The Oscars: Iran’s Shifting Cinema Movements
By: Yuling Chen
2019 has come to a close, and a new decade has begun.
In 2019, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed its category for Best Foreign Language Film to Best International Feature Film, and a record-breaking 93 countries submitted to compete for the 2020 Oscars.
Following months of anticipation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced five final nominees for the category on January 13th. Though none of the nominees were from Iran or Afghanistan, these two Farsi-speaking countries have brought a wellspring of diverse talent and exciting films to the academy over the past three decades. Through a two part series on both Iranian and Afghan cinematic treasures, FCC takes a look back on past winners and contenders from the Farsi region at the Oscars.
As the first in the series, we focus on Iran’s cinema; its continuously groundbreaking forms and renewing narratives. To grasp the emotional gravity, inventive spirit, and humanistic themes of their films, we need to go back to Abbas Kiarostami.
Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994)
Through the Olive Trees was submitted in 1995. It was Iran’s second time submitting to the Oscars; however, the submission was not nominated. Kiarostami’s reflexive metadrama marked a new dawn for Iranian cinema: a film within a film where an actor falls in love with the actress who plays his wife. Kiarostami points a microscope at emotion within Through the Olive Trees, which intensifies and falters as the actors move between a film set and their own lives. The plot fractures the illusion of filmmaking as fiction bleeds into reality.
Born in 1940, Kiarostami studied art and worked as a graphic designer. He began making movies in 1970 at a government agency: mostly educational shorts for children. He developed an obsessive and repetitive style.
The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995)
In 1996, The White Balloon was Iran’s national entry for the Oscars. Jafar Panahi transformed a simple storybook tale to a compact and suspenseful narrative sequence. A little girl, Razieh, loses money she is given to buy a goldfish. She attempts to retrieve it with the help of her brother (Ali) and a young Afghan balloon seller.
Panahi assisted Kiarostami on the set of Through the Olive Trees, and Kiarostami wrote the script for The White Balloon. Their movies were modern incarnations of the first Iranian New Wave. Through the lens of this misadventure Panahi portrayed children and drifters, marginal characters of society. Though the film was not nominated, it took home the prestigious Camera d’Or at Cannes.
Gabbeh (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996)
In Gabbeh, a 1997 national entry (which wasn’t nominated), Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s pictorial imagination took a surreal turn. From a piece of Gabbeh (a type of carpet woven by Ghashghai nomads from the Qashqai and Bakhtiari communities) a young woman springs out of thin air. She recounts her rebellious love with a wandering horseman, of whom her father disapproves.
Makhmalbaf originally conceived this film as a documentary. However, as he explored deeper he found himself drawn into the human stories embodied in the Gabbeh craft. He loosened his constraint on the documentary format, adopting a freer expression through poetic stagings and lush visuals. The cinematography and editing by him and Mahmoud Kalari intercut scenes together in surprising ways. For example, carpet weaving is juxtaposed with a lamb’s birth. This artistic choice further elevated the Ghashghai nomadic life to a mysterious higher vision.
Children of Heaven (Majid Majidi, 1998)
In 1999, Iran’s first Oscar nomination was awarded to Children of Heaven. In the film two siblings of an impoverished family lose a pair of shoes. They then devise a plan to avoid punishment. Later, the brother joins a race in order to win a new pair.
Majidi began his career as an actor. This partly explained why his works distinguished themselves as intensely naturalistic, yet action-packed films. Children of Heaven exemplified this distinction through the liberal employment of complex camera movements and shooting styles. Though the film didn’t win that year, it showed other filmmakers what the academy was looking for.
