Mohsen Makhmalbaf in Hello Cinema (1995), Source: Cinema of the World

The Past, Present, and Future of Iranian Documentary

by Marisa Sittheeamorn

Iran’s cinematic history is a treasure trove of hidden gems, waiting for the world to burrow into. Amongst the riches is an endless supply of films that ponder the very meaning of life, along with its everyday normalcies and bouts of joy. While narrative feature films are among some of the most coveted within cinematic communities, Iran’s filmography of documentaries is a wealth within itself.

The success of documentaries exploded in the 60s, with Forough Farrokhzad’s critically acclaimed, The House Is Black (1962). The film offered an unseen, intimate portrayal of day-to-day life in a leper colony, where Farrokhzad lived for 12 days. Known for rejecting ideals of femininity within her work, Farrokhzad was one of the first female filmmakers to receive as much praise as she did. She continues to be an idol for artistic, personal, and sexual freedom today.

A few years later, in 1967, Kamran Shirdel’s The Night it Rained premiered, and became one of the most notable documentaries from pre-revolutionary Iran. The film explores the truth behind a young boy who allegedly prevents a catastrophic train crash. Through interviews with the boy, the truth is perhaps not as it seems. The film was screened at IDFA in 2007, and was also featured in Sight and Sound’s 75th anniversary list, “75 Hidden Gems of World Cinema.”

Kamran Shirdel and camera man Maghi Maasoumi on set of The Night It Rained (1967), Source: Notes on Cinematograph

As always, no tribute to Iranian cinema is complete without Abbas Kiarostami. His 1990 film Close-Up, tells the story of a con-man who impersonates Mohsen Makhmalbaf and convinces a family they would star in his new film. Since its release at Fajr, the film has continued to appear at numerous major festivals around the world, including TIFF, Locarno, Cannes, São Paulo, Chicago, Thessaloniki, Torino, Melbourne, and many, many more.

Five years later, the REAL Mohsen Makhmalbaf made waves with Hello Cinema, which had its international premiere in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 1995. The film was a result of Makhmalbaf’s attempt to cast a film intended to celebrate the 100th anniversary of cinema as a medium. After placing an ad in the newspaper for 100 roles, over 5,000 people showed up. Hello Cinema ironically captures the reality of life in Iran through on-camera auditions, with the people of Iran who are too often left behind.

In 2011, Jafar Panahi released This Is Not A Film, a visual response to the government’s numerous threats against him. Shot entirely on his phone, the film depicts a day in Panahi’s life under house arrest as he awaits a verdict from the appeals court. An ultimate commentary on the restrictions placed on filmmakers in Iran, the film was smuggled from Iran to Cannes on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake. It’s success remains a monumental event in film history.

A more recent selection includes Stop Over (2013) by Kaveh Bakhtiari. In the film, Bakhtari lives with a group of illegal Iranian immigrants in Athens, a place of transit for migrants who have left their home country. As they try to seek refuge in other Western countries, the men have to choose between hopelessly waiting for ID documents and finding alternative routes to the places they hope to one day call home. Premiering at Cannes, the film won the Quebec Film Critics Award from Montreal Festival of New Cinema, the Merit Award at Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival, and received nominations from many others.

Still from Stop Over (Kaveh Bakhtari, 2013), Source: Variety

Another jewel from 2013 is Mitra Farahani’s Fifi Howls From Happiness. The documentary follows director Farahani as she tracks down Bahman Mohasses, the ‘Persian Picasso,’ who has been living anonymously out of a hotel room in Rome. Shot shortly before his death, the film offers Mohasses an opportunity to craft his final biography and share his story in his own words and on his own terms.

With Mehrdad Oskouei’s Sunless Shadows (2019) opening IDFA this year, it is clear that Iranian documentaries are upholding their reign within the non-fiction world. While the selection above showcases filmmakers who shaped and continue to push the boundaries of storytelling in Iran, there are thousands of others who are just as worthy of global attention. FCC looks forward to the artistry to come, and hopes to play a part in supporting filmmakers on a mission to capture the raw, often unseen moments in life.

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