In recent years, much of the English-speaking world has heard about Iranian cinema. Many Western audiences have seen the Oscar-winning “A Separation” and explored the filmography of Abbas Kiarostami. With the imprisonment of seminal Iranian director Jafar Panahi, plenty of stories about the challenges of making movies in Iran have circled the world. But what about the challenges of writing *about* movies in Iran?
You may never have heard about Iranian film critics, about how they watch movies in a country that never screens foreign titles and where DVDs are not sold in stores. Allow me to fill that gap. What you are about to read is my personal account of watching movies in Iran as a film critic, but I am certain much about my experience applies to other young critics in the country.
The first thing I remember about movies is a single picture: Federico Fellini with clown make-up from the movie “The Clowns” on the cover of Film, the oldest monthly film magazine in Iran (published since 1982). I vividly remember how it terrified me. My father, a film buff before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, used to buy the magazine and he was the man who introduced me to cinema. He told me many stories about movies he had seen before the Revolution, when movies were dubbed into Persian and cinemas were interested in screening popular American movies like “Gone with the Wind” and “Casablanca.” He recalled that there were few cinematheques (the first was founded by Farrokh Ghafari in 1941) that only screened European movies such as those made by Ingmar Bergman or Michelangelo Antonioni.
In the mid-1980s, the only ways to know about movies in Iran were from the latest issues of Film and a television program called “Honar-e Haftom” (“Seventh Art”). Since I couldn’t read yet, I watched the program, which featured classic movies such as “Metropolis,” “Rashomon” and “Psycho.”
There was another way of watching movies in late 1980s and 1990s that many people around the world will fondly recall: VHS. Although video players were banned then, many people owned them anyway. While we didn’t have one, sometimes my father borrowed his friends’ machines and let me watch “appropriate” movies like Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” “The Beauty and the Beast” or “Sound of the Music.” However, I sometimes sneaked out of my bedroom late at night and secretly watched some guilty pleasures — “Goldfinger,” on one occasion — when my father put them on for himself.
By the mid-1990s, the VHS ban was lifted and Mohammad Khatami’s presidency (1997 – 2005) brought the country several cultural reforms. As a result, more movies were available and CDs became popular. By the late 1990’s, the movies were everywhere.
During my first year in high school, I started watching movies like crazy. I had a PC and knew about film clubs that rented uncut films illegally, so I watched more than a thousand films during my four years in high school. Those movies were mostly entertaining blockbusters like “Titanic” and “Godzilla,” but also became interested in horror through “Scream” and “Nightmare on Elm Street,” as well as classics like “The Godfather.” Some of the non-English films I saw during this period include “Last Tango in Paris” and “Persona.”
As I was getting more and more into movies at the turn of the century, I watched two movies that changed my life: “American Beauty” and “The Matrix.” While “The Matrix” showed me new frontiers in filmmaking, “American Beauty” taught me how a story must be told. Watching these two, I decided to become a director, a dream I still pursue. It was at that same time that I started using the internet, though our connection speed was (and remains, compared to Western standards) very low. Using the internet, I could learn more about movies and read about movies that were not discussed about in domestic magazines (especially if they contained sexual content). It was thanks to the internet that I became aware of film directors I now adore, such as Peter Greenaway. In short, the internet was a miracle for us: It helped us feel like we were connected to the world.
Aside from the inability to view movies in Iranian theaters, critics are further limited by the country’s religious standards. Since nudity and sexuality are forbidden in Iranian cinema, critics prefer not to write about such movies in official publications. (Both “Antichrist” and “Shame”, for example, were barely covered by the Iranian press.) Instead, they turn to their Facebook pages.
For many Iranians, cinema is their window to the world beyond their restrictive borders. My window was Fellini. The first movie of his I watched all the way through was “Julliet of the Spirits,” but the film that opened the window was that still image from “The Clowns.” To this day, it remains my favorite movie of all time.