September 27, 2006
In the year 2000 I went to see Abbas Kiarostami receive the Akira Kurosawa award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The famed director thanked the organizers, then surprised everyone by giving away his prize to veteran Iranian actor Behrooz Vosooghi. Six years later while reading Judy Stone's new book Not Quite a Memoir I was thrilled to see this small yet extraordinary event preserved in writing. For over four decades it seems whenever there has been a quality International film, Judy Stone has been there to create portraits of the artists that created those works of art.
In her treasury of interviews with the world’s leading writers and filmmakers, Stone devotes a dozen or so chapters to Iranian artists. Though the pieces are independent and have been written at different times, the chapters read like the different scenes in a single movie, each contributing to an overall picture of the state of the arts in Iran. One theme in this “movie” dominates all others: censorship.
For instance, among Stone’s stories we find that Bahman Farmanara, director of Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine suffered a massive depression after censors turned down his tenth script. Director Tahmineh Milani was thrown in prison after her political drama, Hidden Half, offended some fundamentalists.
Milani's case as described in Stone’s exclusive interview with the director and her husband, sheds light on the odd complexities of Iranian factional politics. For instance, Hidden Half continued to be screened even after Milani was jailed. President Khatami expressed surprise at the arrest, and when a judge realized Milani had not broken any laws she was released immediately. So who ordered her arrest? And if Milani was cleared of charges, why was her home invaded and her property confiscated after her release?
Dariush Mehrjui, director of Cow, has his own tragicomic experience with censorship. In his interview with the author he mentions that the only movie of his that Khomeini ever saw was Cow, and the late Ayatollah liked it very much. So despite the fact that Mehrjui is a strong critic of the condition of women in Iran, the censors have called him in only once or twice, treating him politely.
Abbas Kiarostami on the other hand has developed a more subtle relationship with the Islamic regime’s censorship. He incorporates the reality of censorship right into his art. Stone quotes him, “We can’t hide ourselves and say, ‘I would have made a fabulous masterpiece if I didn’t have all the limitations.’ We have to accept responsibility for what we create and not make it sound as if it would have been very different had it not been for outside elements such as censorship. I strongly believe that choice is what we have.”
In the chapter on Kiarostami we learn that a cow-milking scene has kept the artist’s The Wind Will Carry Us from receiving theatrical distribution in Iran. This scene is perhaps Kiarostami’s brilliant joke on the clerical regime. By goading the authorities into making an erotic connection between milking a cow and ejaculation, these guardians of public morality have effectively admitted to having dirty minds. Thus the director makes a harsh artistic statement through the very process of banishment.
Besides censorship there are also many intriguing sub-themes in Not Quite a Memoir. There is passion, perseverance and humor. Majid Majidi, director of Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise told his father he was going to engineering school when in fact he was studying drama. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, director of The May Lady experienced the death of her father when she was only nine years old. Bahman Ghobadi director of A Time for Drunken Horses attributes his love for movies to the sandwich and Coca-Cola shack that sat next to the ramshackle theater in his hometown.
And there is heartbreak. Kiarostami’s wife left him for another man. “I’m not sure if a good marriage is when you break it and let the other person have freedom or if it’s when you try to stay together,” the genius wonders from behind his ever-present dark glasses.
Not Quite a Memoir flies around the world to Spain’s Carlos Saura, Chile’s Isabel Allende, India’s Satyajit Ray. At every landing Stone creates a portrait of the artist as a force for social change. Intriguingly, the author backs up her portrait in words by capturing -- with unassuming genius -- astonishingly insightful photographs of her interview subjects.
No one at the San Francisco International Film Festival in the year 2000 saw Abbas Kiarostami’s eyes when he gave away his Akira Kurosawa award to Behrooz Vosooghi. For medical reasons Kiarostami never takes off those enigmatic sunglasses. Yet in Not Quite a Memoir Judy Stone’s camera flash cleverly shines right through the artist’s dark glasses to give us the first glimpse of eyes that revolutionized filmmaking with how they saw the world. Her short interviews, like that brief camera flash, are just as clever and penetrating. Comment