Richard Peña, director of the New York
Film Society listens to Abbas Kiarostami.
Searchers: The new Iranian cinema
Lake Forest, Illinois
Within the last decade the hitherto dim star of the Iranian film has gone supernova. Iranian "auteurs" are lionized by legends of cinema from Godard to Kurosawa and much breathless commentary has been written about a cinematic tradition that flourishes without many of the familiar technical and thematic elements of the cinematic loam.
Camera tricks, montage and meticulous mise-en-scene are rare in these movies; as are sex, violence and plot-driven suspense. The New Iranian Film does not conform to the familiar genre of "art-film" either: there is no heavy dredging of the existential depths, no conspicuous consumption of angst.
The Western viewers and reviewers, for whom Iran dissolves in images of the hostage crisis and the funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini are puzzled by the refusal of the new directors of Iranian films to seek the easy emotional payoff of political grand-standing.
The above list of absences may leave the impression that the New Iranian Film is about recording the sound of one hand clapping. But, to its credit, the genre stays off the mystical path as well. In the following I intend to focus on three features of recent Iranian films and briefly highlight the way they reflect Iran's post-revolutionary moral, political and artistic climate.
I. THE DEEP POLITICS OF AUTHORITY
Post-revolutionary Iran's view of political problems -- as well as solutions -- is fairly sophisticated; no less should be expected from a generation that resolved to eradicate Evil in one sweeping movement and lived to see the folly of its ways.
The first revolutionary prime minister captured the pervasive mood when he quipped that the Shah had gone but tiny Shahs still reigned within each Iranian. Far from settling the question of authority in terms of facile us/them dichotomies, Iranian art forms appear to consider the question generative of an endemic psychological and sociological malaise.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who remained passionately committed to the cause of the revolution up until a few years ago, approaches the problem of authority in his "Salaam Cinema" with brutal, indeed brutish, honesty. Upon announcing a public rendezvous to scout movie stars, he films the masses as they storm his headquarters; trample each other; wait indefinitely to genuflect at his altar; brave humiliation and "sell out" at the drop of his authoritarian hat. But they are no ordinary victims of despotism. The ones he allows to recline on his directorial throne quickly turn into crafty dictators themselves.
While Makhmalbaf depicts the troubling transformation of victims to victimizers, Abbas Kiarostami chooses to question the reified reality of victimization. In his documentary, "Homework," we witness a ragtag parade of tearful as well as nonchalant grade-schoolers, who have arrived at school without their homework. Although a critique of the pedagogy of fear and punishment is immanent, there is no direct reference to the powers that be. A great deal seems to depend on the attitude of individual students. The nonchalant go on babbling their excuses while the fear-stricken are tortured by their own demons.
When authority figures do appear on Kiarostami's screen they do not strike fearsome poses, but comical or pathetic ones. A certain tea-sipping octogenarian who attempts to put on a show of filial order by lording it over his grandson -- the resolute protagonist of "Where is My Friend's House?"-- treats a skeptical companion to an hilarious treatise on the merits of punishment for the sake of punishment.
Other authority figures like the young protagonist's mother and teacher in the same film are not portrayed as mean or evil either. Rather, they seem to suffer from either benign rigidity or what Kiarostami's diagnostic guide would identify as Adults' Attention Deficit Disorder. Kiarostami's idealism consists in the insight that the tyranny of grownups and authority figures, like the logic of social domination and status privileges (e.g. in "Under the Olive Trees,") finally crumble in the face of the efforts of unyielding heros.
II. THE SERMON-ON-THE-MOUNT MORALITY
The heros of these movies are an unlikely bunch. In the language of the New Testament, they are the children, the meek and the merciful. Let those who agree with the maxim "it is better to be naive than jaded" rejoice. For all the disenchantments of the revolution the search for virtue remains alive and well in the New Iranian Film.
