Sprint Long Distance

email us

Sprint Long Distance


Fly to Iran

US Transcom
US Transcom


Sehaty Foreign Exchange

Flower delivery in Iran

Iranian women

Advertise with The Iranian


 Write for The Iranian

Not THAT good
Patronizing adoration for Iranian cinema

By Naghmeh Sohrabi
August 24, 2000
The Iranian

My uncle often likes to say with pride that in the old days, during the Shah's time, when Iranians would travel to Paris or London, everywhere they went, people kept asking them "how many oil wells do you own?" In educated, cosmopolitan American circles these days, no one would ask such a question. Instead, what I am often asked as an Iranian-American is "have you seen [enter here name of Iran's newest cinematic export]? What do you think about Iranian cinema? It's so great. It's so unlike Hollywood."

These two inquiries are in many ways two sides of the same coin.

"New Iranian" cinema which is said to have started with, among other films, Kiarostami's 1987 Where is the Friend's Home continues to dazzle Western opinion-makers with its "quiet humanism" (reaching such peaks as winning the Palm d'Or at Cannes Film Festival in 1997 for Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry and receiving an Oscar nomination in 1998 for Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven). Additionally, it has become one of the most uncontested ways for the Iranian expatriate community to connect with post-revolutionary Iran and to bask in its reflected glory.

I find the uncritical attention given to Iranian cinema by the Western press patronizing and the adoration showered upon it by Iranians living outside of Iran uncritically patriotic.

My criticism can be divided into two categories.

Category 1: "Iranian cinema" should and does constitute the industry as a whole and not just that small faction of films that have been handpicked for the international film festival circuit. What are the criteria for designating these films as representatives of Iranian cinema? Are they the most popular films in Iran? Are they the ones most concerned with social, cultural, and political issues in Iran? Do they add to the art of cinema on a universal level? Or are they merely a magical mirror reflecting what American and European critics think is lacking in their own industries? Iranian cinema seems to be only films by a handful of filmmakers that portray that "passionate humanism" we all now identify with and demand of the cinema of Iran. The rest is knowingly left out.

Category 2: If we only talk about the films that are screened at film festivals, the films are good, some even very good. Very few qualify as unquestionable masterpieces. The uncritical praise heaped upon "Iranian cinema" can only operate when based on two assumptions. For Iranian audiences, this cinema is great in the same way that Iranian pistachio is great: Makes Americans view "us" as something other than veiled Kalashnikov-toting terrorists (that is of course, until we get to the airport. Immigration officers don't seem to be that interested in our pistachio or cinema). For Americans (let's keep in mind also that we're talking about a rather small percentage), Iranian cinema is great only if viewed within a patronizing framework (not necessarily on purpose) or one that in its desire to be un-Hollywood, is willing to check its critical tools at the door and call everything and anything that comes out of Iran great.

What is Iranian Cinema? A quick survey of descriptions of Iranian cinema in American press reveals several key themes in this "Iranian New Wave." Iranian cinema is full of humanism and deals with "real-life people and problems." After a recent stint as Abbas Kiarostami's translator at Harvard University, I had a frustrating conversation with the renowned director's American hosts. I was told, over and over again and despite my somewhat meek protests that these films revealed a certain humanity, a vision of life stripped to its simplest elements. So forth and so on.

The White Balloon, Children of Heaven, Kiarostami's trilogy, The Apple. All different from Hollywood films (although alarmingly similar to each other), all dealing with figures that have traditionally been romanticized by intellectuals: children and villagers. These films, while definitely stripping life to its simplest elements, are perhaps for that very reason, far from depicting "real-life problems" of Iran. In a country where everyday a new student is being arrested for demanding that the government at the very least follow its own constitution, a new newspaper is closed, and 13 Jews are on trial for espionage, depicting a little girl complaining about her goldfish (as in The White Balloon) is a little far from what most would call "humanism."

What makes Iranian cinema so great once you strip away expatriate pride and Western media's fascination these "unexpected" images of those simple Iranian folks out there? Description after description attempts to make a virtue out of every aspect of these made-for-foreign-festivals films. How is it possible for an entire industry to produce film after film by directors as diverse as 18-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf and seasoned Darius Mehrjui and for there not be even one little thing worth critiquing? Is this lack of a critical stance towards films coming from Iran a result of Iranians' innate genius or a sign that the West is exoticizing, romanticizing, and thus patronizing what it deems to be different from itself? Are the critical tools so well honed in daily reviews in our nation's esteemed journals not applicable to Iranian directors? Or is there a fear that once they are applied, the fantasy of the never never land of Iran (a fantasy made all the more powerful by the fact that Iran is also an "Islamic Republic") will fall apart?

Other than create international prestige, a country's cinema can and should also entertain and address broader questions present in that society. To the international opinion makers, it may not be very "eye opening" to watch a film address a society's mundane problems in a visual environment that is less than beautiful and where the protagonists are neither cute pouting children nor resilient villagers or tribes dressed in glorious colors. The irony is that there are films being made in Iran with, of all things, adult urban protagonists (who are sometimes not women, another point of fascination), dealing with current issues relevant to people's lives, films that create debate in Iran, such as Ibrahim Hatamikia's Glass Agency.

Glass Agency, a film that was released amid much controversy and anticipation in the summer of 1998, portrays the gap that exists between the volunteer war veterans of the Iran-Iraq war and most other sections of society. It is a convoluted film where the sympathies of its director are pulled this way and that. It is a film with many technical flaws, no gorgeous scenery, long winding speeches, and issues that are not very familiar to non-Iranian audiences yet Iranians confront frequently in their lives. One leaves the film not pondering the simplicity of life but the complexity of a country still figuring out how to deal with its own past and present. It is no cause for glory nor fascination. It is merely Iranian cinema.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Naghmeh Sohrabi

 Sprint Long Distance


    * Free bird
    Tahmineh Milani's "Two Women"
    By Jasmin Darznik

* Action!
Behind the camera with Samira Makhmalbaf
Photographs by Maysam Makhmalbaf
May 18, 2000

* The red ribbon
Hatamikia's new film goes right to the heart
By Najmeh Fakhraie
May 17, 2000

* Farewell to Fardin
Death of legendary actor marks end of an era
By Farzan Navab

* Iranian videos on sale

Films in this article
* Taste of Cherry
* Where is the Friend's Home
* Children of Heaven
* The White Balloon
* The Apple
* Glass Agency

Copyright © Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form

 MIS Internet Services

Web Site Design by
Multimedia Internet Services, Inc

 GPG Internet server

Internet server by
Global Publishing Group.