Even Veils Can't Hide The Artistry Of Iranians - "Friendly Persuasion" Review

By Stephen Holden The New York Times

Creating great art in the cushiest of circumstances is no easy matter. But when it emerges out of an extremely restrictive political climate, it can seem like a miracle. Take Iranian cinema, which has undergone an extraordinary flowering since the 1979 Islamic revolution, which placed stringent restrictions on what can and cannot shown on the screen.

Jamsheed Akrami's documentary, "Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema After the Revolution" is an inspiring demonstration of that old saw about necessity being the mother of (in this case, artistic) invention.

Although it is risky to generalize about recent Iranian film, certain characteristics stand out. Much of it blurs the line between fiction and documentary in ways that pose the deepest questions about the relation of filmmaking to reality and how that process changes that reality. Much of it also evokes a primal relationship between human beings and the natural world that is at once fearsome and rhapsodic.

Especially in Abbas Kiarostami's towering Koker Trilogy, which portrays rural people carrying on after a devastating earthquake, there is an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of natural catastrophe. At the same time, the images of people coping almost cheerfully suggests a harmony with nature and almost ecstatic resignation to its inscrutable will.

All this, and much more, is suggested by the film, which weaves interviews with 15 Iranian filmmakers (from three generations) and commentators into a comprehensive portrait of a national art form. Mr. Akrami, who also wrote and produced "Friendly Persuasion," is a former editor of the Iranian magazines Film and Art and Film Quarterly. He now teaches at William Paterson and Columbia Universities.

The movie, which opens today at the Screening Room in conjunction with a 17-film retrospective of recent Iranian films, isn't much to look at. It is generously studded with clips from important works, but these clips are so bleached out from being copied that they don't convey the sensuous apprehension of nature that is a hallmark of much of the work. Many of the clips seem almost randomly selected and are so visually murky and dramatically mystifying as to serve little or no illustrative purpose.

Despite the shoestring production values, what makes "Friendly Persuasion" a must-see for any serious fan of Iranian film is its interviews with many of the leading lights of Iranian cinema. The subjects include Mr. Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Dariush Mehrjui, all of whom have directed critically acclaimed work. Without sharply criticizing the Islamic government that imposes such restrictions, they succeed in conveying the difficulties facing them.

That censorship is daunting, to say the least. Men and women (even husbands and wives) cannot be shown in physical contact. Women must always be shown with their heads covered, even when indoors. That necessity has encouraged directors and cinematographers to light their faces in more expressive ways, while the taboo against any overt sexual expression has them evoke the erotic in silent looks and other signals.

One result of the rules is that the filmmakers have found it easier to focus on children than on adults. And this concentration on children has helped tug Iranian cinema toward the stripped-down, primal subject matter and neo-realist austerity for which it is admired. The universe as interpreted by a grownup through the eyes of a child is indeed a wonderful and scary place.

The one director who goes out of his way to deny that censorship is a problem is Mr. Kiarostami (who is also the most acclaimed), and at moments his caginess borders on the infuriating. Others, especially the female directors interviewed, are less discreet in voicing their frustrations. But in the end "Friendly Persuasion" is more inspiring than depressing. For its message is an encouraging one: somehow art will find a way.

Originally Published March 23, 2001

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