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Iranian Cinema: Expressions of a Country's Soul

By Elaine Sciolino
The New York Times
March 11, 2001

TEHRAN, Iran -- LIGHTS! Camera! Let's go!" Marzieh Boroomand barks at her crew between drags on a Marlboro. Then she focuses on her star, a boy of 11. "Don't sit. Just stand. Don't shake your head so much. Cut, cut, cut!"

At a rundown teahouse rented out on a stiflingly hot afternoon last fall, Ms. Boroomand is shooting a scene for her latest film, "Sweet Jam," a low-budget comedy about jars of jam that won't open and the campaign of a young boy to seek justice from the factory that made them.

Hers is an uphill struggle. She works with only one camera, two klieg lights, big debts and a cast and crew of two dozen. Curious residents of the neighborhood, a quiet middle-class corner of north Tehran, wander on and off the set, and the black flies that call the sticky plastic tablecloths home buzz in front of the camera lens, distracting the cameraman, who bumps into cases of empty Iranian cola bottles stacked along a wall.

"I work with old equipment, the wrong kind of film and censorship," Ms. Boroomand says as she sips scalding hot tea during a break. "I can't show a married couple in the privacy of their bedroom, so I stay away from love stories. Instead, I try to entertain."

Iran's cinema is a world unto itself, the most creative expression of the country's imagination, so much so that it has earned a reputation as one of the most vibrant and prolific cinemas in the world. As filmmakers scoop up more and more prizes at international festivals, filmmaking has become one of the most popular professions for young people in Iran. They are buying cameras, writing scripts and competing for both the few places at film schools and the privilege of working on the sets of famous directors.

Several film magazines and newspapers are published in Iran, including a slick English-language quarterly, Film International, full of interviews, reviews, news and four- color advertisements. When Bahman Ghobadi, the Iranian Kurdish filmmaker, visited the United States last fall to promote his first feature, "A Time for Drunken Horses," he acknowledged that his primary goal of the film was to win international acclaim.

For many Americans, the Iranian cinema is the most direct glimpse into this complicated culture. More than any other medium, film has helped to break down the dominant Western images of Iran as a country of dour, repressed women swathed in black and bearded young men chanting "Death to America!" - as a nation powerless to challenge a ruling class of men in turbans and cloaks. The popularity of Iranian films is evident in the number being shown in New York in the next month or two alone. Among them are Jafar Panahi's "The Circle," which is banned in Iran; "The Day I Became a Woman," directed by Marziyeh Meshkini; and a retrospective series, Iran Through the Eyes of Children, beginning March 23 at the Screening Room in Manhattan.

"Films have been transformative in terms of changing the views most Americans have of Iran, especially of the negative image from news reporting of the revolution and the hostage crisis," said Hamid Naficy, associate professor of film and media at Rice University and author of several books on Iranian film and television. "These films are very important in terms of countering the image of Iranians as intolerant and fanatical, and of capturing universal themes - that it is human to love your children, that people in Iran face some of the same problems that other people face."

The cinema is one of several cultural and political battlefields inside Iran. Along with the press, television, the courts, the universities, Parliament and even the clerical seminaries, the cinema is a place where an ideological guerrilla warfare is being waged between those who want to reform the episodically repressive Islamic system and those who want to adhere to the strict Islamic interpretation that has prevailed for a generation.

Yet the films are not fully representative of life in Iran. And some of the films that are most popular outside Iran, including nostalgic renderings of an idealized past or sentimental films about children, do much less well at home. "Stereotypical impressions are created, that Iran is a harsh place where people struggle for the smallest things in life, where children are prematurely turned into adults," Mr. Naficy said. "Then there is the use of landscape, in a way that gives a highly romantic impression of Iran as primarily rural and traditional, when the largest populations live in urban centers."

Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven," for example, is set amid flower-filled fields that exist in only a small part of Iran and for only a few weeks. And despite the tundralike setting in "A Time for Drunken Horses," it snows hard in Iranian Kurdistan only a few weeks of the year.

