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Branded in memory
To embrace or completely dismiss modern Iranian films as a whole shows a lack of critical thinking

December 18, 2002
The Iranian

I am really tired of hearing Iranian cinema being slammed again and again. [See Maghmeh Sohrabi's"Who you talkin' to?"']

When I was growing up, my family never exposed me to Iranian films, even though the sounds of Haydeh and Googoosh often were heard in the rooms of our house. This was despite the fact that my dad was a cinema lover, and we often stayed up late at night watching great classics. I watched the Bridge on the River Kwai, the Great Escape, and Giant, to name but a few, by the time I was 7!

My dad had worked in a movie theater in Tehran when he was a teenager and to this day he can talk about the premiere of films like And God created Woman, and the Ugly American, like it was yesterday, and about Gina Lollobrigida and Richard Burton like they were old friends. But he never talks about Iranian films. My mom is the same. She told me that in her youth, in her circle of friends, it was simply uncool to go to the theater to watch Iranian movies. When I started taking interest in numerous pre-revolutionary films from Iran, she sat with me and watched them for the first time in her life.

Among friends of my own age, except for one or two, there is not much interest in Iranian films old or new. The way they talk about old Iranian films is filled with haughtiness and a mocking tone, if they even talk about it at all. To most, old Iranian cinema seems like a shameful little secret and all the films from before 1979 are automatically dismissed as worthless pieces of trash. As a movie lover, this snobbish, elitist attitude really makes my blood boil. I have never lived in Iran. I was not even born there. But among the people I know, I seem to be the only person around who champions Iranian films, both old and new.

I guess I watch these films with a more objective eye. At least it is with more kindness and compassion. I really admire all the old Iranian movies I have watched because to me, even the most superficial "fun" ones have an intrinsic value. The most silly Fardin-Forouzan comedy had redeeming qualities. I would love to write in-depth reviews of some of my most-loved films from that era someday.

Right now, I want to talk about modern Iranian films. It seems to be chic nowadays to dismiss modern Iranian cinema for no other reason that some Western critics have embraced it. Of course, I am the first one to say that I will not automatically accept film critics' views just because they have prestigious names or titles. I love Pauline Kael, and yet I love to hate some of her reviews! As for awards, I tend to agree with Woody Allen that there are just too many awards shows out there. Next thing you know, there will be an award show for Greatest Nazi!

But to either wholeheartedly embrace or completely dismiss modern Iranian films as a whole shows a lack of critical thinking. Modern Iranian films I have watched are impossible to lump into one category. Each is so different than the other. As an example, put Mehrjouie's Pari side by side with Kiarostami's Close-Up and Makhmalbaf's Noon-o-Goldoon. Pari is not an adaptation of J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, as is often mentioned, but of all of Salinger's works related to the fictional Glass family, such as Nine Stories, Seymour: an Introduction, and Raise high the roofbeam carpenter.

What Mehrjouie has done here is fantastic not just within the parameters of Iranian cinema. It is a work of art that is unique, breathtaking, and thickly layered. He has not simply transplanted a middle-class New York family from the 50s into modern Tehran. He has converted each character into a living, breathing modern Tehrani. The script is exquisite. Far from being an exercise in plagiarism, it seems to have channeled the spirit of the literary works and transformed it into a native Iranian drama. The actors, especially Niki Karimi, have done such an amazing job that I can no longer picture Franny Glass without that black chador.

The scenes that take place in the mosque in Isfahan are more elaborate than any classic painting. The image I loved the most is when Pari is going up that tower and all we see is a bit of the back cloth from her chador rubbing against the wall of the tower during her ascent. A very memorable line from the movie is when Pari, weary of the phonies around her, calls her so-called poet-professors at her university, mere "She'r-Foroush."

In fact, Pari's world, whether in Tehran or Isfahan, is filled with such phonies. Just look at the religious ceremony in the home of Paris' relatives, where the pious occasion has been used to show off the female relatives' ostentatious jewelry.

Pari is at the same time a young girl's hysterical fantasy based on sexual repression and youthful idealism; a political criticism against a society filled with Tartuffes, showing their piousness on the surface and hiding their rotten core beneath; a family drama illustrating the devastating psychological effects on a family suffering from a terrible tragedy. On top of it all, Mehrjouie also explores the area of religious mysticism, and the supernatural.

Francis Ford Coppola said that his movie Apocalypse Now was not about VietnamÍ It was Vietnam. In Close-Up, Kiarostami does not document the real life trial of a Makhmalbaf impersonator. He directs the trial, and the outcome! I don't even know what to call this because it is neither a movie (where the director is the ultimate creator of a fictional or fictionalized story) nor a documentary (where the director is supposedly a passive, objective recorder of real life events unfolding before his camera.)

