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    Tinged with the Color of God
    Learning the ins and outs of Iranian cinema during the Fajr festival

    February 17, 1999
    The Iranian

    Like all things in Iran, the Fajr International Film Festival contains a high-class and a low-class component. It has two sections: the Special Guests section for all the foreign visitors and "special" Iranian guests (for some reason, a lot of high-ranking military types are cinemaphiles and get really good seats at all the televised ceremonies) and a commoners' section, where films from Iran and the rest of the world are shown to general audiences at several really nice cinemas around Tehran.

    Standing in endless lines to get into the plebeian part of the Festival, one realizes that Iranians adore the cinema and all that surrounds it. For the 4:00 p.m. showing of Majid Majidi's newest film "The Color of God" as part of the festival, lines begin forming at 1:00 p.m. Those who are not able to get tickets (one can observe appalling levels of cheating and line-cutting at these events), actually wait another two hours to get into the 6:00 o'clock showing. The lines for "Sheyda" were so highly populated and so intensely characterized by pushing and shoving that several women were carried off half-conscious. Most of the people jostling the crowd were young men who, I am sure, have had crushes on the high cheekbones and melancholy eyes of the star of "Sheyda," Leila Hatami, who also starred in Dariush Mehrjui's "Leila."

    The love of cinema spans all classes and all levels of education. The market for films is vast and varied, spanning from bloody and violent "Defa'-e-Moghaddas" ("Holy Defense") films about the Iran-Iraq war, to highly overwrought family melodramas. Like the rest of the world, films sell rarely because of their directors, and often because of their actors. Because the content and budget of the film industry is tightly controlled by various cultural arms of the state, new directors rarely, and only with difficulty, break into the scene. The films themselves are categorized into Aleph, Be, and Je films, essentially in parallel to the West's art films, regular commercial fare, and B-movies. Aleph films are made by artistic and renowned directors fairly well-known in the West and often making films that only a few intellectuals admire and watch. Mehrjui and Mohsen Makhmalbaf are great exceptions to this rule.

    Mehrjui tends to make films about the state of the state through microcosmic views of ordinary people, familiar archetypes, and universal stories. He has borrowed boldly and unequivocally from Proust, J.D. Salinger, Ibsen, and our own writers and philosophers in making his brilliant oeuvre of some thirty years of film-making. Since he remains true to the fairly straight-forward narrative form, and since just about every single famous actor and actress in this country wants to work with him, his films tend to be accessible and popular and are shown widely in the cinemas - when permitted by the censors of course.

    Makhmalbaf, on the other hand, is the true master of the postmodern. His films are rich with references to books and films by others, and he is himself aware of the humor in his fanatical reverence for the cinema. His brilliant and touching "Salaam Cinema" and his wild and hilarious "Nasser-el-Din Shah, Actor of Cinema" - which unabashedly shows clips of the most respected AND the most popular films made by Iranian film-makers in the last few decades - pay un-ironic homage to the medium, and perhaps his honesty is what makes his somewhat difficult and sometimes mystical films so incredibly popular.

    Though until my arrival in Iran I knew only the names of directors and scriptwriters of the Iranian films, I have since absorbed the local habit of learning the names of the actors as well, and my relatives have seem to assimilated my penchant for associating the name of a film with that of its director. My amazingly kind cousin has realized my liking for the arty type of films and directors and has been renting from the video club down the street just about everything he can find of Mehrjui and Majidi, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Masood Kimiai, Makhmalbaf and Bahram Beizai.

    Here, I am learning about the works of all these other directors who have been forced into silence for some twenty years and only now are again making films. The Khatami Spring is the real thing. The prolific, brilliant, learned Beizai, the elder statesman of Iranian film, silent for decades, has a few scripts in the works. Tahmineh Milani, a female director who because of her frank and fearless outspokenness had been silenced by officials of previous Guidance Ministries (the government body which issues film permits after reviewing scripts), now has "Two Women" -- something of a controversial film because of its open feminism -- showing at the festival. In the interim years of silence, like so many others in the film business here, she has been earning a living through alternate means, by being an architect.