The Iranian cinema has come a long way from the revolution 22 years ago. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the revolution, railed against the cinema, putting it in the same category as theater, dancing and sexually integrated swimming. The day after he returned from exile in 1979, he said, "The cinema is a modern invention that ought to be used for the sake of educating the people, but as you know, it was used instead to corrupt our youth."

But his lieutenants quickly realized the importance of film for propaganda, if not for entertainment. In 1982, Iran formally banned films that were judged to encourage wickedness, corruption and prostitution.

That policy began to change in the late 1980's, when, as part of a scheme to liberalize the arts, Mohammad Khatami - then the Minister of Islamic Guidance and Culture, now president - declared that "cinema is not the mosque." More conservative clerics resisted, and in 1992 Mr. Khatami resigned, writing that he would rather "fight ignorance and backwardness" on his own.

But his election as president in 1997 - and his call for tolerance and the rule of law - signaled an even bolder cultural explosion. In a speech that fall, Mr. Khatami proclaimed, "Our cinema is a vivid and clear reflection of the greatness of our culture, people and Islamic revolution." And although a cultural crackdown a year ago shut down most of Iran's reformist newspapers and put many of its best journalists behind bars, most of Iran's filmmakers have been left alone, in part because they have helped burnish the image of Iran around the world.

Today, Iranian films fall into a number of categories. One is the commercially popular junk film - the slapstick comedy or adventure film about murders or mummies. Another is the propaganda film, the kind that is shown on government-owned Iran Air's foreign flights and that invariably depicts a character gone wrong who is redeemed through prayer and the power of the Islamic Republic.

A third type is the film about innocent children, often in a rural or village setting, with a combination of sentimentality, exotica and unreality that is easy to get past government censors. Jafar Panahi's "White Balloon" (1995), about a little girl trying to buy a goldfish for a New Year's celebration, was a breakthrough film, winning an award at the Cannes International Film Festival and earning nearly $1 million in its United States release.

Still another kind is the emotionally direct film that explores the tensions, restrictions and grimness of everyday life. This type deals with the gritty: suicide, murder, war, mental illness, divorce, infertility, polygamy, tribal oppression, unemployment, adultery, cross-dressing, social inequality, mixed-sex parties, drug addiction, wife- beating, child abuse and, recently, prostitution. Abbas Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry" (1997) deals with suicide; Dariush Mehrjui's "Leila" (1997) with infertility and polygamy (although I have yet to find an Iranian woman who found this tale of a modern, educated, infertile woman insisting that her husband take a second wife plausible).

"In some ways these films are mirrors as well as sounding boards," said Farideh Farhi, an Iranian-born political scientist who is writing a book about civil society in Iran. "The act of making them represents the will to speak the truth about contradictions besieging Iranian society and reveal in an entertaining way what everyone already knows in their hearts. The audience goes to these films to bear witness, and to gain affirmation for their daily experiences."

Each time filmmakers explore the underside of Iranian life, they risk censorship by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture - or worse. Last November, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and her crew were forced to flee the city of Rasht after they were physically threatened by thugs who objected to her latest film, "Under the Skin of the City," which deals with drug-trafficking and wife- beating among other issues.

But unlike more authoritarian states, this is a world where there are few rules governing what is and is not permitted and where filmmakers defy both the system and their own fears in their quest to create. Still, the necessity to adhere to "Islamic values" means that on one level, there remains an unreality about the portrayal of everyday life in Iranian films.

To comply with the strictures of the Islamic Republic, there can be, on screen, no public affection between men and women, no dancing, no female singers, no sensual music. Female characters must always keep their heads covered and hide the shape of their bodies. Husbands and wives are not allowed to touch, and parents cannot show physical affection to their children once a daughter is 9 and a son is 13. It is thought that such actions might inflame the passions of male viewers.

Yet in reality family life in Iran is extremely intimate. Even the most religious women unveil in private in the company of close male relatives and other women. Husbands and wives touch, and parents and children are affectionate with one another. While Iranians are aware of the distortions of "Islamic filmmaking," foreign viewers often are not.

