The Hidden Half, a judge learns that his wife once led a revolutionary and highly dynamic life.

Bahman Ghobadi

Another filmmaker has been seen here as both an actor and as a director. Bahman Ghobadi first became known to US viewers as the man in the hole in Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us. The director yells a few questions down to him, and Ghobadi's voice floats back up, but we never see his face. With such a strange debut, Ghobadi may be destined for great things. The actor later appeared as one of the blackboard-toting teachers in Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards.

Ghobadi made his feature directorial debut with the highly original A Time for Drunken Horses (2000), the first Iranian film in Kurdish. Using mostly untrained children, the story concerns a group of siblings who desperately try to raise money for their handicapped brother, a teenager with the body of a two-year-old. The film has a chilly, damp look and avoids the sentimentality inherent in other films about children. Ghobadi's film had a decent US theatrical release in 2000 when his film was picked up as part of the Shooting Gallery series.

Ghobadi followed up with Marooned in Iraq (2003), another unusual film with an absurd group of characters performing in deadly serious surroundings. A band of Three Stooges-like musicians, two sons and their father, travel the countryside looking for the father's former wife. Their encounters range from silly to shattering to sublime.

More Recent Work

While Ghobadi acted professionally before turning director, another director found it necessary to act. Bahman Farmanara's Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine (2001) came after decades of the filmmaker's scripts being rejected by the government. It was written almost in disgust, telling the story of a filmmaker who can't get a script approved and finally accepts a job making a documentary for Japanese television about Iranian funeral services. Lumpy, sad Farmanara plays the title role in a film saturated with death; as part of the documentary, he makes preparations for his own funeral. It's an intriguing film, but so steeped in death that the black comedy sometimes gets a little too black.

Released right around the same time, Babak Payami's Secret Ballot (2001) tells an African Queen-like story of an idealistic woman who travels around on election day attempting to collect ballots and the grumpy soldier assigned to drive her. The film rambles a bit, but also cleverly and deliberately recalls our own 2000 election crisis in Florida.

Iranian films have become a regular fixture at film festivals and repertory houses across the United States, even if some of them never secure regular American distribution. Two such standouts are The Girl in the Sneakers (1999) and Exam (2002).

In Rassul Sadr Ameli's The Girl in the Sneakers (1999), a 15-year-old girl, Tadai (Pegah Ahangarani), sneaks away to meet her boyfriend, is caught, and runs away to Tehran where she spends a whole day wondering what to do next. This film lacks the artistry of other, similar women-themed films but it gets by in its own workmanlike way.

Nasser Refaie's Exam (2002) is another simple film using only one set and a limited number of characters. A group of women gather outside a university and wait for their chance to get inside to take a test, which will determine whether or not they go on to college. The camera floats around between groups of women with contrasting results.

The Iranian New Wave has ebbed a bit in recent months, at least in terms of its impact in the US, thanks either to over-saturation or to a shift in political attitudes toward the Middle East. But it's far from over. Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf will hopefully have many years of filmmaking left in them, and both have planted the seeds for future generations. Jafar Panahi and Samira Makhmalbaf at least have already shown tremendous talent and promise for the future.

Controversy still reigns. Manouchehr Mohammadi's The Lizard (a.k.a. Marmoulak, 2004) has recently arrived in US theaters. After having been a smash hit in Iran, it was suddenly pulled from theaters there for its controversial content: a thief disguising himself as a cleric.

Other filmmakers like Bahman Ghobadi appear to be moving beyond the borders of Iran and into the outlying regions, exploring different nationalities and behavior. Perhaps his example will lead more filmmakers to do the same.

Tellingly, Ramin Serry's touching Maryam (2000) arrived in US theaters in 2002. It tells the story of an Iranian-American girl living in America during the 1979 hostage crisis. She slowly becomes the victim of her cruel classmates and must overcome several small crises at once. Mariam Parris plays the title character with heart and grace, shifting through various phases of shame, loyalty and acceptance.

Maryam came at a perfect time, deliberately referring back to the strained US-Iran relations of the late 1970s, as if attempting to heal the wounds before they opened and festered all over again.

Bibliography / Endnotes

No Works Cited

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