The movie theater I found myself in was called Freedom; it stood on the corner of two main boulevards that, like the majority of streets in Tehran, are named after martyrs of the revolution: Martyr Beheshti, Martyr Eslamboli. Several hundred people could have easily fit in that space, but at most only twenty were there. Three soldiers sat a few rows ahead of me, munching on bags of salted melon seeds, cracking jokes every time the film we all were supposed to be watching failed to deliver a punch, every time there was an absence of blood and one scene glided into another without someone getting beaten up. The story was obviously not their cup of tea. These kids were merely killing time here-three Iranian soldier boys who had nothing better to do with their off-duty hours on a dreary summer day in the capital. They would have preferred a kung-fu movie out of Hong Kong. Better yet, a typical shoot-'em-up affair from Hollywood. But it would have been pointless to try to hush them; there were plenty of other conversations going on.
In the meantime, a remarkable work of Iranian cinema was being shown on the screen in front of us. Abbas Kiarostami's Close-up is the real life story of a poor and unemployed Iranian man who is infatuated with the world of film. One day, while riding the bus, an older woman sitting next to him notices that he is holding a published film script in his hand. The script is by the renowned director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The woman, too, is a lover of cinema. In fact, her whole family is. They get to talking about the script. The fellow has an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Makhmalbaf himself. Is he the famous director? Yes, he is. The lie comes naturally to him. He pretends to be Makhmalbaf—because he does look like Makhmalbaf and, more importantly, he feels like Makhmalbaf. What follows is the story of how the character insinuates himself into a middle-class family's life over a period of time, even holding acting lessons with them and having ongoing discussions on cinema, until they slowly start to realize he is an impostor and call the police. We the audience catch up to him and to the family after the fact. Our antihero has already done his time in jail, where Mr. Kiarostami first interviewed him. The director then proceeds to reenact the affair from its beginning to end. No professional actors are involved. Each person—the main character, the family members, the newspaper reporter who originally broke the story, the soldiers who were sent from the local police station to pick up the pretender—plays himself or herself. It is a bizarre and fantastic recreation in which the main character is reenacting the performance he had put on earlier, while the family members he had once conned into believing he was Makhmalbaf allow themselves to be deceived again for the sake of the camera.
Why, then, this fascination of Iranians with cinema? the director of Close-up seemed to be asking when he first shot the movie in 1990. So many years later, I'd pose a slightly different question: If, truly, Iranians have a fascination for cinema (and I think many do; one might even call it an obsession), why is this still not evident in the movie houses of Iran where rarely, if ever, are the domestic art films shown, and even if they are, they seldom play to the kind of packed and flattering audiences the directors are accustomed to seeing at film festivals abroad?
One answer that comes to mind is that most “serious” Iranian filmmakers are not making films for a domestic audience in the first place; there would be little profit to it, and no prestige whatsoever. This is the obvious answer, but a simplistic one. It is precisely because the Islamic Republic of Iran is the sort of place it is, one full of contradictions, a bedlam of competing interests where religion and genuine notions of freedom are constantly at odds, that it has allowed room for some of the most dynamic filmmaking to be produced anywhere in the world in recent times.
A quick overview of Iranian cinema might go something like this. First, Iranian cinema was there before the Islamic Republic, and it will be there when the Islamic Republic is gone or is eventually transformed. Prior to the revolution, directors such as Sohrab Shahid Sales, Parviz Kimyavi, Ali Hatami, Dariush Mehrjui and others had begun to make a significant impact on both domestic and foreign audiences. Groundbreaking films such as The Cow and The Cyclist, for instance, were already receiving justified attention abroad. And while made-for-domestic-consumption films usually followed the basic editing methods and the two-point storyline formula—love and violence—of Hollywood, the Iranian auteur was influenced, among others, by French directors and the neo-Realist Italian school of the 1950s and 1960s-a parallel tradition, by the way, that has more or less continued to this day. Cinema, then, was in the air, and it was everywhere. Depending on your taste, on any given week in prerevolutionary Tehran, you might go for a Bresson or a Bergman film at the local art-house theater, weep along with much of the rest of the audience at a typical Indian fare of love, song, and tragedy from Bollywood, catch Jimmy Stewart gazing through a rear window or hear Doris Day sing “Que sera sera,” watch James Bond being chased and shot at over Alpine slopes, see Charles Bronson gearing up for a prize fight, hold your breath while John Wayne or Gary Cooper reached for a six-shooter, or-most important of all-witness Muhammad Ali readying himself to defend his heavyweight title. It might be on TV or on the big screen. It didn't matter where; what mattered was that it was there and it was available. Until 1979.