The proviso is that these virtues are not social but existential; they are not humanitarian but humanist. The morality of this genre is not multifarious, melodramatic or maudlin; it is basic, soulful and simply bracing. Again, the carriers of this humanist ethos are the simple folks, the peasants, the underclass, but first and foremost, the children. They choose to incur the wrath of the grown ups for the sake of a friend, ("Where is My Friend's House?") and join efforts to wake up a hearing-impaired grandfather ("The Chorus") or repair a common drinking container ("Jar").
Yet, while children perform miracles by acts of pure charity ("White Balloon" and "The Need") they are never portrayed as congenitally moral creatures. They become our paragons because they make the kind of choices that we are all capable of making. Despite the widespread social disillusionment and mounting economic and ideological crises, moral idealism thrives in Iran -- not in pretentious bids to rid the world of evil nor in promises of massive social engineering, but in small acts of generosity and compassion deeply ingrained in the Iranian culture and popular morality and best expressed by its poets from Ferdowsi to Sepehri.
III. THE OBSESSIVE REFLEXIVITY
The above characteristics are not unique to the New Iranian Film. Similar traits can be found in other genres from the Italian Neo-realism to the French New Wave. It is the limpidness of self-reflection in the New Iranian film that sets it apart. The historical roots for the emergence of this remarkable clarity run deep.
The stifling hothouse of the late Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties fostered successive breeds of utopian intellectuals whose idealism went unchecked as they were prevented (and thus absolved) from witnessing the realization of their pristine visions. These grand intellectuals were also good ventriloquists as they spoke in the name of The Nation, The Oppressed, The Workers, etc.
Non-polemical self-reflection was quite rare. It took the monumental shock of the revolution and some of its harrowing unintended consequences to end the era of obfuscation. These days one can read sober self-critical accounts and analytical commentaries about the balance between the rights and the responsibilities of intellectuals in Tehran's independent intellectual publications.
This phenomenon finds a clear echo in the dazzling ironies of the New Iranian Film. A director's appearance in his own movies, whether in person or as represented by an actor, is neither a gimmick, nor a frivolous nod to the involuted themes of post-modernism. Rather it is a meditation on the dialogue of the author -- not as the writer of an impersonal text, but as an agent in full human flesh -- and the society.
In the course of filming "Salaam Cinema," Makhmalbaf can hardly hide the relish with which he straddles the fence between "himself" and the daunting persona he wears as an idolized celebrity. The profound relativism born from this perspectivist view of social interaction (most effectively expressed in his "A Time to Love") is anathema to the banal binaries of political activism.
Kiarostami's interest in perspective is expressed in his ubiquitous authorial voice which interrupts the endless Odysseys of his characters across uncharted roads and crowded streets with the halting tones of a simple question: "Where are we?" While Makhmalbaf worries about the chasm that separates the artist and the society, Kiarostami dreams dreams of reconciliation. He is the master of weaving sequences of actual footage, minimally directed reenactment and surprise intrusions of the directorial voice and person, to provide for moments of astonishing insight and irony.
In his "Close-Up," a real life confidence man who has been arrested for impersonating a famous director (Makhmalbaf), co-stars with his marks in reenacting his racket. Then he is filmed in the course of his actual trial and again as he is released from jail and accosted by the real Makhmalbaf. He breaks down and weeps with shame and joy; they embrace and share a motorcycle ride to the house of the victims of the con game to present them with flowers and apologies.
The duality between the fake artist and the real one fades in significance as the moment of reconciliation approaches. Kiarostami haunts his sequels to "Where is My Friend's House" as the specter of a kind of humanism so elemental, it is at once sublime and quotidian. "Under the Olive Trees" is a reenactment of the process of shooting his last movie ("Life and Nothing More") where he notices a surreptitious courtship in progress between two actors and attempts to help the suitor (with his clout and friendly counsel) to overcome the diffidence and cruel rejections of his beloved. Blessed are the film makers.
If the New Iranian Film is to meditate on the host of moral, social, and political questions of Iran, and on the role of the artists in mediating this process, it must do so in peace and with parsimony. The thematic and technical "austerity" that the more astute of the Western commentators have noticed in this genre represents this necessity.