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Watching Iran

February 14, 2015

Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is playing at OFFscreen tomorrow night and that reminded me of a post I have been meaning to write since last fall. I was standing in line to see Goodbye To Language 3D at the Virginia Film Festival, talking to woman I had not seen since Bloomsday 2012, and I mentioned that I was thinking of watching A Girl Walks later in the day, telling her that every Iranian movie I had ever seen was excellent (Amirpour is actually Iranian-American, and though her film is in Farsi and set in Iran, or an alternate reality Iran, it was shot in California, and I did not see that day). When she asked me what some of those movies were my mind went blank, I could not think of any titles other than, after a while, Taste of Cherry. Which was frustrating because the Iranian movies I had seen had so impressed me that I knew I could, given some time, recall each one individually, though some of my viewings date from long ago, some on VHS or laserdisc. So I decided to do that, and make a list, and then turn it into a blog post, which I have finally come around to doing, after some further watching and re-watching.

These are movies of the Iranian New Wave. When people notice a slew of great movies unexpectedly coming out of some country or region they call that a New Wave. Nouvelle Vague if they are French. Presumably there are plenty of mediocre or just plain bad movies made in Iran, part of no wave or vague, but the ones below are among the those that were good enough to make it out of the country and into festivals and arthouse theaters around the world. I saw several of them at OFFscreen, one (Close-Up) at the Virginia Film Festival. I would unhesitatingly recommend every one of them, some more enthusiastically than others.

I hope to one day watch a real shitty Iranian movie, but that has not come close to happening yet, and it looks there are many other good ones, by a number of directors, still to see. I am no expert on this body of work, but will try to fake it as best I can.

Forough Farrokhzad

The House Is Black (1963)

Some call Farrokhzad the greatest Persian poet of the 20th century. She also made this one short film, which both Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf cite as an influence. It is a poetic documentary about a leper colony. The suffering and disfigurement make it hard to watch, but there is also a strong beauty to it. In giving a view of people that is both highly aestheticized and deeply humane it marks itself as a strong precursor to the New Wave. Farrokhzad died in a car accident at the age of 32, and the potential of a brilliant career in film as well as poetry was lost to us.

Dariush Mehrjui
The Cow (1969)

Very good, even if it seems derivative of an international arthouse style developed in the 1950’s. Iran was still playing catch-up in the film world. About a man, his cow, the death of the cow, the mad grief of the man and — most of all — the way the people of the village handle it all. In rural modernist black and white.

Abbas Kiarostami
Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987)
Close-Up (1990)
Life, and Nothing More… (1992)
Through the Olive Trees (1994)
Taste of Cherry (1997)
The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)
Shirin (2008)

Kiarostami Outside Iran
Certified Copy (2010)
Like Someone in Love (2012)

The master, the elder statesman, the subtle philosopher, the poet of the mundane, the sly minimalist artificer, trickster for the truth, sophisticate of the naïve, the aloof man of the people, kind worldly gazer on the human scene, the cosmopolitan, the exemplar of the civilized, the festival favorite. The most important and influential Iranian New Wave Director. Close-Up is my favorite of his movies, and probably also the one film of his that is itself most important and influential, to himself as well as his compatriots. Kiarostami saw a news report about a poor man who had pretended to be our next director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, to a middle-class family and was then arrested for fraud. Right away he started to make a film about the story, not as a conventional documentary but intruding himself into events and having the principals reenact what had happened. The result was a remarkable blend of artifice and reality that became a signature quality of the Iranian New Wave, extending from the common use of non-professional actors playing versions of themselves that had gone on before. It is not post-modern hi-jinks, but a reworking of cinema from the ground up, almost pre-modern, bypassing the distinction between fact and fiction to get to a more organic truth. Not something unique to Iran, but a specialty.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf
The Cyclist (1987)
Salaam Cinema (1995)
Gabbeh (1996)
A Moment of Innocence (aka Bread and Flower) (1996)
Kandahar (2001)

The compliment to Kiarostami, the yang to his yin. Kiarostami is the cultured product of the educated middle class; Makhmalbaf came from a poor family and had to work to help support his family as a child. He joined the revolutionary Islamic movement to topple the shah as a teenager and was arrested for assaulting a police officer at 17, spending the next four and a half years in prison, until the revolution set him free. He then threw himself into writing and film-making. He has a more raw, rough-hewn genius, given to more extravagant gestures and bolder imagery. One movie I really need to re-watch is Gabbeh, which is unlike any other film on this list in its magical-realism, rich color, and non-contemporary subject matter. But my favorite of his is A Moment of Innocence, which is much like Close-Up in its artifice/reality blending, but sufficiently different in its cinematic brushstrokes to put it beyond the shadow of Kiarostami, however obvious the influence. In it Makhmalbaf plays himself making a movie that recreates the assault on the policeman that got him arrested, with the help of the former policeman himself and a pair of young men to play their former selves and a young woman as the love interest. People assume the actor playing the part of ex-cop was the real ex-cop, but it is not so, though the real ex-cop did apparently audition for the role of himself  and was rejected in favor of someone else, who is himself credibly non-professional. It is all very meta but not in the way of cleverness but as a means of exploring basic human qualities. Really I cannot describe it, it is astonishing and moving and you must see it yourself.

Samira Makhmalbaf

The Apple (1998)
Blackboards (2000)

Makhmalbaf established a home film school in which taught his craft to his wife and children (all of whom have directed movies with his collaboration) as well as others. His daughter Samira was the most notable product of this pedagogy. She directed The Apple when she was seventeen. It is the story of a family in which the two daughters were locked up in their house for eleven years until the authorities intervened to allow to them finally go out into the world. It is a true story reenacted but the actual people involved (the presence of Close-Up again!)

Jafar Panahi
The White Balloon (1995)
Crimson Gold (2003)
Offside (2006)
This Is Not a Film (2011)

Many Americans were introduced to the Iranian New Wave by Panahi’s The White Balloon, the story of a young girl’s adventures in the city, written by Kiarostami. Children are a famously popular subject for Iranian directors because they are safe for the censors. Crimson Gold, also written by Kiarostami and based on a true story of a pizza deliveryman’s attempt at robbery, does not play it safe but offers some very pointed critique of Iranian society, including its religious authorities. (It is also just a very good movie aside from that.) Offside does the same, telling the story of a group of women attempting to sneak into a stadium, where by law only men are allowed, to watch a big soccer game. Eventually Panahi become provocative enough to be thrown in jail for a time and banned from making films. Out of that came This Is Not a Film, another artifice/reality blender in the tradition of Close-Up. At first it appears to be just a kind of casual video diary Panahi is making in his apartment, frustrated and bored with being unable to do real movie-making. But gradually you start to see that it is more than that, it is a subtle and carefully crafted work of art. But, on other hand, that it also must come out of this guy just casually messing around with his camera while frustrated and bored. And his plight is all too real. Something here is faked, but it’s all true, and very powerful.

Asghar Farhadi
A Separation (2011)

Just because it won an Oscar doesn’t mean it isn’t great. But I am not sure how to connect it to Close-Up, which seems to be what I am doing in this post.

In Conclusion

In conclusion there is more to say about these movies than can be done in just one post. So I will have to return to the subject in “Watching Iran II” or “Re-Watching Iran” or something like that.

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  1. Jeff permalink

    Don’t forget Children of Heaven, Leila, and Where is the Friend’s Home?

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