That year, with the arrival of the Ayatollah Khomeini, cinema, along with other practices deemed un-Islamic, was sidelined for a while. The lull lasted a few bleak years. But then, with the designation of Mohammad Khatami-Iran's current reformist president-as the Minister of Culture and Guidance, censorship was, to a degree, relaxed and cinema began to breathe again. Perhaps the first breakthrough in those years was Kiarostami's 1987 film, Where Is My Friend's House?, the simple story of a peasant child who spends the entire length of the movie searching for his friend's home to return his notebook to him. With its lush landscapes of northern Iran, its use of rural folk going about their daily lives, and its unfussy plotline, the film was a hit abroad, and served to soften the image audiences might have had of Iran as a country defined by religious fanaticism. The government of the Islamic Republic picked up on this; there was an advantage to letting the filmmakers do their thing. At about that same time Makhmalbaf, who would go on to be the indirect subject of Kiarostami's Close-up, had begun his career by making a series of hard-hitting, socially conscious films that did not back away from portraying the lives of the poor, the sick, the forgotten. Makhmalbaf's later works have now and then been accused of suffering from a certain spurious lyricism and exoticism that is a sure crowd pleaser abroad, but speaks little to Iranian audiences. Yet in those early features like The Cyclist and particularly The Marriage of the Blessed, he fixed his camera on a society that was aching with the weight of its own reality.
It has been a decade since I saw Kiarostami's Close-up in that forsaken theater in Tehran. Since then, Iranian films have come to be a staple of all the international film festivals. They have won just about every award, been discussed by cinephiles, written about, dissected, praised, and compared to other celebrated past movements in film. In fact, an entire industry seems to have cropped up around Iranian cinema. There are “experts” on the subject whose articles on the latest Iranian films regularly appear in the pages of newspapers in every major city from Paris to San Francisco. By the year 2000, exactly a decade after Close-up, Iranian films were no longer a curiosity on the festival circuit; oftentimes they were, and are, the festival. Consider how in that year alone two Iranian films, A Time For Drunken Horses by Bahman Ghobadi and Djomeh by Hasan Yektapanah shared the prize for the best first film at the Cannes Film Festival, while the Jury Prize went to Blackboards by Samira Makhmalbaf, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's daughter. That same year Jafar Panahi's Circle won the Venice Golden Lion and Marzieh Meshkini's The Day I Became a Woman walked away with the Future Cinema Prize. The list of prizes goes on. Meanwhile, in Tehran, some directors readily admit that they make films only to win awards in Europe and North America.
All along, Iranians living outside their country were probably more aware than any other group of the disparity between the place they knew and many of the films that were being made about it. The number of people who actually get to see these films in Iran is still relatively small, due to public apathy, censorship, and the random nature of government laws that might allow a film to be shown for a couple of weeks before removing it from the theatres. It is no secret in Tehran that many of the younger directors whose films might end up at the same festivals abroad never get to see each other's works. There might be an invitation-only, one-time private showing, after which a film may be reviewed and talked about in two dozen magazines with hardly anyone having even seen it. So, Iranians in exile have often gotten to see what Iranians back home never have. In addition, through the 1990s the Iran being shown by its filmmakers seemed a caricature. It may not have been purposeful misrepresentation-no one ever said that cinema, or any art form for that matter, should be true to life-but it did feel as if there was something of an agenda (the agenda being to wheedle foreign festival judges to mete out awards by assailing them with carefully worked-out images of Third World suffering and simulated innocence) to some of these highly acclaimed films. Here, one can cite the pretty minimalism of a film like The White Balloon, about a little girl looking for a goldfish, or the melodramatics of The Color of Paradise, about a blind boy whose father rejects him because of his handicap. To the more wary, even the titles of the films began to seem suspect; there were too many colors and too much fruit-The Color of Paradise, The White Balloon, A Taste of Cherry, The Apple. The distinguished Iranian philosopher Dariush Shayegan wryly commented at one point: “I am now waiting for them to make a movie about the color of kiwi!”
