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Under the skin of Iranian films

By Rose Ismail
The New Straits Times
November 17, 2000

IT was a kiss. And it was shown in an Iranian film, 22 years after the Islamic Revolution. The kiss - planted on the back of a head - was an expression of love by a son for his mother. Still, for those of us who are acutely aware of the many restrictions placed on filmmakers in the Islamic Republic, this was astounding indeed.

Did this mean that the regime had finally succumbed to public pressure for a more realistic representation of life in locally- produced films? Rakhshan Bani Etemad, the director of Under the Skin of the City (where the kiss was shown), laughed good-humouredly when she was asked this. See Bani Etemad's letter

"Some people will complain (about the kiss) but I will ignore it," she said, confidently.

"It is a very natural thing to do. The son loves his mother and feels sorry for her. The most spontaneous way to show his feelings is to kiss her. And he did, on the back of her covered head," she said.

Etemad, who has written and directed documentaries and films for 28 years, was certain that nothing would happen to her.

And she was right. The film was advertised on billboards everywhere I went in both Teheran and Isfahan last week and many Iranians I spoke to had either seen the film or were planning to do so.

But Under the Skin of the City took 15 years to reach the cinema halls.

The film revolves around a poor family about to be evicted from a decrepit-looking house in a squalid area. The house had been purchased by the mother with her hard-earned savings.

Her eldest son - acted by the current darling of cinemagoers in Iran today - tries valiantly to pull the family out of poverty. Tragically, the odds against them become too much to handle.

Etemad, who wrote the script, said she had submitted earlier variations to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance many times and each one was rejected.

Finally, last year, when she noticed a gradual lifting of what was once banned, she decided to give it one last try.

Under the Skin of the City is unremittingly tragic. The film's dark realism is depressing but it carries a powerful message brilliantly encapsulated in the last scene.

The mother, tired of daily injustices, turns to the camera and says: "The government told us at the start of the Revolution to be patient because it was constructing the society.

"Then, because of the war, it told us to be patient because it needed to reconstruct society.

"For how much longer must we be patient? Can you not see and feel the pain in my heart?"

Etemad's film states, without niceties and apologies, that the Revolutionary Government must take heed of the poor.

On the bitterness of life portrayed in the film, she says: "I don't see things bitterly, I see the bitter things in society."

In all likelihood, the film will win awards both locally and outside of the country.

Among the films she has produced, Nagress (1990), The Blue Veil (1994) and The Lady in May (1998) have won awards.

Some of these films were shown in Malaysia earlier this year at the week-long Iran Film Festival held in Kuala Lumpur's Megamall.

Etemad's work is a clear indication that state restrictions need not hamper the imagination.

In fact, the vibrant and original cinema in this Islamic regime is probably the richest cultural byproduct of the Revolution.

And it has ironically been aided by the country's isolation.

During the last two decades, while we have been inundated by Rambo, Rocky, the Star Wars series and other commercial nonsense like Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, Iranian filmmakers have had to find ways to entertain the home audience with locally-produced films.

Before the Revolution, Iranians developed a taste for foreign films. Silent movie great Charlie Chaplin was a huge favourite.When the government converted a slaughterhouse into a cultural centre in southern Teheran, they adorned a wall with a mural of Chaplin. A more recent favourite, though heavily edited, was Dances with Wolves. Knowing the appeal of foreign films, Iranian filmmakers have to work doubly hard to keep their audience interested. It has not been easy given the strict guidelines issued by the regime.

Among the rules:

* Women can only be portrayed wearing the chador or full hejab - even at home.

* Actresses can't be shot in prolonged close-ups which would exploit their beauty.

* No female over the age of nine can be touched.

* No holding or kissing is allowed between men and women even if they are a married couple on screen.

"It is very hard," said Etemad. "Because our hands are tied, I must constantly find ways to show simple human feelings like the love between a mother and her child."

In one film, she said she framed her camera angles to give the impression that they were hugging when they actually weren't.

In another scene, the son expressed his love by unlacing the mother's shoes when she came home from work.

All these impediments have become blessings in disguise.

In the 1990s, Iranian films were good enough to become standards at the world's major film festivals, faring well at Cannes and other festivals.

The Taste of Cherries, the story of a man talked out of suicide by the taste of cherries, won the Cannes Palm d'Or in 1997.

The White Balloon also won an award at Cannes in 1995. In 1996, the New York Film Critics Circle named it the best foreign film. The poignant tale centred on a little girl and her brother who lose their money on the Iranian New Year and their encounters with people who try to help them retrieve it.

Life in a Mist won an award for best short film at the Aspen Filmfest in 1999. It is a story of a young Kurdish boy who made the family's only cash income by carrying goods on his mule along the Iran-Iraqi border. When the mule dies, he is forced to carry the goods himself.

In Hollywood, Children of Heaven was one of five foreign films nominated for an Oscar in 1999. The heartrending tale centres on a nine-year-old boy who loses his seven-year-old sister's only shoes. To hide the loss from their father, Ali and his sister swap the only pair of shoes between them, racing to meet after her school shift ends, and before his begins.

Sharing the shoes get both children in trouble. To solve the problem, Ali takes part in a race where one of the prizes is, of course, a pair of shoes.

The film did not get the Oscar. It went to Italy's Life is Beautiful.

More recently, The Circle, though banned in Iran, won the Golden Lion Award at the prestigious 57th Venice Film Festival in September this year.

"The common thread in many Iranian films is usually a deceptively simple story line culled from small events, encounters or challenges that subtly offer the grist for bigger themes," writes Robin Wright in the book, The Last Great Revolution.

Indeed, despite the rich variety of plots, Iranian characters are usually ordinary folk: shopkeepers, poor families, children or housewives.

The settings are not sets but real homes, back alleys, villages, schoolyards and public streets.

What is particularly interesting is the role of women in these films.

They are tremendously strong and resilient in films like Mehrjui's quartet - Banoo, Sara, Pari and Leila (1997), all of which deal with the personal and professional plights of women.

The four - which were also shown in Malaysia this year - involved a rebellion or revelation. The conclusions see women defying convention or chucking their husbands or heading out on their own.

Making a film in Iran is seldom a major production. There are usually only five or six actors and actresses and a staff of about 30 camera, sound, light and set technicians.

And like Etemad, the director is often the screenwriter.

The cast and crew have to take public transportation and lunch is usually a sandwich.

Equipment is spare. Again, according to Wright, the camera commonly used is a German-made Arriflex BL4S, used 15 years ago in the United States or Europe.

Filmmaking in Iran is also financially risky. There are no subsidies from the government and because so many cinema halls were burned down and destroyed at the start of the Revolution (they were seen as a source of "moral corruption"), screening venues are few.

This translates into poor returns which some try to overcome by having as many showings as possible just to break even. The exports are the ones which make money for the filmmakers.

Some of Etemad's films like The Blue Veil have fortunately found an audience in countries like Japan. The money she earned from that has helped her repay loans and fund new film projects.

After watching Under the Skin of the City, I walked out imagining the kind of films that Iranians would probably be able to produce if they had the funds and facilities which our filmmakers have.


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