    In my endless viewing of films in cinemas and on the VCR, I am resisting Abbas Kiarostami and seem to have picked up the Iranian resentment towards the esteemed Palm d'Or winner, who everyone here claims only makes films for foreign audiences. All last week, I have heard and read (in the numerous film magazines) rampant rumors that Kiarostami had held back his newest film from showing at the Fajr Festival so that the first appearance of it can occur at an overseas event as previously promised. I have no idea if this is the truth or just vicious conjecture -- as Iranians like to knock down their arrogant intellectuals a notch or two at every opportunity -- but in general, the Iranian film press seems to have a love-hate relationship with him, or maybe it's awe-hate relationship. From what I and everyone else seems to have heard, there are famous foreign film people who beg on their knees to work for and with him. He has -- despite some of the veiled resentment here -- become an archetype of sorts: any Iranian director who makes slow, ponderous philosophical fare is said to make "Kiarostami-type" films.

    I am fortunate enough to be here when Majidi is nominated for an Oscar, and fortuitously, I had dragged my cousin to see his "Color of God" at a theater near Tehran University on the same day. The people in line seemed to be divided evenly between university students, somewhat severely garbed, and the cosmetically (and surgically) enhanced girls in their bright hair-coverings and chic raincoats and coifed and hip young gentlemen from further north. Once again, it is this latter group of supposed sophisticates who are the rudest, who cut into the line (the girls use flirting as a handy method of manipulating guys who have stood in line for hours to let them cut in) and then pick a fight if one even tries to pass them by. The university students are steamed and angry, but not much is said and done. Somehow, fatalistically, everyone accepts that the right to cheat and proceed in the lines belongs to the chic set.

    In the cinema itself, the crowd reaction is different than that of the crowd at the showing of "Primary Colors," one of two American films, along with "The Game" which has participated in the international segment of the Festival. The crowd at these films were there only because the film was American and no other reason. At the opening shot of Primary Colors, when the Old Glory waves on the screen majestically, the crowd cheered madly and widely, clapped and whistled and screamed and I, along with a clean-shaven elderly gentleman, shook our heads in amazement, straining our necks to see the faces of all who felt so comfortable applauding the Great Satan which apparently no longer is considered thus. Much of the audience, though, was utterly bored by the film, which is somewhat devoid of action and long on dialogue many found difficult to understand, considering the Southern accents and the wide usage of slang. I noticed that whenever I leaned over to my cousin to translate a particularly difficult passage of dialogue, three or four young, well-coifed, handsome guys sitting behind us would lean forward to catch my whispers. All in all though, the crowd was noisy, restive, and bored, hanging on as a form of resistance or perhaps because the tickets for festival films were particularly expensive.

    The crowd at the showing of "Color of God" was utterly different. Silent but for frequent bouts of sniffles and occasional sobs (the film is intensely moving and even upsetting), the crowd watched the amazing scenes raptly, holding in its collective breath, rising to a rousing salute and applause at the end. When that night, I was watching the award ceremonies of the festival on television, I noticed that Majidi got much the same reverential response from his colleagues and other people in the know. In fact, the organizers brought on Mehrjui to give him the Viewers' Choice award "Color of God" had won at the festival, and as Mehrjui stood on the stage, the master of ceremonies announced that Majidi has been nominated for an Oscar. The crowd went wild, and all I could think was "Damn it, if for so long the Ministry of Guidance had not resisted the nomination of Mehrjui for an Oscar, this venerable godfather of Iranian film could be the one receiving the news." I don't know how he must have felt at that moment, they didn't pan to his face. Majidi was excited and suitably humble, thanking his predecessors. Several of the newspapers today carried the news of his Oscar nomination on the front page and the buzz around the festival sites was one of excitement and happiness. In fact, the program at a few of the theaters had been rearranged to allow for additional performances of the film. There was a sense of pride at a fellow countryman being recognized internationally.

    But I was angry, simply because in the long dynasty of artists and filmmakers this country has produced, many have come and gone deserving of the nomination, even the award, but because in this land, we silence all with whom we disagree, these bards have been shoved aside, forgotten, even muzzled, lest they sing in a voice that may awaken those in slumber.

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