Young Abbas Kiarostami. Source: New Statesman
When The World First Met Iranian Films
by Mariam Habib, Mehdi Pilehvarian
In our blog post Taking the Politics Out of Iranian Cinema, FCC studied the often reductionist attempt by the West to deflate Iranian art into a reaction to or consequence of Iranian politics. We highlighted some of the frustrations of Iranian filmmakers who found themselves being asked more about censorship and the political context in which they made their films than the creative and artistic process of their craft. This week, we explore a different side of this phenomenon. We look at a brief history of Iranian cinema to explore why film and politics have been so strongly linked in Iran, and what the implications of this relationship are for new indie filmmakers.
Why is Iranian cinema always analyzed from a political contextual lens? As we’ve seen, at its core, film in Iran is about its story, about the internal and external conflicts of its characters, beyond the realities of the society in which it was born. However, the relationship between art and politics is no mere consequence or historical fallacy. Since its origins, Iranian film and politics have had a contentious and yet symbiotic relationship.
Poster for Iranian silent film Abi and Rabi (1929). Source: IMDb.com
In what has been described as the first period of Iranian cinema (1929-1936), films- mostly comedies- were rejected by religious clergy who viewed the art form as “corrupt”. The second period (1948-1979) witnessed one of the most important shifts in Iranian cinema with the introduction of newer, ambitious films like Brick and Mirror (Ebrahim Golestan, 1965) and The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969). Also from this period, The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad, 1962) set a certain creative and qualitative standard for Iranian film. The films of this era blended reality and fiction in an unseen way. This trend both paved the way for and was reinforced by the films of Abbas Kiarostami and Amir Naderi.
Brick and Mirror, 1965. Source: IFFR.com
The third period began after the 1979 revolution. This time was critical for Iranian cinema, as Iranian film experienced an unprecedented emergence in the international arthouse market. After being banned for years by the new regime, cinema was re-established in Iran under a new set of rules and regulations. The newer filmmakers of the second period became the link that survived arthouse film in Iran under the new regime. It was here that we saw films like The Runner (Amir Naderi, 1985), Captain Korshid (Nasser Taqvai, 1987) and Where is the Friend’s Home? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1986).
The Runner, 1984. Source: Alamy.com
These filmmakers not only made an impact at home, they were among the first Iranian filmmakers to take their work to acclaimed international festivals. After the huge international success of The Runner, Abbas Kiarostami made waves in global cinema with his Where is the Friend’s Home? which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival. In this way, international audiences and cinephiles were first introduced to Iranian cinema through the films of Kiarostami, Naderi and later, the post-revolution generation which included Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Majid Majidi.
This cinema was both implicitly and explicitly political in style and content. Both at home and around the world, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s cinema became a voice for the political resentment among modern Iranian society. His filmography in particular can be viewed as a recorded evolution of his political beliefs. Similarly, other prominent and emerging filmmakers of this generation attempted to combine their worldviews with those shared by the society in which they created their films. All of this was happening at a time when the world was taking notice and paying close attention to Iranian cinema. It was this interaction of cinema and politics during this time that shaped the unique signature of Iranian arthouse cinema as we know it.
Where is the Friend’s Home? (1968). Source: alamy.com
The works of pre-revolution and post-revolution generations of filmmakers created a standard both in style and content, which withstood shifting politics and culture. And first impressions are hard to forget. Perhaps it’s this style that is reminiscent of earlier more explicitly politically motivated films that draws western audiences to constantly search for political meanings in the Iranian films. Perhaps the historically inextricable connection between art and politics is embedded in the conscious of the modern cinephile.
Whatever the explanation, the implication is that unfortunately, Iranian filmmakers will continue to have their work politically contextualized. Emerging filmmakers will feel the pressure of establishing political messages in their work. And, artists will find themselves representing their country to a world that will continue to search for an underlying critique or commentary. Even filmmakers whose work is less explicitly political and more ambiguous, like Asghar Farhadi, cannot escape political interpretations and analyses of their films. As an umbrella organization for film festivals around the world that strives for higher exposure of films from the Farsi speaking region, FCC aims to diversify the style and content of arthouse Iranian films available to international audiences. Recognizing the importance of good storytelling, we seek to go beyond politics and deep within the stories themselves, highlighting the most unique voices in the Farsi film industry.
A Bed and Several Dreams: A Short History of Iranian Cinema. Massoud Mehrabi. Cinéaste, Vol. 31, No. 3 (SUMMER 2006), pp. 38-39, 47
The Films of Makhmalbaf: Cinema, Politics and Culture in Iran by Eric Egan. Kouross Esmaeli. Iranian Studies, Vol. 43, No. 2 (APRIL 2010), pp. 295-297
Limitless Humanity: Dariush Mehrju’s “The Cow”. Nafis Shafizadeh. Cinéaste, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Fall 2016), pp. 11-13.
Iranian War Cinema: Between Reality and Fiction. Michaël Abecassis. Iranian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 3, Beyond the Iranian Frame: From Visual Representation to Socio-Political Drama (MAY 2011), pp. 387-394.