Iran: A Cinema Born Out of Poetry and Resistance

Issue section: 

Iranian films reflect the contradictions of their society, argues Naz Massoumi.

The initial international acclaim received by Iranian cinema in the 1990s presented a paradox. The western media's portrayal of post-revolution Iran painted a picture of war, repressive mullahs and fundamentalism (and even more so now, as Bush's hypocrisy reaches new levels when we are told that Iran has a fundamentalist, nuclear-proliferating, unelected government). In this context, the films of childlike innocence and rural landscapes showed a very different, poetic image of Iran, and thus seemed to present a big contradiction.

Many film commentators explain the contradiction by suggesting that the emergence of this 'new' cinema was a direct consequence of the censorship of the 1980s. Women, sex, love and politics were out under Khomeini's 'cultural revolution', and it would seem that filmmakers were compelled to be more allegorical in their work as a result. This analysis ignores the nature of censorship or the ways in which some filmmakers changed over time. Most importantly though, it fails to value the transition from the pre-revolutionary period or recognise what is in fact a re-emergence of Iranian cinema.


Iranian art cinema was born in 1962, when a short documentary about a leprosy colony became what is now regarded as the first Iranian art film. House is Black by Forough Farrokhzad was significant in a whole number of ways. First and foremost, it was an extremely powerful and wonderfully compassionate film displaying all the humanist qualities of the Iranian cinema that followed immediately and in the long term. But it was also made by a woman - a claim that any national art cinema would be proud of - a feminist and a poet. Farrokhzad's poetry was a voice against the repressive inequalities of the Shah's rule. Although she died tragically in a car accident in 1967, she left with her the anticipation of a new and exciting Iranian art form, a cinema born out of poetry and out of resistance.

However, it wasn't until 1969 when the cinema that Farrokhzad had given birth to was christened. The Cow, a dark film by Dariush Mehrjui about a rural villager who is so obsessed with his cow that on hearing of the animal's death he adopts its identity, marked the dawn of a new Iranian cinematic movement. Dark and metaphoric, it was Mehrjui's very real depiction of rural poverty in a society where the Shah and the ruling class enjoyed all the fruits of economic growth that above all gave the film its political tone. His symbolic, realist portrayal of poverty influenced a whole new generation of filmmakers such as Sohrab Saless, who pioneered many of the qualities so typical of the Iranian cinema of Kiarostami and others today.

The poetic and socially critical nature of the Iranian New Wave appealed directly to the tastes of one of the main opposition groups - the university students and radical intellectuals. But the growth of this cinema was stifled, not so much by the Shah's hot and cold censorship, but by the arrival of foreign imports like Hollywood cinema. The titillating nature of these imports also became the subject of attacks from the other main opposition group - Ayatollah Khomeini in exile, the clergy and the bazaar - culminating in the burning down of around 180 cinemas as the country approached revolution. In 1979 the Shah fled the country as his brutal regime was overthrown. Cinema had certainly played its part both literally and symbolically - the Shah's state-sponsored 'modernisation' now lay in ashes.


On returning to Iran Khomeini immediately mentioned cinema in his first speech. No longer was cinema necessarily doomed to western decadence, but if used properly it could be used as education about society's values. He understood the potential of cinema as a powerful ideological tool, censorship ensued, and Iranian cinema's revival was so slow that some even pronounced its death. It was within these difficult conditions that art cinema began to re-emerge. Established filmmakers, who had been making films with children in leading roles for years, were better positioned to fill the space that avoided such restrictions. Kiarostami's Where Is My Friend's House? (1987) is a good example, which encompasses many qualities of Iranian cinema, new and old. The benefit of using children was that they avoided restrictions and allowed a degree of social critique. For example, the role of the family is often represented in these films as a place of tension and conflict, arising from the surrounding social and economic circumstances, rather than the conventional source of unity, comfort and love. Children and their everyday struggles became another defining feature of Iranian cinema.