Deep Breath (Parviz Shahbazi, 2003)
For the next few years, Iranian submissions trended towards more realistic dramas concerning economical hardship [A Time for Drunken Horses (2000)], familial struggles [I’m Taraneh, 15 (2002)] and social taboo [Café Transit (2006)]. Parviz Shahbazi’s Deep Breath stood out: a 2004 Oscar submission (which wasn’t nominated) that portrays two listless college dropouts meandering through life without any purpose. The film shows a modern Tehran against a cosmopolitan backdrop, playing out youthful angst in the existential tradition of French New Wave. It was screened at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes and was awarded the FIPRESCI prize at the Busan International Film Festival.
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
In 2012, Iran celebrated its first Oscar award: Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, which won the Best Foreign Language Film category. After graduating from Tehran University in 1998, Farhadi had been working in radio and TV as a writer. In many interviews Farhadi mentioned his influences from both Western and Iranian playwrights and writers, such as Tennessee Williams, Anton Chekhov and Mahmoud Dolatabadi. Their work grappled with human conflict and societal restrictions. Like his literary predecessors, Farhadi questioned moral principles and ethics in social institutions, like marriage. Inevitably, his most renowned work, A Separation, unfolds through divergent decisions made by a married couple who come close to divorcing one another.
The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, 2016)
Farhadi won a second Oscar for his film The Salesman in 2017. While perusing Arthur Miller’s The Death of A Salesman, Farhadi decided to rope in the play as part of the plot, where a married couple, Emad Etesami and Rana Etesami, rehearse Miller’s play in an amateur production while being forced out of their apartment and into a new one. In the new apartment, Rana is assaulted and Emad attempts to track down the attacker. Farhadi further expanded his intersecting universe of theatre and film with three stages, one literal and two metaphorical — the theatre stage, the old apartment, and the new — Rana and Emad traverse between them as their lives are drawn into an analogue resemblance of the play. Hamid Dabashi, a Columbia University scholar, praised Farhadi’s movies for being “like an onion — you peel one layer and there’s another layer fresh ready for you”.
Breath (Narges Abyar, 2016)
Breath was selected to compete in 2018 Oscars. As a novelist-turned-director, Narges Abyar based Breath on one of her novels. She also collected verbal accounts of people who had endured the Iran-Iraq war.
The movie returned to earlier Iranian film conventions – led by an 8 year-old child named Bahar – whose courage in the face of war was beautifully realized by 2D animation and energetic camera work. Abyar and Gowhari researched children’s drawings to create a non-jarring visual style. They smoothly blended a child’s imagined world with live-action scenes. Breath won Best Director at the 2016 Tallinn Black Nights awards.
Period. End of Sentence. (Rayka Zehtabchi, 2018)
Period. End of Sentence. won the Best Documentary Short category in 2019. The director, Rayka Zehtabchi, was the first Iranian-American woman to win the award. In 2017 she flew twice to India to film it in the rural Hapur district. The documentary observes a group of teenage girls and women shifting from being exposed solely to superstitious beliefs about menstruation to eventually manufacturing sanitary pads with a machine and building a microeconomy.
Zehtabchi understood the fear that could hinder your life and in turn empower you, like in Period. End of Sentence. With her producers from The Pad Project, she built a lively working model with a local producer, Mandakini Kakar, who translated and summarized every 10 minutes in order to allow them to pivot their filming direction on the ground.
Finding Farideh (Kourosh Ataee and Azadeh Moussavi, 2018)
Finding Farideh was submitted for the 2020 Oscars. In the film an Iranian woman, Eline Farideh Koning, who is adopted by a Dutch couple, returns to Mashhad. She hopes to find her biological parents and connect to her birth culture.
Before this film, Ataee and Moussavi collaborated on the documentary From Iran, A Separation, which dives into Iranian perspectives on A Separation, winning the country’s first Oscar. In this new documentary, Farideh returns to Iran because she feels like an exile in Europe: tension emerges when she decides to fill the void in her heart.
FCC looks forward to the new waves of Iranian filmmakers innovating on the silver screen. We will continue to celebrate diverse representations of Farsi-speaking cinema on the world stage in the years to come. Tune in next week to learn more about Afghanistan’s past with the Academy.