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Return of the exiles
A new wave of Iranian film-makers is winning official suppor

By Sheila Whitaker
The Guardian (London)
March 4, 2000

Whether in obvious or less discernable ways, cinema is often a nation's barometer. In Iran, where the national desire for reform and liberalisation made itself resoundingly felt in the recent elections, last month's Fajr film festival in Tehran opened its doors wide to outside influences, most obviously in the retrospectives of two highly political filmmakers, Constantin Costa -Gavras and Francesco Rosi, both of whom attended.

The home crop was led by Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine, written and directed by Bahman Farmanara. His first film in 20 years, Farmanara has spent the intervening period in exile in Canada. Smell of Camphor centres on the philosophical reflections of a film director who, similarly, hasn't made a film in two decades, whose wife and three Iranian director friends have died, and who himself now feels death approaching. It is an elegiac, often ironic and amusing meditation that won best screenplay in the international section and best film in the Iranian section.

In line with the national mood, the theme of exile may well overtake that of the Iran-Iraq war, which seems to have been largely exorcised. Strangers, a road movie clearly influenced by his own experiences, is a first feature by a 25-year-old US-born Iranian, Ramin Bahrani. Kaveh (played by Bahrani), a young Iranian visiting Iran for the first time to seek out his father's childhood home, meets a truck driver, Abdul, deep in the southern Iranian countryside. He gives him a lift and, albeit unwillingly, deviates from his delivery schedule to help Kaveh find the village and the graveyard of his murdered grandfather. The film has many strengths not least in highlighting the misplaced notion that the dollar can buy anything.

That the most interesting films came from exile directors was further confirmed by One More Day, an impressive first feature by Babak Payami, who was born in Tehran but now lives in Canada. It deals with a chance meeting between a man and a woman at a bus stop; an event which becomes an unspoken daily ritual in which they try to break the isolation and loneliness of their lives.

The film follows the man in his wanderings around Tehran dealing in medications as, gradually, we discover that he is a widower and she lives with her brother. The camera moves hardly at all, there is little narrative, and Payami refuses to let anything be hurried: we watch two lives, empty of purpose and joy, become attached by the slenderest of threads which, inevitably, cannot hold them together.

The audience award was shared by Bride of Fire and Born in September. The former confronts a tribal tradition in southern Iran that forces young women to marry their first cousin, if he so desires. The heroine, a medical student in Tehran, returns home to ask that her cousin, an illiterate fisherman and cigarette smuggler, waive his rights. He refuses and she finally marries him only to burn herself alive by the marriage bed.

Born in September is the story of a young man (played by Iranian screen idol Mohammad Reza Foroutan) and a woman, both Tehran university students involved in political protests which eventually force him to leave the city. She follows, but ultimately he forces her to return to carry on the struggle. While neither of these are particularly impressive movies, it is intriguing that their romantic love stories confront the issues of women's rights and political freedom: to that extent, perhaps, the award reflects the contemporary climate.

Iranian cinema guru Abbas Kiarostami continues to write scripts for others, and his influence has produced a new genre of films represented this year by The Whisper, written and directed by Parviz Chahbazi, and The Willow and the Wind, written by Kiarostami but directed by Mohammad Ali Talebi. Both are disappointing.

In The Whisper, three orphan street sellers endlessly seek an adult to accompany them to a clinic so that the youngest boy can be circumcised. In The Willow and the Wind a young boy, breaking a schoolroom window, is told that he cannot attend school until he replaces it. First he has to find the money, then walk miles across country to the glazier and return in appalling weather carrying the pane of glass only to break it in the classroom.

Dariush Mehrjui, whose pre-revolutionary films (The Cow, The Postman and The Cycle) were little short of masterpieces, has been in decline since and Mix, his latest, is a silly, unrevealing comedy about the post-production of a movie in time for a festival screening.

Of more interest was Her Eyes, directed and acted by Faramarz Qaribian. Released from jail after 15 years, Mansour (Qaribian) falls in love with the 20-year-old daughter of his former cellmate only to find that the local mobster is also lusting after her. It's beautifully shot, with a commendable sense of film noir and good playing from all the leads.

The significance of Farmanara's return to Iran became even more apparent when the minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Ata'ollah Mohajerani, in his closing speech, welcomed him back to Iran and called for others to return. This is surely remarkable (although exiles have been able to visit) but, other imperatives aside, it may be that Mohajerani understands the positive impact that returning directors can have on Iranian cinema when he asked them to reflect on artistic as well as social issues.

He also referred to the need to build more cinemas (nearly 200 were burned down during the revolution) and improve the existing ones apologising to the audience, many of whom had to stand.

But, perhaps most importantly, he insisted that Iranian cinema's international success must be maintained: while this year's crop may not have been everything he would have wished, there are exciting signs of a new, more open era dawning. And with Samira Makhmalbaf director of The Apple and Abolfazl Jalili in post-production, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf beginning a new film this month, the immediate future looks healthy.



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