Hamid Dabashi presents a comprehensive, passionate, and insightful personal account on the evolution of Iranian art cinema in Close Up – Iranian Cinema: Past, Present and Future. By presenting the works of key films and filmmakers within the contextual framework of Iranian history – in particular, from the state-sponsored, forced modernization programs initiated by the Pahlavi regime to the subsequent fundamentalism of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 ushered by cleric Ayatollah Khomeini – Dabashi examines the indelible effects of shifting national ideology on Iran’s distinctive native cinema.
The intellectual counter-culture of 1960s Iran, marked by dissatisfaction towards the nation’s colonial heritage and increasing identification with the West (a sentiment encapsulated within Jalal al-e Ahmad’s highly influential publication, Westoxication, in 1962), resulted in a native, creative resurgence in Persian literature and modernist poetry. In the 1970s, Abbas Kiarostami rode the wave of artistic renaissance and became a member of the film division of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun), a cultural project developed by the Pahlavi regime to provide a creative outlet for Iranian youth in an attempt to divert them from politically subversive activities. It was through the state-sponsored Kanun that Kiarostami would create his early documentary films. Nevertheless, despite Iran’s increasing political turmoil, Dabashi explains that Kiarostami was consumed by a different, creative preoccupation:
Kiarostami sought a re-reading of reality from a tabula rasa that would make the world once again meaningful and trustworthy. Kiarostami’s cinema has always explored from a slight angle otherwise hidden from ordinary sight.
Following the Islamic Revolution, Kiarostami produced two films that examined the interrelation between actual reality and constructed reality: Toothache (1980), A Kanun documentary on oral hygiene, weighs the benefits of maintaining healthy teeth over the convenience of dentures (created reality), and The Chorus (1982), an examination of an old man’s mixed feelings over his hearing aid, as he becomes subjected to the noise of the busy streets, but misses his granddaughter’s visit after he turns off the device and does not hear her knocking. This recurring theme foreshadows Kiarostami’s thematic signature, and has become a perennial aspect of his subsequent feature films, most notably in Close-Up, The Earthquake Trilogy: Where is the Friend’s Home, And Life Goes On…, and Through the Olive Trees, and A Taste of Cherry.
One of Iran’s most prominent and versatile creative visionaries, Bahram Beiza’i has made significant contributions to filmmaking, theater, and the performing arts both artistically and academically. Profoundly influenced by Persian art and poetry, Beiza’i’s films achieve a fusion of social realism and representational symbolism. From a metaphoric interrelation between Earth and man in The Ballad of Tara (1978), to a figurative rebirth of the young protagonist away from his war torn homeland in Bashu: The Little Stranger (1986), to a surreal, profound connection that leads to a study on masculine-feminine perspective in Perhaps Some Other Time (1988), Beiza’i’s films are infused with ephemeral, often mythical elements that subconsciously reflect reality and in the process, evoke a cultural shift in perspective.
Bahman Farmanara’s adaptation of Houshang Golshiri’s contemporary fiction, Prince Ehtejab (1974), like Daryush Mehrju’i’s earlier film, The Cow (1969), represents a watershed in Iranian cinema with its synthesis of literary fiction and filmic narrative (Mehrju’i’s The Cow was based on a story by Gholamhossein Sa’edi). However, a year after the Islamic Revolution, fueled in part by the trauma of a nine-hour interrogation by a representative from the Committee for the Prevention of Sin over the banning of his newly completed film entitled Tall Shadows of the Wind (another film based on Golshiri’s work), Farmanara uprooted his family and settled in Vancouver, Canada, where he embarked on a different career as a film distributor. Farmanara continued to submit scripts to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for approval over the next 20 years to no avail, but his triumphant and hard-fought return as a filmmaker would finally come with the semi-autobiographical, Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine (2000), a film ironically inspired by his severe depression over his failing health, his continued inability to gain project approval from the board of censors, and the increasingly ideological irrelevance of his aging, pre-Islamic Revolution generation.
Dabashi’s extensive interview with Mohsen Makhmalbaf illuminates several aspects of Makhmalbaf’s fascinating personal and professional history. Raised in a devout and education-centered extended family, Makhmalbaf’s unconventional childhood entailed a traumatic parental abduction by his biological father:
Fear of my father had the effect of scaring me, isolating me from the life of the alley which was more or less the real world, and trapping me in a house where three important people tried to take care of me. One was my grandmother, who introduced me to religion. One was my aunt, who made me literate. The last was my stepfather, who made me political.
His self-confessed politicization by his stepfather, Kamalian, would eventually culminate in his arrest and imprisonment during the Pahlavi era at the age of 17 for attacking a police officer in an ill-conceived plan to steal his gun for a bank robbery in order to fund the activities of his armed resistance group, Balal-e Habashi. He was subsequently released after the fall of the Shah during the Islamic Revolution, where his activism soon turned to creative imperative, as his displeasure over contemporary Iranian cinema led to independent research studies on the process of filmmaking, and eventually, to a career as a filmmaker.
Makhmalbaf defines his films into four distinct periods. The first installment reflects his early activism and consists of Nasuh’s Repentance, Two Sightless Eyes, Seeking Refuge, and Boycott. The second period deals with contemporary social issues, and is composed of The Peddler, The Cyclist, and The Marriage of the Blessed. The transitional third period is marked by a complexity of character that is a departure from the self-described absolutist perspective innate in his earlier work – whether through religious or social reform – and consists of A Time for Love, Nights on the Zayandeh-rud, Once Upon a Time, Cinema, and The Actor. The last period converges towards what Makhmalbaf describes as “an illustration of relativity” that is reflected in the contemplative objectivity of Salaam Cinema and A Moment of Innocence:
It’s in the fourth period that the light begins to enter. It’s the worldly nature, such as that of Sohrab Sepehri, of the first period to which I am attracted, but the worldliness of the fourth period has made the greatest impact on me… I’ve moved toward life and humanity, away from deadly serious subjects.
…I am looking at two general questions. One is the multiplicity of perspectives and the other is human sorrow. I am searching for an emotional perspective, and the warmth of my films comes from the joy of living in the frame of human sorrow.
© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.