Nowadays, barely a week passes in which one doesn't hear about another expatriate going back to Iran to make a movie. Why are so many of us going back? More precisely, why are so many going back to make films? Well, being Iranian today means, among other things, being associated with what the President of the United States has called the Axis of Evil. Evil suggests barbarity. So each time an Iranian film wins an award, each time a reviewer calls Iranian cinema “vibrant” and Iranian society “intellectually vital,” one feels vindicated. “We are not barbarians!” is that cry across continents that forces others to listen and take note. And despite all the obstacles a filmmaker might face in putting together just one film, it is still more feasible to go back and make a movie than to write a book. Who would an Iranian émigré writing in Persian write for? For other émigrés abroad? For readers back in Iran? Unlikely. For starters, even though the Iranian émigré community is quite large and well educated, the overall numbers are still too small to support exiled writers. On the other hand, it is the very rare book written by an émigré author that can get published in Iran; it is hard enough for writers living inside to get their books accepted by the government censors. What happens then is that many émigré writers try their hands at English or French or German or Swedish. Nevertheless, the odds of language are stacked heavily against all but a handful of them. And yet, inside Iran, the sheer output of Iranian authors ever since the revolution has been nothing short of awe-inspiring, if oftentimes uneven. But does anyone know these authors outside of their own country? Hardly. Are there any festivals, as in the film festival trail, where they could be heard? Not at all. This then is the loneliness of the writer-more specifically, the loneliness of the Iranian writer, laboring away in a language that is seldom translated. Meanwhile, however, Iranian cinema flourishes, and as it does it creates some space for Iranian literature to make its presence felt. There is news nowadays of more short stories and novels by Iranian writers being picked to be made into film. At the same time, there exists an artist like Bahram Beyzai, a veteran filmmaker who, along with his directorial efforts, has also been putting out some of the most stylistically sophisticated examples of Persian prose in our time.
Altogether, the latest thrust of Iranian films has a hard-edged realism to it that tugs at the core of audiences not just abroad but also inside Iran. Iranian directors are no longer struggling to gain a foot in the door of international competitions. Nor are they still faced with the kind of censorship at home that drove them early on to focus their stories mostly on children. True, censorship still exists. Even the most established directors get caught in the endless web of having their works stalled for years at the Ministry of Culture. Male and female actors can hardly show any form of intimacy on screen, which makes interior scenes between the two sexes particularly difficult. As for audiences and what they are allowed to see from abroad: even though European and American films are shown in the theaters and on television, censorship can be so extreme as to alter the very story being shown. The subtitles, for instance, might be done in a way so that all the male-female relationships in the film are portrayed as those between brothers and sisters. This is an absurdity that Iranian audiences are used to. They can read between the lines, particularly the younger people. After all, much of the reality of Iran is the reality of its younger generation. They make up the bulk of its population. They are curious and restive. A considerable number have access to the internet, and many more believe in the transformative power of art; art, you could say, is their oxygen mask and their access to the world outside. This, then, is the milieu that Iranian films are coming out of today; and if the ascent of President Khatami has done anything, it has been to open a few more doors, create a few more possibilities amid the iron grip of censorship, so that the filmmakers, at least, can touch on subjects that a few years earlier would have been all but unthinkable.
Take, for example, The Circle, by Jafar Panahi, who was also the creator of the infinitely more benign White Balloon. In The Circle Panahi plunges into the lower depths. Abortion, prostitution, adultery, and incarcerated women—these are the angles the camera follows in sequences of despair that don't let up. The female leads never stop running in this movie, running to nowhere, running in place, ending where they began. The audience is never quite sure what the escaped female convicts are guilty of. Guilt is not the prime motif in The Circle, but dread is. And because dread does not need to purchase sympathy from an audience, we feel like we're at the threshold of something utterly new in Iranian cinema.
This new development reaches its logical next step in Women's Prison (2002)-a film which, to this writer at least, is one of the most extraordinary productions in the history of cinema. For her first feature film, director Manijeh Hekmat managed to convince Iranian government authorities to allow her access to a real women's prison, where her actresses literally lived and worked alongside actual female prisoners. Women's Prison brings to the surface all the incongruities of Iranian society by the very fact of its having been allowed to be made at all, confronting viewers, yet again, with supposedly unthinkable subjects for the Islamic Republic: prostitution, drug addiction, suicide and rape. Two lives are highlighted in this film: the lead prisoner, who sees her youth eclipsed by seventeen years of jail time, and the prison warden, a “true believer,” a hard, pious woman who grows old in front of our eyes fighting to preserve her belief in a theocracy she would have easily given up her life for at one time. The story of these two women is the story of the Iranian revolution itself, the revolution and its long afterward.