Some directors, like Mr. Kiarostami, solve the problem by casting few women in important roles and having few scenes inside the home. Others have come up with creative ways to deal with the restrictions. In his 1996 film "Gabbeh," Mohsen Makhmalbaf avoided violating a ban on depicting a woman giving birth on the screen by donning a skirt and playing the role himself. Several filmmakers have begun to use actors who are close relatives, to allow them to show men and women touching.

"The cinema has lots of tricks, and we've had 22 years of the Islamic Republic to learn them," said Parviz Sabri, as he took a break last fall on the set of the most recent film he is directing, "Mani and Neda." "In my last film I was able to show a man and wife asleep in their beds, but I couldn't put them in their pajamas. I had to put them in street dress."

Mr. Sabri's assistant director, Shahin Babapour, said he used three questions to test for every scene: "Is there a scene that can be considered an insult to Islam? Is there a scene that is insulting to the country's folk culture? And are the women wearing too much makeup and showing too much hair?"

The compromises can be particularly frustrating for the actors. "I once played an aspiring singer in a film called `Help Me,' " said Mahaya Petrossian, a 30-year-old film star who earns enough money to live on her own in an apartment (unusual for single women in Iran) and drive a BMW. "The only problem was that all the scenes of me singing had to be cut."

In "Unforgiven," in which Ms. Petrossian played a young woman confronted with her dying father, "there is a scene in which I'm crying and begging him to forgive me and I couldn't touch him," Ms. Petrossian recalled. "I had to use my expressions and my voice instead. It dupes the audience because in real life a father and daughter would touch." In "Nasreddin Shah, the Movie Actor," a film about the 19th-century Iranian king, lavish period costumes solved the dress problem.

On another level, Iranian filmmakers are relentlessly testing the limits of what is permissible in a largely controlled cultural environment. The Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture, which provides considerable financing for Iranian films, can be complicitous in the guerrilla war. Sometimes when a film is banned inside Iran, it is screened at a film festival abroad, creating pressure on the censors to reverse themselves. (That happened with "Taste of Cherry" and Ms. Bani-Etemad's "The May Lady.") Sometimes a film is shown at a private screening once or twice to test the waters. Or a banned film might be shelved for a few months, then submitted to a more lenient censor.

"We Iranian filmmakers are like trapeze artists swinging back and forth without a net," said Mr. Mehrjui, a U.C.L.A.-educated filmmaker. "One of the great contradictions of our cinema in Iran is that we have all these films shot in bizarre places with exotic people that are usually done to hit the foreign market, and they don't do at all well here because they're absurd fantasies. But the government loves them because they are filled with innocent children, free of sin, that challenge nothing in society."

Inside the country, the fluidity of Iran's censorship system was evident one summer evening in 1998 at Tehran's House of Cinema, a private film club, where an invitation- only screening of a movie about the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war was being held. This was no glittery Hollywood party. No refreshments were served. The auditorium was hot and cramped, the film shown on a small screen from a noisy projector.

"Siavash," the low-budget film being shown, was the first feature film by Saman Moghadam. The Ministry of Islamic Guidance had not approved his film, but it allowed it to be shown just once. The film dealt with the generation gap between the loyal warriors who sacrificed for the revolution and the war with Iraq, and their children who longed for happy lives unburdened by their country's recent history. The film broke a number of barriers: the hero, a young composer and musician in a rock band, played the sort of lively music that would not be allowed in a real-life concert in Iran. And even though the behavior would be technically forbidden, he openly socialized with his girlfriend, a photojournalist who led an independent life.

"I tried to show the huge divide between the fervent believers and the tired, young generation of today that wants a normal, peaceful life," Mr. Moghadam explained after the screening.

THE censors eventually approved the release of "Siavash," and it played in Tehran's movie houses. It was panned. One review called it "naïve, trite and, worst of all, boring."

The tyranny of tradition in a patriarchal society is also a theme that resonates deeply with Iranian audiences, particularly women. "Two Women," directed by Tahmineh Milani, became the biggest box office hit in Iranian history when it was released in the summer of 1999, and it was shown as part of last year's New Directors/New Films Series in New York.

