Iranian cinema has made its name in the world with the poetic simplicity that marks the work of filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami. Shot entirely on location, his films have used non-actors to tell stories drawn from real events. Kiarostami's great work Close Up (1990) follows the true story of a man drawn by temptations of fame to impersonate the renowned Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
Heralded by critics around the world as one of the best films in recent history, Close Up crosses the border between the fictional and the real. Real people play themselves — even Makhmalbaf appears in this reflective re-enactment that reveals a simple man's dream of being loved.
Iran's long history of repression has blurred the line in artistic production between reality and fiction: true and made-up stories, fact and myth are easily interchangeable to fit circumstances and appease authorities. The landmark documentary The Night When It Rained (1973), by veteran filmmaker Kamran Shirdel, makes us suspect that reality cannot be grasped. Shirdel investigates a news story of a young boy who heroically saves a train from near disaster.
Upon closer observation, witnesses give contradictory versions of event, and the truth remains elusive. Each person involved in the incident tells the version befitting his position in the hierarchy of power in Iran in the time of the Shah, when pomp and self-aggrandizement were the norm. In the end, the contradictions make us doubt if the boy ever saved the train, or even if there was a train at all, holding up a mirror to the absurdity of official “truth”.
Until recently, Iranian documentary filmmaking had stagnated under the Islamic government. Officials regarded the recording of “reality,” especially anything dealing with social issues, with suspicion. During the initial period of revolutionary zeal and then the war with Iraq, social and cultural critique was effectively suppressed. Government organizations like the cinema office of the Ministry of Culture, which has been supportive of feature films, did not support documentary cinema.
The conservative management of the state-owned television networks only funds documentaries that serve the state's conservative political interests, such as retrospectives on the Iran-Iraq war and a few benign series on the rural cultures of Iran.
Documentaries on political or social subjects relevant to contemporary Iranian society were almost completely absent. Reflecting on this state of affairs, veteran filmmaker Ebrahim Mokhtari paraphrased a South American colleague: “We are a society without a family album.”
Since 1999, the trend toward marginalizing documentaries has slowly been reversed. 2001 was a banner year for small, independently produced documentary films tackling various social issues and everyday life — everything from Afghanistan to women and youth to elections to traffic.
Documentaries partly benefited from the same guarded political opening that has enabled Iranian feature films to become bolder in recent years. Under the leadership of President Mohammad Khatami and his reformist cabinet, namely the courageous Minister of Culture Attaollah Mohajerani (since resigned), the strictures on freedom of expression have loosened.
It is much easier today to obtain production permits and to find limited screening facilities for documentary films. Economically, the digital revolution has made high-quality, low-cost filming and editing widely accessible, especially to younger filmmakers who otherwise would face difficulties.
But lack of funding and sufficient exhibition space are still major problems for documentary filmmakers. The 136-member Society of Iranian Documentary Filmmakers, now [five-years old], tries to negotiate for more rights and aid from the government, which has recently reactivated an office of documentary cinema. The office promises a budget for production and archiving of documentary films.
The newer Association of Documentary Film Producers has formed to address independent productions. They organize a popular weekly series of documentaries in an attractively designed art house. In the last couple of years, several festivals have started exhibiting independent documentary films.
Some, like the annual Kish Documentary Festival on the island of Kish, headed by director Kamran Shirdel, and the Forough Film Festival of women's films, are independently run. Iranian documentaries are now widely exhibited in festivals around the world.
Shirdel said that in 2002 record numbers of films were submitted to the Kish Festival. First or second efforts by younger filmmakers accounted for the majority of the submissions. In 2002 at Kish, prizes went to Orod Attaian's film Parnian, a sensitive film about a man who grapples with his wife's illness and to Tabaki, by Bahman Kiarostami (son of the famous filmmaker), a humorous look at religious serenaders in mourning rituals who help bring tears to the eyes of the devout.
Another film that has recently attracted much attention is Rakhshan Bani Etemad's Roozegare Ma (Our Age) on the June 2001 presidential elections. The film focuses on one of several ordinary women who tried to run for president (none qualified to appear on the ballot), seeking to learn what made these women aim for such an unattainable goal.
The main protagonist is a tragic character, a poor, single mother who, besides nominating herself for office, desperately struggles to locate housing for herself and her child. Our Age painfully illuminates her difficult circumstances and her lofty dreams, despite it all.
The Forough Festival of women's films, in its third year, attracted entries from numerous women filmmakers. First prize went to Mona Zahed's film about her trip to Afghanistan after September 11 to inquire into the condition of women.
As documentaries flourish, even conservative Iranian television has begun to broadcast a weekly series dedicated to documentary cinema and its filmmakers, produced by a Society of Iranian Documentary Filmmakers member. This series could lead to wider public education and demand for documentaries.
There has also been a breakthrough in public exhibition: Our Age will be one of the first documentary films in Iran to be transferred from video to film and run in a local theater. Abbas Kiarostami's video documentary about AIDS, ABC Africa, set in Uganda, has just ended a limited showing in an art house.
Buoyed by the international success of Iranian cinema, availability of digital cameras and a reformist government, documentary filmmakers are following the path of the Iranian journalists who in the last five years led the resurgence of discussion of social and political issues in newspapers.
Even if the conservative branches of the government did shut down many of these papers, the spirit of free expression is still strong in Iran. Now documentary filmmakers are taking up their cameras like pens, observing and recording the world around them, and testing the limits of what is allowed.
Despite these gains, controversial films in today's Iran still encounter the censor. Nasser Saffarian's first documentary, The Green Cold, about Forough Farrokhzad, the legendary, forward-thinking iconoclast woman poet who died in the 1960s, proved to have tremendous box office appeal in its first festival screenings.
But because Forough was a woman with an adventurous lifestyle and a love life that offended conservative criteria for the “decent” Muslim woman, her story is controversial subject matter. The Green Cold has not enjoyed a run in theaters. The Ministry of Culture's Rating Office banned the film for some time, but now the videotapes are widely distributed.
In Iran's continuous struggle between what conservative clergy want to allow and what the public desires to disseminate and to express, documentary films are the latest tool used by artists and journalists to expand the limits of free expression.
Persheng Vaziri is a documentary filmmaker who resides in Tehran and New York. Her last film is “Women Like Us”. This article was first printed in Middle East Report (Winter 2003).