That afterward is deftly portrayed in another 2002 production, Our Times. The film is directed by one of Iran's premier directors and its leading documentary filmmaker, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. The director attempts at first to interview as many of the forty-eight individual women who had signed up to run for the office of President of the Islamic Republic during the 2001 elections that brought Mohammad Khatami back to a second term. But at some point in the film Bani-Etemad is forced to settle on following the life of just one of these women, Arezoo, a twenty-five-year-old single mother who has to support herself, her child, and her blind mother on a salary that is the equivalent of fifty dollars a month, a sum that will barely get you a room in the humblest quarters of Tehran these days. Arezoo had of course never really entertained any hope of becoming the president of Iran. But when the director asks her why she even bothered to register, she answers that she wanted to know if it was really possible for a woman to do this. Besides, she says, she thinks she would be a good president because she understands the pain of her people. From here on, the film becomes a blueprint of masterful juxtaposition. As election day nears and people fight, campaign, and celebrate on the streets, the situation of this would-be president goes from bad to worse. She's evicted by her landlord, loses her job, and discovers nobody will rent to her because she's an unmarried woman who, on top of it all, has a blind mother and a daughter to care for. The story, even as a slice of reality, could get maudlin at this point, but Bani-Etemad never allows that to happen. Our Times, as its name suggests, is a document of its time. It is a journal of the internal dialogue of a society with itself, and watching it one can't help marveling at its unflinching honesty.
If there is a common thread to many of these latest films coming out of Iran, it is that they are concerned with the idea of the way we live now. What better way to do this than to pick up a camera, any kind of camera, and start recording? Or acting? This is a subject that Makhmalbaf had already touched on several years earlier in Salaam Cinema, also a documentary, which showed several thousand people auditioning for roles in another film the director had meant to produce. As hilarious as parts of this film are, it is almost too painful to watch. The ordinary Iranians who have answered the director's ad and come to be actors and actresses are willing to do just about anything to follow their dream. In one astonishing sequence we watch as a supposedly blind young man wearing dark glasses enters the rehearsal space to audition, then look on as Makhmalbaf himself proceeds to slowly unmask the young man as not blind at all. When asked why he was pretending to be blind, the young man says that he felt he would be increasing his chances if he acted blind: the famous director and the crew might take pity and hire him. Then he starts crying. This is too eerie: the fellow is an impostor very much like the one who had pretended to be Makhmalbaf in the film Kiarostami's Close-up.
Pretense, reality, acting, documenting, engaging in the creative act despite enormous odds-these, yet again, are themes to another forty-five-minute-long Iranian documentary that was shown at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan. The Trial is about the people of the village of Khosro, who, for ten years, lived, above all, for one thing: to make wholly fictitious, thriller-inspired movies that were nevertheless based on their own lives and the characters in their village. Equipped with their 8mm camera, an indefatigable village director who put in twelve-hour shifts at the local brickmaking factory to support his family, and a crew of cinema-loving peasants who rode donkeys or each other's backs when they needed to shoot down-angle scenes, the people of Khosro village churned out one amateur film after another, year after year, for their own consumption-until the authorities found out about it and arrested the entire crew for not having permission to shoot movies. Only after three months in solitary confinement and a promise that he would no longer make films was the brickmaker-director freed to go back to his family. That is when the director of The Trial, Moslem Mansouri, caught up with him and the people of Khosro and asked all of them to make one last film while he and his own crew recorded them doing it. The villagers agreed, knowing full well the chance they were taking.
Fiction could never compete with the people of Khosro, who are in love with the fictions of their own making. They literally will their last 8mm film into becoming. And the result is a documentary for the ages, encapsulating in one sentence everything that is Iranian cinema: toward the end, talking into the camera, one of the villagers puts it like this: “We may be arrested again for shooting film, but it doesn't matter. We are already hanging from the gallows of cinema.” Cut.