The film tells the story of two college friends, Fereshteh, a poor woman trapped in a loveless marriage, and Roya, a successful career woman with a loving husband. After Fereshteh is forced into marriage by her parents, her husband turns cruel, reneging on his promise to allow her to continue her studies, forbidding her to read books, locking the telephone and accusing her of having a lover.

When Fereshteh seeks a divorce, the judge asks whether her husband stays out all night, beat hers, has bad companions or gambles.

"He humiliates me," she says.

"These are not good reasons," the judge declares.

Never before had the oppression of women by men in authority - whether husbands or judges - been so starkly revealed on the screen in Iran, and the film radicalized usually docile women.

Last September, the most popular film in Iran was "Bride of Fire," by Khosro Sinaee, the story of a young, beautiful medical student who is in love with her professor but engaged by her family to a cousin, a rough, illiterate petty trader in a poor tribal area of south Iran.

When the young woman tries to break off the relationship, her fiancé tells her: "You have come here and you must follow all the traditions. It's not you or I who decides your life. It's the law of the village." After the wedding ceremony, the bride douses the bridal bed and herself with kerosene and sets the room on fire. At the same time, as the bridegroom is about to enter the bridal chamber, one of the bride's aunts, who married a man she didn't love, shouts, "Congratulations! Congratulations!" as she stabs and kills the groom.

The film, one of the first portrayals of tribal marriage rituals, sparked protests in Iran's small Arab community, including a mysterious fire in a movie theater in the southwestern provincial capital of Ahwaz.

During the 1980-1988 border war with Iraq, the Islamic Republic funded dozens of films and documentaries. Since then, a few filmmakers have dared to take on the trauma of the war and the inability of the Islamic Republic to heal the wounds. The unresolved tensions are dramatically captured in a deeply moving but troubling film screened during Iran's 1999 Fajr Film Festival.

"The Glass Agency," directed by Ibrahim Hatami-Kia, tells the story of Abbas, a soft- spoken war veteran with shrapnel lodged in his neck. After a doctor tells him his condition is life-threatening, Abbas's war buddy Haji, a taxi driver, springs into action. Haji raises enough money for Abbas to travel to London for special treatment. It isn't that easy. At a travel agency in Tehran, the two men are told there are no tickets.

Enraged, Haji takes the agency - and everyone in it - hostage. He demands a ticket. Instead of sympathy for the two men, there is resentment of the privileges war veterans enjoy in Iranian society. At one point, one hostage remarks that veterans indeed are burdened - by the scholarships, televisions and refrigerators they get from having served at the front. At another, the exasperated policeman negotiating the hostages' release tells Haji: "For a decade we listened to you. It was enough. Now it is a new decade for stability."

Paradoxically, the Islamic Republic as a topic rarely filters into the films. Clerics are seldom featured, except as peripheral characters. "The cleric is one of the taboo issues we can't touch, unless you make him a hero," said Mr. Mehrjui. "Tolerance of the clerical class is so low. One of my dreams is to shoot a film in Qom," the holy city whose major industry is producing clerics. "I'd love to show the clerical class, the clerical culture - from the inside," he added. "But it's a risky job and I'm afraid I could put a lot of energy into it, only to have it banned."

Elaine Sciolino is a senior writer of The New York Times and the author of ``Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran.''

Through Iranian Eyes

Many Iranian films will be shown in the New York area in the coming weeks. Following is a selection:


Iran Through the Eyes of Children: a series of films about children at The Screening Room, 54 Varick St., including Jafar Panahi's "White Balloon" and Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven."


"Friendly Persuasion," also at The Screening Room. A new documentary about Iranian filmmakers, directed by Jamsheed Akrami.


"The Day I Became a Woman," directed by Marziyeh Meshkini, about three generations of Iranian women. Loews State, 45th Street and Broadway.


"Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine," directed by Bahman Farmanara, who also stars as a middle-aged Iranian filmmaker. Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, 63rd Street and Broadway; Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street; Clearview Roslyn Quad, 20 Tower Place, Roslyn, N.Y.; Cinema Arts Center, 423 Park Avenue, Huntington, N.Y.


"The Circle," directed by Jafar Panahi, about the lives of Iranian women. Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, 63rd Street and Broadway.


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