Behrooz Vosooghi in Qaysar
Who you talkin' to?
Iranian cinema has lost its magic
By Naghmeh Sohrabi
December 6, 2002
Man standing in front of a mirror. "You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?
You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin' to? You talkin' to me?
Well, I'm the only one here." More likely than not, you not only know the film
is Taxi Driver, you also know the man standing in front of the mirror is Robert
Now here's another question: Name a scene or a line from an Iranian film that
has permeated Iranian popular culture. Was it a scene from Qaysar? From Gav?
Did anyone think of a line from a post-revolutionary Iranian film? Come to think
of it, can anyone recall a single memorable line from a post-revolutionary Iranian
film? I've played this game with many people, asking them to recall a line, a scene
that has permeated Iranian culture the way "Qaysar, dashshet-o koshtan"
has and every time I am confronted by silence.
This not to say, there are not images we don't recall from those films. None of
us can look at a lone tree on top of a hill and not think of Kiarostami and I know
every time I see prosthetic limbs falling from the sky-granted, a very rare occurrence
- I think of Makhmalbaf. But how deeply rooted in our cultural imagination are these?
Why should this even be an issue if not for concern than for debate?
Of all the post-revolutionary art forms, cinema is the one with the most visible
impact both on Iranians (in Iran and abroad) and on the international scene. Currently
in Iran, there is a vibrant art scene (paintings, photography, conceptual art, and
most importantly underground music, all of which can be followed on tehranavenue.com)
but none of that seems to have made the impact of Iranian cinema in the past 10 years.
One reason may be the nature of cinema itself, what A. O. Scott, The New York
Times critic calls the promise of cinema to "effect the distillation of
reality into image and the transubstantiation of fantasy into fact." The other
may be the convergence of various historical moments that turned Iranian cinema into
a "window" for seeing and - more often than not - imagining post-revolutionary
Another reason may be the way it allowed for the Iranian Diaspora to connect with
Iran, critique it, be proud of it, and channel its nostalgia for the life left behind
into it. And last but not least, for some, it seems to be just "fun."
But regardless of the reason, we seem to be confronted with an interesting question:
Is this most successful of periods in Iranian cinema also culturally its least influential?
The answer I would like to propose is yes, that in a way, even the more internationally
successful Iranian films have had little or no effect on popular culture and that
even those films that are both popular in and out of Iran (although there are very
few that have this crossover quality), seem to never seep into what I'll loosely
call our collective consciousness.
Having grown up in Iran, I can easily sing you a couple of songs from the 80s
television show The School of Mice (Madresehy-e Moush-ha). Having lived
in Iran this past year, I can also easily attest to the power television has on everyday
language: The most popular television show in the past years was the comedy Under
the Sky of the City and for a while everyone was walking around talking like
Khashayar, the rude old man who talks funny on the show.
But despite being an avid cinema-goer, I seem incapable of recalling a single
memorable line from any post-revolutionary Iranian film, even from the films that
I actually liked. I have several explanations, none of which seem very satisfying.
It is a well known fact that despite all its achievements, Iranian cinema seems to
have not given birth to any good, let alone great, screenplay writers.
With the exception of Kambozia Partovi, the screenplay writer most recently of
I Taraneh, 15, there seems to be no accomplished screenplay writer. Almost
all the films that have entered the pantheon of great post-revolutionary Iranian
cinema - Kiarostami's films, Makhmalbaf's, Majidi's - are written by the directors
themselves. Even those that aren't seem to have been written by other big name directors.
More importantly, almost none of these cinematic "greats"
are based on works of literature. I went back to my handy 100 Films of Iranian Cinema,
a selection of the most important films beginning with Haji Aqa Aktor-e Cinema
and found out that interestingly enough, almost all the most memorable films
are films written and directed by the same people: Taqvaie, Beyzaie, Kimiaie, Hatami,
all wrote and directed such memorable films as Calmness in the Presence of Strangers,
The Stranger and the Fog, Qaysar, and Sutehdelan.
But peppered among those films are other ones, most notably Dash Akol, Gav,
and Prince Ehtejab that are written by or based on literary works by Sadeq
Hedayat, Gholamhusayn Sa'edi, and Houshang Golshiri.
What happened to cinema or perhaps to literature in post-revolutionary cinema
that has caused this gap between the written word and the moving pictures? And what
effect does this gap have on the types or even quality of films that are produced
in Iran? Is there a built-in limitation to a cinema that boasts a lack of well-written
scripts, professional actors, and in many cases, even professional filmmakers?
How valuable is it when one particularly well-known
director (who will remain unnamed here) boasts of having read only a handful of books
and of having seen only 10-20 films? It seems that of all the people involved in
the making of Iranian films, it is the cinematographers who are and remain the most
professional. This may account for the greatest strength of post-revolutionary cinema:
Visually stunning landscapes and vibrant colors.
And their strength may also partly account for films such as Mehrjouie's Bemani,
who other than a sexy topic (women setting themselves on fire) and a great cinematographer
(Bahram Badakhshani) lack any, absolutely any other quality that makes it worthy
of entry into the Cannes film festival.
I say all of this because I am tired of turning off my emotions and my critical
faculties every time I enter a movie theater to see an Iranian film. I still feel
I must go and watch every piece of bad film that comes out of Iran and I am no longer
sure why. It used to be that it functioned as my way of connecting with Iran.
I watched Mehrjouie's Hamoun because my best friend in Iran had seen it
a total of 14 times. I would breathlessly anticipate the newest Makhmalbaf film because
of his ability to surprise us from one film to another and his ability to evolve
from the sloganeering Marriage of the Blessed to the absolute relativity of
A Time for Love.
for me, Iranian cinema has now lost its magic, its ability to move me the way it
used to. It has become too outward looking and less honest in many ways. Ironically,
in its quest to please foreign audiences with its so called quiet humanism and its
non-Hollywood qualities, it's become a parody of itself with a whole slew of films
one Iranian film critic aptly called 'festival film farsi'.
In the process, Iranian cinema has lost its most appealing quality: Portraying
and sometimes even embodying a society as complex, transitory, and elusive as contemporary
Iran. It not only lacks the ability to seep into Iranian popular culture, at times
it seems like it doesn't give a damn about it.
Cinematic characters have the ability to travel from the screen into our every
day world, and sometimes even into our language. They can go from being recognizable
figures on the screen to becoming metaphors that stand for something larger. They
move from being two hours of entertainment, education, or elucidation, to enriching
our every day understanding and expression of our lives. Therein lies the power of
art and cinema specifically, and therein lies the most important shortcoming of Iranian
Does this article have spelling or other mistakes? Tell
me to fix it.