Kiarostami then began taking Iranian realism to new heights. In Through the Olive Trees (1994) an actor plays Kiarostami directing another actor playing Kiarostami. He is in turn re-enacting a scene in Kiarostami's Life Goes On (1992), in which the actor re-enacts Kiarostami's experience of returning to find the actors that played in his film Where is My Friend's House?, following an earthquake that had struck the area where it was filmed. Kiarostami's films were striking the line that blurred reality, fiction, cinematic enactment and documentary, and others like Mohsen Makhmalbaf soon followed suit.

With Iran adapting rapidly to world capitalism, Iranian cinema also started looking a bit like a gabbeh (a type of Persian carpet). Quite literally, the film Gabbeh (Makhmalbaf, 1996) cost its French production company very little but brought about huge cultural and economic benefits. In this post-war, post-Khomeini context, the poetic beauty of Iranian cinema appealed very much to film festival tastes, and the newly elected Khatami, wishing to open up Iran's economy to foreign capital, used cinema as a means of renegotiating a different image of the country. Iranian cinema exploded into the word market - festivals were suddenly desperate to have the likes of Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf and Panahi on their bill and their films began receiving awards.

The period is crystallised in a film called The Apple (1998) by Samira Makhmalbaf, daughter of the famous filmmaker, who was then only 17. She reflected the character of the 1990s democracy movement that had brought the split in the Iranian ruling class and the election of Khatami - she was young and a woman. The Apple is about two 11 year old girls who had been locked up in their home all their life with no communication with the outside world. Displaying all the hallmarks of Iranian cinema with the poetic, humanist overtones of Farrokhzad, this film was a true story, a fiction and a re-enactment all at the same time. The film shows women in positions to change society, dealing with class relations as much as it does with gender inequality. Yet Samira Makhmalbaf had the exposure that many other Iranian female filmmakers didn't have. Their films bravely challenged the values of the regime and had a huge impact on the internationally recognised filmmakers.


The response to these films and the consciousness raised by the women's and students' struggle for reform can be seen in the cinema of the last five years. The Circle (2000) is Panahi's fierce attack on the condition of women in Iran. Not long after, Abbas Kiarostami made Ten (2002), about a middle class woman and her conversations with her son and other women. It was shot using only two DV cameras (extending Kiarostami's exploration of realism further) and took place in the space of one car. What is most interesting is how the cinema was moving away from universal social issues and towards a more direct exposé of the problems facing Iranian society. These changes can be seen in the latest films released. In Turtles Can Fly (Ghobadi, 2004) we see a sobering and heartfelt response to the atrocities of war, the plight of Kurds and the hypocrisy of American liberation. In Crimson Gold (Panahi 2004, written by Kiarostami) we find a brutal critique of class relations. Less of an art film than entertainment, The Lizard (Tabrizi 2004) is a comedy about an escaped convict who disguises himself as a mullah. It received the highest box office takings in Iranian cinema history and reflected the massive discontent with corrupted and dishonest religious figures. Consequently, like many other films, it was banned soon after.

Thus Iranian cinema continues to play an uneasy relationship with the state. The Shah wanted to encourage a national cinema and reap the benefits of acclaim but the films, shaped by the opposition to the state, continued to portray the deep inequality in Iranian society. The same contradictions exist today, as Iranian films continue to be influenced by the demands from below.

But what is it that makes this cinema so special? From Farrokhzad to Kiarostami, it has always dealt with the plight of the oppressed and their everyday struggles. Good or evil doesn't exist in Iranian cinema - the circumstances that characters find themselves in always come from their social and economic conditions, and their actions are determined by those conditions. This materialist cinema, if you like, is what actress and filmmaker Mania Akbari has rightly described as 'poor on the outside, rich in the middle'. Hopefully, the pessimism that often overshadows these films will allow space for at least a sliver of the optimism that shines so brightly in the movement currently fighting for change.