Close-Up was inspired by the real life criminal case against Hossein Sabzian, a down on his luck Tehranian who decided to pose as the famous director Makhmalbaf in order to gain entry into a well-off family. This docu-film (for lack of a better word) is filled with equal amounts humor and sadness. Despite the premise, it is the con-artist Sabzian who gains all of our sympathy. As his trial unfolds, and various witnesses testify as to the events that led them to this courtroom, we learn that both "victim" and "criminal" are equally disillusioned with a life that did not fulfill its promises, so that they willingly blinded themselves to reality in order to live out their fantasies.

Sabzian, a simple man from the wrong end of the tracks, has a failed marriage, has lost custody of his children, and has to deal with unemployment. He lives in a dilapidated apartment with his mother. Much like the down and out folks of Depression era America (think the Purple Rose of Cairo), Sabzian's only escape from his personal hell is into the movies. And the films that he has come to identify with the most are Makhmalbaf's. This, coupled with the fact that many people have pointed out the physical resemblance between him, an insignificant person in his own eyes, and his idol, put him on the path towards fantasy.

Having no one to look up to him, being constantly rejected for who he is, he begins to take on the persona of the famous director. The thing that comes out in trial is that, there has been no crime committed here. Sabzian did not act out of greed or other criminal motives. He truly wanted to live out his fantasy and his so-called victims were willing to let him do it for their own emotional gains.

For the family Sabzian immersed himself in is similarly disillusioned. With sons and daughters who have attained the highest levels of education, they similarly are at a dead end in Tehran's awful job market. Their dreams of appearing in a Makhmalbaf production is not motivated by desires of self-aggrandizement or fame. They, much like Sabzian, simply want to feel that they matter in this society that every day tells them they don't.

The trial is amazing because we see the director, who never steps out of the camera, but whose voice we hear, slowly take charge in the proceedings. He actually starts directing not only the plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses but the judge in charge as well! The judge, who seems bemused at the whole situation, does not show any sign of annoyance at his authority being little by little usurped by the director, who has his own issues to explore and get to the bottom of.

I don't want to ruin the ending of this for anyone who hasn't seen it, but let's just say it is a great twist ending and an image that will stay in your mind for a long time. I really urge you all to see this.

Speaking of Makhmalbaf, his Noon o Goldoon starts out much like Salaam Cinema: with an actor's audition. We see the director actually casting an unknown young man as the hero of his movie, which we come to find out is semi-autobiographical. Throughout the movie, three parallel universes overlap themselves. We have the young man's own life story, which is discovered through the director's probing questions. Then, we have the actual movie itself playing out, with a script and storyline.

Third, we get a glimpse of the director's own personal life. There is no 'fade-out', sounds of a harp playing or any other cliché devices to let us know when we are going into the past and when we reemerge into the present, nor to warn us whether the images we are seeing belong to a fictional movie or to "real" life. Fellini's Intervista operated in a similar vein, however the difference was the technique. Fellini used long time periods to fool us into accepting the tenets of the one story we were following. Then, just as we were getting comfortable, he pulled the rug from under us and plunged us into a parallel world.

Here, Makhmalbaf's method is much more effective. The lines between reality and fiction are so blurred that there need not be separate time frames. In scene after scene, we see the actors momentarily lapsing into past and present within the space of a few seconds. These moments are sometimes so quick that they may be missed by a less attentive audience.

To add to this diversity, the same Iranian director will often radically change his style, message, theme etc from one feature to the other. Unlike so-called auteur cinema like Truffaut and Hitchcock, I have hardly seen any of the modern Iranian filmmakers repeat themselves. While certain critics find recurring themes to be a sign of genius in a director's work, I just see it as laziness. For example, having watched all of Truffaut's work, I am really disheartened to see the same lines used again and again over the years.

There are countless other Iranian films that I could go on at length about. They have definitely been branded into my memory forever, and I eagerly go back to them time and time again. Each time, it is a new experience. I don't really pay attention to awards and critics'reviews. As far as I am concerned, I am grateful for them if only because the buzz they created has permitted these movies to travel to the most obscure parts of the earth over the last decade, without which I would not have been able to see them.

Iranians I have talked to seem deeply offended by depictions of the Iranian characters in modern Iranian cinema. Instead of seeing the beauty in films like Gabbeh, (an epic poem if there ever was one), they voice their worries at being seen by Westerners as "noble savages." I really don't think that is a fair statement. First of all, these comments just show our insecurities. I have noticed so many Iranians want to be seen as more American than Americans, or more European than Europeans. It is the same kind of attitude prevailing in my parent's age in pre-revolutionary Iran.

Today, a lot of friends my age refuse to see Iranian films because they don't want to be associated with people who live in huts, and wear weird garb. They just buy into the stereotypes of Iranian films and thus lose the chance of seeing really amazing works, like the ones I described above. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.



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